How Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Impacts Climate Policy

March 21st, 2022 - by Steve Cohen / State of the Planet @ Columbia Climate School

The Impact of Russia’s Invasion
of Ukraine on Climate Change Policy

Steve Cohen / State of the Planet @ Columbia Climate School

(March 7, 2022) — Russia’s horrific, terrifying invasion of Ukraine has focused attention on Russia’s role as one of the world’s top three suppliers of fossil fuels. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia are among the top nations in the greenhouse gas sales business.

As our economy has become more and more dependent on energy as a necessity of daily life, the need for a reliable and affordable source of energy has become ever more obvious. For all the problems with fossil fuels, they remain our main source of energy. Although the fossil fuel industry would like us to increase our dependence on their product, it is clearly not in our interest to do so.

Even setting aside the environmental damage caused by fossil fuel extraction and burning, the volatility of supply and price fluctuations make it a particularly problematic resource. The West’s ability to wage economic war against Russia for their wanton destruction of a neighboring sovereign state is compromised by our addiction to their fossil fuels.

Europe is like a junkie trying to attack its favorite drug pusher. Not a credible threat in the short run. The Europeans know it, and as Somini Sengupta and Lisa Friedman reported in the New York Times last week:

“Analysts have said European countries can quickly reduce gas dependence with energy efficiency measures and ramping up renewable energy investments, which are already in line with Europe’s ambition to stop pumping additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by midcentury. The conflict in Ukraine could fast-track some of that. It could also lead to what Lisa Fischer, who follows energy policy at E3G, a research group, called “a tectonic shift” — using renewables, rather than ample gas storage, to achieve energy security.” 

In the US, the issue of energy security has been debated for half a century.  The fragility of the energy supply in the 1970s resulted in a call for American energy independence and that call is now being renewed by the drill-baby-drill crowd. That team was in charge during the Trump Administration and despite their best efforts, they were unable to secure independence. That is not because the United States lacks fossil fuels, but because we are in a global economy, and there is no real way to keep American-produced fuels in the US if they can secure a higher price elsewhere.

The goal of energy independence has never been realistic; it is simply an exercise in deceptive political symbolism. The only true way to secure real energy independence is to break our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy is the ultimate form of energy independence since no sovereign state owns the sun.

Moreover, as innovation drives down the cost of technology to convert solar and wind power to electricity, renewable energy will become less and less expensive. Battery technology, essential due to the intermittent nature of solar and wind power is also improving. Motor vehicle batteries are becoming lighter while extending their range between charges.

In the near term, climate advocates are concerned because the war and need for Russia’s resources seem to have displaced climate change from the political agenda. I think it is entirely reasonable to shift our focus from climate policy to trying to stop a murderous lunatic from destroying Ukraine and then possibly turning his attention to other nearby nations. While we scramble for energy supplies to replace Russia’s fossil fuels, the long-term impact of this war could and should be increased demand for renewable energy.

Interruptions in global supply chains are renewing calls for America-first manufacturing and supply lines. This, too, is more deceptive, political nonsense. American manufacturing will grow with increased use of automation and artificial intelligence, but not in response to nationalistic symbolism, but because the reduced need for low-cost labor in manufacturing makes it feasible.

More and more of the global economy’s wealth is in services and creative production of information, analysis, design, wellness, education, and entertainment. The global, high-tech, brain-based economy is here to stay. The technology of communication, information and transportation makes global production the best way to produce high-quality, low-cost goods and services. Interruptions from COVID, climate impacts and war will disrupt but not destroy global supply chains. We can expect companies to seek redundant suppliers to deal with disruptions, but the global economy will continue its relentless march.

Which brings me back to climate policy. The Biden administration’s proposed $500 billion subsidy to accelerate decarbonization and adapt to climate change are important initiatives. When the horror in Ukraine ends or at least pauses, this element of the Build Back Better bill should be revived.

The radical right-wing Supreme Court may well gut the Clean Air Act and contradict its earlier George W. Bush-era decision that defined greenhouse gasses as a dangerous pollutant requiring EPA regulation. Corporate, state, and local decarbonization efforts will continue anyway.

In the famous words of Bob Dylan, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” This is especially obvious during a climate-amplified hurricane, flood, or forest fire. Most American institutions are starting to pay attention to climate change. But the federal government’s role in supporting decarbonization is crucial.

The Supreme Court’s justices live on Earth along with the rest of us and they should save their anti-regulatory ideological zeal for a policy area that does not pose an existential threat to life as we know it. The Biden team imbedded climate policy in the infrastructure bill and are also utilizing federal purchasing power to help build the green economy. These are important steps, but the challenges of decarbonization will be profound. We need to extend our efforts into the developing world as well since we all share a single biosphere.

The effort to reduce greenhouse gas pollution will be a generation-long process. Unlike many other forms of pollution, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and methane emitted from agriculture and waste are deeply imbedded throughout our economy.

The process of reducing these pollutants will take time. But I am confident that with ingenuity and determination, we can reduce these dangerous pollutants. When we get this form of pollution under control, we will then need to reduce the long-term accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere with government-funded carbon capture and storage.

In the meantime, it is entirely appropriate to focus on the growing catastrophe in Ukraine. My long-term concern with environmental sustainability assumes that our leaders live in the real world and have a reverence for the planet and its well-being. It is obvious that Putin cares for neither people nor the planet. His delusions are exponentially greater and more dangerous than any climate or COVID denier could ever be.

The global effort to delegitimize Putin is more important than any other issue on our political agenda. Fighting lethal force with economic and political power may prove to be insufficient, but it is entirely necessary. The scenes of suffering in Ukraine are heart-breaking. The recklessness of the Russian invasion was never more apparent than last week’s attack and near destruction of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.

We will return to the long-term threat of global warming soon enough. For now, the people of Ukraine deserve our help, support, and prayers.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.