It’s time for Canadian environmental groups to talk about war as an act of climate denial

Margaret McGregor, Linda Thyer, and Tim Takaro
An airburst of artillery-fired white phosphorus over Gaza City. Photo by Mahmud Hams/Al-Haq.

Jan. 9, 2024

Ignoring the ecological impacts of war and militarism impedes our ability to adequately respond to the planetary health crisis

Three months after Israel started bombing Gaza in retaliation against Hamas, Palestine is being converted to rubble with a death toll today of over 22,000 with no end in sight.

Much of the world is aghast at what is described by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres as the “unprecedented and unparalleled” civilian loss of life. Indeed, a majority of Canadians support a cessation of bombing, obliging the Trudeau government to finally support a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire on December 12.

As physicians and planetary health advocates, we have noted with concern the relative silence of the Canadian environmental community in regards to the wider impacts of the war on Palestine.

Acknowledging that a number of environmental organizations have quietly joined a growing coalition of civil society groups calling for ceasefire, why is this community, so connected to life on Earth, not speaking out more about war crimes that have the world’s attention, or educating others on the interconnectedness of war with climate change, climate justice, and planetary health in this context?

Beyond the human toll of bombing in Gaza, there are massive environmental impacts. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the lack of access to fuel has seen the total shutdown of wastewater treatment plants, putting millions of Gazans at risk of water-borne illnesses and resulting in the daily release of over 130,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea.

Based on reports that more than 25,000 tons of explosives were dropped on Gaza between October 7 and November 2, the estimated carbon emissions from this short period would equate with the annual energy use of approximately 2,300 homes, or the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from approximately 4,600 passenger vehicles.

Excluding the carbon emissions arising from the impacts of war itself, the world’s armed forces and the industries that provide their equipment was conservatively estimated to comprise five percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

What is most astonishing is that the military sector is exempted from countries’ carbon footprint calculations. And yet in their flurry of year-end appeals for money accompanied by callouts for the urgent need to address climate change, most environmental groups fail to point this out.

The bombing has also impacted Gazans’ efforts to become climate resilient and energy independent where before October 7, sixty percent of Gaza’s energy came from solar power. This has now been largely destroyed as buildings roofed with solar panels have been toppled due to the bombing.

World military spending reached a record high of $2.2 trillion in 2023. If every NATO member were to meet the commitment to two percent of GDP on military spending, by 2028, NATO would spend enough to pay for what the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated are the climate adaptation costs for all low- and middle-income countries for seven years.

The situation is further complicated by the discovery of gas reserves valued at $534 billion in the “levant Basin”—an area spanning parts of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza extending into international waters. Over the past decade Israel has been developing these reserves for its own benefit and more recently signed sharing agreements with both the European Union and the United States. And after the October 7 attack by Hamas and just weeks before the COP28 produced its first statement ever naming fossil fuels as a main driver of global warming Israel, granted 12 more licenses to six companies to expand its gas exploration.

Speaking up about this war can lead to emotional disagreements between groups and people who often agree with one another and would otherwise work together on environmental issues. Perhaps it is simply more comfortable to keep heads down and mouths shut?

Or perhaps the silence is related to our narrow application of “just transitions” to the local context instead of acknowledging the responsibility that countries like Canada have for 90 percent of excess global C02 emissions and the pressing need to start paying down our climate debt to countries in the Global South?

Either way, ignoring the ecological impacts (including carbon emissions) of war and militarism impedes our ability to adequately respond to the humanitarian, climate and planetary health crisis.

Likewise, persisting with the current violent and militaristic attitude which harms our relationships with other humans and the natural world, will inevitably lead to further conflict and destruction of an already severely damaged biosphere.

As climate change increasingly stresses our societies and sources of clean water, soil and air, we can expect to see growing numbers of people displaced by extreme weather events including drought, floods, fires and storms leading to famine and more.

If we are to move in a just way through the societal disruption already underway, all nations must recognize the fatal flaws of a militaristic mindset, adopt a peaceful approach to managing conflict, support climate refugees at home and abroad, and protect of the natural world.

In the words of Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian poet, writer, environmental activist, winner of the Right Livelihood Award and recent York University honorary degree recipient:

The true environmental impact of war is impossible to quantify because it affects a staggering array of sectors and every aspect of human wellbeing. Wars kill people, extinguish biodiversity, and destroy the infrastructure that could otherwise provide safeguards in the face of extreme weather events. Warfare is an act of climate denial.

It’s time for Canadian environmentalist and planetary health advocates to acknowledge the relationship between war and climate, adopt a global lens driven by peace, and acknowledge our interconnectedness across Mother Earth.

Dr. Margaret McGregor is a family physician, health policy researcher and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Linda Thyer is a practicing family physician in the Vancouver area. Dr. Tim Takaro is a professor emeritus and physician-scientist in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. All authors are engaged in activism and advocacy for environmental justice, peace, and planetary health.

[Top photo: An airburst of artillery-fired white phosphorus over Gaza City. Photo by Mahmud Hams/Al-Haq.]