Environment Essay: Is the War on Terrorism also a War on the Environment?

Environment Essay: Is the War on Terrorism also a War on the Environment?

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As the U.S. prepares to respond to the ghastly terrorist attacks of September 11, the hard task will be to choose among effective options while minimizing the costs. Environmental concerns might seem trivial and even unpatriotic at a time like this, but the environmental effects of military action pose long-term dangers that we would be foolish to ignore. Thinking in environmental terms at this moment should not be surprising. We must be alert to the likelihood that aggression toward the United States may increasingly take the form of environmental terrorism, including biological and chemical warfare. Even conventional attacks create environmental risk. Witness the concern over asbestos exposure for rescue workers at the World Trade Center. Terrorists may not care about such things, but we should. Our military response should be tailored to minimize and mitigate collateral environmental damage wherever possible. Environmental losses are casualties too. They ought to be included in our strategic thinking about where and what to strike. This is in our national interest. Patriotism and environmentalism go hand in hand.


As the President has made clear, our response will come at a price. One of the costs, which will affect all of us down the road, will be environmental degradation. Depending on where and how we strike, we risk exposing large populations, including our own troops, to lethal toxic substances. We have some experience with the long-term effects of exposing military and civilian personnel to potentially dangerous chemicals such as the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam and a variety of toxic agents in the Gulf War. These health effects can be devastating.


Just as terrorism knows no borders, neither do environmental problems. Those environmental harms that do not affect foreign civilians or our own troops directly will eventually come home to roost in the form of polluted air and water, destroyed habitat, and even climate change-which affect us all. Surely, the environmental devastation from the Gulf War (recall oil fields ablaze) ought to give us pause. Environmental losses that occur half way around the world will not observe geographic boundaries.


In addition to human casualties, our counter-attacks might ravage fragile ecosystems. An ecosystem sounds awfully abstract compared to the concrete image of those toppling towers and the compelling figure of Osama bin Laden. But environmental problems are real and they are serious. Ecosystem health is crucial to the viability of future generations.

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Domestically, the terrorist attacks and plans for our response have necessarily pushed every other priority off the national agenda. Here too, however, we should be careful. The understandable need for bipartisanship will weaken the Democratic and moderate Republican opposition to Bush's environmental agenda which, prior to September 11, included ambitious plans to open millions of acres of public lands to drilling, including the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and to favor fossil fuel burning over renewable energy. Conflict in the Gulf may embolden the administration in its quest for greater oil independence, without any accounting of the environmental consequences.


Many of the Bush administration's environmental initiatives, which ought to be subject to debate, will slip under the radar, including the budget proposal to shift a significant percentage of EPA's enforcement capacity to the states. Environmental rulemaking on matters like arsenic levels in drinking water, once front page news, will now likely be relegated to the background. Ironically, the administration's recent multilateralism in seeking broad support in the new war on terrorism stands in sharp contrast to its unilateral decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. Let's hope that this new spirit of cooperation prompts a reconsideration of that decision when the dust settles.


As Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, terrorists place no moral limits on their actions. They will stop at nothing. It is fair to suggest that in a crisis, some matters must be put to one side. But even if this war is inevitable, the environmental effects of our response both at home and abroad require careful consideration because of their serious long-term implications. The environment is often thought to be an issue for the wealthy, a luxurious concern best addressed in times of prosperity. But it is exactly in times like these that we ought to be especially mindful of the fragility of the planet we are now trying to repair.

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