2022 Yearender: It is also a war on the climate

Sawsan Samy Elawady , Wednesday 28 Dec 2022

The climate perils caused by wars have come into focus now that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is casting a dangerous shadow over the issue of climate change

War on climate
War on climate


Climate change affects the basic resources of any country, especially food and water, and it contributes to increasing state fragility and security problems in many regions around the world. 

The natural environment is often directly damaged as a result of armed conflict. This can contaminate water, soil, and land, or release pollutants into the air. Explosive remnants can contaminate soil and water sources and harm wildlife. The environmental degradation also reduces people’s resilience and adaptation to climate change. 

Conflict can also directly contribute to climate change as the destruction of large areas of forest, or damage to infrastructure such as oil facilities or industrial facilities, can have severe climatic consequences, including the release of greenhouse gases into the air.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s speech at the opening of the UN COP27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November was not without a call to stop the Russian-Ukrainian war, and this was not a matter of political interference in the affairs of friendly countries, or a matter of politicising the conference.

In fact, the call to stop the war — and any war — is at the core of the environmental and climate action adopted by the Egyptian state.

The Summary for Policy-Makers distributed at the COP27 includes warnings that by 2100 the Earth’s average temperature will rise between 1.8 and 4 degrees Celsius, and sea and ocean levels will rise between 18 and 59 cm if global warming continues unabated. 

The precise numbers will depend on what happens to greenhouse-gas emissions, responsible for global warming, although there is statistical uncertainty about other sources. Precipitation rates are more difficult to characterise.

The Middle East and Central Asia region is located on the front lines of the repercussions of the human and economic crisis linked to climate change. Since 2000, climate disasters have resulted in losses worth $2 billion in direct material damage in the region every year on average and have affected seven million people and led to 2,600 deaths, according to studies on climate challenges in the region. 

There is also a relationship between the climate and wars. According to one historian, “the cruelest and most heinous acts of revenge [in wars] took place in months characterised by extreme heat and humidity.” In contrast, “constitutional revolutions erupted in the cold months... [and] revolutions in cold periods also led to greater reforms and constituted a shift in the principles of democracy and social justice.” 

The relationship between climate change and armed conflict has two sides. On the one hand, climate change can lead to the outbreak of armed conflicts as has been shown by several studies that have examined the relationship between climate variability and violence. An increase or decrease in precipitation in economies that depend entirely on natural resources increases the risk of violence, particularly in African pastoral societies. 

In the Sahel region of Africa, for example, climate change has severely affected local communities, prompting some of them to engage in violence and armed conflict. In addition, high temperatures and irregular rainfall and the accompanying desertification of land and shrinkage of usable areas have all led to the exacerbation of conflicts, with one example being in the Lake Chad region.

On the other hand, the role of climate change is also evident in exacerbating the suffering of civilian populations burdened by armed conflict. The University of Notre Dame Global Climate Change Adaptation Index produced by this institution in the US provides a picture of the negative role that climate change plays in prolonging armed conflicts. 

It determines the extent to which countries are able to deal with the shifts that accompany climate change and identifies 30 countries that are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. It is not surprising that most of these countries are already suffering from armed conflict, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Chad and Mali, as well as Yemen and Myanmar.

These countries often lack the capacity to withstand the effects of climate change, and due to the effects of conflict, the poor, children, and the elderly continue to suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty, the loss of livelihood opportunities, and disease. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that the main reasons for high levels of food insecurity lie in three factors (that may overlap): armed conflict, economic crises, and profound climatic changes, especially long droughts in some regions of the African continent. 

FAO estimates show that the number of undernourished people in the world today has risen for the first time in a decade, and the number now ranges around 815 million people per day globally. Estimates from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) show that climate variability may raise the risk of hunger and malnutrition by 20 per cent by 2050.


THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR: The war in Ukraine has affected various sectors, and its economic and political effects have occupied the agendas of countries around the world. But the impact of the war on the environment and climate change has still perhaps been seen as marginal, despite the magnitude of the damage.

The direct environmental threat is due to the use of weapons and fuel, especially when one of the parties to the conflict is an oil-producing country whose future nevertheless depends on slowing down emissions. Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas has led to heated debates about accelerating the transition to clean energy. Russia and Ukraine are major exporters to global grain and maize markets, and the war has been causing food shocks in many countries.

The war has upset the balance in Europe regarding the energy saving equation and climate change, and it threatens the continent’s plans to move towards a green economy and address climate change. It is well known that Russia supplies Germany, the largest European economy, with more than half its gas needs, but the largest land war in decades has also thrown Europe’s energy plans into a state of confusion.

In March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the war and fluctuations in the energy market could hinder the transition to clean energy sources, stating that “an addiction to fuel is leading us to a real disaster.” He mentioned the implications of the Russian war on the global climate agenda and the ways in which the European countries and other major economies are pursuing strategies to find alternatives to Russian fossil fuels.

But the impact of the Russian invasion will not be limited to an increase in emissions. It is also expected to undermine efforts to combat climate change. The world leaders gathered at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year expressed their concern that the war might prevent mobilising the global response to the promises of the UN COP26 Climate Summit held last year, and the invasion could see the billions promised to confront severe weather phenomena and the rise in sea levels being withheld. 


CIVIL SOCIETY: The conflict has also affected civil society organisations defending the environment. 

Some of these operating in Eastern Europe have been closed, such as BirdLife Belarus, closed by the Belarusian government after issuing a statement on the damage caused by the war to the environment, especially in the forested area of Polissya that straddles Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.

Many other environmental organisations around the world have lost part of their funding, going instead to support Ukraine in the war. The German Frankfurt Zoological Society has lost a third of its funding due to the conflict.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is dragging the world into a new era of defence spending and militarisation, the repercussions on the natural environment remain dangerous, along with the human tragedies. The world is witnessing one of the largest disasters linked to increased migration and asylum in years, even if it may be just a foretaste of the number of climate migrants it could see in coming decades, if wars and conflicts impede the implementation of programmes intended to address climate change and budgets for achieving sustainable development are diverted to armaments.

“With climate shocks, many problems arise,” Pauline Madero, coordinator of the Secretariat of the Kenyan NGO Charter for Change, said at an event on the sidelines of the COP27. She said that conflicts over depleted resources could erupt in communities displaced by climate change, such as in Kenya where some children may be attracted to join armed groups such as Al-Shabaab to find sources of income.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported in June that “nearly 345 million people in more than 80 countries face acute food insecurity, including in many cases due to climate change.” These figures were underlined by Brigitte Menzi, head of the environment department at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, at the COP27 when she said that the “current global response is not enough.”

Numerous studies have also linked climate change with the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, suggested by the “Arab Spring and Climate Change” study issued by the Centre for Climate and Security, a think tank, in Washington in 2013.

This said that the failure of some countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to meet the basic needs of citizens and address droughts had prompted desertification and a lack of energy supplies, raising the temperature of the political protests.

While many have questioned such studies, and the possibility of a link between climate change and armed conflict, there is general agreement on the existence of an indirect relationship at least. This escalates in the event of other predisposing factors such as poverty and low rates of social and economic development, which may also result from climate change. 

According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross entitled “When It Rains Dust”, countries that suffer from the scourge of armed conflict are more affected by climate change than others. While this does not mean that there is a direct correlation between climate change and conflict, the report and the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index indicates that countries experiencing conflict are less able to cope with climate change, precisely because conflict weakens their ability to adapt to it.

As a result, people living in conflict zones are among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis and the most ignored by climate action. Scientists agree that climate change does not directly cause armed conflict, but it may indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing social, economic, and environmental factors. 

After all, people living in conflict zones are among the groups most vulnerable to the climate crisis, and they are also among those most neglected by climate action.


THE ENVIRONMENT IS THE FIRST CASUALTY: The natural environment is often directly damaged by war, and armed attacks can contaminate water, soil, and land, or release pollutants into the air. The remnants of war can contaminate soil and water sources and harm wildlife. 

Environmental degradation can be a natural process, or it can be accelerated or caused by human activities. The indirect effects of conflict can lead to environmental degradation, when, for example, the authorities are less able to manage and protect the environment. Large-scale displacement caused by conflict can also put pressure on resources, and it may lead to exploiting natural resources to maintain war economies.

In Al-Faw south of Basra in Iraq, people blame the area’s water and agricultural problems on the cutting down of palm trees for military purposes during the Iran-Iraq arw, for example. Elsewhere, the destruction of large areas of forests, or damage to infrastructure such as oil facilities or large industrial facilities, can have severe climate consequences, including the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air.

All too often, the natural environment is a silent victim of armed conflict. While international humanitarian law prohibits the use of the environment as a weapon, that is, the destruction of natural resources, warring parties frequently resort to military strategies that pose an environmental threat.

For example, setting oil fields on fire or destroying large industrial facilities releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and airborne pollution into the atmosphere, with devastating consequences. To make matters worse, this also contributes to climate change. The destruction of large areas of forests can also have severe consequences. Estimates say that armed conflicts are one of the most important indicators of the decline in the number of living creatures in the period from 1946 to 2010, for example.

The civil war in Mozambique is a revealing example of the role of conflict in threatening biodiversity. During this 15-year civil war, the country’s Gorongosa National Park lost more than 90 per cent of its animals. The number of African buffaloes decreased from 14,000 to 100, and the number of hippopotamus from 3,500 to 100. The number of elephants decreased from 2,000 to 200, because their meat was served as food for soldiers, while their ivory was sold to finance the purchase of weapons, ammunition, and supplies.

In a recent study published in the US Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists paint an even grimmer picture of the damage that can be expected in the event of a nuclear war. The study estimated that the massive plumes of smoke resulting from a nuclear war would change the world’s climate for years and destroy the ozone layer, endangering human health and food supplies.

The lead author of the study, Charles Bardeen, a scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, said that “the results of a nuclear war would have effects on the climate, and the effects of ultraviolet radiation would be widespread, along with all the deaths that would occur immediately after the occurrence of the war.”

Bardeen and his colleagues found that a nuclear war “would destroy a large portion of the ozone layer over 15 years, with ozone depletion averaging about 75 per cent.” Climate scientists from Rutgers University in the US also said that a nuclear conflict, if it occurred, would lead to catastrophic consequences for food production. Alan Roebuck, one of the study’s co-authors, said that “the data makes one thing clear: we must prevent a nuclear war.”

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former head of the British Army’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Division, told the UK satellite channel Sky News that a potential use of nuclear weapons in the Russian-Ukraine war would, “of course, spread a great deal of radioactive contamination across Russia and Europe,” even if at first it did not “cause massive climate change or complete crop failure”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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