The invasion of Ukraine is first and foremost a humanitarian catastrophe, but the environmental consequences of Putin’s war will also be dire, writes Graham Lawton
23 March 2022
A FEW long weeks ago, before Vlad the Invader added the threat of nuclear holocaust back onto the world’s roster of apocalyptic horsemen, I received a press release about an idyllic-sounding place called Polesia. It isn’t a country, but is big enough to be. This wetland wilderness covers around 180,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Cambodia, and is of inestimable biodiversity value. Long under pressure from logging, drainage and infrastructure development, it has emerged as a rare conservation success story. On 1 February, the press release was telling of plans to apply for it to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Europe’s equivalent of the Serengeti.
Today, Polesia is a war zone, pummelled and churned by Russian tanks. Most of the wetland straddles the Ukraine-Belarus border and the assault on Kyiv, launched from Belarus, ploughed straight through its eastern flank. So did the attack on the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the environs of which form a key part of the conservation zone on both sides of the border. Russian advances have also begun to edge towards strictly protected areas in central Polesia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is, of course, first and foremost a humanitarian disaster. But if and when the dust (hopefully not radioactive) settles, it will also be recognised as an environmental one. Decades of hard-won conservation gains could be wiped out in a matter of weeks. And the environmental threats extend beyond Polesia. Ukraine also includes bits of two other internationally important conservation areas: the Danube delta and the Azov-Black Sea coastline. The former lies partly in Moldova, rumoured to be the next domino Vladimir Putin wants to topple, and the latter is already mired in the conflict zone north of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The link between conflict and environmental destruction pulls both ways. Putin’s invasion is essentially a throwback to last century’s wars of conquest and aggression, but future warfare is likely to be driven, at least in part, by climate change.
This has long been posited as a “threat multiplier”, something that tips political instability over the brink into outright conflict. Drought is widely claimed to have been one of the factors that caused Syria to descend into civil war in 2011. For three years prior to the conflict, the once-fertile crescent endured its worst drought on record. Widespread crop failures forced millions off the land and into the cities, doubled grain prices and pushed existing poverty, water shortages and unrest to boil over into violence.
“Vladimir Putin cares no more about the destruction of Europe’s Serengeti than he does about bombing hospitals”
This explanation for the Syrian war isn’t universally accepted. But it is increasingly clear that climate change really is a threat multiplier. In a recent analysis, Shouraseni Sen Roy at the University of Miami in Florida found that, between 1989 and 2014, warmer years saw significantly more conflict in Asia and Africa, largely driven by the intensification of existing water and food shortages. In Sen Roy’s analysis, warmth was driven by the El Niño Southern Oscillation climate phenomenon, but the findings also apply to anthropogenic warming, she says. Other recent work by psychologists at Iowa State University joins the dots between a warmer world and increased violence by showing how heat stress primes people to act more aggressively and to interpret other people’s behaviour as aggressive. Heat, in short, makes people hot under the collar.
The UN now recognises the link. In December, its Security Council held a special meeting on climate change, terrorism and conflict. Secretary-general António Guterres reiterated that climate change is an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism. Russia said it didn’t recognise the link.
At the same meeting, the representative of Ukraine explained how Russia’s ongoing occupation of parts of its territory was harming ecosystems and making it difficult to remedy the situation. Russia responded by accusing Ukraine of hijacking the meeting to “push forward its warped picture of the world”.
The truth is that Putin cares no more about the destruction of Europe’s Serengeti than he does about bombing hospitals and killing civilian populations that stand in his way.
A crumb of comfort is that ordering a tank battalion through Polesia arguably qualifies as a war crime. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court makes it illegal to knowingly launch an attack that will destroy the natural environment. No person or state has ever been prosecuted under it.
If Putin and his cronies end up where they deserve in the dock in The Hague, I would like to see that added to the charge sheet, if only pour encourager les autres.
What I’m reading
Beyond the Hype: The inside story of science’s biggest media controversies by Science Media Centre doyenne Fiona Fox.
What I’m watching
The Witchfinder on the BBC. A dark comedic commentary on human irrationality and greed.
What I’m working on
A surprisingly cheery story about the Black Death.
- This column appears monthly. Up next week: Annalee Newitz
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