This article is based on a talk given to a GEN public online meeting on this topic on 10 April https://www.facebook.com/GlobalEcoSocialistNetwork/videos/865515770871122 and was first published here https://socialist.ca/node/4536.
The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, after decades of tension around NATO expansion eastwards, has put the world on a knife edge of potentially escalating conflict. At odds are imperialist blocs that each have nuclear arsenals with the potential to leave large areas of the planet uninhabitable for many generations.
And in Ukraine, where there are many nuclear reactors, the potential for the breach of radiation containment structures adds another wrinkle to the question.
The environmental impact of war is not only related to the nuclear arsenal, however. So-called conventional weapons pack an environmentally destructive punch: napalm, defoliants like Agent Orange, depleted uranium used for armour piercing shells. The immediate destruction is compounded by ongoing environmental degradation in the areas where these weapons have been used. The danger in Ukraine for an escalation to a direct war between rival imperialist blocs could magnify the destruction with the prospect of whole economies directed to produce for the war effort, escalating the conflict to a potential world war. The scale of environmental destruction would be that much higher.
But with the climate crisis, the environmental impact of war is not just the effects of weaponry in the field of battle, but the carbon emissions associated with the operation of war machinery. The US military in their “peacetime” operations emits more carbon than whole countries like Denmark or Portugal. For military equipment, power trumps fuel efficiency and the intensity of emissions is very high. We have no way of knowing for sure how much carbon militaries around the world release into the atmosphere, because they are exempted from reporting.
If these numbers are high during non battle operations, the carbon intensity increases dramatically during a hot war. War is not compatible with the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees, which the world’s leaders have committed to, once again at last November’s COP meetings in Glasgow. There was a lot of disappointment that leaders could not even agree to stop producing and burning coal, much less phase out fossil fuels. Fighting wars is not compatible with meeting these commitments. It is quite clear that wars fought for control of fossil fuels put the world on a trajectory towards far worse climate outcomes. The fact that Russian LNG supplies to Europe play a role in this conflict further demonstrates the difficulty that capitalism has of transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Just Transition and War
During the pandemic, campaigns targeting divestment of financial institutions and insurance companies from fossil fuel projects had made inroads in part because lower oil prices and increased costs of production due to blockades and other resistance had made investors wonder if they’d see a return on investment. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a story in the Financial Post about how the European energy crunch and the conflict had breathed new life into an LNG project on the east coast of Canada over the prospect of supplying energy to Europe. The impact of the war on oil prices had also changed the economics of pipeline construction and tar sands development, with higher prices suddenly making these projects more profitable.
And there is a massive contradiction between the Canadian government’s increasing war spending and their climate plans.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called for member countries to spend at least 2% of GDP on their military. In March, Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the exploration of options to increase military spending “exceeding the 2% level, hitting the 2% level and below the 2% level”. The truth is that the Department of National Defence (DND) is the largest department, spending $24.3 billion and consuming 7.1% of federal spending. Raising the DND budget to 2% of GDP would raise this amount to $41.4 billion (12% of federal spending). In early April the Liberals announced that they would “only” increase military spending to reach 1.5% of GDP – an increase of around $8 billion.
The new Liberal climate plan is a terrible plan because it funnels billions to false solutions like CCUS and pretends that market mechanisms can lead the transition. This plan will not stop the climate crisis, but it’s instructive to know that if the DND budget is raised to be 2% of GDP, the $17.1 billion increase is almost twice the money budgeted for the whole climate plan ($9 billion). The announced $8 billion DND budget increase is almost as much as the whole climate plan.
What else could this money be spent on?
The federal government has promised $6 billion over ten years to fix drinking water problems in Indigenous communities, following decades of inaction. This is just 3% of the increase in military spending.
$17 billion could be used to build 600 km of surface rail light rapid transit in our cities; install solar panels on 450,000 homes that could completely power those homes; build 20 new hospitals every year; increase education and healthcare spending.
In Canada, if the 2% military spending increase goal is reached, it would be roughly the same as the Canada Health Transfer (from federal to provincial health programs) of $43 billion per year. If the military budget were eliminated, the health transfer could be doubled to dramatically improve underfunded hospitals. The numbers are similar for education budgets.
Climate activism and environmentalism and building the anti-war movement.
The fact is if we hope to be able to achieve the just transition to a zero carbon economy for the sake of the planet and future generations, the war drive of our rulers must be stopped. We simply can’t afford to waste the opportunity and money on programs that will further the crisis, when we need those resources to be targeted towards halting the runaway train of the capitalist economy that is undermining the life supporting capacity of the earth.
The fantastic anti-war movement in Russia, where tens of thousands have been arrested and potentially face years in jail, is a beacon of hope. We need to continue to build opposition to our own rulers’ drive to war, following the example of those risking so much in Russia. This means calling for an end to NATO as an imperialist force, and calling for Canada to get out of NATO. It means calling for an end to supplying arms and soldiers to eastern Europe, while supporting humanitarian efforts in the region. Ukrainians have the right to self-determination and self defence, but if It means supporting and amplifying mass involvement of Ukrainians in standing up to the Russian occupation. Building the links between the anti-war forces on the ground in Russia, Ukraine and in NATO member countries can create pressure on rulers to back away from pursuing these aims.
But it also means the end of arms shipments from the West to their allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Israel uses their military might to project power in the region, but also to wage war on the Palestinian population. Saudi Arabia has led the assault on the people of South Yemen using weapons supplied by Canada and other western powers, a war that gets scant mention in the western media. There are many other conflicts around the world, and the main inter-Imperialist rivalry is really between the US led bloc and China, although contradictions abound because of the interpenetration of their economies.
Sabre rattling in one region can increase tensions elsewhere and proxy wars or more direct wars between the main powers can flare up in the context of the overlapping crises of late capitalism.
Climate and environmental movements worldwide are fertile ground for building the forces opposing war because there is already a clamouring for change of course from the system, but the transition is not happening, or it is not happening quickly enough, and activists are already calling for more money for a real transition away from fossil fuels.
When governments dither and obfuscate on climate solutions, but then eagerly spend money on war, this has the potential to provoke anger in the climate movement and a readiness to take action to oppose the war drive, connecting it to the need to fund the transition to a zero carbon economy. This is part of a climate justice framework that seeks climate solutions that lead to an actual transition from fossil fuel capitalism towards the zero emissions economy where no community or worker is left behind.
Mobilizing to oppose our ruler’s drive to war, whether for fossil fuels or some other reason, is a key part of mobilizing masses of Indigenous people, workers, people from racialized and other marginalized communities, environmentalist, and climate activists to create a force for change from below that can transform the world for a sustainable future.
Climate Voice, a new network including Indigenous, labour, climate, environmental and student groups, came together in the process of organizing the November 6 Rally on the Global Day for Climate Justice during the COP26 talks in Glasgow. Our headline climate justice demands were: Respect Indigenous sovereignty; Phase out Fossil Fuels; Just Transition for communities and workers; Global Justice.
As our rulers pursue the drive to war, we must assert that “No War” is also a climate justice demand, seeking justice for the victims of the conflict, but also for future generations who will bear the brunt of war spending priorities that doom them to a bleak future.