Seminar Series – Climate Wars

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

In the final NDISC Seminar Series event for the 2021-22 school year, the Notre Dame International Security Center welcomed Boston University political science professor and department chair Dr. Neta Crawford to campus. In addition to her role at Boston University, Dr. Crawford is also a co-director of the Cost of War Project at Brown University. Her research covers a wide range of subjects including responsibility for collateral damage in war, decolonization, sanctions, humanitarianism, and even Soviet aircraft. When she joined us, Dr. Crawford discussed how conflict causes climate change and how climate change causes conflict. 

Dr. Crawford’s current book project, “Pentagon, Climate Change, and War;” her talk was focused a specific chapter about the relationship between climate change and war. 

“One of the things I did as co-director of the Cost of War Project was I decided to write a paper based on a lecture I gave at Boston University for a class I teach,” Dr. Crawford said, “As a social scientist, I wanted to use my expertise in security. I gave a simple lecture about military’s greenhouse gas emissions. In looking for data, I wanted to give students an idea of changes since World War II.” 

In analyzing the data, which was later confirmed by the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, Dr. Crawford found that the military is the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in the US. Her next question was “how did we get here?”  

“I wrote the book in six weeks, which is the fastest I’ve ever written anything. What I discovered was amazing!” she said. 

She continues, “US emissions correlate with war. No surprise there. Then I estimated US military-industrial greenhouse gases. I did that by using available emissions data from the top companies in the US’ military-industrial complex. It turns out that military-industrial emissions are about equal to Department of Defense emissions. That tells you that the military-industrial sector emits a lot of greenhouse gases. Per capita, there are more greenhouse gas emissions in that sector than any other.” 


This led Dr. Crawford to ask three questions: 


1. What’s the relationship between war and climate change? 

2. Does climate lead to war?

3. What are the causal casualties if there is a causal relationship?


The three questions led her to three potential hypotheses as the answer to her questions: 

1. War causes or contributes to climate change. 

2. Climate change causes or contributes to conflict. 

3. There’s a complex recursive relationship that’s dialectical.  


Dr. Crawford: “I think it’s the third. There’s lots of reasons for this. The White House and branches of the military have all published documents on climate change's impact on national security. This issue has been addressed for years, but only recently is it gaining notoriety.” 

Dr. Crawford also presented a history of how the military uses fossil fuels, starting from the US Navy’s White Fleet—an ironic name considering the coal burned on the vessels made them visible from 60-80 miles away—followed by steam and to today with the use of oil and gas. The dependency on fossil fuels leads to relationship with countries in the Persian Gulf, which Congressional Staffer Matt Duss also elaborated upon during his visit to campus. 

“In war,” Dr. Crawford says, “you don’t want the other guy to have access to fuel—we try to take out our enemy’s fuel. In World War II, the Allies would target Nazi fuel production, the Nazis would rebuild, and the Allies would attack again. This limited the Nazi mobility.” 

In sum, Dr. Crawford says, “The argument here is that the problem of climate change is exacerbated by war. The analysis is that societies which mobilize their military-industrial base emit more greenhouse gases. This cycle to climb the ladder causes more emissions.” 

In addition to this event wrap-up, we also have coverage of the talk itself and of the following question and answer session available on our Twitter account.