“Remember the Carbon Footprint of War” by Bruce E. Johansen

Remember the
Carbon Footprint
of War
ompared to the all-too-obvious death and
environmental mayhem caused by warfare,
the long-range toll of war’s carbon footprint is less visible but hardly harmless. Modern war
waged at long distances is hugely carbon dioxide intensive. The U.S. armed forces, which maintain as
many as 1,000 bases in other countries, consume
about 2 million gallons of oil per day, half of it in jet
fuel. Fuel economy has not been a priority in mod-
ern fossil-fueled warfare. Humvees average 4 miles
per gallon, while an Apache helicopter gets half a
mile per gallon.
Consumption of fossil fuels has increased over
time, with great waste. The Air Force alone uses half
the oil consumed by the Department of Defense. For
example, it burned through 2.6 billion gallons of fuel
during one six-month period in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006. At that time the armed forces consumed
as much fuel per month in limited wars as they did
during World War II between 1941 and 1945.
Growing Carbon Production
At the beginning of World War I in Europe, just over
a hundred years ago, the main motive force in battle
was the horse and shoe leather, as troops in Europe
marched off to battle on foot or horseback. The advent of aerial bombardment and increasing use of
tanks caused a dramatic escalation in war’s carbon
dioxide production. War is often a powerful technological motor, and carbon-consumption innovator. World War II began with quarter-century-old
biplanes and ended with jet-propelled fighters, resulting in a massive increase in fuel consumption.
The mechanization of the military provided
many more opportunities to ramp up carbon dioxide
production during the world wars of the early 20th
century. World War II’s Sherman tank, for example,
got 0.8 miles per gallon. Seventy-five years later, tank
mileage had not improved: the 68-ton Abrams tank
got 0.5 miles per gallon. Typical fuel consumption of
a fighter jet was 300 to 400 gallons per hour at full
thrust, or 100 gallons per hour at cruising speed
during hundreds of hours of training and combat
missions. Blasting to supersonic speed on its afterburners, an F-15 fighter can burn as much as four
gallons of fuel per second. According to Gar Smith
in Earth Island Journal, the B-52 Stratocruiser, with
eight jet engines, consumes 86 barrels of fuel per
Individuals are told to reduce our “carbon footprint,” and we should. But how many years of riding
a bike to work would it take for me to offset one F-15
flying for an hour? Assuming that my bike replaces a
car that gets 25 miles per gallon, my daily commute
of five miles would use a gallon a week. That’s 350
weeks, roughly seven years, to fuel a fighter jet at full
thrust for one hour.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. military
flew B-52s at all times, on the theory that an airborne fleet would prevent the Soviet Union from
obliterating the entire U.S. nuclear-armed armada
on the ground. Each of these B-52s burned thousands of gallons of fossil fuel per hour while aloft.
That’s 73 bike commuters’ annual fuel savings for
every hour a B-52 is in the air.
Size, Scope, and Complexity
The carbon footprint of war is important and intriguing, but impossible to calculate precisely because of
its size, scope, and complexity. The carbon footprint
for a bag of potato chips, a carton of milk, or a pair
of athletic shoes may be calculated by adding up
each unit’s proportion
of manufacturing and
Individuals are told
transportation energy
to reduce our “carbon
inputs along the entire
footprint,” and we
life cycle of a product.
should. But how
Calculating the carbon
many years of riding
footprint of a single cona bike to work would
sumer product is comit take for me to
plex, but we can do it.
offset one F-15 flying
When we become realfor an hour?
ly serious about carbon
footprints, we will know
the amount of greenhouse gases generated
by each platoon sent to war, each bomb dropped,
each tank deployed. However, today we know the
carbon footprint of a bag of potato chips from a
Safeway grocery store in California, but war—that
elephant in the greenhouse—remains unmeasured.
If the Pentagon has ever done such a thing, no one
seems to be bragging about it to civilians.
The United States launched the Iraq war on the
pretext of protecting vital oil supplies, even as it consumed oil at a phenomenal rate. At the start of the
Iraq war, in 2003, the United Kingdom Green Party estimated that the United States, Britain, and the
minor parties of the “coalition of the willing” were
burning the same amount of fuel in the Iraq war
(40,000 barrels a day) as all 1.1 billion people living
in India. The U.S. Air Force uses 2.6 billion gallons
of jet fuel a year, 10 percent of the U.S. domestic
market. By the end of 2007, according to a report
from Oil Change International, the Iraq war had put
at least 141 million
metric tons of carbon
Today we know the
dioxide equivalent
carbon footprint of a
into the air—as much
bag of potato chips from
as adding 25 million
a Safeway grocery store
cars to the roads. The
in California, but war—
Iraq war added more
that elephant in the
greenhouse gases to
the atmosphere than
60 percent of the
world’s nations.
So how would
one begin to sketch the carbon footprint of a war?
Here is a preliminary sketch:
• First, add all the energy used to produce the
weapons, transport, and other provisions
consumed in the war.
• Add the emissions produced getting soldiers,
supplies, and civilian contractors to the
theater of war, and home again—in the case
of a war pursued thousands of miles from
home, often by air transport. Add the cost of
running armed personnel carriers, heating
and cooling soldiers’ lodgings, and so forth,
as well as the greenhouse gases caused by the
conduct of combat itself.
• Add the carbon and other greenhouse gases
added to the atmosphere by fires initiated by
bombings and other explosions. In Iraq, pay
special attention to intentional sabotage of
oil pipelines and suicide bombings, as well as
improvised explosive devices.
• A
dd the carbon cost of tending the wounded. Iraq’s emergency room spanned nearly
half the world, from airborne surgery to the
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and hospitals in the United States.
The Urgency of Solutions
Peacemakers in our time are often assumed to be naive dreamers. Given the environmental crisis, however, a timely end to war is not naive, but necessary.
Armies of the future must study the best ways to
solve international conflicts without armed conflict
and the monumental pollution that accompanies
their death and destruction.
The greenhouse gas emissions of war should
be regulated on a worldwide basis, and the United
States, the world’s premier military power, should
take the lead in de-carbonizing international relations. With the carbon footprint of war adding to its
cost in blood and treasure, this tally of greenhouse
gas emissions should convince us that the Earth can
no longer afford fossil-fueled war. q
Bruce E. Johansen is the Jacob J. Isaacson University Research
Professor in the School of Communication and the Native
American Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at
See teaching ideas for this article, page 175.