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War and the Environment

When it comes to the ravaged forests in Afghanistan and the carcinogenic soil and water of Iraq, there is only one factor to blame: war.

Carbon footprints of deployed armies are heavy contributors to climate change. For example, the US Department of Defense is one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters because of the extremely high amount of oil that they consume. Carbon dioxide and monoxide, hydrocarbon, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides are among the gasses released by military vehicles during armed conflicts, not to mention the toxic emissions from burning of military base garbage.

Specific hotspots of the past few decades include Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where wars have had an extremely detrimental impact on the countries’ environments. According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, increases in conditions such as cancer and birth defects have been associated with war-related environmental damage and toxins in Iraq. Mac Skelton, contributor to the Costs of War project at Brown, suggests that cancer rates have increased in Iraq due to the US and UK military shells, with radiation poisoning the environment.

But the environment wasn’t always a problem during wartime. Concern first emerged during the Vietnam War in the mid-20th century, where the toxic herbicide Agent Orange was used and resulted in contamination and deforestation on an enormous scale. Although the Environmental Modification Convention was adopted in 1976 to “prohibit the use of environmental modification techniques as a means of warfare,” the following amendments have not been enforced, as seen historically in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

An even more relevant war-related effect on the environment goes largely ignored as the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages. According to Business Insider, Russian attacks on civilian and military sites are severely contributing to pollution - on the air, ground, and water. Because Ukraine is an industrialized country, there is especially concern for the rising polluted air quality and reduction of biodiversity as attacks on manufacturing facilities release toxins and emissions.

Additionally, when Russia seized Chernobyl on February 24, radioactivity from the nuclear power plant was stirred up. Ken Conca, a professor of international relations at the American University School of International Service, stated that “It would probably take a direct strike on the facility to create more than local radiation risks, but there's a danger that the ongoing monitoring of the area by Ukrainian scientists, which is still required 35 years after the Chernobyl disaster, will be disrupted for an extended period.”

There simply needs to be more focus on the role of war as a polluting factor. As the Ukraine crisis continues to rage, it is critical to note the potential impact of the environmental side effects.


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