A photo of a Akatsiya Ukrainian Armed Forces tank creeping forward in a haze of gray smoke emissions.
Image credit: President.gov.ua via wikimedia

Ukrainian climate scientists and activists are coping with an added level of stress as a result of Russia’s war in their country. Before the war, Ukraine’s climate scientists campaigned for their country to move toward a green economy and to protect its biodiversity. But now, as the war in Ukraine has raged on for nearly two years, scientists are tasked with documenting every new environmental crime that Russia commits.

Amid bomb explosions and occupations on their land, Ukraine’s climate scientists and activists are fighting their own war against a rapidly warming world in a battle for humanity that is rapidly running out of time.

Climate Anxiety in Wartime

Climate anxiety, as Harvard Health Publishing defines it, relates to the “worries about the effects of climate change. It is not a mental illness. Rather, it is anxiety rooted in uncertainty about the future and alerting us to the dangers of a changing climate.” This anxiety can be met by feelings of anger, grief, guilt, depression, and shame, which can, in turn, affect an individual’s personality and relationship to others.

In Ukraine, climate anxiety is set against the backdrop of living in a country at war, where a report by Frontiers in Psychiatry found that a “large portion of the Ukrainian population shows increased levels of anxiety, depression, and stress due to the war.” The report adds that 70 percent of Ukrainians reported acute stress symptoms since the start of Russia’s invasion.

Scientists like Svitlana Krakovska, a climate scientist who heads the Ukrainian delegation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are all too familiar with the effects of climate anxiety. Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion only amplified the depression Krakovska experiences documenting the warming world.

Krakovska has dedicated her life to researching the climate crisis. In 2018, she was one of the world’s leading scientists listed on the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C report, which warned that humanity had just 12 years left for global warming to be kept at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

It was when she worked on the IPCC report that Krakovska began to develop climate anxiety. The 630-page document found that if global temperatures should reach above 1.5 degrees Celsius yearly, summer heat waves will intensify, more erratic droughts and extreme rainfall events will increase, coral reefs will decline by 70 percent to 90 percent, and global sea levels will continue to rise, among other catastrophic effects of climate change.

“I started to understand the threat much more clearly….I remember I was depressed because I am a mother for four children, so I really do most of my work for them and other children, for future [generations],” Krakovska said in an interview.

When the war in Ukraine began, Krakovska attended a virtual delegation for the IPCC. She was away from her family, staying at an empty apartment owned by her parents in Kyiv, and had just gone to sleep a few hours before she was awoken by a phone call from her brother at 4:30 in the morning, alerting her to the bombing of Kyiv.

Krakovska knew she needed to make a statement to address the war to her colleagues and the rest of the world in a way that would not breach the IPCC’s political guidelines. As Russian missiles and on-the-ground combat bombarded Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine, Krakovska found a way to tie in the climate crisis with the war unfolding in her country.

High-intensity conflicts also require large amounts of fuel, which add to carbon emissions; and explosive weapons, which contribute to air and soil pollution.

“I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels,” Krakovska told the Guardian.

“Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons,” she said. “Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way.”

In 2021 alone, the European Union imported more than 40 percent of its total gas consumption, 27 percent of oil imports, and 46 percent of coal imports from Russia. The reliance on Russian fossil fuels, Krakovska argued, enabled Russia to invade Ukraine.

The Environmental Toll of War

The environmental impacts of war begin long before the fighting does, according to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a UK charity that works to research and publicize environmental data. In an article from 2020, the observatory wrote: “Building and sustaining military forces alone consumes vast quantities of resources,” including water and rare earth minerals.

“The CO2 emissions of the largest militaries are greater than many of the world’s countries combined. We estimate that militaries are responsible for 5.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally,” according to the observatory. High-intensity conflicts also require large amounts of fuel, which add to carbon emissions; and explosive weapons, which contribute to air and soil pollution. 

Inna Datsiuk, a professor of Contemporary Global Environmental Challenges at the Kyiv School of Economics, said in an interview that her initial concern about the environmental toll of the war is the pollution it has caused, but her fear has gradually progressed. Her climate anxiety now adds to a four-year mental health battle that began when she organized a climate strike in Kyiv in 2019.

“I had climate anxiety mainly about the irreversible damage to ecosystems and the planet’s future,” Datsiuk said. “The war has exacerbated my climate anxiety because it has added another layer of urgency and complexity to the environmental issues we face.”

Even if the war in Ukraine were to end soon, it would still take the country decades to repair all the environmental disasters that have been discovered.

Datsiuk was in Irpin, a suburb outside of the capital city Kyiv, when the war began. At the time, she was more concerned about the safety of her family and her community than about the environmental effects of the invasion. Her family had fled to Khmelnytskyi, in Western Ukraine, on February 25, managing to escape Irpin before it fell to occupation.

In mere days, Irpin and neighboring Bucha fell to Russian occupation; they would remain so for under a month. Despite the relatively brief occupation, the two cities bore witness to some of the worst humanitarian impacts of the war. After liberation in late March, 269 bodies were found in Irpin and 461 in Bucha, buried in shallow graves: evidence of some of Russia’s early war crimes in Ukraine.

While less often considered in the context of such horrific, immediate violence, Russia’s violations in Ukraine include environmental crimes, which highlight the toxic legacy of war. That legacy includes “forest fires, burst pipelines, and chemical waste,” according to Grist, which reported over 800 cases of “environmental degradation” in the country since the war started. Because of oil and forests set on fire, 46.2 million tons of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere. That kind of poison legacy isn’t easy to recover from.

Escalating Eco-Crimes

Even if the war in Ukraine were to end soon, it would still take the country decades to repair all the environmental disasters that have been discovered. Speaking on the realities of the mass destruction of nature by humans (known as ecocide) in his country, Maksym Soroka, an associate professor at the Ukrainian State University of Science and Technologies, said that a “terrible fear is no longer fear, but a sad consequence of the war in Ukraine.”

Soroka is from Crimea, a peninsula in Ukraine’s east that has been under Russian occupation since 2014. His research focuses on the problems of industrial pollution and its impact on the sustainable development of small communities. Soroka once lived in Dnipro, a city in southeastern Ukraine, but fled with his wife in May 2022 to Ternopil in the west. From the very outset of the war, Soroka and his colleagues have been collecting evidence of Russia’s crimes.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine has estimated that Russia has committed more than 2,500 environmental crimes (or eco-crimes) thus far. Eco-crimes are considered crimes that breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk to the environment, human health, or both.

Those crimes Ukraine believes Russia has committed include pollution caused by the hostilities, which have contributed 120 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the loss of 491 thousand hectares (1.2 million acres) of land, and the destruction of the Kakhovka Reservoir. According to a report by the Ministry, “The reservoir’s area was 2,100 square kilometers or 24% of the area of ​​the Dnipro reservoirs, and the hydroelectric power plant produced 8% of the energy from the Dnipro reservoirs or 1% of the total electricity in Ukraine.”

According to Datsiuk of the Kyiv School of Economics, “The war has not only impacted human lives but also damaged our rich biodiversity and natural resources. It’s a crisis that extends beyond political borders.” Datsiuk also pointed out that “the most concerning aspect was the immediate pollution caused by military activities. Over time, concerns have shifted to the long-term impact, such as the degradation of natural resources and habitats.”

Soroka’s team has collected evidence of several hundred environmental crimes against the atmospheric air and the environment. Right now, his work involves documenting the destruction of the ecosystem of the Molochna River in the south of the Zaporizhzhia region, one that has been under Russian occupation since March. One cause for concern throughout the war has been the invading forces’ seizure of the Zaporizhzhia power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station. If the plant were to be damaged, it could lead to a nuclear disaster and irreversible damage to both humans and the environment.

“You cannot think about climate change when you have [an] immediate threat to your life.”

However, the environmental impacts of the war in Zaporizhzhia are not limited to the plant. Soroka said he had collected information that Russia plans to “reverse the river and direct its water into canals to irrigate agricultural fields. This will not only lead to a lot of pollution, it will also lead to a change in the microclimate in the south of the Zaporizhzhia region.”

“We see these facts,” Soroka added. “However, we cannot do anything, as this territory is still occupied.”

When Goals Become Ghosts

Speaking of climate anxiety, Soroka said, “We are witnessing how the goals of sustainable development and combating climate change become ghosts in the politics not only of Ukraine but also of other countries of the world. This is exactly what scares me most.”

Krakovska of the IPCC has used her voice and her expertise in environmental science to raise awareness about the ecocide in Ukraine. Still, one of the hardest things for her to come to terms with is that environmental disaster is not at the forefront of the discussion of the war. “You cannot think about climate change when you have [an] immediate threat to your life,” she said.

Though she has been offered multiple opportunities to leave Ukraine for a safer country where she could continue her work, Krakovska has declined each chance to leave because she knows her work is invaluable to Ukraine. However, she said, “I’m in depression. I can smile. I can feel normal, but we’re all under depression. I know many people who are on antidepressants in Ukraine now. It’s very difficult to survive stress. It’s a lot of psychological problems, not only [for] scientists, it’s for all people.”

As Ukrainians have not surrendered to Russia, Krakovska still has hope: “I believe that people in other countries will not give up and [will] continue to combat climate change.…We were united against one enemy, but now we need to unite all our efforts against the climate crisis.”