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Featured image: The Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations Field Manual 3-12, Figure 1-1, showing the Cyberspace Domain.

Climate Change

The Hidden Environmental Costs Of The Impending Ukraine Conflict (Part 2)

In Part 1, I discussed the more well-known environmental costs of warfare. Explaining the hidden costs to the environment is harder, though. Not only are there new methods of warfare, like cyberattacks, to account for, but there are also lingering environmental problems this particular conflict could lead to. To really understand the environmental costs, we need to consider everything.

Critical Infrastructure Could Be Down A Lot Longer Than We Hope

Once hackers bring critical infrastructure down, what it takes to fix it can vary.

If it’s just a few PC-type computers or a server that’s compromised, repairs can happen fairly quickly. Competent IT shops often have disk images for a working version of the computer or server’s software. They can quickly wipe the hard drives, copy the image on, and have a working computer again, possibly in under an hour. They might even have complete replacement computers ready to swap in in minutes. In some cases, the problem will be over at this point and the problems completely solved.

Sadly, the problem might come right back if the computer’s hardware is compromised (malware embedded in the chips or memory outside of the hard drive), a crooked employee reinfects the computers to get more cash or a reward from the enemy state, or social engineering happens again. To utility customers, this would look like service returned and then went away again.

There’s also the problem of damage to the infrastructure itself. Malware might not just turn off the computer-controlled equipment that manages the flow of electricity, gas, water, or sewage. In some cases, cyberattacks instruct the computers to sabotage the systems. Large transformers at utility stations could be burnt out through deliberate overloading. Combined cycle turbines at power plants could be damaged beyond repair through overly lean burning, lack of cooling, or other deliberate sabotage through automated controls. Sewage plants could be flooded with sewage, or pumps for anything passing through pipes could be burnt out by being run dry and unlubricated.

It could take weeks or months to come up with replacement parts or to rebuild complex machinery that’s damaged. For larger power transformers, replacements could take months to arrive, or they might not arrive at all because we’ve been buying them from a country we’re now at war with.

How Cyberattacks Cause Hidden Costs To The Environment

Let’s look at common critical infrastructure types and how their outages harm the environment.

Water and telecommunications outages cause much the same problem: extra need to travel. If you can’t get water into your home, you’ll need to go get some. Also, if you can’t talk to family around town, you’ll want to go check on them. Extra trips for work, getting information, and many other tasks that can happen on the internet or over the phone can all add up.

Sewer outages can cause more serious environmental problems. As I pointed out in my “Toilet of the Future” article series, sewer malfunctions happen all the time, and often make a “stomach bug” spread through an area. When untreated sewage makes its way into water supplies, bodies of water, and streets, it not only sickens humans, but damages the environment. Algae blooms, lack of oxygen in the water, and many other things can go wrong. A cyberattack could make this happen for anywhere from a few minutes to weeks, causing far more hidden costs to the environment and sickness than the usual malfunctions do.

Electricity and gas outages also lead to a lot of pollution on top of human suffering. When people can’t get electricity from the grid, they find other ways to get it. On the surface, burning fossil fuels with a generator might seem similar to burning them in power plants, but let’s keep in mind that power plants are far more efficient and clean than a little Honda generator. Plus, the grid can incorporate renewables over time to become cleaner, while a little generator just can’t.

Whether one heats their home with electricity, natural gas, propane, or heating oil, alternatives will be badly needed for winter. In most cases, the alternatives won’t be very environmentally friendly. At my house, the alternative is a fireplace. Particulate matter, greenhouse gases, and everything else about doing that is beyond bad. But as a parent, I’m a lot more interested in burning wood than watching my children freeze to death. Other alternatives, like pellet stoves, sleeping in running cars, portable propane heaters, and more are all generally not safe or environmentally friendly.

Avoiding These Hidden Costs To The Environment

The good news about all this? It’s possible to build a better society that doesn’t turn into a polluting disaster zone when things go wrong.

The biggest way to avoid hidden costs to the environment is to build resilient communities. Not only does this prepare a society for worst-case scenarios like wars, but it also prepares it for natural disasters, technological malfunctions, and many other threats. The best way to explain resilience is to look at trees. Rigid trees that can’t bend will get broken up by the wind. Flexible trees have a strong base to keep from getting uprooted, but they can also adjust and move when big storms come through and survive.

Depending on inflexible infrastructure to deliver power, water, gas, sewer, and other life-sustaining services is like being an overly-rigid tree. Things can be done one way or they won’t get done at all. This leaves a country vulnerable to just a few points of failure that cyberattackers, warplanes, and natural disasters can take out.

Moving to decentralized models, like home-based solar+storage, is more like the flexible tree. Did the grid go down? No big deal. Your home switches to battery automatically and recharges the next day. You don’t lose your heat, air conditioning, fridge, or ability to cook for your family. Hackers would have a much harder time hacking thousands or millions of homes using systems by different vendors than they’d have hacking one power plant run by one company.

Obviously, other utilities like sewer service are much harder to decentralize, but even if they can’t be decentralized, they could be made less vulnerable to problems in other ways. The key is to have the public will to fund resilient infrastructure instead of barely maintaining the status quo.

In Part 3, I’m going to cover one major hidden cost to the environment that can come from a conflict in Ukraine: nuclear proliferation.

Featured image: The Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations Field Manual 3-12, Figure 1-1, showing the Cyberspace Domain. (Cropped, see full image here). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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