What does a six-year old in the United States have in common with an 85-yearold Russian?
They’re both feeling the strain of a warming planet.
“Is the earth going to get so hot that we can’t survive?” my young son asked me last summer as we plodded through the woods behind our Maryland home. I wasn’t certain, I replied hesitantly. (This is not the most comforting answer a mother can give to a question she asks herself every day. We had just left our younger child at home after she started wheezing from the heat of that July morning.
A few summers earlier, during a visit to a town about 4,500 miles away near St. Petersburg, Russia, an elderly friend of mine said to me, “When did it become so hot?” Like my daughter, she was breathing hard and continually glancing back toward her doorway.
Since the 1990s, as an anthropologist of human rights and war, I’ve traveled to Russia. I was then visiting the farm where my friend grew crops to add to the food she purchased with a government stipend she got as a survivor of the Nazis’ siege of her city during World War II. She sighed as she pointed at the apples in her orchard. They were part of her diet and could be canned each fall. However, it seemed that fewer apples were growing each year. After surviving a war, would she die from heat and hunger?
Usually, when she heard about my concerns about the warming climate, she would laugh. “We could use a little global warming in Russia,” she would say and gesture at the icicle-laced landscape around her wooden home. In Russia, where the winter air can become so cold that it stings your lungs, I heard a variation of this satirical refrain many times.
However, it became clear to me that both the heat and frost were becoming more severe and unpredictable on my last visit. I noticed a growing number activist friends and acquaintances. awarenessenvironmental issues such as deforestation or water pollution. However, they were cautious in what they said as Russian nongovernmental organisations are frequently threatened and even beaten. politically motivatedCharges that could force them out of business.
Still, across Russia, I had also seen examples of local authorities listening to such activists and sometimes making small changes like halting logging projects to protect a community’s food supplies or stopping construction that’s polluting local wells. And increasingly, climate change was growing harder even for Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir PutinIt is hard to ignore Siberia’s recent actions. fire and its melting permafrost creating a “methane time bomb” of greenhouse gases that will help drive heating globally in a potentially disastrous way.
The Environmental Costs of War
It seems ironic, though not exactly surprising, that, by invading Ukraine last month, yet another leader who claims to care about humanity’s future started a new war (just what we needed!) on this planet. And that decision has left me haunted by images of climate change at war — the exhaust emanating from the back-to-back traffic of those driving away from Ukrainian cities like KyivAs millionsMany civilians continue to flee the ferocious bombardments by the Russian military. You can also see the smoke from Russia’s military base in western Ukraine. attackedor footage of desperate residents of the besieged port of Mariupol burningTo keep warm, use firewood
In 2011, I helped found Brown University’s Costs of War ProjectThe, which was charged with tracking the human and financial cost of the American global war against terror and of armed conflicts such as the one that is currently taking place in Ukraine. As that Russian invasion continues so disastrously, what should be obvious to all of us is that any war will only further exacerbate another killer on this planet — and that killer, of course, is climate change.
The Costs of War Project was started because it is notoriously difficult to calculate the true casualties and financial cost of armed conflict. This is due to deliberate government obfuscation as well as the chaos of war. But there’s another cost that’s becoming all too clear, one we need to recognize. Consider the massive amountsIt takes energy to fly fighter planes, fire missiles or move and supply troops, or send tanks towards Kyiv. All of that, devastating in itself, now also becomes part of another war entirely, the human war that’s heating this planet and already affecting ever more of its nearly eight billion inhabitants.
Modern warfare is incredibly energy-intensive. Take just one example. single mission2017: two U.S. B2-B Stealth BombersTo strike Islamic State targets at Libya, the pilots flew over 12,000 miles. They alone emitted approximately 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses. Consider this as well: we know that the U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissionsAnnually, the U.S. military operations are greater than those of countries like Sweden, Portugal, Denmark, and Portugal. Forget the Russians! The U.S. has military operations in over 85 countries (and counting).).
Worse, fighting a war is a way to divert energy and resources to kill rather than to sustain development. Even countries that are involved in such conflicts may have far less ability to deal with the environmental war. Consider, for instance, Italy and GermanyFollowing the invasion of Ukraine, there were provisional plans to reopen previously shut coal plants. Italy is now facing the necessity to replace Russian natural gas and other fuels. Germany, however, is facing an even greater energy crisis with no Russian energy supplies. Germany may delay plans to close its last coal plants until 2030. Both of these are minor climate disasters. Obviously, there’s no way of imagining when Ukraine’s cities will be able to deal with climate change again. The now-destroyed MariupolOne prime example is the one above. Once labeled by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s Green Cities Program as one of the most “engaged” cities for its efforts to invest in renewable energy and clean up water pollution, it’s now in a desperate struggle for its own survival.
Similar results can be found in the Conflict and Environment Observatory, since the start of the war between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas regionIn 2014, the main power station had to use fuel reserves of low-grade and high-polluting fuel. The Ukrainian central government used to supply higher-grade fuels. Other effects of this war and similar wars include clear-cutting foreststo house refugees, and to power camps with gas generators. U.S. is a dangerous and unsafe method of disposing of waste. burn pitsAnother example of environmentally harmful methods that were approved under war conditions was on military bases located in Iraq.
The U.S. and its Climate Inaction
Recent headlines warningThe headlines about war have completely displaced stories about environmental disasters (if they ever existed). We’re all talking about the possibility of a World War III, but there are far too few conversations about the climate impact of the military buildup already affecting Europe so radically.
Consider it typical of our moment (and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres the exception) that President Biden essentially skipped climate change in his State of the Unionaddress, even while he drew bipartisan applausefor calling on Americans support Ukraine. A drastically reduced version of his Build back Better spending bill, which might have been channeled once. $3.5 trillion towards investment in social services and clean energy didn’t even muster sufficient votes in his own party to make it through the Senate. (Thank you, coal magnate Joe Manchin!)
Two weeks into the war between Russia & Ukraine, a bipartisan Senate voted with 68 to 31 on $1.5 trillion in government spending billThe package authorized $13.6 million in humanitarian and military assistance for Ukraine. The package includesTens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were sent to NATO countries, and the funds were used for the $350 million in weaponryThis country has already sent to Ukraine the intelligence assistance to that country and money to enforce sanctions against Russia. And it’s clear that the spigot has just been turned on. Another Biden administration was added $800 million in weapons and protective gear for Ukraine’s military by week three of the war. It recently committed $1 billion moreEuropean countries to accept Ukrainian refugees. The United States will also admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
As Ukraine is destroyed, the human cost of war continues to rise. thousandsBoth. sidesSeveral hundred people were killed in fighting, although estimates vary. That’s part of the problem. Calculating war’s true costs takes many years, while even before the smoke clears another war, an environmental one whose casualties will, in the long run, be staggering, is gearing up, barely noticed by so many.
Environmental Carnage: Then and Now
Climate change is affecting peoples’ health, the natural environment, and our infrastructure everywhere. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’sAccording to the latest report, these effects include intensifying extreme weather, an increase in the frequency and spread of disease, severe future water scarcity for approximately half the world’s population annually, and more frequent floodings and droughts.
Scientists say that, given the world’s current rateWe should expect 2100 in terms of energy consumption as well as the temperature rise that comes with it. outcomesThese include a fivefold increase of extreme weather events like floods or wildfires, a jump in the percentage global population exposed to deadly heat stresses from 48% – 76%, more than a million coastal residents adversely affected due to rising seas and other climate risk by mid-century, and 183 million malnourished individuals.
Somewhere in this flood of bad climate news, however, there may prove to be a strange silver lining: such a range of potential climate crises that pay no attention to borders should ultimately have the potential to connect us to our geopolitical enemies (though this seems even less likely than it did when the Ukraine war began, now that Putin’s climate envoy has resignedIn protest The development of climate diplomacy has never been more urgent, since without collective action aimed at creating a carbon neutral world by 2050, we’ll all lose this fight.
In 2010, I took a four-day train trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the Krasnodar region near Ukraine, for a friend’s wedding. It was already scorching hot in July. Drought had resulted in wildfiresThey swept across European Russia, blanketing Moscow with toxic smoke and reportedly resulting tens of thousands in excess deaths from various causes, including heat, pollution, fires, and even the fires themselves.
Others were like me and opened their windows to enjoy the breeze, only to find that the air was so thick it covered our faces within minutes. A group of young Russian army recruits, thin and with their faces covered in acne, boarded my car at one point. They joked about how the air made them feel like they’d been smoking all day, when they were trying not to so that they could carry out whatever mission lay ahead of them in Russia’s conflict-ridden borderlands. (Putin’s crew was then fighting a counterinsurgency war in nearby Chechnya.) The soldiers worked hard to save money and prepared meals for us all from goods bought at outdoor markets.
During that trip 12 years ago, it already felt as though something was changing in terms of Russia’s relationship to the world. Journalists were finding it harder to write about the government, especially its military, and this was a problem. While luxury restaurants, car dealerships and cosmetics shops were popping up everywhere, ordinary Russians were still struggling for their livelihood.
As the train stopped in small villages, grandmothers and their children held paper trays of homemade cucumbers and chicken cutlets for passengers to purchase. It was so much more wind-worn looking and soot-covered that we were. A policeman in his forties, along with his wife, and two children, was returning to Chechnya. He stopped at one stop and joined me in my cabin. They’d been on vacation in Crimea, which Ukraine was still in control of at the time. “Did you know that it had once belonged to Russia?” he asked me. It was easier for his family, he said, to travel there when he was young, as Ukraine was still part the Soviet Union. WasBeautiful and I should visit. He and his wife took turns wiping their children’s sooty faces with wet washcloths. “My God, when did this heat get so bad?” he asked not exactly me, but the air, the planet.
And it’s true, I’ve never forgotten the heat that enveloped us all then and my early sense of our shared humanity in the face of a changing climate. As anyone who has ever lived in the American West, the record is a fact. fires, heat domes, megadrought of the last year knows, it’s only been getting worse.
As different as our all-too-fragile democracy still thankfully is from Russia’s autocracy, what we do have in common is short-sightedness. It causes the political class in both countries to focus on military solutions — remember the disastrous Global War on Terror? — to geopolitical problems with deep historical roots. What if we had marshalled the support of intermediaries like Finland or Israel back when Volodymyr Zelensky first reached out to Putin upon taking office as Ukraine’s president in 2019? What if Washington had long ago stated that Ukraine would not be eligible for NATO membership? Perhaps today its president wouldn’t be pleading for a NATO no-flyZone that could lead the world to the existential edge nuclear war.
Diplomatic diplomacy, which is nonviolent and diplomatic, could still make a difference. stepsTo protect the victims and pave the way to diplomacy triumphing over militarism, sustainable development over destruction. It is a terrible feeling to know that the window of opportunity to act for those I love is closing. Not just the horrific killing and destruction of the moment, but the long-term suffering likely to come from the environmental damage we’re causing should impel us all to call for a major diplomatic push to end the nightmare in Ukraine now. After all, if the world’s great powers don’t pull together soon on climate action, we’re in trouble deep.