World leaders have discussed taking measures to slow climate change for years, with frustratingly slow progress. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is putting the geopolitical dangers of dependence on fossil fuel into sharp relief.
The effects of climate change are accelerating faster than scientists had originally anticipated, according to a major United Nations report out this week. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are quickly reduced, the report by 270 researchers from 67 countries found, humanity and nature will be unable to adapt to the changes.
But the world remains dependent on fossil fuel. So much so that when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and Western powers responded with severe sanctions, they were careful to avoid disrupting Russian energy exports.
Sanctions have pushed the ruble to record lows, the Russian stock market is nose-diving, and Putin’s economic ambitions for his country are being crushed. But countries like Germany rely heavily on Russia for their heat, and even the U.S. has carved out exceptions for Russian oil and gas in its sanctions. There’s a huge fear among world powers that Putin will fire back by weaponizing Russia’s vast supply of natural gas and crude oil, upon which much of Europe relies.
Russia is the world’s No. 2 oil producer, and if it were to intentionally hold its supplies, oil prices around the globe would skyrocket, further hurting already ailing consumers. A note from J.P. Morgan in February warned investors that oil prices would grow by 41% to $150 a barrel if Russia’s exports were cut in half.
While the U.S. imports very little oil from Russia, the global impact would likely increase gas prices, already up about 25 cents in the past month, significantly.
“Putin could seek to inflict significant pain on Western nations,” Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note Sunday. “And commodity prices may feel the impact of his countermeasures.”
Green advocates hope that this invasion of Ukraine and the impending standoff with Russia will hasten the use of renewable energy and mitigate the globe’s dependence on fossil fuels.
At a global climate meeting Monday, the representative from Ukraine, Svitlana Krakovska, made a connection between the invasion and natural gas. “Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots—fossil fuels—and our dependence on them,” she said.
“The world is being blackmailed, thanks to an over-reliance on fossil fuels,” wrote Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, in a recent opinion piece. “Avoiding future wars and petro-thuggery is reason enough to move beyond the era of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, storage, and the electrification of almost everything.”
But Republicans in the U.S., as well as oil and gas representatives think differently. Climate advocates say that the oil and gas industry is “taking advantage” of consumer fears to advocate for an increase in fossil fuel usage.
Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) wore a shawl with the words “Drill baby drill” to the State of the Union Tuesday evening.
In a statement last week, the American Petroleum Institute’s president and CEO Mike Sommers argued, “Policies that restrict U.S. natural gas and oil development are steps in the wrong direction. Indeed, few things are more critical right now than providing energy security to American consumers as well as our allies abroad.”
Last Thursday, the same day Russia invaded Ukraine, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida, noting that Biden “shuts down American energy production and green-lights Russian energy production…Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin feels emboldened to do whatever the heck it is he wants to do?”
Hawley’s colleague, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), told conservative outlet Newsmax the same day that Biden had made several decisions on energy “that really hindered the U.S.,” such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and ending drilling on federal lands. According to Blackburn, Putin saw this and concluded, “Joe Biden is weak. I am going to move forward.” Blackburn has received more than $800,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry throughout her career.
But President Joe Biden, facing an exceptionally low approval rating, record-high gas prices, and an impending midterm election, may decide that a quick fix at the expense of the climate is worth the risk. Biden mentioned climate change just twice during his hour-plus State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, in connection to job creation and cutting energy costs for families. Even before Russia’s invasion, inflation fears have prompted an increase in drilling. In December, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urged American oil producers to increase output, telling them to get “rig counts up.”
As the debate around increasing fossil fuel extraction in the U.S. becomes increasingly politicized in the U.S., the science in the United Nations report, which predicted that the percentage of people who are exposed to deadly heat stress could increase from 30% to 76% by the end of the century, remains firm.
“The report makes bleak reading in that the effects of climate change are already severe and may soon stretch our ability to adapt beyond safe limits,” said Yadvinder Malhi CBE, a professor of ecosystem science at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, in a statement to Fortune.
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