COP 21, ENMOD and the 6th November : Peace and War at Stake

In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming that November 6th would be the “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict”.

On the eve of the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP21, held from November 30 to December 11, 2015 at Paris-Le Bourget, this was the opportunity to discuss what COP 21 would not talk about: the impact of armed forces on climate change, in peacetime as in wartime.

My purpose here is not to show why the rampant militarization of our planet is a major cause of deterioration of our ecosystems. Nor is it to remind everybody of the obvious: that war is inherently destructive for the environment. I don’t even wish to investigate the reasons why the environmental impact of military activities is not taken into account[1]. My purpose, on November 6th, was to remind that the environment, which is always a collateral victim of conflicts and military activities, can also become a weapon in itself, and it is urgent that we concern ourselves with the legal instruments designed to prevent that risk.

War, law and environment

International humanitarian law has two main instruments to protect the environment during hostilities.

Article 55 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), adopted on 8 June 1977, has a very broad scope and specifies that “Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population”.[2]

However, to respond to concerns raised by the prowess of the sorcerer's apprentices, the law of armed conflict goes beyond this mere invitation to protection. As early as the 1940s, military research focused on processes capable of disrupting climatopes, and the first experiments of environmental modification techniques were born in the late 40s with the CIRRUS project, the first major scientific effort of the US Army to cause precipitation by seeding clouds with chemicals, or "cloud seeding".

Research will then expand as the Vietnam War unfolds. In 1966, the United States embarked on a program known as the POPEYE project. Its purpose was to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail to slow enemy movement through increased rainfall caused by seeding the cloud masses with large amounts of silver iodide spread by air. The result was satisfactory to the Pentagon, and the operation was continued from 1967 to 1972.

The revelation of these experiences caused some emotions, as much on the Soviet side as at the US Senate, enough to convince the states at the Conference on Disarmament to adopt provisions prohibiting the use of the environment as a "weapon of war ". Such is the goal of the “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques,” known as “ENMOD Convention”, adopted in New York on December 10, 1976, opened for signature in Geneva on 18 May, 1977 and entered into force October 5, 1978[3].

The Convention now has 77 States Parties. These are not enough but among them are the military powers: Russia and the UK ratified in 1978, the United States in 1980, and more recently China in 2005. All member countries of the European Union have ratified or signed, with the exception of four: Croatia, Malta, Latvia, and ... France, nuclear power and host of the COP 21 meeting! Again a "French exception" which falls ill and makes France, alongside Israel, one of the only two nuclear states non-parties to ENMOD.

Imperfect and forgotten

By ratifying the ENMOD Convention, each State Party “undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, longlasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party” (Article 1).

The term “environmental modification techniques” as defined in article 2, “refers to any technique for changing - through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes - the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space”.

Article 8 of the Convention also provides the convening of conferences to review the operation of the Convention, at intervals of not less than five years. The First Review Conference was held in Geneva in September 1984, the second in September 1992. Three other should have taken place since, but the third one is still awaited. On 20 March 2013, the Secretary-General of the United Nations solicited the views of States Parties concerning the convening of a third conference, which would have been convened immediately if at least ten States Parties had responded affirmatively. Only one State, Uruguay, expressed support for convening a new review conference, while two, USA and UK, stated that they see no need for such a conference...

Yet ENMOD suffers from several loopholes which could not be filled by the first two review conferences, despite the insistence of several states, particularly Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands. A first weakness is that despite the “Understandings” annexed to the  Convention, negotiators remained vague on the notions of "widespread", "long-lasting" and "severe" as defined in Article I.

Another concern is that the Convention only applies to the use of environmental modification techniques, and only against another State Party. Research and development are not prohibited, nor is the use of such techniques against a non-State Party. In addition, the term "environmental modification techniques" is vague and limited to a non-exhaustive list of examples set out in an “understanding” (in Annex) relating to Article II: “earthquakes; tsunamis; an upset in the ecological balance of a region; changes in weather patterns (clouds, precipitation, cyclones of various types and tornadic storms); changes in climate patterns; changes in ocean currents; changes in the state of the ozone layer; and changes in the state of the ionosphere”. There seems to be a confusion between the techniques and their effects and the Convention to totally ignores the technological developments of the two last decades.

Creeping militarization of climate engineering

Taking advantage of the gap between the urgent need to fight against global warming and the weak measures provided by governments, climate engineering (or geoengineering – defined as the deliberate large-scale technological action on the climate system to counter global warming or mitigate certain effects), climate engineering is increasingly considered by some scientists as a possible response to the challenge posed to the planet. Change the chemical composition of the oceans and wrap the planet with a layer of particles reflecting solar radiations are two examples among more or less 30 techniques mentioned by these sorcerers' apprentices to reduce global warming and storing CO2, failing to reduce the emissions.[4]

While many still oppose these hazardous undertakings in the civil area, the military is much less scrupulous and there are many signs of a rampant militarization of climate engineering. If reports made public in the 1990’s were still pretty much based on fiction or fantasies[5], working groups created more recently by military authorities – such as the Pentagon’s DARPA agency, working together with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (attached to the Energy department), and the RAND Corporation, a think-tank with close links to the US Air Force – leave no doubt about the strategic interest of these technologies for the military.

The historian of science James Fleming noticed that the fantasies of controlling weather and climate have always been closely related to commercial and military interests.[6] The future certainly will be no different, and the military enthusiasm in recent years for climate engineering should sound as a warning signal: without an urgent and regular review to take into account technological advances and prevent hostile uses, the ENMOD Convention might fall forever in the limbo of international humanitarian law.

During the 1st review conference in 1984, the delegation of the Netherlands very appropriately reminded us of History to demonstrate the risk of international arms control instruments becoming obsolete: the First international Peace Conference in The Hague 1899 had declared itself in favour of prohibiting “the launching of projectiles and explosives from balloons or by other similar new methods”, in other words bombing. During the Second The Hague Confeence in 1907, States adopted a Declaration which was to remain in force until the Third International Peace Conference and which reaffirmed “the banning of the launching of explosives from hot air balloons and other flying machines”. This third conference never took place. The 1907 Declaration fell into oblivion, thus breaking a process of successive reviews which could have led to nothing less than totally prohibiting bombings…

The ENMOD Convention deserves a better fate. It is the only legal instrument capable of hindering military applications of technological advances that are developing in the field of environment and climate modifications at the risk of further compromise the fragile balances of our planet. France still has to ratify it and the European Union as a whole has to call, without delay, for the convening of a new review conference.



[1]. On these questions, a must-read is : Ben Cramer (preface of Alain Joxe), “Guerre et paix … et écologie", éditions Yves Michel, 2014.

[4]. Another must-read on this question: Clive Hamilton, “Earthmasters: Playing God with the climate”, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Sydney, 2013.

[5]. Two reports published by the US Air Force in the 1990’s are worth mentioning here: "Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025” published in August 1996. (http://csat.au.af.mil/2025/volume3/vol3ch15.pdf), and the study « SPACECAST 2020 » ordered in May 1993. The latter contains a section dedicated to a system referred to as “A counterforce weather control system for military applications” (http://csat.au.af.mil/2020/monographs/ops-anal.pdf).

[6]. James R. Fleming, “The climate engineers”, Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2007, quoted by Clive Hamilton, op. cit.