The Vicious Cycle Between War and Environmental Issues

Armed conflicts fuel the biodiversity, pollution, and climate change crises and vice versa (credit: dolph on Shutterstock)
Armed conflicts fuel the biodiversity, pollution, and climate change crises and vice versa (credit: dolph on Shutterstock)

While writing this article, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for almost two years. It shocked the globe in 2022 and still does as the devastation continues. The devastating effects are massive and far-reaching, affecting all three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental factors. Examples of social consequences are deaths, food scarcity, and the need for people to relocate. Examples of economic consequences are disruption of economic activities and sanctions. Examples of environmental consequences include biodiversity, pollution, and climate change issues.
The three aspects of sustainability are social, economic, and environment (credit: D-Krab on Shutterstock)
The three aspects of sustainability are social, economic, and environment (credit: D-Krab on Shutterstock)

The most obvious consequences of social, economic, and environmental issues are physical. This is because the effects are immediately visible in the outer world. For example, demolished buildings, lost homes, and people having to relocate. However, psychological implications are also significant as they are usually long-lasting and can even harm future generations. For example, new habits, lack of trust, and increased acceptance of violence can unknowingly be passed on to children and grandchildren. (Further reading: “How Extreme Climate Events Impact Mental Health”) Another key distinction is between direct and indirect effects. Direct effects are the consequences of certain activities, whereas indirect effects are the consequences of other consequences. These effects can result in a vicious cycle. A vicious cycle occurs when unfavorable results cause further negative effects. For example, war not only harms the environment and adds to environmental concerns, but the resulting environmental issues also make society more vulnerable, potentially leading to armed conflicts after peace. (Additional reading: "14 Technologies That Can Prevent Wars Over Drinking Water"). It's crucial to note that while this increases the risk of armed conflicts, it doesn't mean they will arise.
Armed conflict and environmental issues can create a vicious cycle in which one triggers the other. (© Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)
Armed conflict and environmental issues can create a vicious cycle in which one triggers the other. (© Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)

Because of this vicious cycle, it is critical to consider how armed conflicts cause environmental issues and how environmental issues trigger armed conflicts: How war causes environmental issues War has a wide range of environmental consequences, affecting both living and non-living ecosystems. Living components include plants, animals, and microbes, whereas non-living parts include soil, water, and air. This harm might be local but may spread to neighboring locations. Biodiversity The first way in which war leads to environmental issues is by reducing biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the various plants and animals, and the degradation of biodiversity means that many species are lost. In the case of the Ukrainian war, the fights have harmed almost 1.2 million hectares, or over 2.2 million football fields! This is critical since Ukraine is home to 70,000 plant and animal species, many of which are rare, relict, or endemic. Rare means they exist in limited numbers; relict means they have been around for millions of years; and endemic means they are exclusively found in this location. Here you can visit an undamaged botanical park in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, to see for yourself:

Armed conflicts harm biodiversity in several ways, such as: • the widespread use of artillery causes fires that harm plants and animals. For example, small organisms such as insects, who are in a deep sleep known as anabiosis, burn together with the plants • soldiers' poaching, military vehicle noise, and fighting harm wildlife • national parks with many animals are unable to supply food and healthcare, causing many animals to die • ammunition blasts and passing tanks harm the environment • soldiers intentionally set fires to destroy natural resources, leading to for example deforestation • pest monitoring and management are restricted, which makes pests more likely to spread Pollution The second way in which war leads to environmental issues is by causing environmental pollution. Environmental pollution includes soil, water, and air pollution, which means that pollutants are left in the natural environment. These pollutants often damage several generations, meaning that the environmental harm caused by war lasts far longer than the armed conflict itself! Armed conflicts cause pollution in several ways, such as: • attacks on nuclear power plants can cause radioactive material to be spread • attacks on munitions depots can cause heavy metals and other dangerous materials to spread (further reading: “How Heavy Metal Pollution Contributes to Parkinson Disease”) • attacks on industrial facilities, including power stations and pipelines, can cause fires and toxins to leak • burning rubber foam can harm both animals and humans. It can also cause acidic rain, which damages vegetation and crops by killing or weakening them • discharging untreated sewage water leads to water pollution • burning fossil fuels, such as petroleum, releases micro-particles into the air • attacks on ports can cause water pollution when dangerous substances from damaged ships leak into the water • warships and submarines harm marine wildlife, for example by making loud noises • oil and fuel leaks from damaged equipment harm wildlife, both on land and in waterways
Oil and fuel leaks from damaged equipment harming wildlife, both on land and in waterways(credit: VladKK on Shutterstock)
Oil and fuel leaks from damaged equipment harming wildlife, both on land and in waterways(credit: VladKK on Shutterstock)

Climate change The third way in which war leads to environmental issues is by contributing to climate change. Climate change is fueled when greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions include methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Once these gases are in the atmosphere, they contribute to climate change by trapping heat emitted from the Earth's surface. Without these gasses, the heat would be radiated into space. During armed conflicts, methane emissions can increase due to:
• destruction of oil and gas infrastructure • harmed methane-storing ecosystems such as wetlands • disruption of waste management systems, for example burning organic waste instead of properly disposing of it During armed conflicts, CO2 emissions can increase due to: • transportation of vehicles, munition, and soldiers to armed conflicts • production of necessary materials for warfare • rebuilding buildings that are destroyed by bombs and missiles (see "How CO2 Emissions Can Be Reduced With Self-Healing Concrete"). • burning fuel in the open air to limit the availability of this resource to the opponent This video also explains how the Russia-Ukraine war contributes to climate change:

How environmental issues can cause war While armed conflicts fuel environmental issues, the inverse also holds true. This means that environmental issues can cause war. This generally happens indirectly, through socioeconomic issues. Socioeconomic issues concern the interaction of social and economic aspects, such as educational level, income level, access to healthcare, and housing status. That is why violent conflicts are more likely in economically unstable, non-democratic, and discriminatory governments.
Environmental issues can trigger armed conflicts, either directly or indirectly through socioeconomic issues (© Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)
Environmental issues can trigger armed conflicts, either directly or indirectly through socioeconomic issues (© Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten)

Environmental issues can lead to armed conflicts for example: • when natural resources become scarce due to biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. In the previous 60 years, at least 40% of all wars inside countries have been related to natural resources (further reading: “14 Technologies That Can Prevent Wars Over Drinking Water”) • when natural resources become unaffordable for certain groups of people • when a country or region struggles to adapt to environmental changes, resulting in economic disasters • when people are forced to migrate due to rising sea levels caused by changing environmental conditions As previously mentioned, armed conflicts can be triggered by environmental issues but they do not have to occur. This higher chance is also explained in this video:

Conclusion War and environmental challenges can create a vicious cycle in which war leads to biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change and these environmental issues can in turn lead to armed conflicts. As a result, preventing violent conflicts and living together peacefully is critical for both humanitarian and environmental reasons. We can do so for example by: • Gifting a shared activity instead of a product • Sharing love and compassion by gifting time instead of a product • Seeking help to resolve previous issues that negatively affect loving relationships • Forgiving ourselves and others • Loving ourselves • Performing random acts of kindness
About the author
Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten is a an internationally recognized environmental sustainability expert. She is a science communicator, helpings scientists in the fields of nature and sustainability increase the outreach of their results and allowing us all to put scientific insights into practice and contribute to a sustainable future. Erlijn has inspired thousands of people around the world through – for example – her posts on social media, presentations at the United Nations, and her book "A Guide to A Healthier Planet" published by Springer Nature.
More: Connect -- Her book “A Guide to a Healthier Planet” -- Invite Erlijn as speaker -- Apply for science communication support

  • M O

    7 w

    A few years ago I also looked into the vicious cycle of rising CO2 levels and poor decision making, which also ties in to the vicious cycle of war and environmental issues. As a toxic gas, the rise in CO2 has a very direct influence on our behaviour. Increased CO2 exposure can lead to cognitive problems significantly reducing our capacity to resolve conflict peacefully. In 2100 average outdoor CO2 levels are predicted to reach 890 ppm. A few hours of exposure to 500 ppm is enough to measure significant increase in heart rate and blood pressure. An artificially increased heart rate makes you feel more anxious or angry. Also high blood pressure is know to increase negative emotions such as anxiousness and anger. A few hours of exposure to 700 ppm has been shown to induce Building-Related symptoms which include difficulty in concentration and personality changes. And at just a few hours of 1000 ppm this includes cognitive deficits and poor decision making. We are already experience a rise of more than 140ppm above pre-industrial levels (280ppm), as long-term exposure, with indoor levels above 1000 ppm occurring frequently in our daily lives on top of that. On a single-person basis this gradual change in behaviour may not appear very significant but as a population responding on average a few % more anxiously or aggressively can cross a tipping point for war. With modern day social media and algorithms picking up on that slight shift in users being lead more by negative emotions, the effect of increasing CO2 levels on our behaviour as a population is amplified to a level where it affects policy making bringing that tipping point much closer, and with the effect we are experiencing only the tip of the iceberg of what's to come as we move closer to that predicted 890 ppm. And that's all on top of other indirect effects of rising CO2 levels such as climate-change-related immigration, scarcity of natural resources and uncertainty, changes in, or dissapearence of lifelihood and income for groups of the population, as mentioned in this article...

    • Erlijn van Genuchten

      7 w

      @m_o Thank you for adding this perspective!

    • Vicki Nikolaidis

      8 w

      Unfortunately the war in Ukraine started in 2014 with the terrible deaths in Maidon. Civilians in eastern Ukraine were suffering from bombing by their own government which was detrimental to people and the environment. The destruction of Ukraine is horrific, fueling climate change parameters and ruining lived..Stop oil for sure.

      • Chris Ndungu

        9 w

        The combat between Russia and Ukraine has brought a huge damage to the world as especially in environment destruction. We really need to pray for those states and still not to forget Israel and Hamas war.

        • George Kariuki

          12 w

          Very informative. We can move beyond raising awareness and take concrete steps towards breaking the cycle of war and environmental destruction.

          • Munene Mugambi

            12 w

            As we discuss the effects of war on Ukrainians, let us also not forget the effects of Israel's war on Palestine and the environmental effects as well as life changing effects from this war too.

            • Sarah Chabane

              12 w

              This is super insightful, thank you for sharing Erlijn! There is recent research that shows that the war in Ukraine is also slowing down climate research, which is a topic that I guess hasn't been looked into too much and is pretty alarming

              • Kevin

                12 w

                A very well written article

                • Marine Stephan

                  12 w

                  Very interesting article, thank you for that! We had some great content on this topic during our COP28 broadcast. It is important to also bring the environmental perspective into conflicts and wars...

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