If the biggest single source of world-level ecological ruin is to be identified, this is most likely to be related to wars, preparations for wars, conflicts, weapons and sabotage. Of course the most direct cost of war and weapons in the form of loss of human life is extremely sad, but at the same time the severity of the much less discussed environmental costs also deserves more attention.
The US Department of Defense has been sometimes identified as the biggest organizational polluter in the world. A Department of Defense Energy Initiative Report stated—by some accounts Department of Defense, USA, is the biggest organizational user of petroleum in world. Another report in Newsweek (17 July 2014) also mentioned this identity as the biggest polluter and quoted a senior official as stating that the department has 39,000 contaminated sites. This report mentioned several serious cases of soldiers and people ruining their health as a result of exposure to this severe contamination. The defense authorities of the USA have sought exemptions from environmental laws in the past, within the country as well in foreign bases. The USA is reported to have about 750 military bases in 80 countries (a lesser number, about 650, according to US official sources).
Huge defense forces such as those of the USA have very high environmental costs even when they are not fighting a war, because of their routine movements, trainings, preparations, as well as the related manufacture and testing of deadly weapons. The making of several kinds of weapons, from mining of raw materials to testing, can be extremely polluting, most of all the making of nuclear weapons. While chemical and biological weapons are banned now, these have been among the most polluting in the past, in terms of their preparations as well as use.
Nearly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides were used by the USA in Vietnam War, destroying forests and badly damaging once beautiful green areas, its flora and fauna, almost permanently. This led to several hundred thousand deaths and disabilities among human beings. While the loss of animals and birds was never counted, a study several years later found that while the number of species of birds was 145 to 170 in unsprayed areas, it was only 30 to 55 in contaminated areas, and while the number of species of mammals was 24 in non-sprayed areas it was only 5 in sprayed areas. Even more harm was caused by the testing of nuclear weapons. UN Rapporteur on toxics Bashuk Tuncak said that during 1946-58 67 nuclear bombs were detonated in the Marshall Islands, the equivalent of more than 1.5 Hiroshima sized explosions per day for 12 years. In French Polynesia there were over 200 nuclear tests during the three decades 1966-96. All this led to release of vast amounts of radio-activity, with terrible impacts on local people, flora and fauna in what were very beautiful, unspoiled natural systems. During the years of the cold war, several nuclear warheads and components were lost in oceans and mountains, and the radioactivity released by them over the years must have caused a lot of terrible contamination.
While only a few countries may be at war at any given time, almost all countries have some threat perception of war and invasion, to a lesser or greater extent. This or their own aggressive tendencies leads them to accumulate weapons and make war preparations all the time so that environmental costs also continue all the time. In addition there are strong tendencies of private gun and firearms acquisition in several countries, led by the USA. In the USA the number of private owned guns is more than the number of people living here, and each gun must have its ammunition too. Even at world level, the number of bullets produced is more than double the number of people.
Apart from various explosions, oil fires and oil spills can be among the most polluting aspects of war. Nuclear weapons provide the most extreme example of destructivity combining explosion, fire, immediate heat followed by extreme cold conditions, weather-disruption and radioactivity. It is well recognized that an all-out nuclear war (there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world today) can destroy almost all life-forms on earth and make the earth unsuitable for further continuation of life in several ways. However an even more limited nuclear war, involving the use of about 100 or so nuclear weapons (of the type used in Hiroshima) can also be devastating for life as we know it. In the words of Eric Schlosser, an eminent writer on this issue, this can “send five million tons of dust into the atmosphere, shrink the ozone layer by as much as 50%, drop worldwide temperatures to their lowest point in a thousand years, create worldwide famines and cause more than a billion casualties.”
Even sabotage activities against perceived hostile forces (without being at open war) can cause immense environmental harm, as is evident from the recent act of pipeline sabotage. While this was widely believed to be the work of the USA even earlier, this perception has become stronger following the recent revelations by eminent journalist Seymour Hersh. The four ruptures in the Nord Stream Pipelines in the Baltic Sea on September 26-27 2022 led to the biggest-ever single point leak of methane.
This is extremely harmful in the context of climate change. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas (GHG) which is about 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years. Various estimates say that the Nord Stream sabotage is likely to lead to 100,000 to 500,000 tonnes of methane emissions. The closest comparison is with the Aliso Canyon accidental leak in California in 2015-16 which involved leak of about 97,000 tonnes of methane, but it was spaced over a much longer period of about four months and so less catastrophic. It was accidental, not an act of sabotage.
The Danish Energy Agency has stated that in the worst case scenario methane equivalent to a third of Denmark’s entire GHG emissions in a year (2020) could leak from the Nord Stream pipelines. Iannis Binietoglou, of Danish Clean Air Task Force has stated, “It dwarfs the previous known leaks.” Marcia Mcnutt, President of US National Academy of Sciences has stated, “From what I have seen this is an unprecedented loss to the atmosphere of fossil methane in a very short time from a concentrated source.” Manfredi Caltagirone, head of UNEP’s International Methane Emission Observatory said, “This is really bad…most likely the largest emission event ever recorded.” Prof. Rob Jackson of environmental studies at Stanford University, USA, has stated, “This will probably be the largest leak ever, in terms of its rate.”
Huge harm was caused to fish and marine life in the Baltic Sea and the life close to sea, from the huge explosions, the release of highly inflammable methane immediately and longer term exposure to benzene, a known carcinogenic, and various trace chemicals present in natural gas. Human health in nearby areas has been harmed too. The leak triggered by sabotage is much worse than the routine leaks as in the case of the more violent and very high velocity leak caused by sabotage and detonations the environmental harm is much higher.
Another aspect that is becoming important in this debate is that of the increasing threat of space warfare and its impact on environment. There are clear trends of extension of superpower rivalry for dominance to outer space. The extent to which private corporations are being given a big role in the space race, particularly by the USA, makes a mockery of the great sense of responsibility and careful regulations needed in all developments relating to human activity in outer space. Although direct space warfare has not taken place so far, militarization of space has been increasing at several levels to such an extent that the possibility of space warfare becoming a reality is now quite high.
Space warfare can take place in several forms. One object placed in space can attack, destroy, damage or disable another object placed in space by another country. A missile from earth can destroy a satellite of another country in space. Or a weapon from space can destroy a target on earth. One such hostile act is likely to lead to one or more hostile acts by the affected party (if the capacity for retaliation exists) and from here on the situation can escalate with unknown implications and results too frightening to comprehend.
These possibilities of warfare will increase as rival powers try to catch up with the present day dominance of space presence and technology by the USA. A review of space warfare possibilities published in the Scientific American by Lee Billings said, “As China and Russia aggressively seek to challenge US superiority in space with ambitious military space programs of their own, the power struggle risks sparking a conflict that could cripple the entire planet’s space-based infrastructure. And though it might begin in space, such a conflict could easily ignite full-blown war on earth.”
The biggest danger will no doubt come if nuclear weapons or other weapons are also taken to space or used in space. This is of course strongly prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty but still the risk exists.
Over 95 per cent of countries of the world favor a strong demilitarization of space and this has already been reflected in several resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations. But the veto power at the Security Council comes in the way of strong directions needed for this which are acceptable to big powers.
Dr. Michio Kaku, world renowned physicist has written, “ The weaponisation of space represents a real threat to the security of everyone on earth. …It will greatly accelerate a new arms race in space…” In addition there is the increasingly serious problem of pollution of space and more prominently the earth’s orbit. The first aspect relates to space debris or space junk. This can be in the form of dysfunctional satellites or the various junk contributed by them or in the process of launching them. This junk has been increasing rapidly. The number of debris reported to be under observation is around 18000 but the number of smaller debris is much higher. The number of debris longer than 10 cm. is estimated to be around 34000, the debris of the length of 1-10 cm. is 900000 ( 0.9 million) while the number of debris smaller than 1 cm. is estimated to be around 128 million. As even very small objects can result in serious collisions in space, the presence of the smaller debris cannot be ignored.
This number of space debris is set now to increase as never before as the number of satellites in earth’s orbit is entering a pace of unprecedented escalation. This will pose many problems for constructive use of satellites for development purposes by late entering developing countries, apart from increasing the danger of collisions.
The second aspect of space pollution is related to light pollution. This did not become a very serious issue till recently as long as the pace of sending satellites in space was within manageable limits but with the very rapid pace seen recently the situation is changing and the number of satellites in space particularly the lower orbit of earth are likely to multiply by several times within a decade, according to present projections. Some senior astronomers have said that astronomy as practiced so far will be jeopardized badly as it will become difficult to study the space and images as they have done so far due to this excessive light pollution.
Clearly there is a very urgent need to check militarization of space and pollution of space but the unfortunate reality is that these problems appear to be getting worse in recent times. This can also be said about other aspects of militarization and weapons race on environment—the risks are well-known but still the disturbing trends have gone unchecked.
It is important to realize that the kind of destruction to life nurturing conditions that climate change can cause over decades can be caused by nuclear war within a few days or even within a few hours. Therefore it is very important for environmental concerns to come closer to peace concerns and these two big concerns, along with the concerns of justice of course, should be brought together to create a powerful, sustained people’s peaceful movement for a safer world.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Save the Earth NOW Campaign. His recent books include Man over Machine, Earth without Borders, A Day in 2071, Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril.