intelligencer chats

How Bad Is the Ukraine War for Climate Change?

A car drives past the Gazprom Neft’s oil refinery in Omsk, Russia, on February 10, 2020. Photo: Alexey Malgavko/REUTERS

One of the most important second-order effects of the war in Ukraine is a reevaluation of Western countries’ reliance on Russian oil and gas. I spoke with New York editor-at-large David Wallace-Wells about what this means for the world’s efforts to fight climate change.

Ben: Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe, but it has also scrambled the energy landscape. One consequence: an unfortunate new lease on life for coal in places that were aggressively phasing it out, most notably Europe. Though Russia is still supplying oil and gas to countries highly dependent on it — most notably Germany — the war has also prompted such countries to rethink that dependency, and come up with ways to produce cheap energy quickly, meaning with coal. And though the U.S. is much less reliant on Russia, plenty of powerful people here are using the war to make the argument that a too-sudden pivot from fossil fuels is a bad idea. Suddenly, the transition to clean energy, even in places that took it very seriously (so, not America) has taken a back seat. How major a setback do you think this is?

David: In the long run, I think it’s likelier to be helpful, in the sense that it has illustrated very clearly some of the non-climate costs of fossil fuels, and made a lot of people a lot warier of dependency not just on Russia particularly but other politically problematic petrostates as well. The status quo ante is not, broadly speaking, acceptable any more, and when you really ask the question “what should we build next” with any honesty and without any attachment to the old order, the answer is very obvious: a green future.

The problem comes in the short and medium term, and it is a serious one: The timeline we have that might allow us even a 50/50 chance of keeping temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the stated goal of the Paris accords and the global community of nations — is insanely short. Any delay basically puts it out of reach. And this will be a delay.

Ben: So you think the primary lesson countries will take from this is “Build greener stuff faster” rather than, “Yes, building greener stuff faster would be nice, but in the meantime we need a more comprehensive dirty-energy infrastructure”?

David: I think it’ll be a lot harder for anyone to be aggressively retiring dirty sources right now, which is ultimately what is necessary. But I think the logic of large-scale investments for the long term is going to be a lot clearer and stronger.

Put another way, nobody is going to be building a gas pipeline to Russia again. They’ll look to fulfill those needs with other energy sources. But in the short term they may well be turning to even dirtier sources to bridge the gap.

Another worrisome feature is how hard it’s been to swallow rising prices. For a long time, economists pointed to a carbon tax as the smoothest path to decarbonizing everything. That thinking has been revised or cast aside in the last few years. But seeing the governor of California pushing billions in gas-price relief does make it a little harder to imagine a politically workable path to decarbonization that takes us through a higher cost of fossil fuels.

Ben: Right, the notion that gas should be cheap is a core American idea. Which is not to minimize the struggle people have with rising prices everywhere — just to say that this is sort of a microcosm of climate change as a problem. When the choice is between near-term convenience and long-term stability, the first one usually wins.

David: It’s a bit hard to disentangle those cultural threads: Are Americans more sensitive to expensive gas because we think cheap gas is one of our inalienable rights, or because we drive a lot more and burn many more gallons than people in Europe? But at the very least it seems obvious that our politicians are terrified of backlash from price spikes, and willing to do a whole lot to ease the burden. To some degree, of course, that’s admirable, since it’s the worst-off Americans who’ll be hit hardest by these price increases, and the more enduring responses we could engineer — like expanded mass transit — won’t help over the next six months. But those who had hoped that higher oil prices might be good for climate change are probably, at the very least, ambivalent about the world’s response, which has been much more to focus on short-term needs than longer-term solutions.

Ben: Is it possible to focus on both? Or is that too much to ask?

David: Well, not just possible, but probably necessary — it’s what the historical moment demands. You don’t want people going without heat in northern Europe at the end of winter, and you don’t want working-class Americans unable to afford the drive to work. But while it’s been a common critique of the Biden administration from climate advocates that the president often talks out of both sides of his mouth on these issues — invoking global warming as an existential threat and endorsing ambitious net-zero goals, than urging OPEC to expand production, for instance — with the climate provisions of Build Back Better still stalled on Joe Manchin’s desk, it’s more like the administration is, for now, speaking out of just one side of its mouth, letting its once-ambitious climate agenda shrink and shrivel and retreat and dealing just with our enormous fossil-fuel demands.

As I said earlier, a lot of this is understandable, and maybe even, in a vacuum, defensible. The problem is just that there is no time left in any of our models for delay. In 2018, the U.N. declared that to keep 1.5 degrees alive as a target required a 45 percent reduction of emissions by 2030. Every year since has had higher emissions than all the years that have ever come before in all of human history. The IEA and most other watchdogs expect emissions to continue to grow for at least another few years from here. At that point, we’re out of time.

Ben: You sounded a lot more optimistic at the beginning of this conversation!

David: I’m both! I’m very optimistic that the long-term emissions trajectory points in the right direction, which it never has before. But just pointing it in the right direction isn’t enough, at this point; we’ve wasted way too much time. It has to go sharply down, and immediately, and there’s no indication we’re anywhere near that. Even the trajectory to 2C is starting to look somewhat treacherously steep:

Ben: Got it. On that note, I’m going to go back to thinking about the Will Smith–Chris Rock thing, which unlike climate change is actually the most important issue of our time.

How Bad Is the Ukraine War for Climate Change?