Fossil Fuels, Putin, and the Invasion of Ukraine

This week, I’m handing over the Movement Monday reins to my good friend Aija Zamurs. Aija has a degree in political science and is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Health at Yale, where she has also taken classes in the School of the Environment. We had originally talked about her writing a post about the intersection of public health and the climate crisis, but we’re putting that on hold as current events take us down another path. Aija’s thoughtful and informative take on the connections between the invasion of Ukraine and the climate crisis is an important reminder that climate change doesn’t sit in its own neat and tidy box–rather, it touches and is touched by political, economic, and social events going on all around the world. Likewise, though we may be in the climate movement, our voices can carry far beyond what are labeled as “climate issues.”

Fossil Fuels, Putin, and the Invasion of Ukraine

I woke up on Thursday morning to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and my heart broke. As a member of the Latvian-American community, I grew up hearing stories from my grandparents of fleeing the Soviets, of displaced persons camps, and of starting over in a new place while trying to preserve their language and culture. I heard stories from my parents of growing up and being taught to love a nation that officially did not exist, of the pressure to preserve the language and the culture of a country that they had never seen, and of the protests and demonstrations they participated in so that one day, they could. So while I had never experienced what was happening to Ukraine, I felt the memory and the trauma of my community’s experience deep in my bones. The human toll of this senseless war, now and for generations to come, is unknowable and immeasurable.   

Over the last few days, while trying to process the initial shock, anger, fear, and heartbreak, and while watching footage of air raids, massive traffic jams of those fleeing, NATO troops arriving in Latvia and other nations, and tanks rolling across Ukraine, another thought started to creep in…what will this war mean for climate change? With many crises happening simultaneously, it’s so tempting to tune out. But, it’s critical to understand how crises are connected, so let’s think about the climate change connections between, and implications of, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

First, Russia’s economy is in large part based on oil and gas. Revenues from fossil fuel sales contributed 36% of Moscow’s budget in 2021. There is a ~strong~ argument to be made that Vladimir Putin has been able to maintain power for so long because he has been able to enrich his cronies and maintain some basic standard of living in Russia with money from fossil fuels. Germany was hesitant to check Putin because of its dependence on Russian gas, and allowed the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine and would deliver gas directly from Russia to Germany. Germany only canceled the certification of the pipeline after the invasion despite months of buildup and mounting tensions. The Biden administration and the E.U. have not yet imposed what would likely be the most effective sanctions on Russia: direct sanctions on the fossil fuel industry. They have not done this because it would likely trigger energy crises around the world, especially in Europe. So the world’s dependence on fossil fuels has simultaneously bankrolled the invasion and taken away one of the West’s most potent economic weapons. 

There will surely be an increase in emissions of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants associated with this war. There is the movement of troops and military equipment, in some cases across oceans, and the energy needed to power equipment and manufacture supplies. Think about the energy needed to facilitate the flow of refugees fleeing the war, and the resources needed to help sustain them wherever they settle. Consider buildings that are being destroyed and will have to be rebuilt. This extraordinary moment has necessitated, and will continue to precipitate, extraordinary emissions. 

Putin’s decision to invade his neighbor unprovoked fundamentally shifted the post-Cold War international order. This deeply jeopardizes the ability of the international community to cooperate on the scale that is necessary to adequately address the climate crisis. More immediately, the war in Ukraine has, as it should, pulled the focus of the entire world, especially that of the U.S. and the E.U., not to mention Russia, which are three of the top five highest emitting countries/blocs. While I would love to believe that national governments and the international community can walk and chew gum at the same time, I’m just not convinced that this is the case. Responding to the war in Ukraine will take resources, attention, and bandwidth that could otherwise have been spent addressing other crises like the climate crisis, not only of national governments and international organizations, but of the general public as well. 

It is absolutely necessary that we do whatever we can to support the people of Ukraine; however, this war did not need to happen. This war is the absurd manifestation of an unhinged and power-hungry leader who is enabled, in part, by the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. In addition to causing untold human suffering, Putin has put up another significant barrier in the path towards a net-zero future. 

Our first priority must be to aid those affected by the war and to do what we can to support the Ukrainian people as they defend themselves. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Call your elected officials! 
  2. Stay informed and share accurate information!
  3. Attend a rally in support of Ukraine!
  4. If you can, donate to Ukrainian and international relief organizations!

 – Aija Zamurs 

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