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War, sanctions, climate change as 2022 follies

By Emmanuel Okoroafor
27 September 2022   |   2:44 am
In 2022, temperatures across the world rose beyond previously known records. Lands dried and cracked, affecting crop yields. Water levels in rivers dropped drastically.

[FILES] Swimmers gather in the waters off Saint-Jean de Luz beach, south-western France, on June 18, 2022, as heatwave conditions sweep across France and western Europe. – Spain, France and other western European nations braced for a sweltering June weekend that is set to break records, with forest fires and warnings over the effects of climate change. The weather will represent a peak of a June heatwave that is in line with scientists’ predictions that such phenomena will now strike earlier in the year thanks to global warming (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

In 2022, temperatures across the world rose beyond previously known records. Lands dried and cracked, affecting crop yields. Water levels in rivers dropped drastically.

In some cases, riverbeds dried; thousands of hectares of forests burnt with fury and ferocity like never seen before. An international team of firefighters went to the rescue of beautiful France. Similar actions were seen in other parts of Europe, across the USA and in Australia.

In Asia, heavy rains pummelled several countries, causing floods that destroyed communities and displaced large populations, leaving people homeless.

In Pakistan, more than a third of the country went underwater. Nearby countries suffered a similar fate. Even Africa which contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions is not spared. Parts of the continent are already grappling with drought, reduced food production, water shortage and loss of biodiversity.

The extreme weather―and its dire consequences―is attributed to climate change caused by human beings and their activities. Indeed, individuals, groups and governments are trying to address the issues contributing to climate change.

The irony, however, is that a full-scale war is going on presently in a corner of Europe, and the sweeping sanctions triggered against the aggressor state have also unleashed a global impact that significantly raises the spectre of worsening climate change. Yet no one is talking about it. No questions asked. No relevant discussions by so-called intellectuals on how this war and sanctions are impacting climate change. The silence is deafening.

There are reasons for military confrontations and there are reasons for economic sanctions. The question is, are those reasons greater than the safety of our planet? Wars and sanctions bring disruption to humans’ way of life, thereby forcing a revert to activities known to be damaging to the environment and consequently affecting climate. 

We have seen on TV the vast quantities of explosives released by artillery shelling from air, land, and sea by warring sides in the Russia-Ukraine war.

The use of explosive weapons creates vast quantities of debris and rubble and releases toxic gases and chemicals that cause air and soil pollution. Military bombardment of environmentally sensitive infrastructures such as water treatment plants and nuclear power stations―as we have seen in the war currently in Ukraine―further raises the stakes of danger to humans and the environment in which they live.  

Aside from human casualties, war impacts the environment and triggers climate crises in a variety of ways that include (a) the release of greenhouse gas (as military actions consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels) which contributes directly to global warming (b) destruction of wildlife and biodiversity by bombings, and (c) pollution of the environment through contamination of bodies of water, soil, and air, thereby making the ecosystem unsafe for people to inhabit or cultivate. 

As pointed out by Catherine Lutz, a professor on war and its impacts at the Watson Institute for International Studies, one of the first of our sensibilities to be discarded is the protection of the environment. War is an abnormal situation; therefore, it changes our parameters. In the face of actual or perceived threat, acts that would normally be abhorrent become permissible and even the norm. 

Economic sanctions, on the other hand, are soft political tools aimed at isolating a sanctioned state and hurting its economy to force it to change its course of action. The measures were initially seen as an effective and morally acceptable alternative to conventional war. However, it has since been established that the impacts of economic sanctions on a country can lead to significant collateral damages to ordinary citizens and their economic welfare.

To reduce the economic pressure of sanctions, sanctioned states usually adopt a range of “survivalist” policies that foster accelerated environmental degradation. In the long run, economic sanctions end up turning the environmental sector into an inevitable victim of the tussle between two power blocs―the sanctioning states seeking behavioural change through economic pressure and the sanctioned state determined to pursue its “abnormal” behaviour to the detriment of the natural environment.

Moreover, sanction at times is a double-edged sword. For example, the West’s sanctions against Russia, are hurting the country and its citizens, but Western Europe is hurting as well.

The high cost of living―epitomised by the skyrocketing cost of energy―has forced Western Europe to revive coal-fired stations that were previously earmarked for closure due to their contribution to global warming. They are now revisiting the option of building more nuclear power stations and also looking to source fossil fuel from friends and foes from faraway places thereby leaving a significant carbon footprint along the way. Worse still, Britain has lifted its 2019-ban on fracking, an oil exploration process notorious for its use of carcinogenic chemicals, environmental polluting methods and potential for causing earthquakes.  

Russia, on the other hand, is burning the gas it could not sell, thereby contravening past agreements to ban gas flaring. Neither the European nor Russian option is good for the environment. This status quo is a clear illustration of the relationship between war and economic sanctions and environmental degradation.

Europe never expected to be significantly affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the subsequent sanctioning of Russia. But now, the rising cost of energy, the cost-of-living crisis and the fear of cold winter are bringing home to Europe the hardship and horror suffered by peoples from other regions of the earth that have been ravaged by wars and sanctions. Importantly, the situation in Europe vividly portrays the impact of war and sanctions on the cost of living, the environment, and the climate. 

Now, the West and Russia have had their power play, and the lesson stands out in bold relief: war and sanctions never bring good things. Wars bring large-scale human suffering, deaths and destruction of cities and infrastructure. War and sanctions destroy the natural environment and trigger the global climate crisis, the like of which we are all talking about right now. 

The urgent need of the world right now is an immediate end to the Russia-Ukraine war. The global community should call on their governments to pursue peace and end all conflicts worldwide. 

Dr Okoroafor wrote from Lagos.