My first thought on waking on the day of the invasion was one of dread for the plight of Ukraine’s citizens. That, and utter disbelief that Putin was prepared to risk so much. A little later and I was feeling a weird relief that my father, a veteran of the second world war who had subsequently and deliberately chosen to live a quiet life, was no longer alive to hear various talking heads on Radio 4 speculating about a third world war. He was a man who in the 1970s had surprised me when someone stopped him on the street and asked for his opinion on whether the UK should join the then EEC by giving his response in English, French, Spanish and German.

Then, while glued to the rolling news, I began thinking of not only the unimaginable fear, the deep human suffering and unbearable losses of those embroiled by the war, but of the vast scale of the environmental damage the war will cause – the destruction of natural habitats, the pollutants released from destroyed industrial plants and the toxins emanating from weaponry including the armour piercing shells that are tipped with depleted uranium.

As the fighting began to escalate, I felt sick watching footage of the thick black smoke billowing from an oil depot near Vasylkiv destroyed by an air strike. It brought back the disturbed dreams of burning oil wells and dying aubergine plants I had during the first Gulf War when Anastasia, now my wife, was pregnant with our elder son. Now, as Andrey Kurkov, the author of Death and the Penguin, writes, the soil of Ukraine’s wheat fields is not only covered with blood but “full of metal – fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters”. 

As to the climate boot-print of the war, that’s another aspect hard for me to even contemplate. Nobody ever talks about the military-industrial complex these days, but it never went away. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world’s top 100 arms producers were immune to the covid pandemic and in 2020, while the global economy slumped, managed to rack up a staggering US$532 billion in weapons sales. The emissions from the world’s militaries, combined with those from the industries that provide their equipment, are estimated by Scientists for Global Responsibility to create 6% of all global emissions.   

Now in the second month of the war, we are all becoming increasingly aware of the multitudinous global ramifications of what is unfolding before our eyes and the many systemic fault lines that make us realise just how vulnerable we all are. Perhaps the greatest of these revelations for those living in western Europe is understanding that it is the purchasing of Russian gas and oil that has funded Putin’s aggression and that our dependence on fossil fuels is wrecking more than the climate.

War is always an environmental crime. Let’s give it a name – ecocide. There should be laws against it. There is little solace in knowing that the war will help drive the adoption of such laws.  

As an ocean campaigner of several decades standing, I’ve been thinking of how the war may delay and possibly derail various key global environmental processes. These include the implementation of the pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow last year, negotiations for a UN High Seas Treaty and the forthcoming meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity where the 30% global protection target for land and sea will hopefully be agreed. The prospect of more delays following the pandemic is concerning given the urgency of addressing the existential threats of the ocean and climate crises that are in turn undermining global security. 

For me, campaigning for the environment and for peace have always been two sides of the same coin and inexorably interlinked. I cut my activist/campaigner teeth in the early 1980s – a period of increased tension between the Soviet Bloc and the West – when I joined various grassroots groups campaigning against Cruise missiles being situated in the UK and against nuclear weapons more generally. However, even then, the links between military nukes and civil nuclear power and the concomitant environmental risks were clear and part of the campaign mix.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the existential fear of all-out nuclear annihilation began to recede, only to be reignited with the Russian forces surrounding of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power station, the attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and Putin’s threat that any country that interferes in his invasion of Ukraine will face “consequences greater than any you have faced in history”.

In the 1990s, with our war on the natural world looming ever larger, I found myself at Greenpeace, the elision in the organisation’s name embodying the two interlinked aspects of a better world. During my time there, working mainly on ocean issues, it became increasingly evident to me that it is only through building an equitable and sustainable future that we can truly secure peace. Furthermore, environmental justice cannot be achieved without social justice, the climate crisis cannot be addressed without addressing the biodiversity crisis, and the political will needed to effect change is only possible through the active engagement of citizens.     

All these tenets are also emphasised by the IPCC report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability published at the end of February. Despite UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s description of the 3,500-page report as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”, it still could not be the lead item on the evening news. However, the report was not totally devoid of hope: among the key messages delivered by the co-authors is that the solutions framework for climate-resilient development must prioritise equity and justice and include marginalised groups so that different interests, values and world views can be reconciled. 

If we are to achieve the transformative changes required to protect the planet, civil society must band together and increase the pressure on governments and corporations. We cannot continue to work in a siloed manner but need to rapidly advance a number of interlinked goals simultaneously.

For my part, I will continue to campaign for countries to agree a robust High Seas Treaty this year. This treaty will not only fill some major gaps in global governance but is essential to implementing large-scale marine protection, safeguarding vital ocean processes including carbon sequestration and storage, and will also help increase food security for many coastal nations. Other environmentalists will be active in different ways trying to seize something good from the crisis.

Tom Dowdall, a friend and climate campaigner will be grafting away to accelerate the clean energy solutions vital for tackling the climate crisis that are scalable, ready-to-go solutions for long-term peace, energy security and reducing petro-state fuelled conflicts. Renewable energy, insulation and energy efficiency are not only the best solutions to reduce gas consumption, but they are also the cheapest (wind and solar power) and fastest (insulation, efficiency, heat pumps).

If all this seems impossible, we should look to the Antarctic Treaty for inspiration. Signed in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, the parties agreed that this huge part of the global commons should be “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. Peace and science – values held in high esteem by my father, and the antitheses of war. 

Stopping the war must be the immediate priority for governments, businesses and us all. As my friend and colleague, Masha Kalinina – members of whose family have fled Russia to Uzbekistan – agrees, multilateralism, unity of purpose and ensuring and enabling democracy are prerequisites for success, just as they are for achieving an equitable and environmentally sustainable future.

Richard Page is Campaigns Director for RISE UP

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