Top Ten Ways al-Qaeda Causes Carbon Emissions and Climate Change

In an audiotape attributed to Usamah Bin Laden, the mass murderer called for a boycott of the US dollar and blamed the US for global warming. There is nothing worse than a terrorist who kills thousands of innocent people, but being a hypocrite is also a pretty bad character flaw, and Bin Laden manages both. Global terrorism is a high-carbon activity and very bad for the environment, not to mention humans and other living things.

During human history on earth, there were typically 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Low levels of carbon dioxide have coincided with ice ages over the past 400,000 years. Only once in that period, 325,000 years ago, did carbon dioxide reach 300 parts per million, coinciding with a hot climate then. There are now 390 parts per million (ppm), with the extra carbon dioxide having been produced by the industrial revolution beginning in the late 18th century– coal-burning factories, railroad engines, etc., and then with the addition of gasoline-driven automobiles and coal- and gas-powered electricity plants in the 20th century. That is, we already have more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than in any time during the past nearly half-million years! In geologic time, if we go back hundreds of millions of years, there were often as much as 1500 parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere; but the world was steamy swamp then, with average surface temperatures as much as 20 degrees higher than they are now and much higher sea levels. Homo Sapiens Sapiens is only about 120,000 years old as a species and evolved in relatively low-carbon, low-temperature conditions. We don’t know how well the species would adapt to radical climate change. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat from the sun in the atmosphere that would otherwise radiate back into outer space.

Scientists such as James Hansen have concluded that 390 ppm of carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere is too much for a sustainable earth comfortable for human life, and that we need to reduce the amount to 350 ppm. The world is currently adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide per year, so that in 2020 if that rate does not increase we will be at 410. As we approach 450 ppm, James Hansen’s projections suggest large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change (global warming is only part of the effect–some places may become much colder; the point is that the climate will change dramatically). See Hansen’s important new book, Storms of My Grandchildren.

The decade 2000-2009 was the warmest on record. Climate is complex, and everything from changing water vapor levels in the atmosphere to decades-long wind patterns affect it. But it is a myth that global warming ceased during the past decade, and it is also a myth that solar activity can account for climate change in recent decades. (It appears to have done so in history, as with the ‘little ice age’ of 1250-1850, but there are no such consistent climate-relevant solar patterns in the past 30 years). There are lots of other things that interfere with getting a clear read on the changing climate situation. A weakened ozone layer (caused by industrial emissions by humans may actually be protecting the Antarctic ice shelf from melting as fast as had been feared. There are also carbon sinks, which absorb carbon dioxide, such as the oceans and forests, the full capacity of which is unknown.

A large danger is that there may be sudden tipping points and positive feedback loops for climate change. Thus, reduced emissions of some gases may strengthen the ozone layer over the South Pole in coming decades, removing the wind protection from the Antarctic and allowing a rapid melting of the ice shelves. Or, the melting of Arctic tundra at the earth’s other pole may rapidly release trapped carbon dioxide and methane, accelerating climate change. These are dangers, not certainties, but very dangerous dangers that it would be wise to guard against. Sudden climate tipping points appear to have been common in the earth’s past.

But that over time a lot of extra human-generated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause the average surface temperature of the earth to rise– all other things being equal– is basic physics. Despite the climate-change-denial industry paid for by the oil and gas corporations (and therefore adopted along with Darwin-denial as a dogma by the American Republican Party), this conclusion is not in dispute among serious scientists.

So back to terrorist hypocrisy. Here are the ways al-Qaeda causes global warming and climate change:

1. Bin Laden wants to take over Saudi Arabia and pump its oil for himself and his movement. Use of petroleum and natural gas puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is a major source of climate change. In short, Saudis who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Saudi Arabia produces about 11% of all the petroleum pumped in the world every day. Al-Qaeda would not reduce exports significantly, since it would want the income they generate to pursue its political projects.

2. The attacks of September 11, using airplanes full of jet fuel and destroying skyscrapers and buildings, were–quite apart from being monstrous acts of mass murder– among the largest discrete man-made events causing high carbon emissions in this century.

3. Bin Laden told London-based journalist Abdul Bari Atwan in 1996 that he would like to embroil the US in a war in the Middle East so that he could do to the US what the Mujahidin had done to the Soviets in Afghanistan. Hint: Provoking large-scale wars involves lots of use of aircraft carriers, tanks, and fighter-jets, as well as bombing strikes– all of which spew large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Since 9/11 was intended to provoke the Afghanistan War, Bin Laden is single-handedly responsible for among the biggest high-carbon set of events in the twenty-first century. Not only is war itself a significant source of extra greenhouse gas emissions because of vehicle use and explosions, but it wounds and maims large numbers of people. While harming people is bad enough, and is the real tragedy, it is also true that extra health care is carbon-intensive. (In the US, the health care industry accounts for about 8 percent of the American carbon footprint.)

4. Al-Qaeda-linked groups such as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ are responsible for hundreds of bombings in Iraq, which release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Some attacks targeted refineries and pipelines and so were responsible for very large amounts of greenhouse emissions. They have also destroyed automobiles and buildings; not only is burning such things pollution-producing, their replacement generates carbon emissions from factories. In addition, al-Qaeda-linked groups have hijacked chlorine trucks and used them as bombs; chlorine contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. Bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks were intended to bring the US military into places like Iraq, and succeeded. In 2008 Oil Change International estimated of the Iraq hostilities that “The war is responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) since March 2003. To put this in perspective, CO2 released by the war to date equals the emissions from putting 25 million more cars on the road in the US this year.”

5. Al-Qaeda and its Taliban partners in Pakistan have committed large bombings, including the destruction of the Marriott in Islamabad, which release enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and have provoked Pakistani military action in Swat and South Waziristan employing armored vehicles and artillery and US unmanned drone strikes– all of which release large amounts of carbon.

6. Al-Qaeda affiliates in Indonesia blew up a nightclub in Bali, the Marriott in Jakarta, and set off a bomb outside the Australian Embassy. Not only are bombings themselves high-carbon events, but they provoke military and paramilitary responses that use extra fuel and so produce more carbon dioxide.

7. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula set off large numbers of bombs in Saudi Arabia in 2003-2006 and provoked Saudi military and paramilitary responses, all of which released a great deal of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Al-Qaeda attempted to blow up a major Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, which would have spewed out enormous numbers of carbon particles.

8. Al-Qaeda attacks in Yemen have provoked air strikes and bombings from the Yemeni government. Both the terrorist bombings and the government response they provoke release substantial carbon into the atmosphere.

9. Al-Qaeda attacks on airliners have forced airports to scan baggage and passengers, using much more electricity to do so than in the past. Electricity is typically generated by coal- or gas-burning plants, and both spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

10. Increased delays at airports because of increased security measures have led to more idling automobiles at and around airports. Idling automobiles are a major source of carbon dioxide pollution.

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8 Responses

  1. .
    I don't see how bin Laden can be blamed for the Iraq war.

  2. Naah… we the Americans are pretty high on the list of countries with the highest per capita carbon emission – something like at the 10th position. Kind of lame to blame Al-Qaeda for that, kind of like saying my dog made me eat my homework.

  3. A suitably mordant analysis, Juan. Thank-you. It spurred me to seek out some more environmental impact figures for the current US war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    According to a report in Energy Bulletin (Hat tip to The Guardian newspaper. Start here: link to, the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of oil in the world. If the Pentagon was a country, it would be the 36th biggest consumer of oil. The US military officially uses 320,000 barrels of oil a day, but this total only includes "vehicle transport and facility maintenance". Amory Lovins, an energy consultant, (link to estimates that about a third of the military's oil is used to run generators, the vast majority of which power air-conditioning units. And compared with the second world war, the military in Iraq and Afghanistan is using 16 times more fuel per soldier, according to a Pentagon report published in 2007.

    A staggering analogy from the analysis undertaken by Nikki Reisch and Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International (link to and one that really struck me is: if the US military operations in Iraq were ranked as a country in terms of emissions, it would emit more CO2 each year than 139 of the world's nations do annually. Falling between New Zealand and Cuba, the war emits more than 60% of all countries.

    So, with the projected cost of the war now running to at least $3 trillion, the US Administration has a whole load of good reasons to reconsider its priorities as it escalates the AfPak arena of war.

  4. Might I add to your list?
    Usamah Bin Laden, aka mass murderer, aka the Prince of Leverage, is also the master horticulturist of carbon spewing plants. His prize species is the george bush, known to resist and counteract atmospheric carbon reduction by other species.

  5. Come on Prof. we do not need Al Qaeda for that. We were the world champion in environmental pollution long before Al Qaeda existed.

    According to your logic curtailment of civil rights and real democracy in our country is the fault of Al Qaeda, and not of Bush/Cheney, the two corporate parties and the corporate media.

    Such logic is best left for our useless politicians. Not too different than their "logic" that "they" hate us for our freedom.

    (I do value your blog very much)

  6. Professor,

    Usually I read your blog to learn. Occasionally, I look for opportunities to exude pithiness. Today, I must educate.

    It is correct to say Al Qaeda is a harmful organization with respect to global warmng and its effects, but I think you miss the two biggest effects. Al Qaeda encourages the growth of non-thinking religious organizations, and Al Qaeda encourages war.

    To accept that anthropogenic climate change is real, and disastrous, one must abandon the idea that "God will save us." God may very well be unhappy with us because of the way we have f—– up his planet, but I think it is better to ignore all appeals to supernatural/magical solutions and to admit what we have done, all the better to deal with the consequences.

    The fact that Al Qaeda promotes war, and may be using climate change as a means to rally more religiously narrow minded people to wage war, is dangerous because it is only in times of peace that nations can see clearly the creeping danger and take multilateral steps to save ourselves. With war, this cooperation will not be possible.

    Finally, the buffering capacity of the ocean is near its limit, both with respect to carbon dioxide and to heat. When it exceeds it co2 limit, all the excess co2 put into the atmoshpere will be available for increased greenhouse warming. When the ocean reaches it heat carrying capacity, additional heat added will be reflected in instantaneous temperature increases. The vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet will not melt. It will rapidly decay, in large chunks, resulting in large tides that come in and never go out.

  7. Interesting analysis.

    It looks like you have a great blog here, and I will definitely be reading in the future. :)

  8. This is a cool article, but as an energy wonk I disagree with some of the conclusions.

    1. Bin Laden wants much higher prices for oil. If that was the case, demand (and thus consumption) would be reduced.

    2. The attacks caused major economic disruption – as energy is the basis of the economy, decreased economic activity more than offset the carbon footprint of the attacks.

    3. The War in Iraq is energy intensive, but did not result in a military based surge in the demand for oil or other resources that significantly altered world prices (price shocks during this time were based on market uncertainty, not limited supply against raised demand). In short, war is still a small part of overall energy consumption (there are 800 million cars alone on the planet, but only tens of thousands of tanks).

    While health care costs increased massively, the War in Iraq probably led to the deaths of over a million people (according to the Lancet, ORB, etc.) – the cruel calculus is obvious.

    9 – 10.

    Increased delays and security at airports have arguably suppressed demand; idling automobiles at the airport are a much smaller source of emissions than airplanes themselves.

    But the overall point is that bombing campaigns (and particularly attacks on oil refineries) cause large amounts of emissions, not only in initial emissions but in huge reconstruction costs.

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