Four days after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment of the impacts of global warming. Leading media outlets did their best to pick out the most dire scenarios and findings from the report. But the outbreak of the first major European war since 1945 kept the report off the front page or, at the very least, below the fold. “Climate Change Is Harming the Planet Faster Than We Can Adapt” simply couldn’t compete with “Putin Is Brandishing the Nuclear Option.”
Meanwhile, the headlong rush across Western Europe to replace Russian oil, gas, and coal with alternative sources of these fuels has made a mockery of the net-zero emissions pledges made by the major European economies just three months before the invasion at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Instead, questions of energy security have returned with a vengeance as countries already struggling with energy shortages and price spikes now face a fossil fuel superpower gone rogue in Eastern Europe.
In the decades following the end of the Cold War, global stability and easy access to energy led many of us to forget the degree to which abundant energy is existential for modern societies. Growing concern about climate change and the push for renewable fuels also led many to underestimate just how dependent societies still are on fossil fuels. But access to oil, gas, and coal still determines the fate of nations. Two decades of worrying about carbon-fueled catastrophes—and trillions of dollars spent globally on transitioning to renewable power—haven’t changed that basic existential fact.
Virtually overnight, the war in Ukraine has brought the post-Cold War era to a close, not just by ending Europe’s long era of peace, but by bringing basic questions of energy access back to the fore. A new era, marked by geopolitically driven energy insecurity and resource competition, is moving climate concerns down on the list of priorities. If there is a silver lining in any of this, it’s that a shift of focus back to energy security imperatives might not be the worst thing for the climate. Given the scant effect international climate efforts have had on emissions over the past three decades, a turn back toward energy realpolitik—and away from the utopian schemes that have come to define climate advocacy and policymaking worldwide—could actually accelerate the shift to a lower-carbon global economy in the coming decades.
The issue of climate change burst into the global debate just as the Cold War was coming to an end. As one existential threat seemingly receded, another came into view. For much of the international community, particularly the United Nations and its agencies, climate change also became much more than an environmental issue, offering an opportunity to reshape the post-Cold War order to be more equitable, multilateral, and politically integrated.
Nonetheless, when the framework for climate action emerged in the early 1990s, it built on the experience of the Cold War era. U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements became the model for global cooperation on climate change. Just as the superpowers had signed treaties to gradually draw down their nuclear weapons stocks, nations would commit to draw down their emissions. Yet the first major agreement to propose legally binding limits on emissions—the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—was dead from the moment the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected its terms, even before the negotiations had been finalized. Combine U.S. opposition with the understandable reluctance of energy-hungry, fast-developing nations such as China and India to even consider limiting emissions, and the inefficacy of international climate action was set.
Aspirational goals and nonbinding commitments became the currency of negotiations that lacked any real enforcement capability. Like other U.N. initiatives that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the purpose was primarily to exhort and galvanize. Yearly U.N. climate conferences, amplified by the world’s media, became performative theater where the utopian agendas of the global environmental movement—limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, powering the world entirely with renewable energy, switching to organic agriculture, and transferring hundreds of billions of dollars from rich countries to poor ones for mitigation and adaptation—could be talked about as if they were realistic.
The World Bank and IMF Are Getting It Wrong on Climate Change
Rich donor countries are working to deprioritize poverty reduction and economic development in the global south.
Rich donor countries are working to deprioritize poverty reduction and economic development in the global south.
Facts on the ground told a different story. The carbon intensity of the global energy system fell faster in the 30 years before the first major U.N. climate conference than after it—a result of rising energy efficiency, the spread of nuclear power, and the changing composition of the global economy. After 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, both total and per capita emissions rose faster than before.
The capacity to adapt to rising temperatures and extreme weather events rose significantly as well—as evidenced by the continued decline in weather-related deaths. But this was not due to any U.N.-led efforts to fund climate adaptation, which never materialized. What made people all over the world more resilient to climate extremes was better infrastructure and safer housing—the product of economic growth powered by cheap fossil fuels.
The geopolitical, technological, and economic competition that characterized the Cold War had more success in reducing the carbon intensity of the global economy than climate policy efforts have had since. Emissions-free nuclear energy started as a spinoff of the arms race—a demonstration of technological prowess and the peaceful potential of the atom. The 1973 Arab oil embargo, an outgrowth of the superpower proxy war between Israel and the Arab world, sparked two decades of spectacular improvements in energy efficiency, the shift of power generation and heating away from oil, and the rapid build-out of nuclear power. The nuclear champions include France, which today remains the greenest of the G-7 industrial economies by a significant margin. Photovoltaic solar panels were developed for the superpower space race; their commercialization began as part of the Carter administration’s push for energy independence. Radical improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency come from that era as well.
Globally, the share of electricity from clean sources—nuclear, hydropower, and renewable energy—peaked in 1993, just after the Cold War ended. Hopes that the world would turn from brinkmanship to cooperation on the shared goal of reducing emissions proved illusory. Instead, peace, prosperity, and access to plentiful cheap energy in the post-Cold War era dramatically lowered national incentives to make major investments in energy security. In an integrated global economy free of major conflict, the world could run on Russian gas, Middle East oil, and, more recently, Chinese solar panels.
That world ended on Feb. 24.
Much of the climate commentariat—politicians and policymakers, academics and think tank analysts, journalists and activists—appears shellshocked by the violent return of energy geopolitics and fossil fuel shortages. For many, the war has simply provided another opportunity to inveigh against fossil fuels and promote renewable energy. Ukraine and the world, environmentalist Bill McKibben argued in a long New Yorker essay, are burning because we keep burning things. A switch to solar and wind energy and electric vehicles, McKibben asserted, would free us from dependence on dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin—a common refrain of the latest climate discourse. What McKibben neglected to mention is that most of the world’s solar panel and battery production is controlled by another dictator—Chinese President Xi Jinping—and that Europe’s headlong rush to shut down fossil fuel production and shift to renewable energy over the last decade substantially increased its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
The facile solutions offered by McKibben and other environmentalists fail to reckon with many things, not least how profoundly the world has changed since Russia’s invasion. Europe’s heavy dependency on Russian oil and gas is just the tip of the iceberg. The world’s renewable energy economy is deeply entangled with geopolitically problematic supply chains. Huge parts of the world’s supplies of silicon, lithium, and rare-earth minerals rely on China, where solar panels are produced by Uyghur slave labor in concentration camps. The idea that the crisis might be resolved by choosing Western dependence on Chinese solar panels and batteries over Western dependence on Russian oil and gas reveals just how unserious the environmental movement’s pretensions to justice, human rights, and democracy really are.
At a moment when democracy and liberalism are once again under threat, questions of energy security can no longer be separated from the question of whom we are doing business with. With Russia and China seeking to delegitimize liberal democratic norms more broadly both at home and abroad—including by waging wars of conquest—energy geopolitics cannot be understood outside broader conflicts over the rules of the global order. Our energy choices will either help or hinder our ability to resist these authoritarian regimes.
With the onset of the Ukraine crisis, the new reality is already evident. Since Feb. 24, the Biden administration has reversed course on its efforts to slow or stop oil and gas production in the United States by restricting access to federal land. Instead, it is now threatening firms that fail to raise production with the cancellation and transfer of their drilling leases. It submitted budget requests to substantially scale up domestic uranium processing and enrichment, where Russia is a major supplier. And it invoked the Defense Production Act in an effort to raise domestic production of critical minerals now supplied by China. The focus is on the entire energy supply chain—fossil and nonfossil fuels, nuclear and renewable energy, supplies from China as well as Russia.
The same story is unfolding in Europe. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his counterparts in the European Union, who have led efforts in recent years to choke off international finance for oil and gas development, have made a sudden about-face. The trans-Saharan gas pipeline, which would bring natural gas from Nigeria to Morocco and from there to European markets, is now back on the fast track after languishing due to opposition from European climate policymakers and lack of finance. Now that Europe needs African gas, it seems that Africans are finally deserving of the benefits of their own energy supplies too.
Eastern European countries like Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, long wary of relying on Russian gas and ridiculed as paranoid by Germany, are now moving forward with plans to source new nuclear technology from the United States. They might have sourced this technology from Germany had the country not sold its world-leading nuclear technology assets to Russia’s Rosatom during the Merkel administration.
In Asia as well, energy realpolitik has returned. South Korea, after flirting with de-emphasizing nuclear energy in recent years, has just announced plans to scale it up again due to growing concerns about rising fossil fuel prices and the high cost of transitioning to renewable energy. In Japan, for the first time since the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, a majority of the public now supports government plans to restart the nation’s reactors.
Energy policy in the wake of the Ukraine invasion is likely to be informed by energy security imperatives similar to those of the Cold War era. Nations will not be constrained by the ostensibly scientific targets that have informed climate policy in recent years but by the energy supplies they have available to them.
In response to the energy crises of the 1970s, the United States, rich in both fossil fuel resources and technological capabilities, invested in almost every energy source imaginable. It accelerated the development of coal deposits across the U.S. West, built rail links to bring coal to the Eastern Seaboard, and invested huge resources in the development of unconventional oil and gas production, including shale gas, oil shales, and coal-based synthetic fuels. It also made foundational investments in the commercialization of solar panels, wind turbines, and energy-efficient technologies ranging from LED lighting to combined-cycle gas turbines to fuel-injection engines.
France, Sweden, and Japan, almost entirely lacking fossil fuel endowments of their own, invested instead in huge build-outs of nuclear power. Britain initiated a dash for North Sea gas, which broke its dependence on coal and the deeply entrenched labor strife associated with it.
Whatever modest constraints that climate concerns have placed on fossil energy development are likely to be less salient in the face of supply shortages, price spikes, and other energy security concerns in the coming years. But continuing fossil energy development is likely to have only a modest near-term effect on carbon emissions. In part, that’s because there’s very little capacity to quickly ramp up oil and gas production across much of the world. Most of the low-cost, easily accessible oil and gas fields have already been developed, while new production is harder to reach and costlier to extract. Because existing wells naturally decline, any new production is unlikely to translate into significantly increased supply.
Constrained fossil fuel supply and the new energy security imperatives will likely be a boon for the development of nonfossil energy and infrastructure of all sorts. Long-standing green opposition to sensible licensing of new nuclear reactors in the United States, for instance, is far less defensible today than it was before the invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, it will be harder to sustain NIMBY opposition to things like offshore wind farms on the Atlantic seaboard or new long-distance power lines to bring wind energy from Germany’s stormy north to its populous south. Already, Germany and the European Union are leading a push to loosen environmental protections in order to accelerate approvals.
In every case, the post-Ukraine energy emergency is likely to accomplish much that the climate emergency could not. The environmental movement’s fetishizing of regulatory solutions and its arbitrary technology preferences have always hobbled its ability to advocate for effective climate policies at the scale needed to have much effect on warming. Ironically, decentering climate and centering energy security, particularly in the West, is likely to do far more to address climate change than the climate movement could ever have accomplished.
Climate change, though, is simply not going to be the main event. One of the less observed challenges as the United States and Europe have sought to mobilize the international community to isolate Russia politically and economically has been the lack of enthusiasm from China, India, and much of the developing world.
In part, that is pragmatic: Russia is a major supplier of food, fuel, fertilizer, armaments, and other key goods to many regions of the world. In part, it is because Russian-style corruption, illiberalism, and ethnonationalism are common, if not the rule, in many regions of the world. Putin’s war may not be their war. But many national leaders around the world are sympathetic to Putin’s broader rejection of the Western institutions and norms that have shaped the post-Cold War era.
But for some of these pro-Russian sympathies, U.S. and European leaders have their own inconsistent principles to blame. In the name of saving the world from climate change, Western leaders have exhorted developing nations to forgo the development of their oil and gas resources—and the economic growth enabled by access to fossil fuels. African and other developing-world governments rightly see this hypocrisy, given the heavy dependence of the industrial economies on fossil fuels. Even as Western countries such as Germany continued to build out their coal plants, they advocated for phaseouts of coal-fired power generation in poorer countries. Rich-nation governments have all but cut off most development finance for fossil fuel infrastrucure, despite continuing to exploit their own domestic sources.
Resentment runs deep. For decades, Western environmental and other NGOs, often with the tacit or direct support of governments and international development institutions, have broadly opposed large-scale energy and resource development, from dams to mines to oil and gas extraction.
The NGOs’ environmental and human rights concerns are often real. But the crusading and frequently patronizing nature of Western engagement with these issues, combined with the fact that the NGOs’ local campaigns against major energy projects are mainly financed, staffed, and organized by the West, has tapped into a deep reservoir of anti-Western sentiment going back to the colonial era.
In recent years, Western development assistance has prioritized factors such as transparency, civil society engagement, market liberalization, and climate change. All of this sounds proper and appropriate to Western ears. But the practical result has been the withdrawal of Western governments, development agencies, and financial institutions from virtually all large-scale infrastructure, energy development, and other resource-related projects across the developing world.
China and Russia, by contrast, have no such qualms and have leveraged investments in energy, resource extraction, and infrastructure to advance their geopolitical interests. Their intent is to create dependency in ways that advance Moscow’s and Beijing’s economic priorities while creating international leverage. Since the Ukraine invasion, the efficacy of this strategy is now plain for all to see.
How, then, should the United States and other liberal democracies balance their commitment to democratic and open societies, the imperative to disentangle their own energy economies from China and Russia, and their efforts to counterbalance Russian and Chinese resource diplomacy in the developing world? And how might they advance climate action in an era when other imperatives will almost certainly take precedence?
Doing so will require finding a new course for engaging with the world, rejecting both the preening moral hypocrisy that has characterized the West and the amoral agenda driving China and Russia. In much of the world, Western development institutions need to get back into the game of investing in the proven enablers of economic development: hard infrastructure and the development of energy and other resources.
Insofar as those investments have strings attached, they should support broader efforts toward democratization, transparency, and protection of minority rights rather than conditioning specific projects on a raft of demands associated with local environmental impacts or national action on climate change.
Liberal societies must seek to entangle their allies and suppliers in an ethical, rules-based, multilateral political and economic order while recognizing that democratization, economic development, and environmental progress are always incremental and iterative and that geopolitical competitors will happily step in wherever the West abandons the field. Choosing Western investment and technology must confer benefits in terms of access to markets and supply chains that allow emerging economies to hone some comparative advantage for key sectors of their economies while sidelining Russia and China.
Already, a shift in this direction is apparent. The scaled-back version of the trans-Pacific trade and investment agreement that U.S. President Joe Biden recently traveled to Asia to promote focuses on engaging Asian partners in a shared industrial policy that aims to downsize China’s dominant position in the renewable energy and battery sector.
The broader economy is also likely to enact significant discipline upon the utopian politics that have characterized so much of the post-Cold War response to climate change. A sustained decline in many financial assets—not least the collapse of many high-flying technology stocks and crypto assets—will deflate the endowments and investment accounts of the environmental philanthropies and billionaire donors bankrolling the climate movement. If nothing else, this will reduce the sheer quantity of climate discourse that has so distorted policymaking in recent years.
Inflation, energy shortages, and rising public deficits are also likely to bring an end to the easy money and expansionary fiscal policy of recent decades. The prospect that the generous subsidies driving the energy transition might be scaled back will put to the test claims that wind and solar energy can successfully compete with fossil fuels in many regions.
None of this is inconsistent with various policies to cut emissions and drive green development. But climate and energy policies, especially in the West, may shift significantly from subsidizing demand (for things like solar panels and electric vehicles) to deregulating supply (of things like nuclear power plants and high-voltage transmission lines). A shift of this sort—away from subsidizing specific green technologies favored by activists and lobbyists and toward enabling the broader technological, regulatory, and infrastructural basis for the energy transition—would put clean energy policies on much firmer economic footing. And it would better align climate objectives with energy security imperatives.
If recent months have demonstrated anything, it is that war, insecurity, and economic crisis are merciless teachers. Climate advocates and their political allies have often engaged in the policy equivalent of smoking one’s own supply: They have confused the subsidy-driven growth of renewable energy with evidence that the world is ready to rapidly transition off fossil fuels. Hence, they discouraged the production of oil and gas wherever they could and chronically underinvested in other sources of clean energy, such as nuclear power. But while there has been technological progress, the global economy is still very far away from fully replacing fossil fuels.
The confluence of war in Europe with a global energy security crisis reminds us that the West is not so different from the rest of the world. For better or worse, energy development and security remain the coin of the realm. Any global strategy to build a bulwark against ethnonationalist authoritarianism, achieve economic stability, and transition toward a low-carbon future will need to accommodate itself to that reality.
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