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Stand with Ukraine march in Hamburg

Thousands of demonstrators join Fridays for Future's global day of action to stand with Ukraine by walking down Willy-Brandt-Strasse, a main thoroughfare in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: Daniel Reinhardt/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Climate Change Is Also a Major Casualty of the War in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises the question, again, why the world fails repeatedly to sets its priorities in the right order.

C.J. Polychroniou

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen the return of state-on-state warfare on European soil for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The Balkan wars of the 1990s, which stunned Europe and claimed over 200,000 lives, have been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of old conflicts between ethnic groups.

The question why Putin decided to invade a neighboring country that did not directly provoke Russia will certainly be debated for years to come. Yet, there is little doubt that NATO’s eastward expansion since the 1990s lies at the heart of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Security, rather than conquering foreign territory, is the primary aim behind Russian actions in Ukraine.

Be that as it may, this is an unjustified act of aggression. The Russian invaders have destroyed entire cities and have perpetuated atrocities that constitute serious war crimes, although it is most unlikely that Putin will be charged with war crimes since the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not conduct trials in absentia.

When cooperation and solidarity are most urgently needed in order to address the greatest threat confronting global civilization... we see that short-termism is indeed a defining feature of contemporary capitalism.

The war in Ukraine is also having ripple effects throughout the global system: food and fuel prices are soaring, leading to political destabilization in many countries around the world, European attitudes about defense spending have dramatically changed, war mongering in the US has once again reached an all-time, and even China is putting on display its global reach ambitions by delivering missiles to Serbia, a traditional Russian ally.

Last, but not least, the war in Ukraine is pushing climate action aside even though most countries are falling short on their climate goals. 

For starters, the Biden administration has opted to resume oil and gas drilling in public lands despite campaign promises to end new oil and gas leasing. This is supposed to be a justified response to high gas prices caused partially from Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. However, the fact of the matter is that Biden never meant to carry out his pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the Biden administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling in 2021 than Trump did in the first year of his presidency, according to data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity. Biden also promised to restore US credibility on the climate-change front, yet the US Congress approved a mere fraction of the amount that Biden pledged to deliver this year in public finance to developing countries to support climate action.  

Also, let’s not forget that greenhouse gas emissions rebounded to their highest level in 2021 as economies started recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. And at the end of February, just days after Russia began its assault on Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new scientific report which stressed that many of the impacts of global warming are simply "irreversible" and already beyond the ability of many people to cope.

Germany, which is Europe’s largest economy, announced soon after the start of the Russian invasion that it would build two liquified natural gas terminals as part of an effort to replace Russian gas with fossil fuels from elsewhere. This is an investment in fossil fuels, so it’s hard to see how it can be reconciled with the country’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2045.

Greece, a country facing severe climate change threats, is also boosting gas exploration efforts in order to reduce reliance on Russian energy. The move has already drawn heavy criticism from environmentalists. However, with the country sitting on possibly more than 600 billion cubic meters of natural gas, environmental concerns are surely going to take a back seat.

As further evidence of the short-term thinking that prevails in today's world, the war in Ukraine has renewed interest in nuclear energy despite the dangers associated with nuclear power plants. So what if nuclear power is also a far more expensive form of generation than solar or onshore wind, as UMass-Amherst economist Robert Pollin pointed out in a recent essay of his that appeared in Dollars & Sense.

In sum, the Russian invasion of Ukraine raises the question, again, why the world fails repeatedly to sets its priorities in the right order. At a critical juncture in history, when cooperation and solidarity are most urgently needed in order to address the greatest threat confronting global civilization, namely global warming, we see that short-termism is indeed a defining feature of contemporary capitalism, that the pursuit of state power and hegemonic ambitions remain unchangeable, that profiteering at public expense continues unabated, and that the primitive instinct for waging war is still at work in the 21st century.   

Mind you, it isn’t as if average citizens are unconcerned about the state of our world. Over 90 percent of European Union citizens regard climate change as a serious issue, while a staggering 94 percent of them say that protecting the environment is important to them. Across Europe, climate change was regarded the top-most perceived threat even at a time when majorities in other parts of the world saw the spread of infectious disease as posing the gravest threat to their countries. 

True, the situation is quite different in the US. Only four in 10 US adults are highly worried about the climate crisis. And while Americans approve of action to combat global warming, only 31 percent are in favor of a complete shift away from fossil fuels, according to a Pew Research Center poll. 

However, we must not forget that the U.S. is an outlier nation when it comes to climate protection, among other things such as the quality of life and workers’ rights.  Based on the 2022 Climate Change Performance Index, the top four countries that lead the way in climate protection are Denmark, Sweden, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.  The United States comes 55th, with very low ratings for greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy.

Indeed, the U.S. is dragging its feet on climate action as powerful vested interests have a disproportionate influence on policy making, the Green Party is irrelevant, and unions are extremely weak to the point of being inconsequential when it comes to forging national policies on sustainable development and workers’ rights. Indeed, indicative of how weak organized labor is in the United States, the International Trade Union Confederation has ranked the U.S. among the worse countries for working people.

The highly undemocratic nature of the U.S. political system must figure prominently into any analysis as to why the richest country in the world is lagging on climate change or even why the Biden administration has betrayed its climate pledges.  Even a state with a reputation for progressive politics, and with democrats holding supermajorities, has received “a near failing grade for its lack of progress on climate action.”

Mind you, also, that this is not because of a lack of serious proposals to fight climate change. There are plenty of serious plans out there to address the climate crisis. For instance, researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts have developed green economy transition programs for numerous U.S. states, including California. Their latest undertaking was a study outlining a climate stabilization program for South Korea, showing how the country can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050. 

To sum up, Russia’s war in Ukraine is a tragedy of global proportions. It is destroying an entire nation and has unleashed a “perfect storm” of crises on food, energy and finance, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted while addressing a news conference in New York to present the findings of a policy brief issued by the Global Crisis Response Group. Climate change is also one key casualty of the war. As António Guterres pointedly said in a recent video address to a conference organized by The Economist in London, “short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5C.” 

At this point, all rational and concerned citizens throughout the world should be frightened. The world is on a catastrophic path of global heating and time is running out. World leaders must realize that they have to push aside narrowly defined national interests, do away with business-as-usual scenarios, and work together in order to sort out the climate crisis and help to end the war in Ukraine. Humanity is at a precipice and its future is at stake.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
C.J. Polychroniou

C.J. Polychroniou

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in numerous universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His latest books are The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change (A collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky; Haymarket Books, 2021), and Economics and the Left: Interviews with Progressive Economists (Verso, 2021).

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