Israeli soldiers drive a tank inside Gaza Strip, as seen...

Israeli soldiers drive a tank inside Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Tuesday. Credit: AP/Ariel Schalit

When my son was a teenager and he first began to notice what I do for work, he used to roll his eyes when he saw the books I was reading: “Why do you like reading about all this depressing stuff, Mom? World War II, the Holocaust, climate change?”

Why indeed. As a professor of German and European studies, the answer is complicated. Last semester, I taught two courses — one on European perspectives on climate change, and another on antisemitism on social media. After the attacks on Oct. 7, I realized that, in comparison to the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the climate crisis seems utterly solvable. And that these crises are, of course, connected.

Climate action and peace go together. We have known for some time that climate change is a threat multiplier and that there is a climate cost to war. And, of course, both kill a lot of people. Climate change is expected to kill 3.4 million people per year by this century’s end. Tens of millions have been killed in wars over the past decades. Military emissions are not counted in our carbon budgets, but they are substantial. The emissions from Israel’s military actions in the first two months of the war in Gaza alone were equal to burning more than 150,000 tons of coal.

Yet, for some reason, many view peace and climate protection as too costly. To evaluate that claim, all we have to do is follow the money: While the Biden administration touts its $1 trillion spending on the Inflation Reduction Act as a major climate win and Republicans consistently attack the measure as “ too expensive,” that sum pales in comparison to the more than $14 trillion the United States has spent on military engagements since 2001. Tens of billions of dollars have also been allocated to support both Ukraine’s and Israel’s militaries. As we prioritize military spending over climate action, companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are getting rich off all the suffering.

If we invest meaningfully in changing course away from fossil fuels, we also make wars driven by feuds over land and resources less attractive and less profitable. As my colleague Harrison Watson has shown, the Middle East is already a climate victim suffering tremendously from extreme weather, a situation that is expected to get a lot worse in the near future. Millions of Palestinians and Israelis will be impacted. Many already are. On top of that, millions more will migrate from African and Asian countries that are expected to become uninhabitable within this century, contributing to further disruptions and potential for conflict. One of the countries already most severely impacted by conflict and climate change is Yemen, where more than 21 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. According to Human Rights Watch, Yemen is “one of the most water-scarce countries in the world.”

This connection between war and climate and our unwillingness to change course has a long history. I remember vividly how relieved I was to see the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997, and my disappointment when George W. Bush decided to pull the United States out in March 2001. There were protests against the decision, but then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which led to the invasion of Afghanistan a month later and, in March 2003, Iraq. The two wars left hundreds of thousands dead and cost trillions of dollars, ending with Afghanistan back in the hands of the very group the war aimed to unseat. During that time, emissions rose more dramatically than ever before, exacerbating the climate crisis.

Just imagine if we invested those trillions of dollars in a just transition away from fossil fuels instead of continuously feeding the violent terror that then comes back to haunt us. We must fully fund diplomacy, cooperation, and peace-building. It is not naive to aim public resources away from military conflict. It is naive to think ever more weapons will bring about a peaceful, sustainable future.

Sabine von Mering is a public voices fFellow on the climate crisis with The OpEd Project in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a climate activist with 350 Mass and the director of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University. 

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