War is a climate issue

April 18, 2024

As a local climate protection and pollution prevention organization, it’s easy to keep our heads down and focus on our work protecting Northwest Washington’s ecosystems and communities. We will, of course, continue to do that. But we must work in solidarity with those seeking to protect their own communities and ecosystems everywhere. 

We are not a humanitarian aid organization, nor are we here to speak on geopolitics beyond our expertise. But the scale of destruction in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East has shocked the world, and we are no different. 

Though it would be reason enough, we are writing this not just because 34,000 Palestinians (including over 14,500 children) have been killed, and the Israeli military has blocked food and water aid for displaced people while killing at least 200 humanitarian aid providers, plunging 2.2 million Palestinians into the most severe food shortage in the world. Or because 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers were killed by Hamas in the October 7th attacks, with many still held hostage.

We’re also writing this because of our commitment to climate resilience, sustainable food systems, slowing carbon emissions and protecting water through values of inclusion and justice. We condemn antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of prejudicial hate. The ongoing global violence is not limited to Palestine, yet this moment offers an opportunity to explain why war and militarism are at odds with a livable climate and clean water for all.

In just six weeks after the October 7th attacks, Israel dropped over 29,000 bombs on Gaza. A January 2024 study found that Israeli military activity is responsible for the carbon pollution equivalent of burning at least 150,000 metric tons of coal in just the first 60 days — half of which can be attributed to the US shipping weapons to Israel. At least 45 percent of Gaza’s buildings have been destroyed, undoubtedly higher today as this figure is from December 2023. The materials needed to rebuild will generate millions of tons of carbon emissions.

Militaries are not obligated to report their fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers estimate about 5.5% of global emissions every year are from military activity. That’s more than vessel shipping and aviation combined. US military emissions are estimated at about 51 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. The price tag on these emissions is staggering — the Department of Defense’s budget in 2023 was over $850 billion. Compare that single year to the most sweeping climate and jobs package ever funded, the Inflation Reduction Act, which is estimated to invest roughly $800 billion over 10 years — a figure which doesn’t take into account the savings communities will see from greater climate resilience, a reduced need for costly climate adaptations, or local employment benefits from new green jobs.

Environmental destruction is both an outcome and a tactic of warfare. White phosphorus rounds, a weapon to burn buildings and peoples’ skin used after October 7th by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, contain chemicals that are likely to stay in soil and groundwater for decades. Damage to buildings that have industrial operations releases those substances into the environment. Bombs contain toxic substances such as RDX, heavy metals, and more that harm human health, as well as plants, crops, and wildlife. According to an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report, “the war has destroyed and upended all parts of Gaza’s food system — from the fruits, vegetables, livestock and fish raised on farms to the bakeries and factories that produced breads and dairy products. The percent of damaged agriculture land increased from 25 percent to 60 percent between November 2023 and January 2024” (Washington Post). 

There is a large body of research on the ecological impacts of war, which inevitably become yet another toll on human health and livelihoods. To name just one example: After the US invasion of Iraq in the 2000s, the military generated about 11 million pounds of toxic waste and abandoned it in the country, untreated and uncontained. The Middle East is also one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change, exacerbating clean water shortages.

A sustained ceasefire and return of civilian hostages and prisoners in Palestine and Israel is the only way to stop civilian bloodshed. And only then can the land, water and people decimated by conflict begin to heal. No country — The US, Israel, or otherwise — has a right to deprive people of clean water, access to food, and a livable climate.

The severe environmental impacts of militarism notwithstanding, violence is antithetical to our vision of a just and climate-resilient future. The harm done to communities in war makes them even more vulnerable to climate change. We see a broader pattern of American and European colonialism, oppression and resource extraction giving way to open conflict, famine and environmental disaster, all exacerbated by climate impacts that are prevalent in the Middle East and Africa.

If you are concerned about environmental and human health issues, we believe standing against violent and polluting conflicts is an essential part of that. Please research organizations and information sources that are advocating for peace and human dignity.

A fellow Waterkeeper organization called EcoPeace Middle East brings together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians over their shared dependence on the scarce waters of the Jordan River. EcoPeace advocates for clean water and sanitation in both Gaza and the West Bank. They call their work to build water resilience “peacebuilding.” The organization has been nominated for the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize.