Putin’s stupid, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was wrong at all times. But the timing is especially bad right now. Because it diverts the global attention and resources needed to mitigate climate change – and this may be the last decade that still has a chance to deal with the now inevitable extremes before we become completely helpless.
Unfortunately, what happened between Ukraine and Russia didn’t stop there. That’s because the world is more peaceful than ever.
We’ve connected so many people, so many places, so many markets – and then removed so many old buffers that shielded us from each other’s excesses and replaced them with grease – a nodal Stability can now spread very far, very widely, and very quickly.
This is why I have always believed that the Russian attack on Ukraine was the real World War I. Now, two-thirds of people on the planet can see it on their smartphones; and economically, geopolitically, and perhaps most importantly – environmentally, nearly everyone has been or will be affected by this effects of war.
The best way to understand this is to talk to the people who live in some of the most remote ecosystems in the world. I am referring to the indigenous peoples who live deep in the forests and guard the last remaining forests in the world, especially the giant forests without roads, wires, mines, cities and industrial agriculture. From the Amazon and Congo river basins to Canada, Russia and Ecuador, these pristine forests are the life support systems of the world. They absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, generate oxygen, filter fresh water for drinking, and in general enhance our resilience to climate change pressures.
These forests and their indigenous peoples are already feeling the pinch of global economic power, but Putin’s war has triggered a litany of negative effects: Russia is one of the world’s largest producers of fertilizers and the largest exporter of oil to global markets. More than a quarter of the world’s wheat is typically exported by Russia and Ukraine, providing bread to billions of people, and they are also major producers of barley, sunflower oil and corn. With shortages and soaring prices of these commodities due to the war and sanctions on Russia, there is growing pressure around the world to free up more virgin forests for oil drilling, for agribusinesses to grow crops and to clear land for use in cattle raising.
Last week, Nia Tero, a global nonprofit that supports the Aboriginal people who protect these endangered forests, invited me to host an open discussion with Aboriginal leaders who came to New York for Climate Week. According to statistics, Indigenous territories cover more than one-third of the planet’s primary forests and similar parts of other important ecosystems, benefiting a significant portion of the world’s biodiversity, the organization noted. Carbon stored in native Amazon forests, for example, is not as easily lost to the atmosphere as carbon on private or other unprotected lands.
Unfortunately, the more we destroy these forests, peatlands and mangroves, the less likely we will be able to come close to the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Nemonte Nequimo won the 2020 Goldman Environment Prize for leading a legal battle on behalf of Indigenous communities in Ecuador, one of the ten most biodiverse countries on Earth. “This fight led to a court ruling that protected 500,000 acres of the Amazon rainforest and Walani territory from oil extraction,” the award said. “Nequimo’s leadership and this lawsuit provide a legal precedent for protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, and other tribes are following her lead to protect more of the rainforest from oil extraction.”
This is a great honor. But she told me last week that despite the legal victory, the surge in oil prices triggered by the Ukrainian war has put new pressure on forests in her indigenous region. As she puts it, “Oil is in the forest, and they think our home is the solution.”
As Nia Tero senior economist John Reed explains, “Supply shocks from Ukraine and Russia turned into demand shocks around the world, including demand for primary forests, which are , oil, gas, and lumber, are huge potential sources of supply.” (Reed and Thomas Lovejoy, “Ever Green: Saving the Big Forest is Saving the Planet.” forest Save the Planet, an excellent primer on the important role primary forests play in sustaining the biosphere.)
Hindu Omaru Ibrahim is the leader of the Mbororo nomads in Chad. She told me that Lake Chad had lost about 90 percent of its water and many species, which was bad enough, but now people in her community are asking her: “Why have the prices of flour and fuel gone up so much? Russia and Ukraine are far apart. We are so far away, why are we hurt?” They didn’t understand how the shock of the war in Ukraine radiated so far, even to the landlocked sub-Saharan country of Chad.
“When the war started,” Ibrahim added, “African countries were asked to take sides. All we thought was that we needed food. This war has become a big problem for all of us.” She added , wherever she goes, she can see Chinese companies looking for land for industrial agriculture, which is a huge problem for her nomads.
“For Indigenous peoples, the land is everything,” Ibrahim wrote in South Africa’s Post and Guardian newspaper last week. “Land is the source of our food, shelter and medicine, as well as our culture and history. From countless ancestors, we have learned how to live well on our land. We know how to protect it, how to repair it, How to be an engineer and preserver of the land, not a destroyer.”
Unfortunately, some greedy leaders, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, are outraged by the fact that indigenous peoples control valuable resources, in Brazil’s case, they control 13% of the country’s territory, Most of them are virgin forests. Brazil bought US$3.5 billion worth of fertilizers from Russia last year, but now Brazil’s fertilizer imports are restricted due to Western sanctions on Russia. So, as soon as the war started creating fertilizer shortages, Bolsonaro blurted out that “this crisis is a good opportunity for us” (according to The Washington Post). “Where there is Aboriginal land, there is wealth underneath,” he added.
He later moved to pass legislation that would allow companies to mine potash from indigenous forests so Brazil could produce more of its own fertilizer.
And Ukraine itself. Before the war, Ukraine had vast tracts of old-growth forests that, according to the WWF, “have been untouched by humans.” According to a report released by the OECD in July, Russian military activity has been largely absent since the Russian invasion. Destroyed “900 nature reserves”, “an estimated 1.2 million hectares, or about 30% of all protected areas in Ukraine”.
In addition to this, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine accounted for a quarter of the world’s timber trade last year. Due to the war and sanctions against Russia, other timber producing and exporting countries are stepping up efforts to make up the shortfall in timber trade, including by relaxing environmental protection measures. According to the Financial Times: “Soon after the Russian invasion in February, the Ukrainian government lifted a ban on logging of protected forests in the spring and early summer” to help raise funds for the war effort. “Environmental groups are concerned that this decision could cause massive forest loss in an area already suffering from illegal logging and poor forest management.”
Reid notes that over the past half century, “nations have made collective giant leaps in environmental protection and environmental management, such as the United States’ passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, and Brazil’s 1988 Constitution acknowledging the Indigenous peoples have the right to control their lands, which they have protected for thousands of years. Since 1990, protected lands worldwide have more than doubled.” Now, a man at the center of the world’s breadbasket for no reason A brutal war was waged, and all of a sudden, all these normative and legal advances were in danger of being destroyed along with the forest.
That’s why Putin’s war is not only a crime against Ukraine and humanity, but also against our common home, the Earth.