The war in Ukraine seems disconnected from discussions about climate change, but both can be solved if we develop a more planetary-scale outlook.

When John Kerry, U.S. climate envoy, worried that the war in Ukraine was overshadowing efforts on climate change targets, some people pilloried him as having made a tone-deaf comment; one that ignored the plight of Ukrainians and the very real situation of the war. Yet solving global environmental challenges and war both involve the need to develop a planetary scale vision of our future. The war in Ukraine therefore provides a chance to transition to a new outlook.

It’s always difficult for people to establish priorities when dealing with major global issues. Often, we get consumed by a visceral problem in our field of vision that seems to make everything else seem irrelevant. The war against Ukraine is a case in point.

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When you watch what is happening in Mariupol, for instance, it is easy to feel deeply shocked and to drop into a mindset that sees almost everything else in the world, apart from one’s basic survival needs, as being frivolous, even narcissistic.

So, it is not unreasonable that when a climate envoy worries about greenhouse gas emissions while Ukrainians are under attack, it has the feel of blind detachment. However, there are three things we should consider that I think let John Kerry off the hook.

First, the degradation of Earth is a very real problem, no matter what else is happening on the planet. For a long time, we have considered our planet’s oceans and atmosphere to be so vast that they would easily consume all the waste and destruction we could throw at them.

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However, even in ancient times, people could see that our empires and wars tended to distract us from the finite size of Earth and its fragility.

Two thousand years ago, Roman statesman and writer Cicero penned a piece of fiction whose content was astonishing for its time.

He describes the dream of a man called Scipio who is taken far from Earth and implored to look back by his guide Africanus. Scipio’s view of the universe is transformed: “The spheres of the stars easily exceed the Earth in size. Now the Earth itself seemed so small to me that I felt ashamed of our empire, whose extent was no more than a dot on its surface.”

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Over the last few hundred years, humanity has injected sufficient gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere to cause measurable changes to its content and thus to the temperature of the planet. Apart from the atmosphere, our rapacious societies are devastating the diversity of life.

The sheer quantity of pollution we produce (not least about 350 million tons of plastic each year) can leave few people in doubt that we have challenges to address, no matter how much you might like to argue about the specifics.

Although the war in Ukraine makes it difficult to hold our gaze on these facts, as individuals and nations we must work hard to realize that facing up to the violence, and confronting it, does not mean that we need to detach ourselves from addressing global scale environmental issues.

These global problems are more difficult to see; for many people, at least now, they don’t have a violent and real effect on our daily lives. This probably explains why they seem strangely indulgent against the backdrop of Ukraine.

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However, this brings me to my second point. If we do not address the global problems, it is likely that conflict will increase.

The most recent climate report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) emphasizes that our changing climate does not necessarily directly cause war, but it does exacerbate existing political and economic tensions, weakening the capacity of nations to adapt. Responding to the changing climate and other environmental obstacles is a complex matter, and nations already under stress are more likely to fall prey to conflicts that result from these tensions.

Clearly, the war against Ukraine is not caused by climate or environmental degradation, but the apparently ethereal concerns about habitat destruction and biodiversity that seem so far from Irpin and Bucha will rudely arrive at humanity’s doorstep in the form of war at some later stage.

And one should not be so naïve as to assume that this won’t happen to the apparently relatively robust political and economic systems of the northern hemisphere compared to the south. We are all vulnerable.

The war in Ukraine is a reminder that we have not left an age of barbarism and entered a new age of scientific enlightenment. Humanity is always poised to descend into violence and more so with the capacities of modern weaponry. We should care about the global scale problems to ensure that we build a world where local eruptions of destructive terror are less likely.

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This brings me to my next point. In many ways, Scipio’s dream has become real. We have finally confronted the smallness of Earth and our societies that inhabit it. We now realize that it doesn’t take much to ruin our home.

We can even see it and monitor it from space. We are developing a planetary scale consciousness.

Already, we have had some success in achieving a coordinated vision across nations to solve Earth-scale problems. In the 1980s, the Montreal Protocol was used to reach international agreement to ban chemicals that cause a hole in the ozone layer – the covering of gas in our atmosphere that protects us from much of the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Yet this agreement is only the start. We are going to need many more efforts like this to curb pollution, limit diversity loss, and control atmospheric gases.

To do this, we need to live in a world where imperial ambitions achieved by military means are consigned to history. A global political environment based on the peaceful resolution of conflicting claims is the only foundation sufficiently reliable for agreeing and maintaining binding global decisions about how we treat the planet.

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Nor can we live in a world where the environment itself is despoiled by war. A green war is an oxymoron. All armed conflicts shed waste and poison the environment, often on terrible scales, quite apart from their obvious human cost.

Any war between humans is always a war on the environment and the rest of life caught up in it.

Recognizing these realities is the nexus through which the environment and the war in Ukraine converge. Kerry was not wrong to raise the matter of the effects of the invasion of Ukraine on climate change targets, but what he should have done was to articulate that both are interlinked and that solving both requires a common mindset to be adopted by nations.

Resolving the war in Ukraine can help us achieve a peaceful world in which we can focus our efforts on planetary scale problems, particularly the health of our biosphere, and grasp the great opportunities that await humanity, such as space settlement.

Conversely, solving environmental and climate problems can help us reduce conflict and tensions in the future that might emerge and bring about further iterations of the sort of situation we see in Ukraine.

We can address our environmental crisis and the barbarity of war by recognizing that overcoming them both requires individuals and nations to develop a more planetary scale outlook. Dealing with environmental problems does not require compromising on ending war or vice versa. Indeed, the attitude and outlook required for both are complementary and addressing each can strengthen the other.

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To be even more positive, our climate challenges and the war in Ukraine can be used to stimulate the birth of a new urgency in developing this more planetary view. We cannot escape the need to make this mental transition if our species is to survive.

Perhaps right now is a good time for humanity to step up to this advancement in its outlook.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post. 

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