The war in Ukraine’s full impact on action against climate change will not be clear for some time. What is apparent is that in the run-up to the Russian invasion climate change played no part whatsoever in the calculations of leading Western governments and political parties (nor of the Russian regime – but that goes without saying).
Beneath the official talk of climate change as an “existential threat”, there is no real attempt to integrate thinking about climate into the wider conduct of Western foreign and security policy. Western defence ministries and the think tanks and other institutions linked to them are dominated by people who are not merely indifferent to climate change, but have a deep vested interest in downplaying it – since to address the crisis seriously would pose a threat to their institutions, their budgets, and their entire inherited culture. The Western security establishment is primarily concerned with traditional military threats. This in turn results in spending on high-end, expensive tanks, missiles, aircraft, and other equipment. (And armies, it should also be noted, produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide. This is especially true for the US military. 2017 saw a rise in CO2 emissionsAccording to an estimate from a 2019 paper it was more than the whole of Switzerland.
This is primarily due to the possibility that state resources will be diverted from the military to alternative energy development. Now, to their immense joy, spending on climate change action in the West – and especially the United States – will be diminished by the huge new military expenditure being planned for fear of Russian attack, irrespective of the fact that, that to judge by its performance in Ukraine, the Russian army stands as much chance of invading Nato territory as it does of occupying Antarctica.
As a result, climate action may have suffered a major setback. The new emphasis on domestic energy security, independence from imports, and increased commitment to alternative energy has resulted in a greater commitment to energy alternatives in Germany and other countries. This strategy is entirely correct both from an ecological and a security point of view – not just because of the manifest danger of dependence on Russian gas and oil, but because of the ruthless way in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made use of their new leverage to Try to get more political and military support from America.
On the other hand, matching, and possibly greatly outweighing this, is the panic-stricken rush to develop new “secure” sources of fossil fuels. There is a strong possibility that coal will be a new fuel source. It is the most dangerous and reliable fossil fuel but it is also the most reliable because it is available almost everywhere. The new, more pervasive push to increase US oil and gas production may make it more dangerous. This will replace Russian supplies to Europe.
This regressive tendency has been supported by hugely powerful lobbies in the US and virtually the entire Republican Party. Interviews with right-wing US media outlets since Russian invasion have struck me by the machine-like consistency they have displayed. Pushed the line that the Biden administration’s (very limited) moves to limit fracking and coal-mining Were somehow responsiblefor the rise of fuel prices in the aftermath of the invasion.
Russian gas is transported via pipelines. However, new American gas supplies will be made to Europe in the form liquefied natural gases (LNG) that is transported by sea. Germany plans to make colossal investments in the future. Terminals for LNGInfrastructure. After these investments are made, it may be harder to switch to natural gas from clean alternatives. Under pressure from the Green Party, one coalition partner, the German government has stated that these terminals could be. In the future, converted to receive liquid hydrogenHowever, the technical viability and economic viability have been widely questioned. China will be even more committed fossil fuels if it builds the massive new pipelines to import Russian oil and gas, which is what is widely believed to be happening.
To stop Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, the West had to impose the strongest sanctions possible on Russia. Now, however, there are very clear indications that powerful elements in the US and Britain do not want to use sanctions for this purpose but are determined to maintain them indefinitely – even if this undermines or blocks peace efforts – in order to pursue American geopolitical goals of overthrowing Vladimir Putin, weakening or destroying Russia, and isolating China.
One reason is the subservience these elements have to inherited security systems. But, the reasons may differ from country-to-country. Tony Blair and his followers, including Keir Starmer, have a deep-rooted hereditary ambition for great power in Britain. Even the pretence of Britain being a world power cannot be achieved without the assistance of the United States, and in return for their unconditional obedience to US geopolitical agendas.
This agenda is completely disregardive of the interests and economic well-being of the Ukrainian people. It will also be very detrimental to climate action as it will lock us in higher military budgets and hostile relationships with international partners that will not consider the threat that climate change presents. AllExisting States and Societies
However, there has been little resistance from the British or European centre-left to this agenda so far. The Green parties and sections of the left that understand climate change as a serious threat fail to prioritize it. This is due to the tendency of the intellectual Left to an ethic of convictions and sentiments (Max Weber:Gesinnungsethik), as opposed to an ethic of responsibility or consequences (Verantwortungsethik). This tendency is by no means universal – but it is sufficiently dominant both to undermine truly radical action against climate change and to make parts of the left fatally open to the humanitarian and internationalist blandishments with which the transatlantic security establishment dresses up its goals.
Unfortunately, the world is not a place where one issue can be prioritized. This is especially true when the priority (such as climate change) requires enormous and very painful expenditures. Many on the left find this kind of realism difficult to accept. Progressives have a fatal tendency to make climate change action dependent on completely utopian agendas of global government, universal democracy and massive financial transfers from West to poor societies. On one hand, they also tend to mix up climate-change action with other social causes that may be valid but are a distraction from, or even directly against, successful international action against the climate change.
In terms of international policy, this relates above all to the left’s new (in historical terms) prioritisation of human rights and promotion of democracy over basic human welfare. These are worthy goals, but from the perspective of climate action they have serious flaws. First, it should be clear that any international action against climate change must involve cooperation with authoritarian countries, not just China and Russia. India – still a democracy, but one with markedly authoritarian and chauvinist features.
We should have also learned, at least after the invasion of Iraq, how easy these agendas are to be exploited and stoked by American imperialism and its European servants. They can use this to incite hatred against rival states, increase support for US geopolitical agendas which have no real link to spreading democracy, or encourage military spending directly contrary to action to combat climate change.
This problem is best illustrated by the German Greens, their leader and the foreign minister Annalena Bock. The Greens joined the German coalition government last fall with an agenda to mitigate climate change. However, it also included increased hostility towards China and Russia (in support of human rights and democracy) and support of Ukraine and NATO. In the months before the Russian invasion, Baerbock called for increased pressure on Russia, ruled out a compromise over Ukraine, and described the EU’s relations with China as a “competition of systems” that “pitted democracy against authoritarianism”. The Biden administration has also adopted this neoconservative approach.
This resulted in Germany being unable to help avert war. This was disastrous because Germany was the only Western country that could have reached a reasonable compromise (with which it had maintained reasonably good relations and economic contacts). The Greens’ approach might have been excusable if the party had been willing for Germany to fight to defend Ukraine – but of course it had, and has, no such intention. In the end, the Greens’ supposed support for Ukraine was the very purest form of an ethics of sentiment, with no concern at all for actual consequences.
The logical and ethical confusion displayed by the German and other European Green parties highlights another failing: their inability, despite their stated concern for future generations, to think long-term. There is no evidence that democracies do a better job of addressing climate change then authoritarian systems. Some are better than others, but the worst per capita emitters in the world are either Western democracies such as the USA, Australia, and Canada or Western allies such as the oil-rich Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf.
The future is uncertain. We do not know which system will be better at mitigating climate change or dealing effectively with the terrible economic and social effects of the warming that has already been made inevitable by our emissions. It will likely be a mixed picture with some democracies and other authoritarian states doing very well and others struggling. It will not be about democracy but state efficiency, social solidarity and state efficiency.
We will be unable to limit climate change and our descendants will find very little value in our current political and ethical concerns. A world plagued by ecological disaster will most certainly not create the conditions necessary to sustain humane and tolerant societies. David Wallace-Wells, a climate journalist, predicted that even at three degrees global warming, 22nd century will be “the century from hell”. Satan doesn’t appear to have been informed if they have democracy in hell and human rights there.
Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC and author, among other books, of “Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case” (Penguin) and “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry” (US Institute of Peace).