There's no truce for military environmental damage to the planet

Chloé Meulewaeter


This article was first published in

In peace times as in war times, environmental damage occurs due to activity and the very existence of armies. Still poorly documented, this link is, however, evident from the explicit exclusion of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions related to the military sector from the Kyoto Protocol in 1992, and after the United States' withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreements, as the military is highly dependent on fossil fuels for the proper functioning of their activities. Furthermore, the United States Department of Defense would be the largest oil-consuming institution, and therefore the main responsible for greenhouse gas emissions[1]. But military environmental damage is not limited to the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. From the extraction of raw materials for weapons to the pollution of water and land following an armed conflict, the extent of the damage is wide and varied.

During the militarization process

The militarization of societies refers to a series of stages needed in preparation for the war, which have their own impacts on the environment. These stages are, according to the theory of the military economic cycle[2], military spending, research, development and innovation of new weapons (military R + D + I), the arms industry, the arms trade and private financing. Together, they explain the dynamics that facilitate the possible intervention in armed conflicts by states. By analyzing each of these stages, the extent to which the military is influencing the environmental crisis can be seen clearly. First, the environmental impacts linked to the military spending include all those related to regular military activity: the consumption of energy and resources during training, the maintenance of barracks and international bases stand out; the consumption of energy and infrastructure resources; and the toxic waste from the maintenance of military equipment and infrastructure, and the training of soldiers. Second, research, development and innovation of new weapons (military R + D + i), through weapons testing, has significant environmental costs related to the use of resources and energy, in addition to contamination by toxic waste, deforestation, and loss of habitat resulting from the R + D + i process.

Third, the military industry has significant indirect environmental impacts, from the extraction of raw materials to the manufacture of weapons, contamination from industrial activities in supply chains, and final assembly of new military equipment. Fourth, arms exports and imports have an environmental impact due to the consumption of energy and the pollution involved in the transportation of weapons. Fifth and last, the war preparation cycle includes the participation of financial private institutions that provide the financial services needed for its proper operation. Financial institutions have indirect environmental impacts, by economically sustaining transnational extractive companies and the military-industrial complex, which together make up the "Global Triangle of Power" - a network of highly interdependent organizations and individuals, whose operation is related to climate change[3].

During the war

War, and military missions in general, impose significant damage to the environment. First, the movements of troops and armies necessitates a high consumption of fuel. Second, the use of weapons has disastrous consequences to the environment: mass destruction weapons (nuclear, chemical and biological) contaminate terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems for years; conventional weapons (aeroplanes, ships, combat vehicles, tanks, etc.) consume huge amounts of fossil and nuclear fuels and are responsible for polluting agricultural lands, seas and the atmosphere; Small arms such as anti-personnel mines and other unexploded ordnance remain a threat to the civilian population for years, preventing the cultivation of land and the raising of animals. Third and last, the consumption of resources during armed conflict involves the production of toxic waste and residues

During post-conflict periods

After the war, military environmental damage is still visible. First, the disposal and destruction of weapons involves the production of toxic waste. Second, the loss of habitat, ecosystem transformation and deforestation as a result of weapons have direct consequences for the civilian population over a long period of time. Third and last, post-conflict reconstruction also requires large amounts of energy and resources.

Now: Bringing the military issue into the debates on the environmental crisis

Military environmental impacts are still absent from current climate debates, however, ecological degradation is inherent to militarization processes, war, and still has consequences in the post-conflict phase. According to the dynamics of the military economic cycle, it is anticipated that as states dedicate more economic resources to their armed forces, military R + D + i and their weapons industry, the possibility of resorting to war in the event of conflict is reinforced. Likewise, this dynamic implies increasing environmental damage associated with the increasing global military spending.

Given its size, the military institution should be considered a key driver of ecological degradation. In this context, climate action should include the military issue in its argument. Additionally, the pacifist movement has to delve into the climate issue by calling for the reduction of global military expenditures, since the diversion of these economic resources would allow the creation of peace dividends to finance human security and peace-building policies.



[1] Crawford, N. C. (2019). Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War (Costs of war).

[2] Calvo Rufanges, J. (2015). El ciclo económico militar. En J. Calvo Rufanges & A. Pozo Marín (Eds.), Diccionario de la guerra, la paz y el desarme. Barcelona: Icaria.

[3] Meulewaeter, C., & Brunet, P. (2020). Military Spending and Climate Change. En Military Spending and Global (in)Security: Militarising conflicts, climate change and people’s lives. London: Routledge.

Author information

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

1 + 2 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

About the authors