Andrea Mazzarino Climate Change human rights

The Costs of (Another) War

From Markus Spiske on Pexels

By Andrea Mazzarino / TomDispatch

What do a six-year-old in the United States and an 85-year-old in Russia have in common besides being on opposite sides of a war?

They’re both feeling the strain of a warming planet.

“Is the earth going to get so hot that we can’t survive?” my young son asked me last summer as we plodded through the woods behind our Maryland home. I wasn’t certain, I replied hesitantly. (Not exactly the most reassuring answer from a mother to a question I ask myself every day.) We had just left my younger child at home, because she started wheezing when she stepped into that already more than 100-degree July morning.

A few summers earlier, during a visit to a town about 4,500 miles away near St. Petersburg, Russia, an elderly friend of mine said to me, “When did it become so hot?” Like my daughter, she was breathing hard and continually glancing back toward her doorway.

Since the 1990s, as an anthropologist of human rights and war, I’ve traveled to Russia. I was then visiting the farm where my friend grew crops to add to the food she purchased with a government stipend she got as a survivor of the Nazis’ siege of her city during World War II. She gestured towards the apples in her orchard and shook her head. Canned each fall, they provided part of her diet, but fewer of them seemed to be growing each year. Would she die of hunger and heat, I wondered, after surviving a war?

Usually, when I brought up my worries about our warming climate, she would just joke. “We could use a little global warming in Russia,” she would say and gesture at the icicle-laced landscape around her wooden home. I often heard some version of that satirical refrain in cities across Russia where, in winter, the air can grow so cold it stings your lungs.

On that last visit of mine, however, it was clear that both the frost and the heat were becoming ever more severe and unpredictable. Among acquaintances and activist colleagues alike, I found a growing awareness of environmental issues like deforestation and water pollution. But they were careful in what they said, since Russian nongovernmental organizations regularly faced threats and even politically motivated charges that could force them to close.

Still, across Russia, I had also seen examples of local authorities listening to such activists and sometimes making small changes like halting logging projects to protect a community’s food supplies or stopping construction that’s polluting local wells. And increasingly, climate change was growing harder even for Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, to ignore, with Siberia recently all too literally on fire and its melting permafrost creating a “methane time bomb” of greenhouse gases that will help drive heating globally in a potentially disastrous way.

The Environmental Costs of War

It seems ironic, though not exactly surprising, that, by invading Ukraine last month, yet another leader who claims to care about humanity’s future started a new war (just what we needed!) on this planet. And that decision has left me haunted by images of climate change at war — the exhaust emanating from the back-to-back traffic of those driving away from Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, as millions of civilians continue to flee the devastating bombardments of the Russian military. Or think of the smoke above the military base in western Ukraine that Russia attacked or the footage of the desperate residents of the besieged port city of Mariupol burning firewood to stay warm.

In 2011, I helped found Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which took on the task of tracking first the human and financial costs of the American global war on terror and now of armed conflicts like the one currently unfolding in Ukraine. As that Russian invasion continues so disastrously, what should be obvious to all of us is that any war will only further exacerbate another killer on this planet — and that killer, of course, is climate change.

We started the Costs of War Project exactly because the true casualties and financial costs of armed conflict are notoriously difficult to calculate, given deliberate government obfuscation, not to speak of the chaos of battle. But there’s another cost that’s becoming all too clear, one we need to recognize. Consider the massive amounts of energy expended to fly fighter jets, or fire missiles, or move and supply soldiers, or send a convoy of tanks toward Kyiv. All of that, devastating in itself, now also becomes part of another war entirely, the human war that’s heating this planet and already affecting ever more of its nearly eight billion inhabitants.

Modern warfare, after all, is disturbingly energy intensive. Consider just a single mission in 2017 when two U.S. B2-B Stealth Bombers flew about 12,000 miles to strike Islamic State targets in Libya. They alone emitted about 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Consider this as well: we know that the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions annually are larger than those of countries like Denmark, Portugal, and Sweden. And forget the Russians for a moment: the U.S. still has military operations in more than 85 countries (and counting!).

Worse yet, fighting a war means diverting energy and resources to killing rather than to sustainable development. Countries involved, even peripherally, in such conflicts are likely to have a far more limited capacity to deal with that other war, the environmental one. Take, for example, Italy and Germany in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.  Faced with the need to replace natural gas and other fuel delivered from Russia, Italy now has provisional plans to reopen previously shut coal plants; while Germany, faced with an even greater energy crisis without Russian energy supplies, may now delay plans to close its last coal plants until 2030. Both of those are small climate disasters.  Obviously, there’s no way of imagining when Ukraine’s cities will be able to deal with climate change again. The now-destroyed Mariupol is a prime example. Once labeled by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s Green Cities Program as one of the most “engaged” cities for its efforts to invest in renewable energy and clean up water pollution, it’s now in a desperate struggle for its own survival.

Similarly, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, since the start of the war between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in 2014, the main power plant there has had to use reserves of low-grade, high-polluting fuel. The higher-grade kind once supplied by the central government of Ukraine is no longer available. Other impacts of this war and wars like it include clear-cutting forests to house refugees and powering camps with gas generators. Makeshift, hazardous methods of waste disposal like U.S. burn pits on military bases in Iraq were another example of the environmentally destructive methods so often sanctioned under war conditions.

The U.S. and Its Climate Inaction

Lately, headlines warning of environmental catastrophe have been thoroughly displaced (to the extent they even existed) by headlines about war. We’re all talking about the possibility of a World War III, but there are far too few conversations about the climate impact of the military buildup already affecting Europe so radically.

Consider it typical of our moment (and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres the exception) that President Biden essentially skipped climate change in his State of the Union address, even as he drew bipartisan applause for calling on Americans to unite in support of Ukraine. A wildly scaled-down version of his Build Back Better spending bill that might once have channeled $3.5 trillion towards investment in social services and clean energy didn’t even muster sufficient votes in his own party to make it through the Senate. (Thank you, coal magnate Joe Manchin!)

Yet just two weeks into the war between Russia and Ukraine, a bipartisan Senate voted 68-31 on a $1.5 trillion government spending bill that authorized $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. The package includes sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops to NATO countries, paying for the $350 million in weaponry this country has already sent to the Ukrainian military, our intelligence aid to that country, and money to help enforce sanctions against Russia. And it’s clear that the spigot has just been turned on. The Biden administration added another $800 million in weapons and protective gear for Ukraine’s military by week three of the war. Most recently, it committed $1 billion more to assist European countries in accepting Ukrainian refugees, while vowing to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to U.S. soil.

The human costs of war, of course, continue to unfold day by day as parts of Ukraine are destroyed and thousands of people on both sides are killed in the fighting, though estimates of the numbers vary widely. That’s part of the problem. Calculating war’s true costs takes many years, while even before the smoke clears another war, an environmental one whose casualties will, in the long run, be staggering, is gearing up, barely noticed by so many.

Environmental Carnage, Then and Now

Climate change is affecting peoples’ health, the natural environment, and our infrastructure everywhere. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, these effects, including intensifying extreme weather, a greater frequency and spread of diseases, severe future water shortages for roughly half the global population annually, and more frequent flooding and droughts, were intensifying even before the latest war began.

Scientists say that, given the world’s current rate of energy consumption and the temperature change that accompanies it, we should by 2100 expect outcomes of this sort: a five-fold increase in extreme weather events like flooding or wildfires; a leap in the percentage of the global population exposed to deadly heat stress from 48% to 76%; more than a billion coastal inhabitants adversely affected by rising seas and other climate risks by mid-century; and 183 million additional malnourished people by then.

Somewhere in this flood of bad climate news, however, there may prove to be a strange silver lining: such a range of potential climate crises that pay no attention to borders should ultimately have the potential to connect us to our geopolitical enemies (though this seems even less likely than it did when the Ukraine war began, now that Putin’s climate envoy has resigned in protest). The development of climate diplomacy has never been more urgent, since without collective action aimed at creating a carbon neutral world by 2050, we’ll all lose this fight.

In 2010, I took a four-day train trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the Krasnodar region near Ukraine, for a friend’s wedding. The heat that July was already stifling. Drought had led to wildfires that were sweeping across European Russia, blanketing Moscow in putrid smoke and reportedly resulting in tens of thousands of excess deaths from various causes related to heat, pollution, and the fires themselves.

Like me, other passengers opened the windows of our sleeper cars for a breeze only to find the air so smoky it covered our faces in soot within minutes. At one point, a group of new Russian army recruits, skinny adolescents with acne cratering their faces, boarded my car. They joked about how the air made them feel like they’d been smoking all day, when they were trying not to so that they could carry out whatever mission lay ahead of them in Russia’s conflict-ridden borderlands. (Putin’s crew was then fighting a counterinsurgency war in nearby Chechnya.) The soldiers scraped together their spare change and insisted on preparing meals for us all to share from goods purchased in outdoor markets where the train made stops.

During that trip 12 years ago, it already felt as though something was changing in terms of Russia’s relationship to the world. It was becoming harder for journalists to write critically about the government, particularly its military. Luxury restaurants, car dealerships, and cosmetics stores were popping up, yet ordinary Russians were still struggling to make ends meet.

As that train stopped in small towns, grandmothers and children holding paper trays of homemade chicken cutlets and cucumbers for passengers to buy looked so much more wind-worn and soot-covered than we did. At one stop, a policeman in his fifties, with his wife and two kids, heading home to Chechnya, joined me in my cabin. They’d been on vacation in Crimea, which Ukraine still controlled then. “Did you know that it had once belonged to Russia?” he asked me. It was easier, he added, for his family to go there when he was a kid and Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, but it wasbeautiful and I should visit. He and his wife took turns wiping their children’s sooty faces with wet washcloths. “My God, when did this heat get so bad?” he asked not exactly me, but the air, the planet.

And it’s true, I’ve never forgotten the heat that enveloped us all then and my early sense of our shared humanity in the face of a changing climate. Of course, as anyone in the American West who experienced the record firesheat domes, and megadrought of the last year knows, it’s only been getting worse.

As different as our all-too-fragile democracy still thankfully is from Russia’s autocracy, what we do have in common is short-sightedness. It causes the political class in both countries to focus on military solutions — remember the disastrous Global War on Terror? — to geopolitical problems with deep historical roots. What if we had marshalled the support of intermediaries like Finland or Israel back when Volodymyr Zelensky first reached out to Putin upon taking office as Ukraine’s president in 2019? What if long ago Washington had declared that Ukraine would never be a candidate for membership in NATO? Perhaps today its president wouldn’t be pleading for a NATO no-fly zone that could take the world to the existential edge of nuclear war.

What might still make a difference would be nonviolent, diplomatic steps to protect the victims of this war, paving the way for diplomacy to triumph over militarism and sustainable development over destruction. It makes me sick to my stomach that the window to act is closing for the people I love, near and far. Not just the horrific killing and destruction of the moment, but the long-term suffering likely to come from the environmental damage we’re causing should impel us all to call for a major diplomatic push to end the nightmare in Ukraine now. After all, if the world’s great powers don’t pull together soon on climate action, we’re in trouble deep.

Andrea Mazzarino

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

20 comments

    1. Interestingly, the following link (85 countries) in the article was blocked by “Chrome” aka: Google. “…the U.S. still has military operations in more than 85 countries (and counting!).”
      I could go directly to the Brown U. project and access the data. It’s maddening that we must find “work arounds” to access data.
      All other links which I accessed worked. Is this censorship — the Iron Curtain???

      1. It is not blocked, Joel, as a link — it links to a .pdf file which then opens … but you probably have a security setting that treats it as a potential malicious file. It is not being censored by Google. I just checked it.

    2. Are they really in power or just mouthpieces and errand runners, gig holders?

  1. Oh yeah, Joe Biden, the “climate change” candidate. Never mind that he’s setting the stage for a catastrophic nuclear world war — focus on the “environment.”

  2. An excellent and scary article. The author, however, though mentioning 2014 in reference to the 8 year war with the Ukraine military (Nazi controlled, unmentioned) killing 15K-17K (unmentioned) Russian speaking Yanukovich supporers, fails to call that 2014 event what it was: a coup by the USA: Obama. Biden, Clinton, Nuland. In other words, the US (which acts so appalled by Putin’s invasion) are the real instigaters of this war.

    1. Newsome is going to give 400 dollars to every car owner in California so they can continue to drive. The tax law strongly favors large SUVs. The “Hummer Tax Loophole,” or tax code Section 179, … gross vehicle weight of over 6,000 pounds, which qualify for a credit up to $24,000. I do not think our leaders are concerned about global warming at all. They need to keep getting reelected. Thank you for this piece though. It is obvious that war is a disaster on so many fronts. But Biden and Blinken said that Ukrainian neutrality is not acceptable and that NATO will maintain an open door policy. Imagine the amount of CO2 that will be generated if the US acts to depose Putin.

      1. Yep, just more “cash for clunkers,” (Obama) telling us we can stunt-drive out of Mariupol.

  3. Beautifully written, Andrea. Your view is very much overlooked in the discussions
    of Climate Change. 2050–That is just 28 yrs from now.

  4. Andrea Mazzarino:
    When “they” show us the Ukranian People’s nightmare they are showing us the fire we might fall into should we decide to bail out of Capitalist exploitation (a frying pan), and the fire your son and daughter, and my loved ones along, will surely suffer if Global Waring is not corrected. It’s a blatant extortion, having us choose a behavioral line to the financial advantage of the wealthy elite, playing for time like inmates in a death camp. Anyone who discusses such obvious facts is in danger of being excluded and called a conspiracy theorist, but if we are dangerous for making the obvious conclusions isn’t our Empire and our economic system suicidal?

    I was never aware of you before reading this Tom Dispatch article. Except for your writing you have a low online profile , which is probably wise. It’s not stalking if I review your bibliography is it? But don’t most writers hope that their opinions and arguments can stand scrutiny without some sort of celebrity profile? I felt sympathy that you’d had some work on Truthdig and had shared the Zuadiation (Stacy Lynn Kaufman’s betrayal) with the rest of us. A small-minded twit would criticize your recalled travels as a self-important carbon footprint and lump you right in there with Zuade. Fascist minds are trained in such talking points, never considering that someone must put Earthshoes on the ground to test and comprehend what media says. I wanted to be in St. Petersburg, up near the Arctic Circle and travel down with the Russians on the Krasnador train, down to the breadbasket, the tater basket, not quite to a Sochi vacation, still many miles southeast of Ukraine.

    What you say is typical of a Clinical Social Worker, thinking of all humanity as differently abled, covering one another’s deficits. I was trying to repair my leaking roof today alone, and lost hope, a 71 year old stroke victim up twelve feet on an extension ladder. I had to go inside and lie down. You hint at the same kind of despair when you describe the mega-drought in the American West, the poor energy choices imposed on Germany and Italy. When the air settles heavy with smoke where can we turn except to our air conditioning? And guilt drowns us when we think of the billions without such utilities or the income to cover the electric bill. We both have to assume out advantages confer urgent responsibilities. I appreciate you’re trying your best against increasing resistance. I think your writing is sincere and compelling.

    Most importantly, I wanted to caution you about false hopes. My estimation, from reading and observation, is that the horrors predicted for 2100, are much closer than authorities predict. One loving and clever naysayer I long admired, Guy McPherson, has resigned us to near-term extinction, and has strong data to support collapse by 2026. Naturally, I wish there were things we could do to disprove him, but even Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein and Andrew Bacevich (and other paragons) have few suggestions. At least you’re keeping busy, maybe getting tired enough to sleep. My local public radio station won’t let me comment anymore because they say my polite opinions hurt their fundraising. It’s nearly as repressive and propagandistic here as in Moscow. The opinions on CSPAN Open Phones show how impaired American minds have become.

    “Luxury restaurants (destinations), car dealerships and cosmetics stores” are like pustules to me, considering what is missing from our marketplace. Soldiers might have difficulty these days finding suitable soup ingredients to feed traveling companions, and Florida oranges are recently stunted and green. My pear trees are blooming but I’m not counting on any fruit. Biden says the economy is booming so that poor people no longer need help. With enough shovels we can pre-dig our final rest in anticipation of tactical nukes. After all, the capacity to intercept incoming remains nil after billions spent on useless interceptors. And still we update warheads. Nationalism is mired in a past that never made sense. I hate to suffer, but I can take the consolation of advanced age. But when humanity is extinct and no one is left to cry I have to wonder if our existence had any meaning. We’ll never know.

    1. Thank you, Andrea Mazzarino for writing (and Scheerpost) about the harsh reality we have created for ourselves and the entire world. I would rather read pieces like, grounded in reality, this than to pretend that it will all get magically better in the daze ahead – it isn’t looking good – there’s not as much time left as we would like to believe.

  5. Red Hornet
    I absolutely loved your comment…it’s more like a standing article itself. I agree with you and have more or less accepted the end of hunanity. It’s the children and animals that break my heart.
    BTW, you think Italy and Germany have to change where they get energy from? Russia? No, they don’t. The US thinks it’s the monarh of the world. If the rest of the countries turned their backs on the US, maybe we all could have a bit more time before the inevitable.

    1. Italy is sovereign and is an economy the size of Russia’s. Why must Italy or Germany (world’s #3 economy) defer to the US Empire? The war with Russia is engineered as a global warring device out of financial desperation as US hegemony evaporates. How sad so many Americans still believe in exceptionality. It’s absurd to have armed conflict with your energy supplier. I had cut back writing and adopted an avatar after the demise of Moyers in 2015. We might could salvage the Planet if Capitalism (now casino monopolies) could be decapitated, but the pay to play two party fraud is a serious barrier. If you examine world statistics you will find China is the leading producer of food globally but is still not self-sufficient. Imagine the Hegemon delivering biological pathogens to disrupt nutrition. I do not put it past sub-human Trump and instigators to have released Covid et al on them. Just more disaster capitalism, creative destruction and limitless competition.

    2. You’d like the “useful idiot” Russell Brand’s podcast “Under the Skin”.
      It cheered me up little.
      Don’t always agree but he’s in the same category as Lee Camp and Jimmy Dore.
      Behind his set is a driveway with a woodbox which is a mystery in itself, and domestic like Lisa Desjardins’ cat on a hassock in her apartment (Newshour). Scenes of home rival the importance of scripted information. I’m still burning wood in a stove this Spring. Next I gotta get the flue cleaned in case there’s next winter. Holding onto home for a little while longer with one dog (10) and two cats (15).

      1. Red Hornet,
        Yes, thanks. You and I are friends in spirit, so to speak. Rob

    1. That’s like saying climate collapse would eliminate anxiety about micro plastics in the human body.
      Yes, one can suffer both acne and metastatic cancer simultaneously. Likewise, humans can entertain more than one thought at a time (when propaganda relents long enough). But Fabian is correct that Will Smith slapping Chris Rock is not the equivalent of Russia invading Ukraine, or not even the equivalent of Senator Rick Scott wanting to tax the underclass. Some slaps are louder than others.

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