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EarthTalk: War and the Environment

Dear EarthTalk: What sort of environmental toll are the major military conflicts going on around the world now taking?—J.D., Salem, NH


No one questions the fact that war is horrible, and it is no less so for the environment. And recent major conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East couldn’t come at a worse time politically as international negotiators try to broker a deal to rein in carbon emissions against the backdrop of two active wars.

In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, environmental damage has been widespread. An August 2023 study by Chinese and German researchers found an “abrupt exacerbation in air quality over Europe after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.” Levels of both particulate matter and nitrogen oxide have spiked about 10 percent each—and ground-level ozone surged by almost eight percent—in regions where fighting has occurred. The researchers blame ongoing explosions and fires as the main drivers of this predicament. Due to the war, Ukraine has experienced a 45-fold increase in the total area of forest fires across the country. The result has been the release of hundreds of millions of tons of noxious pollution in various forms that not only foul the air but also contaminate soils and groundwater across the region.

Meanwhile, the more recent Hamas/Israel conflict is wreaking havoc on the environment in the Middle East. Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas following the initial October 7 attack has turned much of Gaza into an apocalyptic destruction zone where polluted air and water now joins mass casualties and lack of food and supplies in making life extremely difficult for millions of Palestinians.

“These environmental impacts exacerbate the toll of death and injury directly caused by acts of war, but the environmental death toll will continue for decades due to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer caused by exposure to elevated levels of pollution,” United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David R. Boyd tells TRT World.

Besides damaging the environment and increasing our global carbon footprint, these recent conflicts are also taking a toll on longer-term prospects for hammering out a binding agreement for the nations of the world to work together in reining in carbon emissions. CNN reports that world leaders attending the long-awaited November 2023 Abu Dhabi follow-up to 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement were spending more time meeting behind closed doors trying to broker diplomatic solutions to military conflicts than hammering out carbon emissions reduction plans. Jordan’s King Abdullah II told gathered delegates that “we cannot talk about climate change in isolation from the humanitarian tragedies unfolding around us,” adding that “the massive destruction of war” makes environmental threats like water scarcity and food insecurity even more severe. Meanwhile, Iranian negotiators left the climate talks because its sworn enemy Israel had delegates present.

Environmentalist advocates around the world are keeping their fingers crossed that the wars in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine don’t derail international cooperation on environmental issues altogether.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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