Just as Russia was invading Ukraine, I happened to be reading the chapter on Ukraine in Simon Winchester’s book, “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.” It is titled “Death on the Rich Black Earth” and describes how up to ten million people starved to death in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s forced collectivization regime.
It’s quite a legacy, and Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, seems intent on reliving the past.
First, let me pay tribute to the thousands of Russians who took to the streets to condemn their own country’s actions across the border. At least a few thousand have already been arrested, and I suspect their time in custody will not be pleasant.
Second, note the latest report published on February 28 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It gives context to my comments below and paints a bleak, even apocalyptic picture of our climate future as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemns “the biggest polluters guilty of arson on our only home “. The undiplomatic language of the world’s top diplomat only underscores the crisis.
On the first night of the assault, I saw a commentator on Fox explain why Putin hadn’t invaded while Donald Trump was president – one of the reasons given was that Trump’s policies aggressively encouraged production and export of fossil fuels to the United States, thereby reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.
I have worked for the past seven years to eliminate the production of coal, oil and gas (methane) in the United States. So I vehemently disagree with Trump’s policies, but the commentator’s remarks highlight the role of dirty energy in geopolitics.
Germany halted certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia in response to Russian aggression, but the managing director of German utility Uniper said that even without the pipeline in operation, half of the gas German in January came from Russia. Russia supplies 30% of the gas to the whole of Europe.
Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and gas, which accounts for 40% of its federal budget. Oil and gas represent 60% of Russian exports. Major oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell all work with Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively controlled by Putin, the Russian state oil and gas companies. Former ExxonMobil CEO (and former Trump Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson has had a particularly close relationship with Putin.
With gas supplies dwindling, Germany may have to revert to burning more coal, which is terrible for the climate and also deadly because of its toxic air emissions. And American companies and many politicians are calling for even more production and export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the United States.
There are currently seven LNG export terminals in the United States, including four along a small stretch of the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. Twenty more have been approved by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency – a conservative body set up in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis – said in May last year that to avoid a real climate catastrophe, there should be no new fossil fuel projects after 2021.
But there is another possible outcome: that the conflict encourages the growth of renewable energies. According to Inside climate news“As stocks tumbled on Thursday in reaction to the Russian invasion, Europe’s renewable energy index jumped 9.3%. It was the biggest stock market jump since the pandemic lows of March 2020 and contrasted sharply with the collapse of the European market. In the United States, individual renewable energy companies also saw massive gains. When the market closed on Thursday, the stock price of Sunrun Inc., a US company that supplies residential solar panels and batteries, had soared nearly 22%. Conversely, shares of oil majors like BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil all remain down after a major price drop on Wednesday.
Then there is the legacy of another form of toxic energy, the closed but still radioactive Chernobyl nuclear power plant complex, which the Russian military apparently now controls. The thought of a nuclear accident – there or at one of Ukraine’s four remaining nuclear power plants – should give us all pause.
The world’s militaries – with the United States far in the lead – consume vast amounts of oil and gas even in times of peace, and a war dramatically increases this consumption, with disastrous consequences for the climate. An added benefit of our growing global renewables is that no one will depend on another country for the energy that comes with the deadly baggage we see right now.
Melinda Tuhus lives in Hamden.