The war in Ukraine has already caused massive death and destruction, with more undoubtedly to come as the fighting intensifies in the country’s east and south. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians have already been killed or wounded, some 13 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, and an estimated one-third of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Worse yet, that war’s brutal consequences have in no way been limited to Ukraine and Russia: Hunger and food insecurity are increasing across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as grain deliveries from two of the world’s leading wheat producers have been severed. People are also suffering globally from another harsh consequence of that war: soaring fuel prices. And yet even those manifestations of the war’s “collateral damage” don’t come close to encompassing what could be the greatest casualty of all: Planet Earth itself.
Any major war will, of course, inflict immense harm on the environment and Ukraine’s no exception. Although far from over, the fighting there has already resulted in widespread habitat and farmland destruction, while attacks on fuel-storage facilities (crucial targets for both sides) and the wartime consumption of fossil fuels have already released colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But however detrimental they may be, those should be thought of as relatively minor injuries when compared to the long-term catastrophic damage sure to be caused by the collapse of global efforts to slow the pace of global warming.
Mind you, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the possibility of preventing the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above its preindustrial average seemed to be slipping away. After all, as a recent study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear, without a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, global temperatures are likely to exceed that target long before this century ends—with terrifying consequences. “In concrete terms,” as UN Secretary General António Guterres pointed out when releasing the report, “this means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.”
Nonetheless, before the Russian invasion, environmental policymakers still believed it might be possible to avoid that ghastly fate. Such success, however, would require significant cooperation among the major powers—and now, due to the war in Ukraine, that appears unattainable, possibly for years to come.
Geopolitics Leaves Climate Action in the Dust
Sadly, geopolitical rivalry, not cooperation, is now the order of the day. Thanks to Russia’s invasion and the harsh reaction it’s provoked in Washington and other Western capitals, “great-power competition” (as the Pentagon calls it) has overtaken all other considerations. Not only has diplomatic engagement between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing essentially ground to a halt, making international cooperation on climate change (or any other global concern) nearly impossible, but an all-too-militarized competition has been launched that’s unlikely to abate for years to come.
As President Biden declared in Poland on March 26: “We [have] emerged anew in the great battle for freedom, a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” This will not be a short-term struggle, he assured his NATO allies. “We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.”
Decades to come! And mind you, similar expressions of abiding ideological and geopolitical enmity can be heard from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. “We are a different country,” Putin said in his May 9 Victory Day speech. “Russia has a different character. We will never give up our love for our Motherland, our faith, and traditional values.” Similarly, Xi has reaffirmed China’s determination to pursue its own path in world affairs and warned Washington against exploiting the Ukraine conflict for its geopolitical advantage.
If asked, Biden, Putin, Xi, and high-ranking officials everywhere would undoubtedly insist that addressing climate change remains an important concern. But let’s face it, their number-one priority is now to mobilize their societies for a long-term struggle against their geopolitical rivals. And rest assured, that will prove to be an all-consuming endeavor, with digressions for other matters—climate being at the top of any list—postponed for the foreseeable future.
Take, for instance, the $773 billion budget request that the US Department of Defense (DoD) submitted this April for fiscal year (FY) 2023. Look over its proposed expenditures and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the Pentagon’s priorities and, by extension, those of the Biden administration.
According to the DoD’s budget documents, $56.5 billion is being sought for new combat aircraft, $41 billion for new ships, $34 billion for the “modernization” of America’s nuclear arsenal, $25 billion for missile defense, $20 billion for artillery and armored vehicles, and $135 billion for “combat readiness” and training activities. Oh yes, and $3 billion is being sought to address the effects of climate change on the US military.
Under the circumstances, it’s striking that the Pentagon’s budget request even acknowledges the risk of global warming, given the lack of attention it was accorded in the past. Nonetheless, that paltry financial contribution to climate action—mainly meant to deal with the destructive impact of future severe storms on this country’s military bases—is already being overshadowed by preparations for a possible conflict with China and/or Russia. As the Pentagon put it all too directly: “The President’s Budget request for FY 2023 reflects DoD’s clear focus on deterring and, if necessary, denying potential People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russian aggression against Allies and partners.”
Such language, in fact, is used to justify virtually every item in the budget, including all those planes, ships, guns, bombs, and missiles. Similar terms are also used to describe the missions US forces are being trained to perform. A discussion of Army planning puts it this way, for example: “The Army’s Modernization Strategy enables American land power dominance to meet the demands of great power competition and great power conflict, as demonstrated by evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.”
Such passages reveal the dominant mindset of this moment. From the perspective of American leaders and their military strategists—as well, undoubtedly, as those in Russia and China—meeting the demands of “great power competition and great power conflict” is the defining task of our moment and will remain so, in President Biden’s words, “for the years and decades to come.” In such an environment, climate change, as the key peril of our moment, functionally recedes or simply disappears from all such agendas.
The Suspension of International Dialogue and Cooperation
Slowing the pace of climate change requires action at many levels but can only succeed if all nations agree to work together in reducing carbon emissions. Setting and meeting international targets for such reductions could insure that progress in any one country is matched elsewhere. This was, of course, the guiding principle of the Paris Climate Summit of December 2015, which resulted in a pledge by 196 countries to take concrete steps to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Every year since then, the signers of the Paris Climate Agreement have met to review their (supposed) progress in adopting concrete measures aimed at achieving that objective. The most recent meeting—officially, the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) of the International Framework Convention on Climate Change—was convened last November in Glasgow, Scotland, attracting massive media attention. Although COP 26 achieved no major breakthroughs, its summit declaration did at least call on participating states to “phase down” their use of coal and take other steps aimed at curbing fossil fuels.
Many attendees at the Glasgow event expressed the hope that the next meeting, scheduled for this November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, would codify numerous proposals discussed at COP 26 for reducing fossil-fuel consumption. Sadly, however, it’s no longer conceivable that China, Russia, the United States, and the countries of the European Union (EU) will be able to work in any faintly harmonious fashion toward that goal. Russia has already demonstrated its disinclination to talk with the West on such vital matters by sabotaging negotiations aimed at restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. Given increasingly hostile relations between Beijing and Washington, don’t count on those two countries, the world’s leading emitters of carbon, to cooperate on anything significant either.
In short, such international cooperation, never overwhelming to begin with, now appears to have reached a dead end, which means that efforts to keep warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius are almost certain to fail. Indeed, given the current state of great-power relations, the fallback limit of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is likely to be overtaken all too soon with calamitous results when it comes to increasing drought, desertification, intensifying storms, ever-more devastating fires, and other nightmarish outcomes.
Breaking with Russia: Fossil Fuels Forever
As an example of where we’re headed in this Ukraine war moment, consider Europe’s drive to eliminate its reliance on Russian fossil-fuel imports. Although the EU countries have indeed made far more ambitious plans than the other major powers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels over the coming decades, they remain highly reliant on oil, coal, and natural gas for a large share of their energy needs. Moreover, much of their supply of those fuels is imported, especially from Russia. Astonishingly, in 2020 that country supplied approximately 43 percent of the EU’s natural gas imports, 29 of its oil, and 54 percent of its coal. Now, thanks to the Russian invasion, the EU is seeking to reduce those percentages to zero. “We must become independent from Russian oil, coal, and gas,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm. “We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.”
In consonance with such an approach, the EU announced plans to “make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030.” And those plans do indeed involve increased reliance on renewable sources of energy, especially wind and solar power. Such efforts, however, will take significant time to implement and, until then, Europe is anxiously seeking increased oil and gas deliveries from other countries to offset a severe energy shortage (and soaring fuel prices). That reality, in turn, has prompted potential suppliers to invest yet more funds in increased oil and gas output—moves likely to result in a greater, not lesser, long-term commitment to fossil-fuel production and consumption.
This is especially true in the case of European gas imports. Natural gas, the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, has become popular in Europe as a substitute for coal in electricity generation. Its use, however, does result in significant carbon emissions and its extraction often also leads to substantial releases of methane, another dangerous greenhouse gas. Europe currently relies on natural gas for approximately 25 percent of its net energy consumption and now, committed as it is to eliminating Russian gas by 2030, its countries are desperate to find alternative suppliers. In practice, this will mean increased imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Because many key gas producers—notably Australia, Nigeria, Qatar, and the United States—lie too far from Europe to deliver it via pipelines, they will have to ship it as LNG. This, in turn, will require the construction of costly new LNG export facilities abroad and import facilities in Europe, committing both sides ever more firmly to a long-term reliance on gas production.
Thanks to a March 25th agreement between the EU and the United States, for example, this country will be supplying 50 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe annually by 2030 (about double the amount shipped in 2020). To do so, 10 or more new LNG export facilities will have to be constructed in the US and a similar number of import terminals in Europe. Such projects will cumulatively cost hundreds of billions of dollars, while ensuring that natural gas continues to play a prominent role in European energy consumption (and US energy extraction), potentially for decades to come.
Kissing Earth Goodbye
All this—and it’s just the tip of the melting iceberg—leads to one conclusion: The world’s ruling elites have chosen to place their geopolitical rivalries above all other critical concerns, including planetary salvation. As a result, global warming is indeed likely to surpass 2 degrees Celsius sometime during this century. It’s a given that almost unimaginable calamities will ensue, including the inundation of major cities, monstrous wildfires, and the collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world.
This means, of course, that those of us who still view global warming as the crucial priority face the most difficult of challenges. Yes, we can continue our protests and lobbying in support of vigorous climate-change action, knowing that our efforts will fall on remarkably deaf ears in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and major European capitals or we can begin to contest the very idea that great-power competition itself should be accorded such a priority on a planet in such mortal danger. Yes, countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is important, as is deterring similar moves by China in the Indo-Pacific region or our own country globally. However, if planetary meltdown is to be avoided, such considerations can’t be allowed to overshadow the ultimate danger faced by powers both big and small, as well as the rest of us. To have any chance of success in limiting global warming to tolerable levels, the climate-action movement will somehow have to overturn an elite consensus on the importance of geopolitical competition—or else.
Or else, that is, we can kiss Planet Earth goodbye.