When does the climate crisis lead to war?
Let me share some notes and speculations.
For years analysts have forecast that global warming would likely accelerate or directly cause armed conflict. One way for such wars to occur is when environmental disasters drive social or political instability. Another is for nations or other forces to war for limited resources, such as water or energy sources. (I recommend Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos as a good start on the topic.)
Some have looked into modern history and seen that first model already at work. In this view the Darfur War (2003-ongoing) or the Syrian Civil War (2011-ongoing) are struggles either worsened or simply kicked off by aspects of climate change, namely droughts.
Perhaps we can think of the present Russian war in Ukraine as a climate change war, yet in a different way from those in Darfur and Syria. Or different in several different ways which suggest new forms of 21st century conflict.
First, the Ukrainian war now includes a new geopolitical weapon: financially striking an opponent’s ability to produce and sell oil. States can wield this weapon against other nations, as can other entities, including corporations. As I write this the United States and allied nations have taken many steps to attack the Russian economy, from sanctioning banks and oligarchs to blocking individual payments via Google and Apple. The ruble is sinking quickly in value and Russia’s stock market has plummeted, while it was allowed to open. The goal is, of course, to punish Russia and compel its leadership to end the war.
Note that the anti-Putin coalition has not yet banned purchasing Russian oil and gas. The reasons for this are clear, namely that losing those supplies would cause massive humanitarian hardships in certain nations which lack alternatives. Now, it’s possible that such a ban might emerge in some form as the war continues. Winter is receding and summer’s heat has not yet arrived, so heating and cooling demand is lower for a time. Allies could pool and cobble together alternative power stocks as well as their own petroleum sources to make up for a Russian shortfall. It’s unclear to what extent this is feasible at scale; it might be an action only some nations can take.
In whichever particular forms this financial strategy might appear, it’s clear that we’re seeing a new form of economic warfare. To the extent it relies on significant non-carbon energy sources it is suited to the climate emergency.
Second, Russia’s Ukrainian invasion takes place during the start of a massive, even epochal, and global decarbonization effort. Accelerating that effort can be a weapon or war, as shifting energy consumption to renewable (solar and wind especially, along with hydro and geothermal) sources shrinks the market for petroleum, which injures economies based on the stuff. Put another way, a progressive move away from carbon can also be a strategy against regressive, oil-based enemies. Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan (my alma mater), makes this case clearly:
[I]magine a world where all countries have access to affordable energy generated within their own borders, where petro-states no longer have the power to blackmail other countries or impact the international price of energy. This is not a fantasy — it’s the future we are heading toward, as clean renewable energy and storage displace fossil fuels in powering everything we do. This clean energy revolution is already engaging most nations, and with green energy, every country can choose if they want to deploy their own clean energy or depend on other countries for imported clean energy. Countries big and small, rich and poor, can all access a future of cheaper cleaner energy from wind and the sun.
Along these lines Bill McKibben has published several ideas for green weapons, if you will. Today he asked for Americans to carpool their electrically-powered cars, so that we would be less reliant on oil, which would make it easier for Biden to block imports from Russia. Last month he floated the idea of a massive installation wave of heat pumps, both in Europe and the United States, which would decrease demand for oil, gas, and coal power. Bill emphases the many benefits of these ideas beyond harming an enemy’s economy: slowing global warming and reducing carbon pollution (as distinct from CO2’s role in global warming).
Looking ahead, we can see in these strategies the emergence of climate action as a potential geopolitical weapon. While this has links to the financial warfare noted above, it has a different grounding and works in separate ways.
Third, perhaps Putin launched this invasion because of where he saw climate change taking his nation. Already we’ve seen global warming playing hob with Russia, as its infrastructure built on once solid permafrost is now warping and breaking with rising temperatures. Another fundamental structure will soon be in danger: the dependence of Russia on the carbon economy. Selling oil and gas is a crucial part of the country’s income. If the world successfully changes its energy base away from petroleum, then the new market would gut Russia’s economy.
Perhaps Putin looked ahead at this possibility, this likelihood, and foresaw a collapse of national power. Decarbonizing nations were as much a threat to Russian security as NATO expansion, in his mind. Did he decide to act against Ukraine now, while Russia could still afford to mount a major war in the face of likely international opposition, before the climate crisis sapped Russian power? To be clear, I’m not imagining this explanation in terms of a nation seizing oil supplies or other vital goods, but rather fulfilling non-energy-related geopolitical goals while still having the energy to do so.
If this is right – and I could well be wrong, trying to read Putin’s well cloaked mind from afar – then perhaps we could see the Russian invasion as a war of… transition. It’s a phenomenon enabled or thrown up by the global transition away from fossil fuels. Put another way, the Ukrainian War is an event during our transition phase, before we reach a post-carbon settlement.
Note that while I’m writing about the very very large picture, of a civilization in transformation, there are all kinds of movements and exceptions within this transition. The nations I’ve depicted as shifting towards renewables are also trying to provide natural gas to each other. There’s a rising argument in favor of atomic power as a power source for the transition, which many Greens and environmentalists oppose.
Besides these three possibilities, we could also see struggles appear based on the first climate crisis war model I mentioned, as scarcities drive political friction. This morning one analyst asked us to imagine certain nations rationing electrical power if the Ukrainian crisis continues or deepens. (The host charmingly called this “the R-word”). Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran offered this potential scenario:
if they lose a significant part of their gas in a country like Germany — over half their gas comes from Russia, and it’s not just Germany, there’s a bunch of European countries that have a lot of Russian gas — and [if] it all goes offline just like that, then the various options — running your coal plants a little more aggressively, getting LNG [liquified natural gas], of course, and other sorts of efficiency measures, all sorts of things, higher prices, leading to more efficiency — won’t be enough, is the thinking from some experts. And you’re going to have to maybe shut down probably industrial users first — the heavy consumers, maybe steel plants, maybe some other kinds of industries that use a lot of natural gas for high industrial heat. And that will be unpopular, but not nearly as unpopular as cutting off grandma in the middle of winter.
“And that will be unpopular.” I’m thinking of how rising gas prices kicked off the gilets jaunes movement in France. How might people respond when industries go dark, transportation becomes infrequent, and indoor climates harder to condition? Will a sense of political or climate service suffice to keep civil order, or will things splinter? How will Russians respond to the degradation of their economy, not to mention rising numbers of war casualties? Climate change driving political friction indeed.
One last note. In the Russian invasion we see many echoes of older politics, like Putin’s hallucination of a Jewish president leading a neonazi regime. Perhaps we’re also seeing the emergence of new politics, generated by the intersection of geopolitical developments, the climate crisis, and our responses to both. We could see climate patriotisms crop up, whereby it’s patriotic to stop driving a gas guzzler or one installs rooftop solar to get at an international enemy.
Along these lines Naomi Klein outlines several ideologies, starting with what she calls a politics of nostalgia. She links together Putin, Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, the Canadian convoy protests, and others as united by a love for an older, somewhat fantastic politics. That’s an ideology based on a mix of petroleum, opposition to climate action, hostility to immigrants, and racism. “[T]hey are bound together by an attitude toward time, one that clings to an idealized version of the past and steadfastly refuses to face difficult truths about the future.” For them,
oil is a stand-in for a broader worldview, a cosmology deeply entwined with Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, which ranked human as well as nonhuman life inside a rigid hierarchy, with white Christian men at the top. Oil, in this context, is the symbol of the extractivist mindset: not only a perceived God-given right to keep extracting fossil fuels, but also the right to keep taking whatever they want, leave poison behind, and never look back.
very much like a Green New Deal, a framework to get off fossil fuels by investing in family-supporting unionized jobs doing meaningful work, like building green affordable homes and good schools, starting with the most systematically abandoned and polluted communities first. And that requires moving away from the fantasy of limitless growth and investing in the labor of care and repair.
Which then goes right into the Ukrainian war:
It also happens to be the best way to cut off the petrodollars flowing to people like Putin, since green economies that have beat the addiction to endless growth don’t need imported oil and gas. And it’s also how we cut off the oxygen to the pseudo-populism of Trump/Carlson/Bannon, whose bases are expanding because they are far better at harnessing the rage directed at Davos elites than the Democrats, whose leaders, for the most part, are those elites.
Klein has a lot more to say, including a description of a new oil politics based on rising prices; you should read the whole thing. For now I’d like to pause with her two opposed political models, each synthesizing climate change and the Russian invasion. Although rooted in the present and, to some degree, in a semi-imagined past, they may well be early forms of politics to come.
Taken together, these pictures of politics around the climate crisis give us ways of imagining future alliances and strategies. We may look back to our time and view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the first major climate crisis war. It may not be the last.
(thanks to Jody Greene for helpful discussion)