June 5 is designated World Environment Day by the UN. In 50 years since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment that the UN commemorates on 5th day of June, people’s environmental awareness, along with the impact human activity is having on the planet, has expanded immensely. The struggle for protecting the environment took center stage worldwide in 2019, as a protest movement against climate change swept the globe. Meanwhile, environmentalists prepared for 2020’s 50th Earth Day. It really seemed that combatting climate change and other forms of environmental destruction would be the world’s prime focus from then on, creating the possibility of headway on these issues in the foreseeable future.
Then, 2020 turned out to be what no one expected. The pandemic turned the whole world upside down. Consequently, climate change receded into the back of people’s mind. As for the 50th Earth Day, all planned rallies and campaigns had to be cancelled. All events were held digitally, with the largest online mobilization on record being achieved. People struggling amidst a devastating health crisis had no time to be concerned about something as remote as climate change. After two years, life appeared to be finally returning to normal for billions of people in early 2022 as the pandemic waned. And, then, Russia invaded Ukraine, beginning a whole new series of troubles. The global economic situation nosedived further. These circumstances mean that environmental causes continue to be de-prioritized, to the extent that some nations are delaying de-carbonization in their struggle to cope with the fallout from the war.
So basically, by the end of the last decade, humanity was gearing up to make climate change and other environmental issues top priority, but the crises erupting since then put this concern on the backburner. Ironically, it is humanity’s impacts on the natural environment that are largely behind the struggles of the last two years. The coronavirus pandemic arose as a zoonotic disease from the exploitation of wildlife, like many other emerging diseases in recent times. Habitat destruction forces animals into greater proximity with each other and with humans and the mass harvesting of wildlife that is driving many species to extinction also gives pathogens plenty of opportunity to jump from their natural host to humans or domestic animals.
The climate crisis also deepened in the past two years, with extreme and unusual weather activity at an all-time high globally. This is responsible for making the current food crisis as bad as it is, because while Ukraine deals with the invasion and Russia deals with the sanctions, practically all of the world’s other breadbaskets have recently been suffering from the most severe droughts, floods, or heat-waves they have ever seen, devastating agricultural yields.
The war itself has a major environmental component, as wars usually do. The environment within Ukraine is suffering badly. But the biggest concern is over the potential for a huge radiological disaster resulting from the fighting. On day one, Russian forces attacked and seized control of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area sealed off because of hazardous radiation lingering from the 1986 disaster. With 15 running nuclear reactors in Ukraine, this is the first war ever fought in an area with so many nuclear power plants. Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia was struck by Russian fire at one point. Fighting has also threatened radioactive waste dumps in Ukraine, in which things such as medical waste are stored.
There is a sobering lesson to be derived from this. When people are impacted by the consequences of manmade environmental degradation, they are likely to be less involved in protecting the environment from such degradation. That’s because humanity’s impact on nature is often indirect, manifesting itself over the long-term or being spread across a wide area, whereas crises affecting people demand urgent attention. To illustrate this further, say a coastal community is cutting down its mangrove forests for clearing space and making a profit. This makes the same community more vulnerable to strong waves. A local movement emerges to raise awareness and save the mangroves, but then, a powerful hurricane strikes the area, devastating the community with its unobstructed storm surge. People struggling in the aftermath are not going to be preoccupied with restoring mangrove forests and may get busy cutting down more trees in order to rebuild shelter and obtain fuel.
Once recovery from the hurricane is complete, the community may be more motivated than before to protect mangroves. But don’t count on that when environment-derived problems arrive in continuous succession, like the global crises we are having all the time nowadays. Because of the immediate benefits it provides, people have long been doing many things that impact nature while environmentalists have constantly been warning that this will ultimately impact people. In the last two years, it is precisely this blowback on people by nature which has been happening more than ever before.
If we restore and protect all biodiversity right now, it would not end the current pandemic and if we completely halt all greenhouse gas emissions, it will not curb the unrelenting natural disasters happening today. But if we let our current trajectory continue, we are setting up a future in which everything keeps getting worse. So fighting coronavirus may have distracted us from fighting climate change for two years, but as the Ukraine war shows, we can’t wait for things to get back to normal in order to pay attention to environmental security. The old normal is gone. We are going to have to learn how to protect the environment even while we struggle to protect ourselves and get through life’s daily challenges no matter how overwhelming they are.
How this can be achieved is an open question. But the sooner we begin, the better, before pressure from environmental destruction gets even more severe. We have to keep our eyes open for any opportunities we can make use of. The coronavirus lockdowns famously provided nature a respite, but they cannot be sustained. The pandemic has, however, provided us the opportunity for a “great reset”, guiding us towards ways to redesign life in a more environmentally-friendly way. And the Ukraine war is pushing many nations to accelerate their search for alternatives to fossil fuels, so people would be free of dependence on energy from specific, far-away areas.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of treating the coronavirus pandemic as a separate issue from climate change. Environmental degradation is a long-term process and disasters are what result from it. When there is a freak, unprecedented weather disaster, it is a product of climate change. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic is a product of humanity’s encroachment on the world’s natural ecosystems. All forms of environmental degradation are part of the same path the world is going down. Having suffered two years of the worst pandemic of our times should motivate us to safeguard the health of our planet, Earth, more than ever before.
Author’s bio: Raja Shahzeb Khan is an environmental journalist and director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management. He tweets at https://twitter.com/justinshahzebkh