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Warfare and Global Warming – New Security Beat

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The world has plenty of reasons to avoid conflict already. Yet attendees at the recently-concluded COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt were presented with another compelling argument: Warfare is bad for global warming. So much so, in fact, that Ukraine’s delegation to the conference organized a special session at the conference of parties on “War Related Emissions,” bringing along a tree trunk bearing scars from Russian shell fragments as tangible evidence.

The human toll of war is reason enough alone to avoid it at almost any cost. But warfare’s impact on global warming raises a number of intriguing policy questions, including which country is responsible for emissions from disputed territories or fighting that takes place in foreign lands. Indeed, the International Law Commission proposed draft principles in 2019 for the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elevated warfare-related emissions as an issue in international climate diplomacy discussions. The emergence of this connection also suggests that going forward, would-be warmongers can expect to be confronted with the environmental as well as human cost of conflict.

New Conflict Drives New Approaches

What is new about the linkage between warfare and global warming is its focus on how conflict and warfare contribute directly to climate change. Most previous work on climate change and security, by contrast, focuses on the opposite effect: how climate change affects the risk of armed conflict. The extensive literature on climate security, for example, outlines several ways in which climate change can create or exacerbate security risks, including mass migration and the destabilization of fragile states. Policymakers, too, have begun to take climate change seriously as a security issue. Soon after taking office, President Biden signed an executive order that directs government agencies, including the Pentagon, to take climate change into account in strategic planning.

Yet while climate change may complicate life for national security planners and decision-makers, connecting warfare and global warming also offers belligerents a new tool to prosecute their opponents in the court of global public opinion. Crucially, Ukraine’s effort to put war-related emissions on the agenda at COP27 was more about putting pressure on Moscow than about climate diplomacy per se. The Ukrainian delegation made this linkage explicit at the beginning of its presentation during the COP-27 conference, when it characterized Russia’s invasion as “ecocide as well as a war of aggression.” This characterization received widespread media attention, though its impact on delegates to the conference was less clear.

Even so, the research presented during the conference made a compelling case that warfare, and in particular Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, significantly increases greenhouse gas emissions. According to one such estimate, the total emissions associated with the first seven months of Russia’s invasion are roughly equivalent to the Netherlands’ annual total. These include the equivalent of 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide from refugee movements, 9 million tons of direct emissions from military operations and ammunition use, 15 million tons from the Nordstream 1 and 2 pipeline leaks attributed to Russian sabotage, and up to 50 million tons associated with rebuilding destroyed buildings and other infrastructure.

The Implications of Mounting Evidence

Previous conflicts are also estimated to have produced substantial emissions. Iraq’s deliberate torching of Kuwaiti oil fields during the Gulf War may have released some 400 million tons of carbon dioxide. A report from the government of Georgia claimed that its 2008 war with Russia destroyed 5 percent of its forest cover, generating substantial emissions from deforestation. And even in peacetime, political scientist Axel Michaelowa presented research estimating that military operations contribute about 1 percent of the total emissions of the United States, United Kingdom, and other large military powers.

This increasing evidence for—and attention given to—the contribution of conflict and warfare to climate change has at least three major implications. The first is mostly technical: at present, there is no framework for accounting for conflict and warfare-related emissions or attributing them to one belligerent or another. Emissions arising from Russian military action in Ukraine, for example, would be counted as part of Ukraine’s emissions just as would be the case for any other greenhouse gas source on its territory, though in practice there is no obligation for Ukraine to report conflict-related emissions. Along with two other countries recently subject to Russian aggression, Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine argues that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change should establish a framework both to account for and attribute conflict-related emissions to their actual source.

Calls for such a framework also point to a second implication: the extent to which global action on climate change offers a new arena to contest sovereignty and territorial claims past the impacts of invasion and aggression. Ukraine’s government pointed out that Russia reports emissions from Crimea as part of its formal communications to the United Nations, but argued that they should instead be counted as part of Ukraine’s emissions. The Georgian and Moldovan governments likewise argued that it is impossible to accurately report national emissions, or devise effective national climate adaptation strategies, when large portions of a country are subject to territorial disputes. These objections create a fascinating and almost unique situation wherein states effectively argue that their greenhouse gas emissions should be increased as a means of bolstering sovereignty claims.

Third, and finally, the push to incorporate conflict-related emissions in international climate policy indicates a new, ecological dimension for information warfare. The Ukraine crisis has highlighted the degree to which modern wars and conflicts are waged at least in part in the court of global public opinion, including through social and traditional media. The attention attaching to Ukraine’s efforts to brand Russia’s invasion as “ecocide” as well as an act of aggression are a sign that highlighting conflict’s environmental costs may be an effective information warfare strategy. To be sure, the prospect of being labeled a bad environmental actor is unlikely to deter China from invading Taiwan, or North Korea from launching a missile barrage into the South. But the increasing attention that the world pays to climate action and climate policy offers belligerents a new and highly visible new front in the information war.     

Scott Moore is Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and previously served at the U.S. Department of State, where he was a U.S. delegate to the Paris Agreement climate talks. His latest book is China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future (Oxford University Press, 2022).            

Sources: BBC; The Guardian; IISD; International Law Commission; Perspectives Climate Group; Time; University of Pennsylvania.

Photo Credit: Missile strike on an oil storage facility in Lviv, Ukraine, March 26, 2022, courtesy of Ruslan Lytvyn/Shutterstock.com. 

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