A Midsummer Night’s Chilling Dream The war’s “global warmings” and “nuclear winters”
Climate changes and armed conflicts – as facets of, basically, the “non-human” physical nature and of the “dehumanised” human nature, respectively –, when fatally intertwined with each other, bring us closer to Apocalypse nightmares. The mental cohabitation between ecological anguishes and the anxieties of belligerence is the product of the Cold War era’s madness (as in MAD – mutual assured destruction). A doctrine of deterrence, MAD highlights the fact that every nuclear confrontation between superpowers can only end with the annihilation of both, regardless of who was at first on the offense and who was on the defence. Such an infamous possibility also had a climate-related dimension. Either the thermonuclear explosions will broil Earth’s fluids like a boiler (some sort of a “Heat Death”), or they would release a cloud of particles in the atmosphere, blocking the solar radiation (generating an “Ice Age”), the horrific result would be a residual human-inhabited area to oscillate agonizingly between scalding and drowning, between freezing and extreme hunger. Even though the industrial rivalry, including the peaceful kind, remains the main target of the accusations that it devours the environment and disrupts the climate, war, even the regular genre (though it has been recently becoming more and more hybrid in nature) imposes itself as a research subject in relation to climate risks.
And the link between climate and war is one which goes both ways. On the one hand, we can observe the cruelty of the environment, manifested in the form of “positive feedback” loops (these are bad, by the way). The picture is filled with droughts and/or floods, pest invasions and epidemics, eroded soil and overused subsurface resources, bad governance and wild competition (for vital water and various raw minerals), wars (be they either civil or interstate) and massive emigrations of the desperate and the uprooted. Behind those who manage to escape, the vicious spiral continues until nothing but dust is left: welcome (actually, good riddance) to Somalia, the Sahel, Yemen or Iraq! In the world, those who find themselves in climate stress are, according to the UN, around 3.6 billion people: in Africa, South Asia, South and Central America and in the small developing island states. Organised or not, the “climate impoverished” may become “climate soldiers” overnight, during a procession which brings nothing new under the increasingly scorching sun of human existence: the ancient populations preferred the conquest of other peoples, in order to deprive them of the few fruits of a slightly tamed nature, instead of taking the very same nature head-on. Fair enough, back then, they did not have the proper technology, ecology, and ideology. Now, we do. But we kept, unhampered, the primal impulses, as well.
On the other hand, the war also features/leaves a “climate footprint”. According to the evaluations conducted by the Conflict and Environment Observatory, greenhouse gas emissions have both direct and indirect causes/sources, both during and after conflicts. The incidents related to petroleum production, storage and transportation infrastructure are extremely graphic (let us remember the key events from Colombia, Libya, Syria, and Iraq). The burning of the oil fields during the Gulf War (1991) contributed more than 2% of the global CO2 emissions of that year. The vegetation can also be one of war’s perverse targets. In Vietnam (with the deforestation rate estimates ranging between 14 and 44%), Cambodia and Laos, the jungle erasures, done either chemically or mechanically, were meant to disrupt the military ecosystem of the fighting guerrillas. As for the indirect impact of war, though there are (cynical) estimates regarding the slowing down of certain economic/industrial activities (and therefore of the polluting emissions associated with them), which are considered “excessive” during times of peace, the imbalance is ultimately a blatant one. A military conflict necessitates the recourse to emergency solutions in terms of energy (re)sources, and, hence, “sustainability” becomes the last of the worries, as (political) “survival”, before anything else!, is the priority.
There is another climate-related consequence of belligerence. Getting involved in the post-conflict reconstruction brings not only the illusion of a general boosting of the economy (“What is lost, remains lost!” – that is what Frédéric Bastiat explained to us more than a century and a half ago in the “Parable of the broken window”), but it also brings about quite a hefty climate price, especially in relation to two components: urban regeneration/renewal and the repurposing of some plots of land. Thus, the debris removal, decontamination and actual reconstruction are very CO2 emission-intensive (with the cement industry alone being responsible for 8% of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide). Two areas of the world in particular will exhibit humongous needs of this kind (that is Syria and Ukraine) in a hopefully sooner “postwar reconstruction” epoch. Then, the recovery of land areas for agriculture would require that some forests eventually be sacrificed, given the fact that many former areas have been “sown”, by both the invaders and defenders, with explosive mines which now need to be “harvested”. On top of that, the very process of mine clearing is itself an energy-intensive one. So, even in the absence of the materialisation of these two darkest scenarios (nuclear “oven” or “fridge”), the hot season that seems to ever accompany our species is, as in John Steinbeck’s title, “the winter of our discontent”.