For the last week, military forces in Israel and Palestine have been launching hundreds of rockets. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, people are dying. On both sides. The pain and suffering of their loved ones demands attention—as do the power dynamics that make some people more vulnerable long-term than others.
When bombs drop, the environment suffers. And when the environment suffers, those who are a part of it do, too. Not everyone has access to the same resources: construction materials, water, or food. As is typically the case with environmental injustice, history explains a lot. The history of these tensions is a long one—too long to explore here—but it has polarized both sides.
“The structural injustices at the heart of this are about environmental racism and environmental injustices going back to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and even beforehand—to the Zionist movement’s relationship with the British Mandate in Palestine,” said Irus Braverman, a law professor at University of Buffalo.
The story here is one of injustice that begins with Palestinian land dispossession and continues with the contamination of their communities. It’s a story that is all too common—a story of war. War is a traumatic event, not only for the people living it but for the earth they rely on, too.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we believe in the safety of the planet and its people. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I’m not naive; the world may never know true peace. That doesn’t mean that war needs to be so violent and dirty. Conflict doesn’t need to kill children; it shouldn’t fragment ecosystems. And yet that’s the route leaders take. If we continue down this path, the future will never be green or clean. Never.
For the last two weeks, Irus Braverman has barely slept. Israel is her home though she now lives in New York state. Her Israeli-Jewish family still lives there. Her Palestinian friends do, too. All the law professor can do is sit and sob when they text her messages shrouded in fear. A violent struggle is raging in the region. To call it a war would be inaccurate, Braverman said.
“War implies some sort of symmetry between the two sides whereas clearly, here, there isn’t,” she said. “To call it a ‘war’ seems to imply that both sides have means to embark on that kind of relationship. Here, if anything, it’s a one-sided war. Not to undermine the pain and suffering on the Israeli-Jewish side, but the stark difference in power is important here.”
This power imbalance drives much of the suffering and frustration of Palestinians. Their lack of structural power puts them in a vulnerable situation—where they face the destruction of ecosystems, are exposed to industrial pollution, lack access to clean water, and more. Then, there’s the carbon footprint that comes with such a militarized state. With every gallon of fuel pumped into a military tank or plane, we’re exacerbating the climate crisis, a threat multiplier, especially for vulnerable populations.
“For over five decades of occupation, the Palestinian people have been systematically denied their basic human rights, deprived of their land, natural resources and environmental quality,” said Abeer Butmeh, a coordinator for Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network/Friends of Earth Palestine, who also wrote about these climate justice struggles in the region for Al Jazeera in 2019. “Land confiscations, the apartheid wall, and maritime security zones have all limited the ability of Palestinians to enjoy their natural resources.”
Distorted power perpetuates this. The violence fuels it. And the heartbreaking situation between Israel and Palestine is just the latest example.
“It’s life or death right now for the planet.”
Take the Vietnam War, for example. The U.S. strategy involved dropping bomb after bomb into the forest. Between 1945 and 1980, forest cover decreased by 50%, according to Yale Environment 360. The 13 million tons of bombs contributed—as did the 72 million liters of herbicide. Agent Orange is the most notorious, which environmental justice advocates have classified as “ecocide” for its toxic impacts to local communities. The U.S. military wanted to destroy any places its opponents could hide and threaten their food sources. They wound up poisoning their own soldiers along the way.
In Colombia, where police forces have grown violent toward civilians protesting new tax reforms, forests have also suffered from the decades-long conflict within the country. National parks and have seen bombs and shootings. Today, criminal networks cut down the trees for money or mining as the conflict continues between the government and various rebel groups.
None of this, of course, accounts for the everyday operations of armed forces. Even when the fighting pauses and moments of peace arise, militaries must operate bases and train people.
“Much of what happens in war, you don’t see,” said Neta Crawford, a professor and chair of the Department Political Science at Boston University. “Everything that gets you to the place where you’re fighting is important.”
Even the most seemingly harmless tasks can do a great deal of damage to the planet, Crawford explained. That’s because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with such activity. The U.S.—which has the world’s largest military—released 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases between 2001 and 2017. Most of it comes from military jets, but there are a number of sources where information is less clear. For instance, what’s the carbon footprint of all this lost forest? Or when an oil facility catches fire after an attack?
With war and conflict, there are the immediate impacts to people and their surroundings, but there is also the long-term damage to our planet. The emissions problem is especially concerning, Crawford said.
“It’s life or death right now for the planet,” she said. “We’re really poised to go over certain tipping points. What we have to do is immediately reduce emissions.”
How do we do that? Here are a few ideas: Let’s stop fighting each other. Let’s give the people the power they deserve. Let’s strategically defund the military and police forces. Let’s invest in future generations—in a tomorrow where they can live safe and healthy lives. That’s what environmental justice is all about. We’ll never reach it so long as we grip our guns and drop our bombs.