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The war in Ukraine will only deepen the climate crisis

The West's new geopolitical agenda – higher military budgets and hostile international relationships – will severely damage the global struggle to avert ecological catastrophe.

By Anatol Lieven

The war in Ukraine’s full impact on action against climate change will not be clear for some time. What is apparent is that in the run-up to the Russian invasion climate change played no part whatsoever in the calculations of leading Western governments and political parties (nor of the Russian regime – but that goes without saying).

Beneath the official talk of climate change as an “existential threat”, there is no real attempt to integrate thinking about climate into the wider conduct of Western foreign and security policy. Western defence ministries and the think tanks and other institutions linked to them are dominated by people who are not merely indifferent to climate change, but have a deep vested interest in downplaying it – since to address the crisis seriously would pose a threat to their institutions, their budgets, and their entire inherited culture. The Western security establishment is focused on traditional military threats, which in turn generate spending on highly sophisticated and expensive tanks, missiles and aircraft. (And armies themselves, it should be noted, generate huge amounts of carbon dioxide, especially the US military, which emitted more CO2 in 2017, according to an estimate in one 2019 paper, than the whole of Switzerland.)

Above all, of course, this relates to the threat (from their perspective) of state resources being redirected away from the military to the development of alternative energy. Now, to their immense joy, spending on climate change action in the West – and especially the United States – will be diminished by the huge new military expenditure being planned for fear of Russian attack, irrespective of the fact that, that to judge by its performance in Ukraine, the Russian army stands as much chance of invading Nato territory as it does of occupying Antarctica.

As a result, action to stabilise the climate may have received a very serious setback. On the one hand, the new emphasis on domestic energy security and independence of imports has increased commitment to alternative energy in Germany and some other countries. This strategy is entirely correct both from an ecological and a security point of view – not just because of the manifest danger of dependence on Russian gas and oil, but because of the ruthless way in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made use of their new leverage to try to extract increased political and military support from America.

On the other hand, matching, and possibly greatly outweighing this, is the panic-stricken rush to develop new “secure” sources of fossil fuels. There is a strong possibility of a new reliance on coal, the most dangerous fossil fuel of all, but the most dependable because of its near-universal availability. Even more dangerous, because longer-lasting, may be the tremendous new push to increase gas and oil production in the US to replace Russian supplies to Europe.

This regressive tendency is backed by tremendously strong lobbies in the US, and indeed by virtually the whole of the Republican Party. In interviews with right-wing US media outlets since the Russian invasion began, I have been struck by the machine-like consistency with which they have pushed the line that the Biden administration’s (very limited) moves to limit fracking and coal-mining were somehow responsible for the rise in fuel prices following the invasion of Ukraine.

Whereas Russian gas arrives via pipelines, new American gas supplies to Europe will have to be in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported by sea. Germany now plans colossal new investment in LNG terminals and other infrastructure. Once these investments have been made, it may be even more difficult to shift away from natural gas to clean alternatives. The German government, under pressure from the Green Party, one of the coalition partners, has said that these terminals can be converted in future to receive liquid hydrogen, but the technical and economic viability of this has been widely doubted. China will be even more committed to fossil fuels if (as is now widely assumed) it goes ahead with the huge new pipelines to import Russian gas and oil that are under consideration in Beijing.

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After the war began, the West was entirely correct to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Russia in order to bring its criminal invasion of Ukraine to an end. Now, however, there are very clear indications that powerful elements in the US and Britain do not want to use sanctions for this purpose but are determined to maintain them indefinitely – even if this undermines or blocks peace efforts – in order to pursue American geopolitical goals of overthrowing Vladimir Putin, weakening or destroying Russia, and isolating China.

Part of the explanation lies in the ingrained subservience of these elements to inherited security structures, though for reasons that differ from country to country. In Britain there is the hereditary great power ambition so deeply embedded in Tony Blair and his followers including, it seems, Keir Starmer. Even the pretence that Britain is a world power can only be achieved with the help of the United States and in return for unconditional obedience to US geopolitical agendas.

This agenda pays no heed whatsoever to the interests of the Ukrainian people and the world economy. It will also be very damaging for action against climate change, since it will for the foreseeable future lock us into higher military budgets and hostile international relationships that will take no account of the threat climate change poses to all existing states and societies.

Yet so far there has been no significant resistance to this agenda from the British or European centre left. The sections of the left (including the Green parties) that do understand climate change as an existential threat fail to genuinely prioritise it. This stems from a tendency of the intellectual left to what Max Weber called an ethic of convictions or sentiments (Gesinnungsethik), as opposed to an ethic of responsibility or consequences (Verantwortungsethik). This tendency is by no means universal – but it is sufficiently dominant both to undermine truly radical action against climate change and to make parts of the left fatally open to the humanitarian and internationalist blandishments with which the transatlantic security establishment dresses up its goals.

Most unfortunately, in this world, to prioritise one issue means that other issues (perhaps in themselves of great moral importance) have to take second place, especially when the priority, such as climate change, requires colossal and very painful changes and expenditure. This kind of realism is something that much of the contemporary left finds very hard to accept. In consequence, progressives have a fatal tendency on the one hand to make climate action dependent on completely utopian agendas for global government, universal democracy, and huge financial transfers from the West to poor societies, and on the other, to mix up climate change action with other social causes, which may be valid in themselves but are a distraction from or even directly opposed to successful international action against climate change.

In terms of international policy, this relates above all to the left’s new (in historical terms) prioritisation of human rights and promotion of democracy over basic human welfare. These are valid goals in themselves, but from the point of view of action against climate change they have disastrous flaws. In the first place, it should be obvious that any effective international action against climate change depends on cooperation with authoritarian states, not only China and Russia but India – still a democracy, but one with markedly authoritarian and chauvinist features.

Second, we should have learned at least since the invasion of Iraq how very easily these agendas can be exploited by American imperialism and its European servants to stoke hatred of rival states, widen support for US geopolitical agendas that have no real connection at all to spreading democracy, and encourage military spending that is directly contrary to action against climate change.

This problem is exemplified by the German Greens and their leader, the foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. The Greens joined the German coalition government last autumn with an agenda of action to mitigate climate change, but also of increased hostility to China and Russia (in the name of human rights and democracy) and support for Ukraine and for Nato. In the months before the Russian invasion, Baerbock called for increased pressure on Russia, ruled out a compromise over Ukraine, and described the EU’s relations with China as a “competition of systems” that “pitted democracy against authoritarianism”. This neoconservative formula has now been adopted by the Biden administration too.

The result was to disable Germany from helping to avert the war. This was disastrous, because Germany was one of the only Western countries that could have successfully brought about a reasonable compromise with Russia (with which it had retained reasonably good relations and economic contacts). The Greens’ approach might have been excusable if the party had been willing for Germany to fight to defend Ukraine – but of course it had, and has, no such intention. In the end, the Greens’ supposed support for Ukraine was the very purest form of an ethics of sentiment, with no concern at all for actual consequences.

The logical and ethical befuddlement of the German and other European Green parties reflects another failing, which is the inability to think about the long term, notwithstanding their avowed concern for future generations. To date there is no evidence that democracies are better at addressing climate change than authoritarian systems. Some of them are; but the worst offenders in the world in terms of per capita emissions are either Western democracies (the US, Australia and Canada) or Western allies (the oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf).

As for the future, we have no idea which kind of regime will prove superior, either in terms of mitigating runaway climate change or dealing with the appalling social and economic consequences of the warming that our emissions have already made inevitable. In all likelihood it will be a mixed picture, with some democracies and some authoritarian states doing relatively well, and others very badly. The test will not be about democracy, but state efficiency and social solidarity.

If we fail to limit climate change, very few of our present political and ethical concerns will seem of great importance to our unfortunate descendants. A world wracked by ecological catastrophe will most certainly not make for propitious conditions for creating and sustaining humane, tolerant societies. The climate journalist David Wallace-Wells has predicted that, even at three degrees of global warming, the 22nd century will be “the century from hell”. If they have democracy and human rights in hell, Satan does not appear to have been informed.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC and author, among other books, of “Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case” (Penguin) and “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry” (US Institute of Peace).

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