“Global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near term, would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.” This was the stark conclusion of the report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on 28 February. The findings are all the more worrying because current emissions policies and commitments put the world on course for warming of 2.3°C to 2.7°C. The report received comparatively little attention. The reason? Four days earlier, Russia invaded Ukraine.
The world is at “one minute to midnight”, Boris Johnson declared at the start of the Cop26 conference last November. For two weeks, the media was saturated with stories about the urgent need for climate action. Once the doors of the conference hall in Glasgow banged shut, silence fell, and Covid dominated the political agenda once more.
During the first wave of the pandemic, politicians promised to “build back better”. Many suggested that the trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus to help economies recover should be spent on boosting growth in a more sustainable fashion. Few countries have delivered. “Building back better” was soon competing with rising energy prices for attention across the West.
Now, just as Covid appears to be receding, war has broken out in Europe. The crisis in Ukraine should clearly be the focus of attention. But climate change is not going anywhere. People are suffering as extreme weather events leave a trail of death and destruction. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until other crises are resolved before addressing this catastrophe – and the Ukraine war should be the trigger for radical change.
“Climate change is immediate and pressing, but it doesn’t make much difference if action is taken this week or next, whereas with Covid or war it does matter,” says Rebecca Willis, a professor in energy and climate governance at Lancaster University. Polls show voters everywhere are largely in favour of policies to cut emissions, but “politicians don’t necessarily see the electoral case for acting on climate change”, she adds. Now is the time to make that case.
Covid offered an opportunity to double down on climate action while creating economic opportunities, but politicians failed to grasp it. Willis is right to argue that in the UK “levelling up” and net zero should be one and the same. She is also correct that the real lesson of the pandemic is that we need the state to take collective action for the greater good. Like war, successful climate action requires state intervention.
An acceptance of the need for big government, combined with a desire to reduce energy prices and dependence on Russian oil and gas, could coalesce into real climate action – the war is highlighting the flaws of fossil energy as never before.
The traditionally sober International Energy Agency is urging people to turn down their heating and wear a jumper in response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression. Less gas also means fewer emissions. Meanwhile, politicians across Europe are urging an accelerated transition towards renewable energy (Russian gas accounts for about 40 per cent of EU gas imports).
Wind and solar farms will not spring up overnight, but plans announced by the European Commission on 8 March to “repower” the EU through cleaner and more diversified energy sources and eliminate the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas before 2030 are a good start.
Climate change alone has struggled to transform the status quo, but arguments around energy security and energy poverty could push governments to embrace climate action. “Tapping into the desire of Nato leaders to protect and defend people in the face of interconnected threats to planetary security – or at the very least to energy security – could lead to more rapid responses than have been achieved by environmentalist appeals to ‘listen to the science’,” says Sherilyn MacGregor of Manchester University. She takes a feminist view, arguing that Putin’s invasion exposes interconnections between authoritarianism, militarism and “petro-masculinity”, which all “drive climate change and its denial”.
The links between fossil fuels and authoritarian regimes are nothing new. “Our dependence on fossil fuels has enabled dictators and warmongers around the world for decades,” says Tara Connolly from the NGO Global Witness. And the temptation will be for governments to accept more of the same, at least in the short term. While the US has announced it will ban imports of Russian oil and gas, it is believed to be discussing Venezuela and Saudi Arabia as alternative sources of oil. Neither regime has a good environmental or human rights record, to put it mildly.
Germany and Denmark have promised to dramatically increase defence spending in the face of Russian expansionism. All countries in Europe also need to raise investment in solar, wind and battery factories, and offer generous grants for home insulation and heat pumps.
Europe’s winter is nearly over. Cutting off Russian gas now is manageable, but a Marshall-style plan is needed to ensure that this geopolitical manoeuvre becomes a step towards a global green economy.
This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror