Real-time analysis of the link between war and warming has revealed an entirely different picture than what the media are making of what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric nationalism and the war in Gaza actually mean in the context of the larger global polycrisis humanity is presently facing.
The media are for the most part reporting on these wars as if we were still living in the 20th century. What is being missed is the wars of the 20th century literally occurred on a different planet, a planet that at the time had far fewer people, infinitely greater biodiversity and a completely different atmosphere.
Since the end of the Second World War, the world’s population has more than tripled, our planet’s biodiversity-based life support system is near collapse, and the Earth’s climate is heating faster than science predicted. It is with good reason military strategists have for some time been pointing to climate heating as the fastest emerging threat-multiplier in terms of the growing potential for conflict around the world.
Those same strategists are now taking their projections one step further. It is now held widely in global security circles that war and warming are racing one another to see which will bring down the current world order first.
With each day of warfare, the conflicted nation’s ability to recover its vibrant society and ecological integrity wanes and its capacity for transitioning to an economy that excludes fossil fuels withers. In addition to the destruction and mayhem it creates, war props up the global fossil fuel industry by locking in oil, gas, and coal demand.
In addition to death and destruction, as a war goes on count on poisoned water and an atmosphere choked with lethal smoke and fumes. Add to these impacts the greenhouse gases produced during the conflict itself, the fires ignited, the forests burned, refineries sabotaged and on and on it goes. Then add up all the other CO2 sources such as weapons manufacture, transport and constant replacement; and getting soldiers, supplies and weapons to the theatre of war and home again often thousands of miles away, and soon it becomes apparent that war and warming are one.
What the world is evidently unprepared to see is when the thermal inertia in the climate system finally catches up to the extent to which we have altered the Earth’s system by burning enough fossil fuels quickly enough to increase the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 425 parts per million, that we will have made the world in which we live into a very different place. When we hit 450 parts per million, it will be a different place again, and if we hit 500 parts per million it may no longer be habitable by us or by any other higher forms of life.
Add methane and nitrous oxides to this calculus – the concentrations of both of which continue to rapidly rise in our atmosphere – and you can see where we are going. Our planet is in the emergency room with a potentially fatal fever while outside squabbling nations continue to fire rockets at one another. Can we survive the world we have made? The longer we wait to decide to change, the more difficult the transition will be.
If wisdom prevails, however, these 21st century wars could mark a turning point in terms of global understanding of the evolving nature of the global climate threat. Though seldom mentioned by the media, the greatest and most immediate threat climate heating now poses – even more immediate than the damage and loss of life we can now expect from the increase in intensity and duration of extreme weather events – is the direct impact the breakdown of the global climate system will have on rising levels of involuntary human migration.
Though predictions vary, the United Nations projects up to 200 million people will be on the move around the world by as early as 2050. Climate change, and the political instability it will bring in its wake, will drive involuntary migration to an extent to which we are totally unprepared, and wars – as we are already seeing in Ukraine and in Gaza – will contribute significantly not just to an overwhelming increase in the number of refugees but also directly to irreversible climate heating.
Creating the secure and prosperous future we all want will be impossible until we reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally by two-thirds by 2035. The only way we can do that is by reforming global governance so as to make meaningful emissions reductions possible while at the same time working to eliminate war and the threat of war.
From the vantage point of this time in human history – and especially given the events of these past weeks – it does not appear, at least at present, that either of these aspirations are achievable any time soon. That calculus must change; until it does, war and warming, either on their own or in tandem, will remain poised to make the world an ever more unstable and dangerous place.
Robert Sandford is a senior government relations liaison of Global Climate Emergency Response for the United Nation's Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He is a long-time Canmore resident.