We’re in a Fossil Fuel War. Biden Should Say So.
On one hand, it would seem uncontroversial to point out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a war enabled and exacerbated by the world’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. It couldn’t not be so: Russia is a petrostate — its economy and global influence are heavily reliant on its vast reserves of oil and natural gas — and Vladimir Putin its petromonarch, another in a line of unsavory characters whom liberal democracies keep doing business with because they’ve got something we can’t live without.
The way out of this bind would also appear obvious and urgent. By accelerating our transition to cheap and abundant renewable fuels, we can address two grave threats to the planet at once: the climate-warming, air-polluting menace of hydrocarbons and the dictators who rule their supply.
And yet American politicians on the left sure seem incapable of drawing out this connection, don’t they? In his State of the Union address shortly after Russia’s invasion, President Biden whiffed a major opportunity to revive his stalled climate change agenda by underlining the geopolitical dangers of fossil fuels. His references to climate change — what he has previously called an “existential threat” to the planet — were buried under, rather than connected to, his comments about the war. Concerned with the effects that disruptions might have on fuel supplies, gas prices and inflation in general, he also announced the release, with 30 other nations, of 60 million barrels of oil.
Meanwhile, pundits on the right have had a field day with the notion that Russia’s invasion somehow points up the folly of focusing on climate change. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board blamed “the Biden Administration’s obsession with climate” for making “the U.S. and Europe vulnerable to Mr. Putin’s energy blackmail” and wrote that “the climate lobby has made Mr. Putin more powerful.”
I feel like I’m in the upside-down. If the “climate lobby” were truly so powerful, it might have long ago prevented Europe from building its society upon a devilish bargain with Russian energy. For all their “obsession with climate,” Democrats in the United States Senate have been unable to pass legislation to address climate-warming emissions. Instead, their bill has been stymied by a coal-friendly senator. Now the problem of climate change has been all but overshadowed by the war. Some Democrats seem to have forgotten the planet altogether — Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, wants to give every car owner in his state up to $800 in rebates to offset the high price of gas. This could have been a moment for moral clarity on the dangers of fossil fuels — but so far, Democrats have fumbled that message.
“This narrative has not been out there — that this war is why we need to get off of fossil fuels,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies environmental politics. “More groups need to be connecting the dots, making the case that true energy independence is about running on sunshine, because sunshine is free and abundant and cannot be controlled by dictators.”
Stokes points out that such a message is likely to resonate with people. A study she and a co-author published online in 2017 examined the political factors that led to clean energy policies. “What we found was, overwhelmingly, these policies were passed during energy crises,” she told me. It’s when energy is expensive or hard to get that Americans begin to realize that they ought to look for some new way.
The good news is that Democrats have that new way all lined up. Build Back Better, the massive social and environmental policy bill that fell apart in the Senate late last year, includes a litany of excellent ideas to address the current crisis. That effort is not totally dead; Democrats are still negotiating with Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator holding up the bill, and they could still rally and pass some parts of it.
But I’m flummoxed why Biden and the Democrats have yet to aggressively make the case for their proposals in the new context of war — to point out that climate policy is not unrelated to foreign policy, and that freeing ourselves from other people’s fuels is the best long-term solution to skyrocketing energy prices.
I spoke to several climate policy advocates who lamented the White House’s apparent reluctance to sharpen this message. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, told me that “the ways in which fossil fuels make energy prices far more volatile and put us at the behest of powers and leaders that can act in ways that are dangerous and unjust” has rarely been more obvious. “I have not seen that more visibly in my lifetime,” she said.
But it was an interview that Svitlana Krakovska, a Ukrainian climate scientist who is a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gave that brought home the argument for me.
Krakovska recently told The Guardian that as Russian bombs began to fall on Ukraine, she reflected on the interconnected nature of her area of study and her country’s peril.
I’ll let her have the final words: “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,” Krakovska said in the interview. “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.”
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