Russia’s War From a Climate Perspective
January 24, 2022 is a day that will live in infamy. This is the day that the Russian Federation led by President Vladimir Putin began to wage unprovoked total war against the peaceful, democratic people of Ukraine. While many have reported on Putin’s criminality and imperial nostalgia, this report assesses his prospects and the implications for climate as seen through the lens of energy.
Governments around the world have condemned Russia and companies from automakers to tech firms are leaving the country in droves. International sports organizations and governing bodies are excluding Russia to prevent Putin from using athletics as an instrument of power that legitimizes his regime. Russia can no longer participate in international events which includes everything from intercontinental competitions to cat shows. Putin has been stripped of his honorary titles and the consumer backlash against ‘poutine’ illustrates how even something that sounds like the Russian dictator has become the focus of public ire.
The free world has come together to condemn Russia and impose far reaching penalties. This includes sanctions against Russian banks (access to SWIFT), and bans on exports (electronics, refining equipment, military supplies etc.). Russia has lost its ‘most favored nation’ status and Russian airplanes and ships are banned in many countries. We have also seen sanctions against individual Russian oligarchs. As a result the Russian economy is in free fall, stock markets are closed, and the ruble has been rendered virtually worthless. Credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Russian securities 6 notches to a C rating saying a sovereign default is imminent.
As reported by Inside Climate News, more than one thousand organizations hailing from 75 countries have all condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The signatories of this letter decried the toxic impacts of war and expressed concern about the fate of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors.
Despite the risk of draconian punishments, thousands of citizens across Russia are participating in protests opposing Putin’s war. Russian entertainers and leading sports figures have also publicly opposed the invasion and even Lukoil, the second largest oil company in Russia has called for an end to the war.
Putin is undeterred and many fear that the worst is yet to come. This war has already killed thousands and it is driving millions of women and children to flee as their towns and cities come under attack. While most could not imagine that Putin could be so reckless, others seemed to know what was coming. A month before the start of Putin’s carnage migrants from Russia and Ukraine spiked, outnumbering migrants from Central America at the US-Mexico border. As reported by Axios, over 2,000 Russians and 300 Ukrainians made their way to the border last December.
Up to 7 million Ukrainian war refugees are expected in the days, weeks and months to come. The human toll of Putin’s war is unconscionable but left unchecked, climate impacts, including climate refugees, could be far worse. “We’re already seeing climate refugees around the world,” explained John Kerry, President Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate. “If you think migration has been a problem in Europe in the Syrian War or even from what we see now [in Ukraine], wait until you see 100 million people for whom the entire food production capacity has collapsed.”
The impact of Russia’s War on Energy Markets
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused European carbon markets to crash, however, there may also be some paradoxical sequalae. Investors are fleeing Russia in droves and some of these investors are seeing value in sustainability focused investing which has little Russian exposure.
An important dynamic is unfolding in the energy sector. As gas prices surge, analysts are downgrading oil and gas stocks. Meanwhile, renewable energy stocks continue to outperform fossil fuels just as they did during the Covid-19 pandemic. The consistent growth of clean energy is attributable to solid positioning, that includes its capacity to decarbonizing energy and deleverage tyrants. “This moment is a clarion call for the urgent need to transition to domestic clean energy so that we are never again complicit in fossil-fueled conflict,” said U.S. Senator Ed Markey. There is more than the profit incentive at play here, renewables stabilize the energy equation. Renewable energy stocks have proven themselves to be less vulnerable to shocks than traditional energy.
Increasing oil prices increase the likelihood that renewable energy will supplant fossil fuels. AmeetThakkar, energy transition and infrastructure analyst at BMO said rising oil prices may prove to be a catalyst that accelerates the development of renewable energy. James Cameron, a carbon markets expert at Yale University’s Center for Business and Environment said the longer this war lasts the more it will benefit the transition to clean energy.
“You can anticipate that in times of protracted war people are going to try to conserve more energy, use less gas, particularly Russian gas, [and] use as much renewables as possible,” Cameron said.
As demonstrated by Covid’s impact on supply chains, crises often cause global disruptions. The war and the sanctions regime are expected to create global supply chain problems and shortages of food (eg wheat) and raw materials including those required for key technologies (eg semi conductors). Some cleantech including next generation affordable EVs may face an uphill struggle due to supply shortages of things like nickel and lithium. While this may make EVs more costly and dent demand, the rise in gas prices may offset this impact.
Russia is Funded by Oil Exports
Both climate change and Putin’s invasion are directly tied to fossil fuels. This point was made in a Guardian article by Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, and the head of a delegation of 11 Ukrainian scientists that contributed to the latest IPCC report.
“I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels,” said Krakovska, adding, “Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization.”
In the wake of Putin’s war in Ukraine, major western oil companies are being forced to walk away from lucrative Russian projects. These companies provide the technology and the knowhow that Russia does not have. BP has announced that it will dump its 20 percent stake in Rosneft and Shell has indicated that it will cut ties with Gazprom. The list of oil companies abandoning Russia also includes ExxonMobil which has historically used its tremendous wealth and political influence to protect Russia from sanctions. The evaporation of these partnerships does not bode well for Russian extraction of its harder to reach oil and gas resources. While some are using Russia’s invasion to call for increased oil and gas production many others realize that this is the time to double down on efforts to build out less carbon intensive forms of energy.
“The fossil fuel industry’s so-called solution to this crisis is nothing more than a recipe to enable fossil-fueled fascists like Vladimir Putin for years to come,” Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action told the Guardian. “As long as our economy is dependent on fossil fuels, we will be at the mercy of petro-dictators who wield their influence on global energy prices like a weapon. American-made clean energy is affordable, reliable and free from the volatility of oil and gas markets. The best way to weaken Putin’s grip on the global energy market is to get America off of fossil fuels.”
Europe is currently the largest collective buyer of Russian oil and China is the biggest individual purchaser. So what is likely to happen to energy in the wake of Putin’s war and retaliatory sanctions? Over the medium term China’s share of Russian oil is likely to increase while Europe’s share is almost certainly going to plummet as the continent doubles down on efficiency and alternative sources of energy. In the short term, it is possible that Russia could retaliate against European sanctions by withholding supply, while this would drive up energy prices even further it would also hurt the cash starved petrostate. The more likely outcome is that Europe will stop buying Russian oil and gas to deny funding to a rogue regime and Putin’s war machine.
This appears to be the thinking of Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission. von der Leyen recently said the EU must “get rid of the dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal.” This is a sentiment shared by many European states which have a newfound determination to end their dependence on Russian energy. As evidence of this move Germany recently announced that it is ditching the Nord Stream ll pipeline project which would have doubled the amount of Russian gas going to Europe.
“European countries should be diversifying both the types and supplies of energy they use, to reduce dependence on Russian gas exports,” Penn State professor emerita of political science Donna Bahry said. “That’s not just an energy security issue for Europe. It’s also a way to reduce the flow of revenue going to the Russian government and its military.”
Driven by the powerful logic of defunding Putin’s war, the Biden administration has declared a boycott of Russian oil, however this is largely symbolic as only 3 percent of American oil imports come from Russia.
Russia may be a large country, but it has a relatively small economy that is largely dependent on exports of fossil fuels. According to some estimates oil and gas make up 43 percent of Russia’s budget and 60 percent of the country’s exports which generate more than a half a billion dollars a day. Russia could not have entertained the invasion of Ukraine without petrodollars and the help it gets extracting its oil and gas reserves. In the wake of the invasion of Ukraine Russia’s role as an an energy superpower is in doubt. Key energy partnerships have disappeared overnight and Russia is losing markets for its oil. As reported by Oil Price, Russian tankers are currently floating idly along the coasts of Europe and North America looking for buyers.
There is a powerful logic driving the growth of fossil fuels, Cameron said, “there is solid sensible common ground, and it lies in secure [renewable] energy, not energy dependent on supply chains.” Ending reliance on petrostates like Russia has replaced Covid as the leading global priority. History may show that this conflict expedited the end of fossil fuels both to counter Russia’s aggression and to combat climate change.
Russia’s Dismal Climate Change Policy and Silencing of Environmentalists
Ukraine made substantial progress on climate action in the last year, even as their Russian neighbor was occupying Crimea and waging war against them from Donbas. In 2020 Ukraine released its 2050 Green Energy Transition Concept which focuses on efficiency and renewables. In 2021 Ukraine submitted its updated NDC to the UNFCCC which targets emissions reductions of 65 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2060. At the most recent climate talks (COP26) Ukraine announced that it was joining the Powering Past Coal Alliance promising to phase out coal by 2035.
Ukraine delivered more than promises. Between 2018 and 2020, Ukraine significantly more than quadrupled its non-hydro renewable energy capacity from around 2 GW to almost 9 GW. In 2019 alone the country secured $4.5 billion worth of investments in wind and solar power. In sharp contrast to Ukrainian efforts, Russia’s position on emissions reduction has gotten worse over time, despite the fact that Russia is suffering disproportionately from climate change.
According to the IPCC Russia has warmed twice as much as the rest of the world in the last century and much of that warming is occurring in Siberia where mega fires have become commonplace causing health problems and creating feedback loops that further exacerbate climate change. Climate related Russian fires have burned tens of millions of hectares of forest in recent years, releasing tons of CO2 and depriving the world of a vital carbon sink. Even more devastating Arctic feedback loops are unfolding involving unprecedented Arctic warming and melting permafrost. In 2020 melting permafrost caused one of the worst Arctic disasters in Russian history.
Air pollution is also a serious concern in Russia. There are some cities where the air pollution is so bad that ‘black skies’ are the norm. This is the case in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk which has the dirtiest air on the planet due to highly polluting factories and coal-fired power plants.
Instead of reducing climate pollution Putin has positioned himself to capitalize on global warming by increasing resource extraction in the Arctic. As ice sheets were melting Putin invited investors to exploit Arctic resources. Russia has also amassed a major military presence in the Arctic where they are testing new ‘super-weapons’ like the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo that is reportedly capable of causing radioactive tsunamis.
Russia tries to give the impression that it accepts the science behind anthropogenic climate change and embraces the need to slash emissions, but its actions reveal these statements to be little more than hollow rhetoric. Russia is one of the world’s biggest climate polluters both in terms of CO2 and according to new satellite data methane which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Russia gutted its legal framework to reduce GHG emissions and replaced it with official government policy that calls for increasing production of oil, gas and coal. Russia’s emissions reduction target is only 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and net zero by 2060. Even these less than stellar goals have been dismissed as a farce because they employ questionable accounting that relies on negative emissions from unmanaged forests. There is no mention of cutting emissions from fossil fuels. The net result is that Russia is not expected to meet its targets and Russian emissions are expected to keep increasing for the foreseeable future.
Russia’s failure to act at home is consistent with its resistance to global climate efforts. To cite two examples, Russia led efforts to derail climate talks in Bonn in 2013 and more recently they conspired to undermine a positive outcome at COP24 in 2018.
Russia not only resists climate action they actively squash all forms of dissent including environmental protest. Putin is eradicating the last vestiges of free speech in Russia. In a 1984 style denial of reality, Putin has outlawed the reporting of facts, calling them ‘fake news’ and promising long prison sentences and hefty fines for those who dare to criticize the regime or even use factually descriptive words like ‘attack’ and ‘invasion’.
Putin has declared war on independent media, the new law that forbids news outlets from reporting the truth is but the most recent manifestation. In an interview with VOA’s Russian service, journalist Novaya Gazeta said that almost 30 media outlets have been effectively closed by the new law. “journalism has been lost in Russia — it just doesn’t exist anymore,” Gazeta said.
Putin has been silencing critics including environmental activists for years. Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov was murdered for reporting on environmental destruction. Ahead of the Greenwash that was the Sochi Olympics, Russian authorities arrested environmental activists calling them ‘terrorists’. It is interesting to note that in 2020 Donald Trump took a page from Putin’s playbook and tried to cast protestors as terrorists and more recently Republicans have sought to malign protestors and make false equivalencies. The power of protest has been demonstrated in the U.S. and even as war rages on the continent, climate protests persist in Europe.
Russian attacks on environmental protestors are not confined to Russia. In 2013, Russian special forces assaulted and arrested the crew of the Arctic Horizon, an environmental protest ship that was sailing in international waters protesting the irresponsible practices of Russian oil giant Gazprom. In addition to being corrupt, Gazprom is one of the world’s largest sources of fossil fuel emissions.
Disinformation: Trump and the Foundation for War
One of the things that came out of the second part of the IPCC’s most recent report is the acknowledgement of the oil industries’ disinformation efforts. This report corroborates the views of those who argue that disinformation is one of the world’s most pressing sustainability issues.
Russia is the world’s leading source of disinformation. For years the petrostate has been gaming the system and advancing disinformation that undermines freedom and democracy. Putin controls the narrative in Russia while using social media to exacerbate divisions and distrust across Europe and in North America.
The crowning achievement of Putin’s disinformation effort was the election of Donald Trump (it is no coincidence that Trump is also a major source of disinformation). As revealed by the Mueller Report, Russian disinformation played a prominent role in helping to elect the disgraced former president in 2016. The probe resulted 34 indictments and guilty pleas from Trump associates and Russian nationals on a wide range of corruption and conspiracy charges (Trump later went on to pardon those in his camp who were sentenced to prison).
In 2018 Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his CIA Director Mike Pompeo both said Russia’s influence campaigns were ongoing. In September 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that Russia is involved with disinformation efforts to undermine Trump’s opponents.
To this day Trump continues to support disinformation including the lie that he won the 2020 presidential election. Throughout his term as president Trump consistently supported Russia and remaining silent in the face of Russian aggression including the 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Soviet spy and his daughter in Britain. Recently Trump called Putin ‘savvy’ and his war against Ukraine ‘genius’.
Trump laid the foundation for Putin’s war when he denied military aid to Ukraine and tried to extort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on his political rival’s son. This resulted in Trump’s first impeachment by Congress on December 18, 2019, for abuse of power. His second impeachment on January 13, 2021, was for incitement of insurrection. He is the only U.S. president and only federal official to be impeached twice.
Putin is Losing the Information War
Putin has banned Facebook and shut down Twitter in an attempt to shield Russians from facts that contradict his false narratives. This includes Putin’s absurd claims that he is de-nazifying Ukraine and more recently that the U.S. runs a chemical weapons program Ukraine.
Putin has been honing his disinformation strategy for years. To advance his agenda at home he has been shutting down independent media and preparing to drop an information curtain that will cut Russians off from the wider world. At the end of 2019 the Russian government concluded a series of tests to disconnect the country form the worldwide internet. The Duma, Putin’s rubber stamp of political legitimacy, passed the ‘internet sovereignty’ law that gives the government the authority to deny Russian citizens access to the internet.
Putin is erecting an information curtain to shield his citizens from the truth, but this cuts both ways. With the suspension of the distribution of state-owned Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, Putin has been denied access European media and this deprives him of a critical node of disinformation.
Putin weaponized fake news and despite his early social media successes, he is now failing to control the narrative. While Putin may have swayed Russians with false claims of Ukrainian genocide, his opponent, president Zelenskyy is dominating cyberspace. Zelenskyy has emerged as a hero across the full spectrum of digital platforms, and he is decisively winning the information war.
As we saw in the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin still has the capacity to wage cyber warfare. While he commands an army of hackers, there is a far larger army of ordinary citizens and organized hackers who are allied against him (not to mention the yet to be deployed cyber-abilities of the U.S. military). Anonymous is among those who are waging a cyberwar against Putin’s regime, and they have succeeded in taking down dozens of government websites.
Putin’s digital failures echo his military failings in Ukraine. In the first two weeks of combat Ukrainian forces took out 2 Russian navel vessels, 48 airplanes and 80 helicopters. They have also captured or destroyed 303 tanks and hundreds of mechanized vehicles. As reported by the Odessa Journal, “Ukrainian soldiers are beating the enemy on all fronts”. As stated by Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of Ukrainian forces, “we destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the Russian army”.
Smartphones have introduced a powerful new form of warfare. Around the world mobile technologies are being deployed as part of a viral information war that is being directed against the Russian dictator. Contemporary digital realities make smartphones more than just propaganda tools. Geolocating Russian invaders in real time has enabled Ukrainian citizens to contribute to a cogent defense and this open-source intelligence (OSINT) is too fast to be countered by Russian disinformation.
Putin is powerless to stop the digital tsunami of condemnation and the cyberwar that is being waged against him. In a Senate hearing on Thursday March 10, CIA Director Bill Burns confirmed that Putin is losing the information war. It is more than a bit ironic that the man who was once the puppet master of social media, has been reduced to an international pariah.
Information is power and as explained by Carole Cadwalladr in the Guardian, people power is one of the huge geopolitical shifts that has emerged from Putin’s war against Ukraine. Despite attempts to stymie protest, people power is on the rise in the U.S. and around the world. Since this war began, millions of people have come together to show their support for Ukraine. On March 12, tens of thousands attended climate protests in cities and towns across France.
President Biden is carefully containing Putin while working to defend democracy from multiple domestic threats. For those who still needed convincing Russia’s invasion increases the urgency of calls to respond to authoritarianism both abroad and at home. Putin’s war is also helping to frame perceptions of the former American president and those who support his authoritarian tendencies. In Europe populist leaders are rushing to distance themselves from Putin.
Despite carnage taking place in Ukraine, it is fair to say the world is now winning the information war, and this bodes well for democracy. In the wake of Putin’s war we are seeing a level of international cooperation that has proved elusive in recent years. Opposition to Putin’s invasion has united a divided world, and it is this very unity that has been fundamentally lacking in the fight for social and environmental justice.
Just as there was a revolutionary upside to the pandemic that has killed millions there may be an upside to this monstrous war. Covid exposed the cleavages of our civilization and opposition to Putin’s war is bridging these divides. Pandemics, war, and climate change all require a multitiered, coordinated international response. Crises like these energize voters and engender political will. The response to this horrible war may even portend that kind of multilateralism that enables us to engage the climate crises at the required scale.
Putin invaded Ukraine out of desperation. He is using the U.S. and NATO as scapegoats to conceal his corruption and economic malpractice . Putin could not tolerate the embarrassment of having a functioning democracy with a better standard of living on his doorstep. Nor could he countenance a regime that supports science-based policy.
Putin can kill but he can’t win. His war in Ukraine is a war against reality and he is destined to lose, but at what cost? If we can avert a global conflict, the dual tragedies of the invasion and the pandemic will shape human civilization for generations. While it is hard to see beyond the suffering and the horrific toll in blood and treasure, these brutal realities may provoke a paradigm change that augurs a more sustainable future.
How to help
We cannot not forget the people who are defending Ukraine, and the innocent civilians who are being systematically attacked and killed. Please consider helping in whatever way you can, remembering that these brave souls are on the front lines defending democracy and freedom. Here is a list of organizations compiled by NPR and CBS to assist Ukrainians in Ukraine and those who were forced to flee.
Airbnb.org:. Airbnb’s nonprofit is asking people — especially those residing in European nations near Ukraine — to sign up to provide temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees or donate to their stays. The San Francisco-based company is also pledging to shelter up to 100,000 fleeing Ukraine.
CARE: The international humanitarian groups that is proving food, water and other items to families fleeing violence in Ukraine. Contribute here.
Convoy of Hope: The disaster relief group says it’s partnering with a local Polish organization to provide meals to refugees entering Poland from Ukraine, as well as to deliver food, water and other basics across the region. Donate here.
Doctors Without Borders: Staffers with the medical relief organization remain in Ukraine and are “seeking ways to respond to the medical and humanitarian needs as the conflict evolves.” Offer support here.
International Committee of the Red Cross: This Switzerland-based organization is aiming to help people affected by the conflict and support the work of the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Project Hope: The global health and humanitarian relief organization is on the ground in and around Ukraine delivering medicines and medical supplies. It has teams in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and Romania. Donate here.
Save the Children: Based in London, Save the Children helps to deliver lifesaving aid to vulnerable children in Ukraine and around the world. According to its website, the organization says it is on the ground in the U.S. and other parts of the world “delivering essential humanitarian aid.”
UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): The international organization aims to provide emergency assistance to families in Ukraine — providing aid such as cash assistance and opportunities for resettlement in the U.S.
UNICEF: The global group devoted to safeguarding children is working to provide humanitarian supplies to families without safe water or electricity due to the conflict. Contributions can be made here.
United Way Worldwide: The world’s biggest privately funded nonprofit has set up a relief fund in response to the intensifying humanitarian crisis to provide transportation, shelter, food and medicine, including infant supplies such as baby formula. Donations to the United for Ukraine Fund can be made here.
Voices of Children: Ukraine-based charitable foundation has been offering psychological counseling, including art therapy, for children affected by war in the country’s east since 2015, according to its site. The group is currently helping children and families across Ukraine, including helping with evacuations.
World Central Kitchen: Founded by world-renowned chef José Andrés after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, the group provides meals to people in need around the globe. Andrés is now feeding Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border. Those wanting to help finance the group can do so here.