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War, the Climate Crisis and the Petrodollar

Whilst future wars are predicted to arise from the climate crisis, it is the wars waged during this century that have had an unprecedented impact on our climate

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"We need to be holding the military to account, and really asking: Is this an organisation that protects us? Or is this an organisation that continues to endanger the planet by consuming dangerous fossil fuels and wreaking destruction on countless communities."


On 13th June, Stop the War Youth and Students held a meeting on War and the Climate Crisis. Speakers included myself (Maddalena Dunscombe), Freya Tischkowitz from the UK School Climate Network and Jamal Elaheebocus who has recently formed Youth Stop the War. The meeting was chaired by Lucy Nichols from Stop the War.

The issue of climate breakdown is so central within the lives and futures of the younger generations as we look ahead to a future which is predicted to be rife with hunger, heat and - as many studies suggest - war. But to curb our emissions now, and to change the course of our planet it becomes more and more vital that we address the undeniable relationship which exists between war and climate breakdown.

Whilst many future wars are predicted to arise from the climate crisis, it is the wars that were waged during this century that have had an unprecedented impact on our climate.

In the transcript of my speech below, I will talk about this relationship between war and the climate - more importantly I will outline what solidifies this relationship, namely oil.

War, the Climate Crisis and the Petrodollar:

“The US department of defence is the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum. It was estimated that in 2017 the US military used up to 1 million barrels of oil per day and this would make the US Defense Department the world's 55th largest CO2 emitter if it was a country.

If we look at the UK, we can see that the carbon emissions between 2017 and 2018 were around 6.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – but the MOD only reports one third of their actual carbon emissions, so the real number we may never know.

Tony Blair, who started the Iraq war along with George Bush, gave a speech to the Foreign Policy Institute just a few years after the Iraq war began. In that speech he compared the progress of his foreign policies with diplomatic action being taken on climate change. I think this is an incredibly ironic thing to have said because the Iraq war was unprecedented in the amount of carbon emissions it produced, predominantly by the UK and US military. So in the first four years of that war, the carbon emissions reached up to 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - which is more than the yearly emissions of 60% of all the countries around the world.

Many politicians who were involved in the Iraq War have now come out and said that this war was a mistake. More and more people can see how the so-called 'war on terror' caused a rise in Islamophobia in the west. We can see now that the invasion of Iraq - and the invasions of other Middle Eastern countries that followed - was a waste of lives, a waste of resources and also caused a tremendous about of carbon waste that has contributed to heating up the planet.

If we look at Iraq today, it’s quite clear that because of the damage caused by the American and British invasion, their infrastructure is not equipped to deal with climate change and in fact the rest of the Middle East and North Africa are suffering some of the most severe impacts of climate change in the world. This is partly due to the direct environmental degradation that western military invasion has caused but also because of the rising temperatures caused by global carbon emissions. Most Middle Eastern countries have not been credited too, mainly because their own oil was secured by military means and consumed predominantly by other countries, predominantly in the west. And as we can see, it has been consumed by the US military itself. So, it is evident that this is a huge injustice in world in terms of who is consuming resources, who is being exploited and who is living with the consequences of our actions.

But I want to talk more about this consumer injustice, and how this is really reflected in our global economy. World War Two had left the global economy in disarray and many argued there needed to be a global currency which would allow for global trade. It was decided at Bretton Woods conference of 1944 that the dollar would be the world's reserve currency - partly due to its position as the most stable currency at the end of war. 

If we skip ahead to 1971, President Nixon began to see the value in oil, and he made a deal with Saudi Arabia. They agreed that oil prices would be set to US dollars, so not only was the US dollar the world reserve currency, but it became standardized with the worth of oil. In exchange, US troops would go to Saudi Arabia and protect the oil fields. This strengthened the unique relationship between the US military and oil which we see really characterised in the 'War on Terror' that occurred decades later. It was also the birth of the petrodollar.

The US dollar has now become so reliant on the success of the petrodollar that if oil-exporting companies were to change the currency in which they sell the oil, the United States would find themselves in a very severe financial crisis. If we take that into account and we think about the reasons why the US and the UK invaded Iraq, and other Middle Eastern oil-exporting countries, it seems that by protecting their oil interests they were actually protecting their economies.

In the year 2000, Iraq began domesticating its oil industry, selling to neighbouring countries, and abandoning the petrodollar. If all oil-exporting countries began doing this I mean an economic revolution. After the American and British invasion in 2003, this was immediately altered back, and the dollar was once again the currency for oil exchange in Iraq. Ten years after the invasion the oil industry of Iraq has become mostly privatised by mostly non-Iraqi companies profiting from the sales. The US has also kept a steady rate of imports from Iraq, whilst the Iraqi government barely profited from any of these transactions.

And this is not a new trend – back in the 1940's British cars and vehicles largely ran off Persian (Iranian) oil but the Persian government made only 16% of the net profits from selling the oil.

We have seen a similar trend in Libya. It is worth noting that all the separate factions who are now fighting there following the NATO-led invasion are fighting – physically fighting - around the oil wells, trying to get hold of those hugely profitable resources.

For many international oil companies, the oil wells in Libya provided their economic power. The oil companies which were directly benefitting from the oil wells in Libya were BP (formerly British Petroleum) as well some European and American companies such as Total, Respol YPF, OMV, Hess, Marathon and Shell.

With all this in mind, we can see that there is this pattern of behaviour where if you don’t want to use the dollar you will be punished – we’re seeing it happen now in Iran, where the Iranian government also wanted to abandon the petrodollar and the US state decided to cut off the dollar from Iran, stopping it from being able to trade internationally and making it very hard to trade.

There’s also a larger pattern at work here, which I’m sure that many people on this call will agree with, that throughout history, both recent and not so recent, the western powers have exploited resources from the global south, from Africa, from indigenous lands for financial and political gain and to demonstrate the power of the western world.

I have heard many people say that when confronting climate change, that we cannot fight against climate change without challenging racism and imperialism, because as our climate worsens, the people who end up losing their food, clean air or clean water first tend to be underprivileged people and predominantly underprivileged people of colour – an example we are seeing so clearly in the military’s consumption of oil and the countries that are actually being harmed the most by this consumption of resources. If you are somewhere like Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan, where you have delicate ecosystems, these shifts in temperature cause extreme environmental disruption. The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is becoming quite unbearable for millions of people - so unbearable that experts predict a significant rise in climate refugees over the coming decades as the region becomes increasingly uninhabitable.

So we need to be holding our respective militaries to account and asking: are these organisations that protects us against the existential threats we face or are they actually exacerbating those threats by consuming vast amounts fossil fuels and causing the destruction of countless communities?

I think now we have a window of change, because the oil prices have plummeted and there is an oil crisis, and many people say that the oil trading landscape will look very different once we all get out of quarantine – but we must stay really vigilant nonetheless and we should never forget that Western militaries are huge consumers of oil, they exploit people for the oil and they are the gatekeepers of the oil production. If we do not defund the military and thereby significantly reduce our dependence on oil and the petrodollar then I don’t believe that we can really confront the climate crisis.”

I would like to end with a quote from Murtaza Hussain, journalist for the Intercept, in 2019 he said:

“We have been killing, dying and polluting to ensure our access to the same toxic resource most responsible for our climate disruption. It took this perfect symmetry between industrial warfare and industrial exploitation of the earth to bring about the unspeakable emergency we now face.”

Tags: iraq, libya

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