Fossil Fuels Beget Dictators

Fossil Fuels Beget Dictators

Americans may think we are powerless as we bear witness to Putin’s war and the bravery of the Ukrainian resistance. We’re not.


As Vladimir Putin’s war continues to inflict widespread devastation on Ukraine and its people, the feeling of powerlessness only grows deeper for those of us witnessing images of war crimes on the news and social media. But this powerlessness assumes we are mere spectators to this invasion. We’re not. For Americans, our addiction to same-day delivery service and mobility at the click of an app makes us pawns in Putin’s game of petrostate perestroika.

“This is a fossil fuel war,” Ukraine’s top climate scientist told The Guardian.

The world’s dependence on fossil fuels has enriched Putin and empowered Russia to return to the age of empires. The events of the last few weeks make abundantly clear that fossil fuels don’t just exacerbate climate change. They also beget dictators.

We need to turn the weakness of our oil addiction into a strength. For those of us who wish to undermine Putin’s ability to wage war and so diminish the ravages on Ukraine, we have a tool at our disposal: sacrifice.

As one cheeky Twitter user put it, “When you drive alone, you drive with Putin.”

The reference to a World War II–era propaganda poster is apt. The last time Europe faced the threat of an expansionist aggressor, Americans responded not only by ramping up production of military equipment but also by tightening their belts for the war effort. They were called the Greatest Generation for a reason—it was their sacrifices that held back the tide of Nazism. And yet today calls for a renewed spirit of conservation have been resoundingly absent.

In announcing the ban on importing Russian oil, President Biden admitted that gas prices, already high for American tastes, are sure to increase. He added the qualification, “I’m going to do everything I can to minimize Putin’s price hike here at home.” The message to Kyiv was clear: Americans aren’t prepared to do their part to support you.

Indeed, suggestions for how American energy can aid Ukraine have fallen into two distinct categories: “Drill, baby, drill” and “Pump, baby, pump.” The former is embodied in Bloomberg Opinion columnist Karl Smith’s insistence that fracking “may be America’s most powerful weapon against Russian aggression.” This is pundit-brain poppycock. Forget fracking’s consequences for the climate (Smith does).

The columnist’s argument is premised on an expansion of fossil fuel production to drive prices down, thereby undercutting the Russian economy and depleting Putin’s coffers. This might be sound logic if high oil prices spurred a fracking boom across America, as it did in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Instead of expanding production, however, fossil fuel companies are keen on shoveling the profits born of $100 fill-ups into the pockets of shareholders. Take it from Occidental Petroleum CEO Vicki Hollub at last week’s energy conference in Houston: “I feel now that we do need to return cash to the shareholders in the form of dividends or buybacks.”

“Drill, baby, drill” won’t save Ukraine from Russian rockets in the short term, but it will lock in a climate catastrophe in the not-too-distant future.

The better option—both geopolitically and environmentally—is Bill McKibben’s. The environmental journalist suggests using the Korean War–era Defense Production Act to scale up creation of heat pumps for deployment in Europe. Forty percent of natural gas consumption in the European Union depends on Russian exports, limiting the bloc’s ability to sanction Putin for his war crimes. Installing millions of electric heat pumps across Europe would heat and cool the continent’s buildings using far less energy than with natural gas. In turn, using less energy would help Europeans withstand the volatility of Russian spigots.

Neither drilling nor pumping, however, can stave off the feeling of powerlessness as we witness the bravery of the Ukrainian resistance. Only solidarity can do that—and solidarity abroad looks like sacrifice at home.

Fossil fuels constitute 60 percent of Russia’s exports, providing the bulk of the resources for Putin’s war chest. Never mind the ban on Russian oil recently imposed by President Biden. Oil is a global market, so diminishing demand in the United States eventually subverts oil profits in Russia. If we want to defund Putin and his lackeys’s war machine, we need to stop consuming as much oil as we do.

Instead of zipping around the neighborhood in an Uber, consider taking the bus. Forgo the latest upgrade to your smartphone or computer. Transition your home to renewable energy by adding solar panels to your rooftop and replacing your methane gas stove with an induction range. If you have a car, take a friend with you on your next grocery run. If you need a car, consider an electric vehicle, or better yet, an e-bike. Not all of modernity’s accessories are mere creature comforts. Grocery delivery, for example, assists those of us with disabilities in leading lives of dignity. But for those of us who can miss our next Peabody haul, we should.

Although it’s a good bet that asking Americans to sacrifice is a losing proposition, for those of us able and willing to take the necessary steps, it can be an empowering experience. Look no further than our allies in Europe, who have far more to lose in confronting Putin’s imperialist ambitions. After “admitting refugees,” a poll of seven European countries found that “higher energy prices” was the most popular risk worth taking to defend Ukraine from Russia. Even after canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would deliver crucial heating to Germany at the cost of further tying its economy to Russia’s, Chancellor Olaf Schloz’s approval ratings have risen. “Far from playing down the costs to everyday citizens,” The New York Times reports, some European leaders “emphasize it as a point of pride.”

Many Americans have grown so used to the luxuries of modern life in part because the consequences are hidden. Putin’s war brings them sharply into view. It’s easy to brush aside emissions that accompany a Seamless delivery. It’s far harder to ignore the devastation of a war waged by oilmen.

The reality is that every action we take that reinforces our dependence on fossil fuels is a gift to strongmen everywhere—whether it’s a warmonger like Vladimir Putin, an ax-happy Saudi prince like Mohammed bin Salman, or a coal baron like Joe Manchin. If Americans can’t make sacrifices to stave off the climate crisis, perhaps we can make sacrifices to protect the world from tyranny. Our greatest weapon is within us.

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