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How the Canadian military is fueling the climate crisis

An excerpt from Yves Engler’s new book, ‘Stand on Guard for Whom?’

EnvironmentWar Zones

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces during an operation in Afghanistan. The photo has been digitally altered for operational security reasons. Photo courtesy the Canadian Armed Forces website.

The following is an excerpt from Yves Engler’s new book, Stand on Guard for Whom? A People’s History of the Canadian Military, released this year by Black Rose Books.


Though it receives relatively little attention, the Canadian Forces’ ecological footprint is immense. It ranges from decimating animal life to releasing substantial greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In fact, the Department of National Defence emits far more carbon than any other institution. According to the government’s 2017 defence policy review, DND “represents more than half of the Government of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Despite this, CF operations are exempt from the government’s emission reduction targets.

Military vehicles, planes, and warships consume significant fossil fuels. But even before becoming CF property war tools emit a great deal of carbon and other pollutants. Manufacturing guns, tanks, submarines, naval frigates, and fighter jets consumes significant energy and produces many waste products. Bullet and small arm production generate hazardous wastes such as ozone-depleting substances, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.

The CF operates a few hundred planes and naval vessels and has 30,000 land vehicles. Once built, planes, vessels and tanks all guzzle petrol even if rarely used outside of drills. A Forbes headline aptly referred to “Fuel-Sucking Military Vehicles.” A Humvee consumes around a litre of gas every five kilometers it travels while naval frigates carry 665,000 litres of fuel.

Fighter jets are incredibly fuel intensive. During six months of bombing Libya in 2011 a half dozen RCAF jets consumed 14.5 million pounds (8.5 million litres) of fuel. An hour of flying a CF-18 consumes hundreds of litres of fuel and in a usual year RCAF planes log thousands of training hours. For their part, the Snowbird performance aircraft participate in dozens of airshows in multiple locations each year. Nine CT-114 Tutors usually perform for about 35 minutes at these events.

Since 1992 the RCAF has had five mid-air refuelling aircraft that can each carry 24,000 pounds of jet fuel. According to a 2018 Skies Mag article, the CC-130HT aerial refuelling aircraft “has been extensively used since its operational introduction in 1993.” Two Canadian air-to-air refuelling tankers supported the bombing of Libya in 2011 and between late 2014 and 2018 they distributed 65 million pounds of fuel for the (mostly US) bombing of Syria and Iraq.

Flying is fuel intensive and its climatic impact is generally about twice the CO2 emitted alone. The release point of the carbon enhances its warming impact and other flying “outputs” produce additional climatic impacts. Fighter jets burn an especially toxic fuel, which allows them to fly higher and faster than commercial aircraft.

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A century later the ecological toll of the First World War lingers in eastern France. The traces of trench networks and blast holes remain visible while huge amounts of ordnance are collected each year. Near Verdun, France, a 700 square kilometre no-go Red Zone has over 10 million explosives. The soil has elevated concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, mercury and tin. Arsenic levels in parts of the Red Zone continue to rise, meaning the chemicals are acting up.

Seven decades after the war unexploded ordnance and debris litter central Korea. Deforestation in the north is partly due to fires caused by bombings, which destroyed dams and thousands of acres of farmland.

The first Gulf War resulted in a “toxic battlefield.” While the Iraqis fouled the air by burning oil wells, coalition forces destroyed pipelines, refineries and sewers, spilling sewage and oil. The US also fired shells with depleted uranium, which probably increased the incidence of cancer and congenital disease for those nearby. During the war the CF disposed of plastics, batteries, medicine, dead animals, and unexploded ordnance in burn pits. A large CF base abroad can burn tens of thousands of kilograms of waste daily.

During the 1999 bombing of Serbia NATO jets dropped bombs containing depleted uranium. NATO’s effort, the author of “Environmental impact of the war in Yugoslavia on south-east Europe” notes, “to destroy industrial sites and infrastructure caused dangerous substances to pollute the air, water and soil.” The deliberate destruction of chemical plants caused significant environmental damage.

Environmental protection wasn’t part of the agreement between the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the UN or Afghan government. US bombing in Afghanistan disrupted important migratory passageways for birds. To destroy crops during the 2000s war Canadian and US forces employed incendiary white phosphorus munitions, which are linked to ailments in animals. The CF also littered the landscape with tens of millions of bullets and shells. Leftover Canadian mortars reportedly killed three children in February 2009, prompting a demonstration calling for “death to the Canadians.”

The Kandahar airfield, which housed tens of thousands of Canadian troops, was responsible for significant waste. A “poo pond” of human waste fouled the air while large quantities of hazardous waste material accumulated. These included oils, lubricants, solvents, pesticides, detergents, compressed gas cylinders, bulbs and batteries, nickel-cadmium and lithium as well as waste containing asbestos and contaminated soils. A leaked US Army memo stated that the burn pit at its largest Afghan base posed “long-term adverse health conditions” to those breathing the air.

NATO severely damaged Libya’s Great Manmade River aquifer system. On July 22, 2011, NATO planes bombed and destroyed much of its pipe-making facilities at Brega. Without providing evidence, NATO claimed Gaddafi’s forces stored weapons at the facility and fired rockets from the site. Attacking the source of 70 percent of the population’s water may have been a war crime. Human Rights Investigations wrote, “even if rockets were being fired from within the location (for which no evidence has been produced) or this facility was being used for military storage by Gadaffi forces, or housed armoured vehicles, attacking the pipe-making factory in a way that leaves it severely damaged is illegal as this facility is important to the water supplies of Libyan civilians.” Since the 2011 war millions of Libyans have faced a chronic water crisis.

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Impacting large sea life, naval frigates use the ocean as their trash can. Ships dump food waste in the Arctic sea and navy guidelines permit Canadian submarines to dump oily bilge water into the sea. Anecdotes in various military histories suggest RCN vessels have discharged a great deal of oil during war. More recently, HMCS Calgary spilled 10,000- 20,000 litres of F-76 fuel into the Georgia Strait in February 2018 while HMCS Halifax spilled “an unspecified quantity of oil” into the Halifax harbour in July 2019. HMCS Athabaskan dumped 800 litres of fuel into the same waterway in January 2016. Earlier in the decade HMCS St. John’s spilled 9,000 litres of diesel fuel into the Halifax harbour and HMCS Preserver spilled another 14,000 litres there.

Even after they are no longer operational, naval vessels pollute the seas. Many RCN vessels have been sunk to the ocean floor. In 2007 US and Canadian gunboats, as well as fighter jets, disposed of HMCS Huron 100 kilometres off of Vancouver Island. Officially, the method of disposal was listed as “firing by naval sea sparrow missiles, aircraft machine guns, and naval gunnery (including MK48 torpedoes).” HMCS Huron was sunk two kilometres down to the ocean floor. In response Jennifer Lash, from the group Living Oceans, complained that the military was “treating the ocean like a garbage dump … No one even knows what kind of marine life there is down there.”

Huge amounts of toxic material have been released at naval testing sites. According to an internal assessment of CF Maritime and Experimental Test Ranges (CFMETR), 93,000 kilometres of copper wire and 2,200 tons of lead, lithium batteries and other toxic materials were dumped at Nanoose Bay between 1965 and 1995. While they refuse to allow independent scientists to investigate the torpedo-testing site, the RCN insists its soft mud bottom can absorb these toxins.

On the east side of Vancouver Island, CFMETR is largely used by US nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons-capable submarines. In the 1990s US submarines fired thousands of torpedoes at the facility (the soft seabed allows them to retrieve expensive torpedoes).

DND suspects dozens of lakes or underwater spots are laden with unexploded ordnance. For nearly half a century, the CF pounded Lac Saint-Pierre, near Trois-Rivières, with shells as big as 155 millimeters (the size of a large fire extinguisher). DND admits that more than 300,000 projectiles were tested in Lac Saint-Pierre and they maintain a year round ‘caution zone’ at a lake that had 8,000 live shells on its bottom five years after shelling ended in 2000. Lead and mercury from the weaponry can harm animal and human health.

US Air Force fighters during the 1991 Gulf War. Photo by Everett Historical/Shutterstock.

There are over one thousand known munitions dumpsites off the east coast. After the Second World War 180,000 tons of munitions was dumped just offshore of Sydney, Nova Scotia.

In 2010 DND reported that chemical and biological munitions were disposed in over 100 sites across the country. CBC interviewed a former military officer who said in the late spring of 1985 he was ordered to escort a flatbed truck along an empty road to a freshly dug pit at CFB Gagetown. Over 40 full or semi-full barrels—some dented or in various states of decay—were dumped in the spongy soil. Most of them were wrapped with an orange stripe with the words “Agent Orange”.

From the end of the Second World War until the 1970s the CF dumped chemical weapons into the ocean. After the Great War the military disposed some chemical weapons in the Atlantic. On a larger scale the Directorate of Chemical Warfare and Smoke dumped many containers full of mustard and nerve gas munitions into the sea in 1945.

A large quantity of chemical munitions were dumped 8,200 feet below sea level one hundred kilometers from Tofino, on Vancouver Island. In 1946 the RCN sunk 30,000 drums of mustard gas near Sable Island, 160 kilometres east of Halifax. In total 2,800 tons of mustard gas was dumped around the canyons in the eastern Scotian Shelf, a 700 kilometre long and 100 kilometre wide area. According to the CF, chemical or biological weapons were dumped in at least 28 sites off the east coast.

Exposure to these chemicals causes cancers and depresses immune systems in sea life. They also pose a potential threat to fishers and oil exploration teams (oil interests pushed the government to map the chemical weapons dumps in the Atlantic).

After the Second World War the Canada-Britain-US tripartite Advisory Committee on the Effectiveness of Gas Warfare Materiel in the Tropics shared data from a number of test sites. Between 1945 and 1947 the US and Canada exploded more than 30,000 chemical arms on the Panamanian island of San Jose. Uninhabited by humans and relatively isolated (though not too far to get supplies from the mainland), the island was used to conduct “chemical warfare tests under existing jungle conditions.”

In 2001 Ottawa refused Panama’s request for help to clean up 3,000 unexploded Canadian-made mustard-gas shells and at least eight unexploded 500 and 1,000-pound bombs containing phosgene and cyanogen chloride. A large amount of munitions were also dropped into the sea around the island. Across Canada there is unexploded ordnance at “several hundred” sites, according to a government analysis. In 2011, Wellers Bay near Trenton, Ontario, was closed to the public after DND personnel found hundreds of kilograms of weapons fragments. They believed “500-pound bombs” may still be buried underground in a popular beach area where bombers trained during the war.

Toxins from remnants of explosives and unexploded ordnance seep into local ecosystems and drinking water. “Unexploded or deflagrated RDX [a common explosive] does not degrade in soil and, because of its solubility in water, migrates easily to groundwater and off military property,” a 2011 DND report says. “This may trigger a serious environmental problem and becomes a public health concern if the groundwater is used for drinking.”

Shooting ranges also pose a threat to local water sources. The lead in bullets can seep into local ecosystems. A potent neurotoxin, lead alters the formation of the brain and is an important cause of intellectual disability and behavioural problems (the steep decline in violent crime over the past four decades has been linked to the elimination of leaded gasoline).

Bases are also full of pesticides and herbicides. An internal report (made public in 1997) described CFB Shearwater and CFB Greenwood as a “cocktail of toxic chemicals.” It found 542 CF sites contaminated across the country requiring cleanup. Philip J. Anido points out that since the French constructed Québec City’s Citadel in the late 1600s, colonial military installations have left contaminated waste.90

Beyond the toxins at military sites, CF training has damaged robust and rare fauna. To dig trenches soldiers often rip out prairie grasses while trucks drive over flora and ground-bird nesting areas.92 Destruction in the north was particularly stark. In “The Cold War on Canadian Soil: Militarizing a Northern Environment” Whitney Lackenbauer writes, “military mega-projects radically transformed the human and physical geography of the North. Bulldozers tore permafrost off the ground, disrupting ecosystems and creating impassable quagmires.”

The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a network of 63 radar and communication stations in the Arctic Circle, was an ecological calamity. Built in the early 1950s to counter the purported Russian menace, the 4,500-kilometre line from the northwest coast of Alaska to the eastern shore of Baffin Island required 460,000 tons of material to be transported north. Alongside maritime and land transport, 45,000 commercial flights delivered goods as many as 5,000 kilometres. And 9.6 million cubic yards of gravel was produced on site.

The off-road vehicles brought to the north damaged vegetation and melted permafrost. Activities associated with the DEW line were linked to depleted fish stocks and agitating caribou and other game Indigenous peoples subsisted on.

When the DEW line was abandoned a few years after being completed an incredible amount of material was left behind. There were rotted vehicles in lakes, containers full of hazardous materials and dumps leaking arsenic and PCBs. When the cleanup began three decades after the sites were abandoned, over 200,000 cubic metres of soil contaminated by diesel fuel was placed in nearby “land farms” where it was tossed and turned until the hydrocarbon evaporated to more acceptable levels. Additionally, 35,000 cubic metres of waste—mostly soil contaminated with PCBs and lead—was shipped south to be incinerated or buried.

About 1,000 kilometres south of the DEW line, the 98 radar sites of the “Mid Canada Line” spilled PCB’s and other toxic substances for decades. For years the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven Indigenous communities in northern Ontario, campaigned for the government to clean up the heavy metals, DDT, asbestos, PCBs and petroleum hydrocarbon from the abandoned radar sites that contaminated their soils, groundwater, animals and foods. Nearly a half-century after the line was abandoned Ontario and Ottawa put up $100 million to clean up Mid-Canada Line contamination.

In the 1980s low level training flights by US, British and German fighter jets in Labrador scared wildlife and damaged the Innu’s way of life. As a result of supersonic jets skimming the ground, ducks laid eggs a month early, caribou changed migration patterns and beavers all but vanished.

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For some reason there has been little political scrutiny of the military’s ecological footprint or the fact its GHG emissions are exempted from reductions targets. In 2017 Tamara Lorincz, author of a report titled “Demilitarization for Deep Decarbonization,” pointed out that not a single MP publicly questioned the climate impacts of new fighter jets or the CF in general.

Ironically, Googling the topic mainly turns up articles about the CF protecting the environment. Military statements, for example, describe the RCN’s role in defending offshore energy platforms from possible attack and resulting ecological damage. The 1971 White Paper on defence called for the RCAF to survey Canadian waters to detect pollution from foreign vessels and arrest ships that breached Canadian environmental regulations. A few years after the DEW and Mid Canada Lines caused extensive ecological damage, the White Paper asserted that the CF would ensure “a harmonious natural environment” in the north.

The military can ‘greenwash’ its operations partly because the environmental movement largely ignores the CF and warfare. But regardless of this blind spot from many environmentalists, militarism is inherently anti-ecological.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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