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.
For a visualization, I’d suggest the shawl conservative American representative Boebert wore to this week’s State of the Union address:
To oppose them Klein advocates a politics
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)
You are right, I think, to see this war as a catalyst for the move away from carbon-intensive activities — especially in Europe.
I do wonder about Africa and China on this score.
I think another analogy would be to look at the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese wars as precursors to the kind of industrial warfare that would come to dominate warfare in the 20th Century. The intertwingling of energy trade with the aftermath of the “traditional” war might be the 21st Century’s version of trench warfare. What characterized trench warfare (and I know how much of a WW I fan you are) was that offensive capabilities were overwhelmed by the defensive capabilities of machine guns and artillery. The result was stalemate. What we’re seeing now is that the offensive capabilities of economic sanctions are unable to overcome the energy dependence of domestic economies.
Until we fully implement the energy equivalent of aircraft and tanks, we are likely to find ourselves in a stalemate with the petrostates. I’m going to watch with much interest in the coming weeks and months how the European economies adapt to an uncertain supply of oil and gas from Russia. There are other sources for both but they carry with them other dependencies. Going totally renewable and nuclear is not a short-term option for any large economy.
The reckoning with that in the United States will be even more difficult because its perceived as being more distant. Conservative voices here are saying things like, “if only we’d built Keystone…” Living in the heart of oil country here in Southeast Texas you really feel how it has become a part of the culture.
At the end of the day, culture is what it boils down to. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, in a culture of oil. It’s everywhere – the cars we drive, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, etc. We view attacks on oil as attacks on civilization. Until we resolve that internal war with ourselves, it’s going to be hard to have an honest conversation about kicking the habit. Until you acknowledge you are an addict….
Good thinking, Tom.
I like this as a summation: “the offensive capabilities of economic sanctions are unable to overcome the energy dependence of domestic economies.”
Interesting take, Bryan.
Carbon Brief has a good Q&A/roundup of what various governments and think tanks are discussing re: transition from dependence on Russian gas to renewables, and how that improves their geo-strategic position and helps achieve climate goals:
But, what seems to get overlooked in these discussions and pronouncements such as Overpeck’s is that transitioning to renewables means shifting from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a *mineral-based* economy. This is because most of the renewable technologies that we’re counting on to allow for “green” business-as-usual require massive amounts of non-renewable minerals, from the 3-inch copper cables running the height of every wind turbine mast, to the multi-ton rare-earth magnets in each of those turbines, to the steel in their posts, to the silver, silicate, and various rare earths in PV panels, and to the cobalt and lithium required for EV batteries. And the geostrategic and environmental implications around this near-future mineral dependence are huge.
As Simon Michaux, Senior Scientist at the Geological Survey of Finland points out: “Global reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system or satisfy long term demand in the current system. Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal. Mining of minerals is intimately dependent on fossil fuel based energy supply.” For more on this see his report “The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351712079_The_Mining_of_Minerals_and_the_Limits_to_Growth
And guess where the minerals are: Russia and China. It’s (somewhat) well-known that China has the largest reserves (as detailed in Michaux’s report), but what’s interesting is Russia: In 2021 Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade, and Rosatom (the state nuclear corporation), jointly developed a roadmap for returning Russia to the ranks of the world’s largest producers of critical and “green” energy metals. There’s a news release about that here: https://www.kitco.com/news/2021-03-04/Russia-plans-to-become-a-global-leader-in-rare-and-rare-earth-metals-production.html
So the West’s move to “renewable” (I prefer Nate Hagen’s term “rebuildable”, although even that seems unrealistic) energy will see us leap out of the fossil-fuel frying pan and into the mineral-dependency fire. You can bet your boots Russia understands this, and along with China is positioning itself accordingly.
The other piece that seems to get missed is the lower *net energy* of renewables, particularly when it comes to heat-generation. As Dan O’Neil, Steve Keen, Tim Morgan, and other ecological economists have pointed out, GDP growth is explained by surplus energy (and not by Solow’s magical “total factor productivity”). Declining surplus energy means declining GDP growth and declining prosperity, particularly in the energectically-intensive western economies. Thus, even if a full shift to REs were possible, the lower net energy of renewables will require a major reset of expectations around growth and prosperity. But this is not to argue against renewables — we very much need to get off fossil fuels, particularly as the net energy of fossil fuels is also declining due to the increased energy required to obtain them through deep-water wells, fracking, etc. Again, to quote Michaux: “leave oil before it leaves you.”
How does this relate to Ukraine? Ukraine seems somewhat of an energy focal point — dozens of gas pipelines, large nuclear plants, and 25% of Europe’s coal reserves (coal is indispensable in making steel for wind-turbine towers). Controlling Ukraine will give Russia much more leverage over Europe. Meanwhile our sanctions are pushing Russia and China closer together…
Regarding Klein’s idea of “new oil politics based on rising prices”, energy analyst Gail Tverberg recently posted her take that Russia and China, being less energy-intensive economies, are better able to deal with high oil prices, and such high prices improve the economics for Russian oil extraction. “What Russia (as well as every other oil producer) would like is a way to get the tolerable oil price up significantly higher, for example, to $150 per barrel, so that more oil can be extracted.” https://ourfiniteworld.com/2022/03/02/russias-attack-on-ukraine-represents-a-demand-for-a-new-world-order/
So this is certainly a kind of climate-change war, but one in which geopolitical rivals are positioning themselves for better control over the dwindling raw materials required for the energy systems of the near future, driven by a larger trend of declining resource availability, ecological degradation (of which climate change is only one symptom), and hyper-fragile economics.
But the best “weapon” to defuse this war, and prevent the next ones–as well as to stem the climate crisis–is to transition to low-energy ways of living and move, as Klein says “away from the fantasy of limitless growth,” whether powered by fossil fuels or their “renewable” proxy technologies. The greenest energy is no energy.
Interesting, particularly the reference to the politics of nostalgia! You’ve captured a number of key areas to watch along with the developing “mineralization-economy.” This reminds me very much of the Netflix series “Occupied.”
Thank you, Heidi.
How is the second season of Occupied? I enjoyed the first very much.
I thought it was very compelling and well done. It already seemed too probable when I originally watched it. Not sure I could watch it right now.
US national security organizations have been aware of the economic, political and social effects of climate chaos for several decades. Drought, famine, disease, and conflict are unavoidable as resources become scarce and migration occurs. Seems like a return to Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer.