SPECIAL FOCUS: The Deadly Winds of War
U.S. military analysts estimate that the world invests over 1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) dollars annually to create and build weapons; to field armies, navies and air forces; and to finance conflicts.
In World War II over 35 million people were killed and since then there have been over 150 armed conflicts, mostly in the developing countries which have collectively claimed more than 20 million lives.
Despite talk of “new world orders”, “peace dividends” and the like, the simple fact of the matter is that war remains a major human activity and one which has a profound impact on the environment... Yet despite this rather obvious connection, there has been relatively little coverage of the obvious relationship between human military activity and environmental destruction.
Environmental destruction from warfare has been with mankind from the dawn of time and was probably first chronicled when the ancient Romans devastated Carthaginian agriculture by salting their fields. In recent times, however, the destructive potential of military action has grown enormously and spread over vast areas. World War II, for example, resulted in an average 38 percent reduction in agricultural productivity in 10 nations, although this loss was ultimately recovered.
Chemical defoliants used by the U.S. in South Vietnam devastated crops, destroyed 1, 500 square kilometers of forest and damaged another 15, 000 square kilometers. People in areas exposed to such toxic herbicides have witnessed increasing incidences of cancer, spontaneous abortions and birth defects.
There is perhaps no better and no more recent example of the environmental damage caused by war than the extensive ecological destruction perpetrated in Kuwait by the Iraqi military. A report prepared for the Secretary - General by a special United Nations Mission in April of 1991 contained a section summarizing the extent of the ecological consequences of Iraq’s invasion which is summarized below.
While historic examples of the environmental consequences of conventional war abound, the most dreadful form of environmental destruction would occur in the event of a major nuclear exchange, a sample of which gleaned from Hiroshima.
While the end of the cold war has significantly diminished the threat of such a massive exchange, nuclear proliferation may be increasing the threat of more localized and smaller exchanges.
What would be the environmental impact of nuclear war? In a word, cataclysmic. Studies of the impact of a smaller, regional nuclear war are not available but any number of hypothetical studies have been conducted in an effort to predict the consequences of a major nuclear war.
The content of these studies are horrifying. At present the world has over 50,000 nuclear warheads, with a combined destructive potential of about 20,000 megatons, nearly 70 times the firepower needed to destroy all the world’s largest and medium-sized cities. Estimates of the number of people that would be killed or injured by the combined effects of blast, fire and radiation arc in excess of 2 billion.
Rough Estimates of Additional Expenditures to Achieve Sustainable Development, 1990-2000
If anything, the probable climatic effects of nuclear war are even more devastating. The ash and soot rising from burning cities following a nuclear holocaust would be carried into the atmosphere, blocking 80 percent or more of the sunlight reaching the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. This would result in an average temperature decrease of 5° to 20° Celsius within two weeks. The loss of solar energy would reduce rainfall over the temperate and tropical latitudes by up to 80 percent. The combination of cold temperature, dryness and lack of sunlight in this “nuclear winter” would cripple agricultural production in the Northern Hemisphere and destroy its ecosystems. Resultant food shortages could put a majority of the world’s population at risk of starvation. It is also likely that the nitrogen oxides produced by a large-scale nuclear war would deplete the Earth’s protective ozone layer by up to 50 percent, exposing the survivors of the war to damaging amounts of ultraviolet radiation.
It is clear that the global military budget which continues to increase by as much as 5 percent annually finances activities that are tremendously destructive to humans and to the environment in which we live. Some significant part of that spending is devoted to weapon systems that could literally destroy the human habitat. What is to be done if we are to avoid hanging from the “cross of iron” so frighteningly referred to by Former President Eisenhower?
The answer clearly lies in four areas. First, we must develop a preventative diplomatic approach to regional hot spots that have the potential to move to conflict. Second, we must aggressively support nuclear disarmament initiatives. Third, we must demand that all countries observe the non-proliferation treaty banning the transfer of nuclear-arms technology. Fourth, we must direct some part of the global military budget to sustainable developing efforts in six priority areas: protecting topsoil, reforestation, slowing population growth, raising energy efficiency, developing renewable energy, retiring debt for developing countries.
World watch Institute has proposed a budget that would allow us to achieve sustainable development by the year 2000 which is summarized in the chart on page 2.
It’s interesting to note that if such a program and budget were implemented that there would still be $850,000,000,000 (850 billion) left annually for military purposes. As Worldwatch notes such a partial diversion of military spending to sustainable development programs is not without precedent. For example, in less than ten years, China has cut its military budget by 10 percent and substantially increased investments in food production, reforestation and family planning. These programs coupled with economic reforms has raised Chinese per capita food production by 50 percent while dramatically lowering China’s birth rate.
Such a shift of global military spending would remove some of the reasons why nations go to war in the first place, while simultaneously reducing the terrible consequences of war on the human habitat.
HIDDEN DAMAGE OF WORLD WAR II
Our Special Focus alluded to the ecological destruction caused by World War II. A recent report from Russia, however, suggests that we may still be continuing to pay an environmental price for the weaponry of that conflict.
The following story released this summer by the Los Angeles Times news services documents how Allied disposal of German chemical weapons is creating an ongoing ecological crisis in the Baltic Sea.
“Just 100 yards under the surface of the Baltic Sea, hundreds of thousands of German chemical weapons, hastily dumped by the Allies after World War II, are leaking deadly gasses into the water.
Russia’s fledgling Green Party says that the toxic chemicals oozing out of corroded bombs and grenades could soon reach a fatal concentration, threatening not only the Baltic’s marine and plant life, but also the 30 million people who live along the coastline.
By tossing 300,000 tons of ready-to-fire weapons into the shallow sea from 1945 to 1947, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union have nudged the Baltic to the brink of catastrophe, scientists say.
‘The Baltic Sea is known as the chamber pot of Europe,’ said Yevgeny Usov of Russia’s Green Party, which raised the first alarms about the submerged chemicals two years ago. ‘Already, there are strong poisons in the sea, eating at its ecology like a cancer. If you add to this the dispersion of toxic chemicals, you can surely expect the sea to perish altogether.’
The Green Party predicts devastating deaths of marine life within the next three years as the Baltic’s salt water completes its decades-long work of eating holes in the weapons’ metal skins.
The events leading to the present crisis began almost half a century ago when the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union met in secret after World War II to decide the fate of Nazi Germany’s enormous stockpile of unused chemical weapons, mainly nerve, skin and tear gasses.
Unwilling to pollute the air by incinerating them or to foul the ground by burying the poisonous stocks, the victorious powers decided to dump 500,000 tons of bombs, grenades and mines in the Atlantic.
Lacking enough ships to carry the toxic cargo to the Atlantic from storage sites in Eastern Germany, the Allies decided to toss most of the weapons in the waters closer to Europe, although a few loads did make it to the ocean. Britain and the United States concentrated their dumping in the English Channel and along the coasts of Denmark and Sweden, pitching bombs overboard almost haphazardly and keeping no detailed maps about their location.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Army, under Kremlin orders to complete dumping by January 1,1948, was working frantically during the last six months of 1947 to unload the weapons into the Baltic. Bad weather so tossed Soviet ships around that the chemical weapons ended up widely scattered.
Besides pitching explosives, boxes and even plastic sacks filled with chemicals, the Allies sank up to 100 German ships loaded with war gasses.
Already, the chemicals have caused hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths, Russian and Swedish environmentalists say. Hundreds of fisherman have suffered serious blister burns after catching grenades coated with oil chemical fluid in their nets. Yellow, waxy nuggets of phosphorous have washed up on Baltic Sea beaches, poisoning strollers who mistook them for pieces of amber.
But aside from these individual reports, scientists say they have no information on the broad, long-term ecological effects of the dumping. That is because the problem only became public two years ago and no research has been carried out.
No one knows, the environmentalists say, just how rusted the weapons have become after 45 years underwater, or how much gas has already seeped into the Baltic. No one can predict how far the chemicals will spread, or how they will react in combination with one another and with salt water.
And, most critically, no one is sure how many fish have eaten the poisons, how many people have eaten carcinogenic fish, or what health problems will emerge over the next few decades.
Hoping to find some answers, Russia will finance a $350,000, two-month expedition. Commanders from Baltic Sea Fleet and the St. Petersburg Naval Base will lead a team of scientists and divers to examine the submerged weapons and perhaps bring some explosives to Russia for further research.”
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