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Fighting Putin Comes Before Climate Change

Fighting Putin Comes Before Climate Change

Tuesday, 29 March, 2022 - 04:30

On the day Russia launched its all-out attack on Ukraine, Svitlana Krakovska was holed up in her home city of Kyiv, working feverishly to finish a report. As leader of the Ukrainian delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), she and scientists around the world were dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of their sixth assessment of global warming and its threats to humanity.

But then Russian artillery started exploding all around her, and Krakovska and her team members had to scurry to the nearest bomb shelters.

The IPCC report was released a few days later nonetheless. In normal times, these tomes make headlines all over the world. This one would have set records, because it’s the most dismal read yet in a genre that was plenty dire already. Humanity, it suggests, will probably miss its goals of limiting the rise in global temperatures and enter an age of calamities. But, of course, these aren’t normal times, and the message was muffled in a news cycle dominated by shooting and dying.

Add this to the list of atrocities committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s not only violated a free country, killed and terrorized innocent people and broken all norms of civilization. He’s also distracted the world from what should be a common quest to save our climate. Politicians who previously talked about little besides Green Deals are now focused entirely on resisting Putin’s onslaught.

There’s another connection between his war and global warming. It’s one that Krakovska, a mother of four who’s chosen to stay in Kyiv, has emphasized in her sporadic Zoom calls with the outside world. Putin rules over a petrostate that hawks the very fossil fuels causing climate change. By paying for his oil, coal and gas, the world has in effect been funding his war machine and aggression.

That’s why energy has also become a military and strategic weapon for both sides. Putin could cut off the oil, coal and gas fueling the economies of Europe. The West, for its part, is trying to wean itself from Putin’s hydrocarbons to make him go bankrupt as soon as possible.

The most visible effect of this clash is the soaring cost of all fossil fuels. Rising heating bills and pump prices will hit the poor hardest. In the worst case, this could lead to mass protests — like the yellow-vest riots of 2018 in France, but bigger, and in more places. Many countries must fear for their social peace.

So there’s really no alternative to temporarily pausing Green Deals and other projects meant to save us in the longer term. The need for physical security currently trumps everything else. To survive now and get through the next winter or two — however long Putin stays at large — we must replace one kind of fossil fuel — his — with all the others.

For Europe, which gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia, that means frantically buying more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from places like the US or Qatar, while simultaneously building the ports and terminals that can welcome the ships. Where possible, it’ll also mean extending the life of nuclear power plants due to be phased out — as Belgium is considering, but Germany stubbornly isn’t yet.

But even as we manage the acute emergency, we must also prepare to exit from it. Yes, we can talk now about temporary rebates for gasoline or heating oil to the poor. But our goal must be to return as soon as possible to letting carbon become gradually more expensive over time — via cap-and-trade systems and such — so that people get used to consuming less of it.

And we must bid farewell to some dearly held assumptions. One, especially in Germany, is that natural gas can be a “bridge” from even dirtier coal-fired electricity to the cleaner, greener solar and wind sort. Owing to geopolitics, that gas bridge has in effect collapsed.

The new reality is that we have to go all the way to universal electrification even faster, powered by 100% renewable energy with green hydrogen filling the gaps. Countries that have so far dabbled in building out photovoltaics, wind farms, smart grids and other parts of the puzzle must double down as though life depended on it. It probably does.

The only glimmer of hope is that Putin may have inadvertently simplified the politics of such a global quest. Convincing voters requires communicating the need for sacrifice — from sleeping colder in the winters to flying less and paying more when you do. But now politicians can make that case in two ways — as necessary to fight both Russian aggression and climate change. Those on the front lines of both struggles, like Svitlana Krakovska, remind us that they’re equally urgent.


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