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How the war in Ukraine affects the environment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The devastating human cost of Russia's war in Ukraine fills headlines and news stories every day. Back in early March, though, hundreds of international law and environment experts signed an open letter warning of the risks the conflict posed to the environment in Ukraine and Europe. Carroll Muffett is one of its lead authors. He's president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, and he joins us now to talk about how this dimension of the war is playing out.

Welcome.

CARROLL MUFFETT: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So Russia invaded Ukraine two months ago. What do we know about the environmental impacts of the conflict since then?

MUFFETT: One of the important things to understand about the environmental consequences of war is that they are human consequences in another form. And they are often difficult to discern, and they can be very long-lasting. It's really important to recognize that eastern Ukraine, where much of the conflict has occurred, is highly industrialized. This means that there are petroleum refineries and chemical plants, and as we've seen too clearly, Ukraine has nuclear installations around the country. And so the risks are enormous.

We've seen fires at a nuclear facility. We've seen attacks and missiles striking ammonia pipelines and chemical plants, causing releases of highly toxic substances. Even beyond this, there are enormous impacts on agricultural lands as lands are mined, as unexploded ordnance and munitions accumulates on the cropland. And we've even seen attacks and military operations in wildlife refuges and protected areas.

RASCOE: The thing about war is that it's very difficult to get information. So are these instances being tracked?

MUFFETT: Some nonprofit efforts have been undertaken to track that, but it's extraordinarily difficult. It's important to recognize that one of the environmental consequences of war is that the people who are protecting land, who are managing water safety infrastructure are unable to do their jobs, or they're doing it in the midst of live-fire zones. Often what we find is, in the wake of the war, that's when we begin to count the true environmental cost of the operations.

RASCOE: You mention, obviously, the nuclear reactors, which is a huge concern. Is that the biggest area of concern when it comes to the environment?

MUFFETT: If a disaster were to occur at one of the 15 active reactors, you could have impacts that not only affected the local area and Ukraine as a whole but the wider European region. And as we saw with the Chernobyl disaster, these impacts can last years to decades. And that speaks to one of the other, you know, indirect consequences of this invasion - is that if the U.S. and Europe, you know, respond to Russia's invasion by simply replacing Russian oil and gas supplies with new infrastructure to import oil and gas from other places, what we could see is that this has a long-term impact on the global response to climate change.

RASCOE: In a time of war, obviously, the focus is on people hiding in bomb shelters, running for their lives. So many people are losing their lives. Why do you feel it's important to focus on the environment? I guess from what you said before, you feel like this is also a part of the human damage.

MUFFETT: It is absolutely part of the human damage. And one way to look at it is that the environmental consequences of war are simply consequences in human impacts of war that can continue long after the shells have stopped exploding, long after the bullets and the guns have ceased. And so when we talk about the environmental consequences of war, what we're really talking about is simply the impacts of war on humans and on the places where they live in another more protracted and often more insidious form.

RASCOE: Carroll Muffett is president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MUFFETT: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.