Deep Dive: War, Environment, and Climate
Two months ago Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. The world continues to watch in horror as cities are bombed into oblivion and millions of people are forcibly displaced from their homes.
When we think about war, we understandably think about the immediate human misery and suffering. But war also inflicts another form of human suffering with effects that persist for decades and centuries, perhaps even millenia: it destroys the environment.
Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, we have dramatically increased our ability to destroy our environment when we fight against each other. In this essay, Amasia Fellow Caroline Culmo and I try to put some more detail around this issue and its longer-term implications for climate.
It's Different Now
In medieval and pre-industrial landscapes partially or wholly denuded of people, local ecosystems were able to recover from the impacts of war. For example, the Sack of Rome in 410 AD rendered the maintenance of a large population and urban lifestyle virtually impossible (Cowdrey, 1983). In the centuries that followed, the region saw the revival of forests and wildlife and the spread of marshes.
Similar effects followed the Hundred Years War of the late Middle Ages, when wolves were periodically reported on the streets of Paris, as well as the Thirty Years War of the early modern period, when German population fell by about a third from 1618 to 1648 (Cowdrey, 1983).
But these conflicts were small by modern standards, and the weapons and technologies used to wage war were rudimentary. Modern war is exponentially more violent and destructive. Modern populations are too large to permit even completely devastated areas to remain vacant.
The worst examples lie in Europe, the starting points for both world wars (and likely the starting point for any future world war, as a glance at European history will quickly reveal even if we didn’t have the Ukrainian tragedy at hand).
This may seem surprising for those who have visited Europe over the last three or four decades. The passage of time has effaced the visual devastation. Here is a closer look.
World War I
World War I was an extraordinary conflict for many reasons—it was staggering in scope, with more than 8 million deaths on the battlefield and around 40 million total military and civilian casualties.
The horrific conditions on the battlefield were amplified by the introduction of several new military technologies, which generated unprecedented levels of environmental destruction. The airplane was used for the first time, dropping bombs that wiped out large numbers of troops and razed entire cities. New weapons, such as improved artillery, machine guns, and flamethrowers, were also introduced.
But the two features of World War I that were most significant in reshaping humans’ relations with the environment were trench warfare and chemical weapons.
Widespread forest logging to expand networks of trenches significantly altered the forests and soils of Europe, and particularly France, which bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front. According to the French Forest Service, over 350,000 hectares of forest in France alone were cut down during the war – an amount equivalent to 60 years’ worth of tree harvests (Heiderscheidt, 2018).
Diversified forests were reduced to monocultures post-war. Digging trenches also trampled grassland, crushed animal and plant life, and caused the churning of soil (Heiderscheidt, 2018). In short, if the war had not been fought, the landscape might look very different today.
Figure 1: Deforestation of a World War I battlefield. Source: Heiderscheidt (2018)
Chemical weapons were first used in World War I and included tear gas, mustard gas (a cell toxic gas which causes severe blistering and bleeding), and carbonyl chloride (a cancer-causing gas). The UN estimates that the gas warfare of World War I was responsible for close to 100,000 deaths.
The use of chemical weapons polluted battlefields, with many of the toxic gasses lingering in the air. It also led to soil contamination, evidenced by the increased amounts of arsenic detected in surrounding battlefields.
The use of chemical weapons in the war has had continued effects on people and nature—one study found that soils contaminated by mustard gas have continued “for many decades to present both acute and chronic human health risks and risks to groundwater” (Meirvenne et al, ctd. in Heiderscheidt, 2018). This soil contamination led to the declaration of the “Zone Rouge” (Red Zone) in France, an area cordoned off by the government and since considered uninhabitable.
Restrictions within the zone still exist today, with some areas just as dangerous and tightly controlled as they were in 1918 (Thornton, 2014). This is due to the vast amounts of human and animal remains, and the millions of unexploded ordnances which still contaminate the land.
Soils in the area remain heavily polluted by lead, mercury, chlorine, and other dangerous chemicals. According to the French agency in charge of clean-up, no fewer than 300 more years will be needed for munitions removal, and likely much longer to completely clean the area (Thornton, 2014).
Figure 2: Zone Rouge – maps of the areas destroyed in 1914-1918 in the North and East of France. Source: Wikimedia
World War II
If World War I was damaging to the environment, the extraordinary destruction wrought during World War II was catastrophic. The war left trash and ruins everywhere in its wake, from abandoned battlefields to half-sunken ships to empty bases and bombed cities across Europe and Asia.
Soldiers and forced laborers constructed roads, ports, and airports which brought invasive species and industrial pollution to new, previously untouched areas. After the war, mustard gas and other agents used in chemical weapons were dumped into the ocean, leading to the contamination of underwater sediment (Learn, 2020).
New technologies and materials such as synthetics, DDT, insecticides and herbicides polluted our air and water in new ways and on a never-before-seen scale. Hundreds of military-industrial sites emitted toxic pollutants that would eventually render them Superfund Sites – polluted locations in the US which require long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations (Robertson, 1970).
Figure 3: Superfund site in the Upper Tenmile Creek Mining Area near Rimini, Montana – water contaminated with arsenic, lead and zinc. Source: NPR (2021)
But of all the chemical weapons developed in World War II, the most acutely damaging was the atomic bomb (for it is a chemical weapon).
Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist and author who specializes in the psychological causes and effects of wars, refers to nuclear weapons as the “ultimate pollution.” When a nuclear bomb detonates, the resulting 1-megaton blast kills or poisons everything within a two-mile radius, and radiocative particles can travel from the explosion site and contaminate the land and water for miles (Lemon, 2019). This contamination remains for centuries.
The 15-kiloton bomb detonated over the center of Hiroshima during World War II destroyed everything within a 1-mile radius of the city (Lemon, 2019). The immediate effect on the environment was one of total devastation: The extreme heat of thermal radiation burned everything in its path – including animals, plant life, and buildings. Tens of thousands of people were killed either instantaneously or in the following weeks and months due to injuries or acute radiation sickness.
In addition to these immediate environmental effects, the people and nature of Hiroshima also suffered from explosive fallout – the process by which detonation creates radioactive dust that falls out of the sky and into the areas around the explosion site (Lemon, 2019). Wind and water currents carried this dust across a much larger radius than the initial explosion, where it then contaminated the ground, water supply, and food chain. Contamination has also caused genetic mutations and diseases in animals and humans (Lemon, 2019).
Figure 4: Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bomb – August 6, 1945. Source: The Asia-Pacific Journal (2011)
An equally devastating but perhaps lesser known example of the destructive legacy of nuclear weapons with respect to the environment is the Marshall Islands. A sprawling chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands were the site of the US’s nuclear testing program during the Cold War. From 1946 to 1958, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons on the inhabited Bikini and Enewetak Atolls, forcing exposed communities to evacuate their homelands (Rust, 2019). Thousands of Marshallese remain in exile to this day. Some have returned to their atolls, where radioactive fallout continues to contaminate the land and exposure to radiation continues to pose long-term health risks.
One particularly threatening example is the Runit Dome (AKA “The Tomb”), a structure which holds more than 3.1 million cubic feet (equivalent to 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of US-produced radioactive soil and debris (Rust, 2019). The dome is now at risk of collapsing due to sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Such a collapse would, in essence, unseal a toxic bomb. Officials in the Marshall Islands have lobbied the US government for assistance, but US officials have declined, insisting that the dome is on Marshallese land and is therefore the responsibility of the Marshallese government.
Figure 5: The Runit Dome, Marshall Islands. Source: LA Times (2019)
If enough nuclear weapons were exploded in a large-scale nuclear war, large swaths of the earth would become totally unlivable. In a world where multiple great powers (US, China, Russia, France, UK) possess nuclear weapons and where there are several potential flashpoints for nuclear escalation, the human potential for total planetary destruction has grown considerably.
If you haven’t thought about the issue, by now you are likely convinced that war has a transformationally more destructive effect on the environment than it did even as recently as a few decades ago.
But war damages aren’t just in the form of toxic pollution and destruction of flora and fauna. While this damage to the environment is persistent and terrible, the ongoing readiness for war has terrible consequences for the climate.
Why? Because military readiness – even when there isn’t a war – is sustained by gas-guzzling armed forces. And of course when a war occurs, fossil fuel consumption explodes. This is an extraordinarily important issue that gets much less attention than it should.
The most extreme example of this is the United States’ Department of Defense, which is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States and the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum (Crawford, 2019).
During the Iraq War, the U.S. military was consuming 1.3 billion gallons of oil per year for its Middle East operations alone. This is more than the annual consumption of Bangladesh, which has a population of 180 million (Ghosh, 2021). Each soldier consumed more than six times the average 2.3 gallons per capita consumption per day in the U.S. (Center for Sustainable Systems, 2021).
Additionally, the under-development, weakened governance, and lack of investment that accompanies prolonged conflict can also lead to old polluting technologies remaining in use. A prominent example of these “locked in” emissions is the practice of flaring. Flaring intensity rose substantially in Libya, Syria, and Yemen during the conflicts there. A similar trend was observed during the war in Iraq and continued post-conflict.
Figure 6: Annual flaring volume and intensity in conflict countries. Source: CEOBS (2021)
We must return to Ukraine before we finish.
There are a number of immediate environmental risks for the health and safety of Ukrainian residents. One example is hazardous air pollution exposure, which has occurred through the burning of buildings, vehicle exhaust, smoldering fuel depots, as well as the shelling of residential areas, which emits asbestos and particulate matter into the air (Hook and Marcantonio, 2022).
Even if the conflict is resolved in the near future, those who have lived through the conflict, their children, their grandchildren, and the places they inhabit will face both personal and environmental costs for years to come.
Ukraine is a heavily industrialized country, replete with chemical facilities and nuclear power plants. If a nuclear power plant is shelled, radioactive materials could be dispersed (Hook and Marcantonio, 2022). Such a nightmarish scenario approached reality when Russian troops began shooting at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant last month. Besides being a piece of critical infrastructure – providing nearly a quarter of all grid electricity in Ukraine – the plant also has various hazardous materials on site, which could be released into the environment and contaminate the surrounding area (Hook and Marcantonio, 2022).
There are also several toxic and irradiated sites dating back to the Soviet Union that require active environmental management, much of which was disrupted by Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 (Hook and Marcantonio, 2022).
The widespread destruction caused by the Russian invasion will inevitably lead to the contamination of land, water, and inhabited environments, largely by way of these high-risk toxic and irradiated sites which have entered the crosshairs of the conflict. Heavy military presence in ecologically fragile areas, such as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, further heightens water, soil, and air risks.
Note: this article on the environmental tragedy in Ukraine came out just as we were finalizing this essay, and is very useful reading.
It's Different Now
War never made much sense, but humans have waged it since we came out of the savanna and began dividing the world up into our fiefdoms. What is different now is our ability to inflict long-lasting planetary damage.
A confluence of factors – the current war in Ukraine, the outsized environmental impacts of modern warfare and military readiness compared to earlier conflicts, the increasing number of political hotspots around the globe, among others – makes it more critical than ever to examine what happens to places that have been the site of war, and how the people, animals, plants, and landscapes there are affected.
In addition to proximate risks to health and safety, such as air pollution and acute exposure to radiation, there are environmental effects that persist post-conflict for decades, centuries, and even millennia after the dust has settled. Both these short-term and long-term effects contribute to the acceleration of global emissions and continued environmental degradation, which are intimately bound up with the climate crisis.
There is no other home for humanity besides our biosphere (sorry, Elon). More than ever before, we need to take care of our planet.
Heiderscheidt, Drew (2018) "The Impact of World War one on the Forests and Soils of Europe," Ursidae: The Undergraduate Research Journal at the University of Northern Colorado: Vol. 7 : No. 3 , Article 3.