The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on climate change policy

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on climate change policy

Russia’s gruesome and terrifying invasion of Ukraine has drawn attention to 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 main countries in the field of greenhouse gas sales. As our economy has become increasingly dependent on energy as a necessity of daily life, the need for a reliable and affordable source of energy has become increasingly evident. Despite all the problems with fossil fuels, they are still our main source of energy. Although the fossil fuel industry wants us to increase our dependence on their product, it is clearly not in our interests to do so.

Even setting aside the environmental damage caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the volatility of supply and fluctuating prices make it a particularly problematic resource. The West’s ability to wage economic war against Russia for its wanton destruction of a neighboring sovereign state is compromised by our dependence on its fossil fuels. Europe is like a junkie trying to attack his favorite drug dealer. Not a credible short-term threat. Europeans know this, and as Somini Sengupta and Lisa Friedman reported in The New York Times last week:

“Analysts said European countries can quickly reduce their dependence on gas through energy efficiency measures and increased investment in renewable energy, which is already in line with Europe’s ambition to stop pumping additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by mid-century. The conflict in Ukraine could accelerate some of that. It could also lead to Lisa Fischer, who follows energy policy at E3G , a research group, called “a tectonic shift” – using renewable energy, rather than sufficient gas storage, to achieve energy security”.

In the United States, the issue of energy security has been debated for half a century. The fragility of the energy supply in the 1970s led to a call for American energy independence and that call is now being renewed by the drill-baby-drill crowd. This team was in charge under the Trump administration and despite their best efforts, they were unable to achieve independence. It’s not because the US is running out of fossil fuels, but because we’re in a global economy and there’s no real way to keep US-produced fuels in the US. ‘they can get a higher price elsewhere. The goal of energy independence has never been realistic; it is simply an exercise in deceptive political symbolism. The only real way to ensure real energy independence is to break our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewables are the ultimate form of energy independence since no sovereign state owns the sun. Also, as innovation drives down the cost of technology to convert solar and wind energy into electricity, renewables will become cheaper and cheaper. Battery technology, essential due to the intermittent nature of solar and wind power, is also improving. Automotive batteries become lighter while extending their range between charges.

In the short term, climate advocates are worried because the war and Russia’s need for resources appear to have moved climate change off the political agenda. I think it is entirely reasonable to divert our attention from climate politics to try to stop a murderous madman from destroying Ukraine, and then possibly turn his attention to other neighboring countries. As we fight for energy supplies to replace fossil fuels from Russia, the long-term impact of this war could and should be increased demand for renewable energy.

Disruptions in global supply chains are renewing calls for American-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 nationalist symbolism, but because the reduced need for low-cost labor in manufacturing makes it possible. More and more of the wealth of the global economy resides in services and the creative production of information, analytics, design, wellness, education and entertainment. The global, high-tech, brain-based economy is here to stay. Communication, information and transportation technology makes global production the best way to produce high quality goods and services at low cost. Disruptions due to COVID, climate impacts and war will disrupt but not destroy global supply chains. Companies can be expected to seek redundant suppliers to weather the disruptions, but the global economy will continue its relentless march.

Which brings me back to climate policy. The $500 billion grant proposed by the Biden administration to accelerate decarbonization and adapt to climate change are important initiatives. When the horror in Ukraine ends or at least stops, this element of the ‘Build Back Better’ Bill should be revived. The hard-right Supreme Court may well eviscerate the Clean Air Act and contradict its earlier George W. Bush-era ruling that defined greenhouse gases as a hazardous 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 meteorologist to know which way the wind is blowing”. This is especially evident during a weather-amplified hurricane, flood, or wildfire. Most US institutions are beginning to pay attention to climate change. But the role of the federal government in supporting decarbonization is crucial. Supreme Court Justices live on Earth with the rest of us, and they should retain 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 has incorporated climate policy into the infrastructure bill and is also using federal purchasing power to help build the green economy. These are important steps, but the challenges of decarbonization will be profound. We must also extend our efforts to the developing world since we all share the same biosphere.

Reducing 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 embedded in our economy. The process of reducing these pollutants will take time. But I am convinced that with ingenuity and determination, we can reduce these dangerous pollutants. When we have brought this form of pollution under control, then we must reduce the long-term buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through 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 for environmental sustainability assumes that our leaders live in the real world and have a respect for the planet and its well-being. It is obvious that Mr. Putin does not care about people or the planet. His delusions are exponentially bigger 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. Combating lethal force with economic and political power may not be enough, but it is absolutely necessary. The scenes of suffering in Ukraine are heartbreaking. The recklessness of the Russian invasion has never been more evident than last week’s attack and near destruction of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine. We will return soon enough to the long-term threat of global warming. For now, the Ukrainian people deserve our help, our support and our prayers.


Teresa H. Sadler