Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What Putin's war in Ukraine means for our global climate crisis

By Iryna Dronova

Petrochemical oil plant, tubes, fire, smog, sky, north Sakhalin island, Russia

Petrochemical oil plant, tubes, fire, smog, sky, north Sakhalin island, Russia

Since Putin's invasion of Ukraine just over two weeks ago, payments to Russia for fossil fuels have already exceeded 9 billion euros ($10 billion) from European Union member states alone, according to the Europe Beyond Coal’s tracker. And while the war in Ukraine came as shocking news to many, the involvement of the fossil fuel industry in a global disaster is no longer unfamiliar.

Burning fossil fuels for heating, electricity, and transportation are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It is also a major contributor to the disastrous global warming which threatens to make parts of our planet unbearable for human survival in a very non-distant future, as underscored by the newest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Global governments therefore face an increasingly wicked dilemma – saving their citizens from imminent climate change catastrophes versus protecting them from military aggressions such as Putin’s war machine. The escalating Russian war in Ukraine and the failure of the Budapest Memorandum intended for the country’s international protection once again shift the balance towards ensuring internal securities as the top goal.

Not surprisingly, both Ukraine's immediate and distant neighbors have rushed to increase their military budgets (for example, Germany raised its military speeding immediately by $100 billion and committed to future increases). But this situation is hardly news. Back in 2000, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) – a United Nations-led global assessment of the human impacts on environment – outlined four plausible scenarios of the world’s future.

Only two of those scenarios provided a hope for saving biodiversity, climate, and vital ecosystem services via proactive approaches to ecosystem management and strengthening local institutions together with global collaboration and environmentally sound technology.

Yet, unfolding in front of us is another scenario, the grimmest of the four – Order from Strength, which exacerbates global fragmentation and investments in security, and under which all critical types of ecosystem services are likely to irreversibly degrade.

Ironically, this happens at the time when we have started to discuss the solutions to the climate crisis a lot more actively, rigorously, and with a lot more attention to environmental justice. An inspiring wave of global climate strikes before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 helped to raise climate awareness and stimulate proactive decision-making at various levels.

In January 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom allocated $22 billion over the next five years to address the escalating impacts of a changing climate and to promote proactive, innovative solutions for economically and environmentally sustainable state’s future.

The University of California system made a pledge in 2013 to become carbon neutral by 2025. However, as both climate and ecosystem services operate beyond administrative and geopolitical boundaries, the success of such efforts crucially relies on local and global cooperation, and elimination of systemic inequities creating disproportionate vulnerabilities among human populations.

The climate crisis is not yet recognized as a critical topic in discussing the resolution of the Russian war in Ukraine. The direct involvement of the US and NATO forces is currently dissuaded due to the risk of potential nuclear war escalation. Yet, the most immediate alternative to that also looks grim – a long-term cold war underlined by constant nuclear blackmail, merely delaying rather than preventing the risk of such a disaster. Will we really be able to fight the climate change and its cascading effects on food security and human health once the global trust is eroded so completely?

We need a third alternative – the path to which could be in fighting the energy crisis, for the sake of our planet, democracy, and freedom. Both an immediate reduction of use and cutting of a longer-term dependence on fossil fuels would certainly contribute to faster and fuller-scope sanctions targeting the very core of the Russian war machine.

But this path could also help save our global community from the planet-scale crisis, even though not every nation can yet afford to cut its fossil fuel lifeline at the same rate. Plans for this are already emerging such as a 10-point plan developed for EU by the International Energy Agency.

Even more importantly, sustainable strategies to battle climate crisis do not have to be a one-size-fits-all, and would critically benefit from distributed solutions implementable at local scales and tailored to the needs of specific communities and their stewardship.

The Russian war in Ukraine underscores the uncomfortable truth that the modern world heavily depends on fossil fuel. Even in the face of death and destruction in Ukraine, many countries refuse to stop purchases of Russian oil, gas, and coal. But this could be the time when fighting climate change and national security are on the same page: de-fossilization helps the climate and denies Putin’s Russia the ability to pay for the war.