The Guardian • Issue #1965

Effect of the military on carbon emissions and soil pollution

Every second year the US and Australian military hold war games, called Talisman Sabre in Queensland, in areas of high environmental significance: some being world heritage areas and natural heritage sites. Such areas are a habitat to many migratory birds and threatened species such as dugongs and humpback whales.

Potential environmental impacts include reducing air quality, harming marine animals, fire, noise pollution, waste disposal and spills, and erosion from amphibian craft landings and weapon target zones.

Talisman Sabre takes place in Shoalwater Bay, home to the largest dugong population in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage Area. This sanctuary is considered crucial to the stabilisation and recovery of local dugong numbers.

The region also supports nesting sites for green turtles and endangered loggerhead turtles and is used by twenty-six species of dolphins and whales, including the endangered Blue Whale. Humpback whales are known to use the area for breeding.

Threats from the Talisman Sabre war games include nuclear-powered vessels, potentially carrying nuclear weapons and almost certainly carrying depleted uranium munitions, as well as perchlorate, a highly toxic chemical and a key ingredient in live ammunition. Also, white phosphorous, a highly reactive and toxic chemical with the potential to have long term impacts on all environments – in particular:

  • Inshore seagrass beds (critical dugong and turtle feeding grounds);
  • Mangroves (critical fish breeding grounds and shore protection); and
  • Red phosphorous, a highly reactive and toxic chemical used in marine markers for sea mines.
  • The US Navy also disposes of domestic waste (including paper and plastic) overboard into Australian coastal waters.


Iraq: The environmental havoc wreaked by the war in Iraq is appalling. Not only did the war lead to a spike in carbon dioxide emissions through US military activity, but it also resulted in the widespread poisoning of the Iraqi environment through the use of toxic munitions and so-called burn pits on military bases. The environment has become so toxic in some places that it has led to elevated rates of cancer and crippling congenital disabilities – terrible individual punishments inflicted on innocent future generations. Much of this impact can be blamed on the use of depleted uranium munitions by US forces. Despite vowing to cease their use, the military continued to use such toxic munitions during its most recent bombing campaign in Syria.

Afghanistan: Here, wildlife and habitats have disappeared. The past 30 years of war has stripped the country of its trees, including previous native pistachio woodlands. Illegal logging by US-backed warlords and wood harvesting by refugees caused more than one-third of Afghanistan’s forests to vanish between 1990 and 2007. Drought, desertification and species loss have resulted. The number of migratory birds passing through the country has fallen by 85 per cent.

South Korea: Gangjeong village is the site of the controversial naval base built by the South Korean government and Samsung C&T Corporation on the southern part of Jeju Island – the “island of world peace.” The waters along the coastline are within a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and are protected by international law. The once unique coral populations and surrounding biodiversity have suffered irreparable damage due to constant leakages of fuel, heavy metals, and other contaminants. Reduced and changing current patterns around the base have led to the demise of coral populations near the seawalls. The waters off the Gangjeong coastline once represented a major habitat of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin but this has been disrupted due to the passage of warships in and out of the base.

Rwandan and Congolese Civil Wars: During these civil wars, almost three-quarters of a million people lived in camps on the edge of Virunga National Park. Around 1,000 tonnes of wood were removed from the park every day for two years to build shelters, feed cooking fires, and create charcoal for sale. By the time the conflict ended, 105 sq km of forest had been damaged and 35 sq km stripped bare. Virunga Park is home to critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as chimpanzees, elephants and other charismatic megafauna.


The effects emanating from military exercises and actual conflicts are never mentioned when discussing climate change or conservation, yet they are profound. Conservation groups are constantly running campaigns showing the effects of fossil fuel extraction – which is admittedly huge – but don’t investigate the military’s influence.

We need to start the transition to a net-zero carbon emissions economy immediately and start making very deep cuts in emissions if we are to keep average global warming below two degrees Celsius. Immediate large-scale investment in low-carbon technologies and energy-efficient systems is not only urgent and necessary from the environmental point of view but can be linked with recovery from the global economic downturn post-COVID-19.

In Australia, Beyond Zero Emissions, in partnership with the University of Melbourne, has a solution – the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan, which shows that it is technically possible to reach 100 per cent renewable energy for Australia within a decade and the technology to achieve this transition is commercially available now. We have one of the best solar resources in the world, and solar thermal power in the ZCA plan will supply sixty per cent of Australia’s electricity.

Wind will supply forty per cent of Australia’s electricity in the ZCA plan. This is comparable to Denmark’s fifty per cent by 2025 goal, and Spain’s twenty-five per cent by 2020. In another comparison, China’s wind energy industry has been growing by 100 per cent per year for the last four years.

The plan sets out detailed resource and labour requirements. A transition to 100 per cent renewable energy will create around four times more permanent jobs than currently exist in the domestic fossil fuel sector. The ZCA Plan will generate an investment of $370 billion over ten years – a stimulus to the Australian economy that is equivalent to three per cent of our GDP over ten years, and the investment required for the transition is affordable at $8 per household per week.

The CPA supports the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) in its quest to get Australian organisations and individuals to participate in a submission contributing to a national discussion in order to motivate the government to immediately fund infrastructure providing manufacture of renewables and encouraging the many businesses already providing innovative battery storage technology and green hydrogen research.

This submission is due in July 2021. If you feel strongly about this please write a submission at

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