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How the war in Ukraine has affected the environment

How the war in Ukraine has affected the environment


Every day, news stories and headlines are filled with the devastating human cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In March, however, hundreds signed an open letter from international law and environmental experts warning of the dangers to Europe and Ukraine caused by the conflict. Carroll Muffett was one of the authors. He is the president and CEO at the Center for International Environmental Law and joins us to discuss how this aspect of war is unfolding.


CARROLL MUFFETT – Thank you for having us.

RASCOE: Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. What are the environmental effects of the conflict?

MUFFETT They can be very difficult to spot and can last for a long time. It is crucial to understand that much of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been fought in industrialization. This means there are many chemical plants and petroleum refineries in the region. And, as we have seen, Ukraine also has numerous nuclear facilities. These risks are huge.

We have seen fires at a nuclear plant. We have seen missiles and attacks on ammonia pipelines, and chemical plants, causing high-level toxic substances to be released. Unexploded ordnance, munitions, and other explosives can cause severe damage to agricultural lands. We’ve seen military operations and attacks in protected areas and wildlife refuges.

RASCOE – The problem with war is that information can be very difficult to find. Are these cases being tracked?

MUFFETT. Some non-profit efforts have been made to track that, but it is extremely difficult. It is important to remember that war can have serious environmental consequences. People who protect land or manage water safety infrastructure are often unable to do their jobs or are doing it in live-fire zones. What we often find is that in the aftermath of war, we begin to calculate the true environmental costs of the operations.

RASCOE – You mentioned nuclear reactors which are a big concern. Do you consider that the greatest area of concern in terms of the environment is?

MUFFETT: A disaster at one of the 15 reactors could cause significant damage to the surrounding area and Ukraine. This could also affect the larger European region. These impacts can last for years or even decades, as we saw with Chernobyl. This is one of the indirect effects of Russia’s invasion. The U.S. and Europe could simply replace Russian oil and natural gas supplies with new infrastructure that allows them to import oil from other countries. We can see that this will have a long-term affect on global climate change response.

RASCOE – In a wartime, the focus is on those running for their lives in bomb shelters. Many people are losing their lives. Why do you think it is important to pay attention to the environment? It seems like you also feel that this is a part and parcel of the human harm.

MUFFETT. It is part of the human destruction. One way to look at this is that the environmental effects of war are simply human impacts that can continue long after the shells stop exploding and long after the bullets and guns cease. When we talk about the environment consequences of war, we really mean the effects of war on people and the places they live in a more prolonged and often more insidious way.

RASCOE: Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of Center for International Environmental Law, is a member of the RASCOE. Thank you so much for speaking to us.

MUFFETT – Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE MUSIC TRANSCRIPT) Transcript provided NPR. Copyright NPR.

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