Jhe images this morning of Russian tanks rolling through the Ukrainian countryside seemed both surreal – a throwback to a Europe we’ve only seen in the news – and inevitable. It’s been clear for years that Vladimir Putin was both evil and driven and that we could possibly come to a time like this.
One of the worst aspects of today’s reality is our helplessness in the face of it. Yes, America imposes sanctions, and yes, it could possibly embarrass Putin. But the Russian leader acted knowing that we couldn’t actually fight him in Ukraine – and indeed his implied willingness to use nuclear weapons will make his fight difficult. everywhere, although it is assumed that we will have no choice if he attacks a NATO member.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to drastically reduce Putin’s power. One path, in particular: getting out of oil and gas.
This is not a “war for oil and gas” in the sense that too many American misadventures in the Middle East could be plausibly described. But this is a war guaranteed by oil and gas, a war whose most crucial weapon is perhaps oil and gas, a war that we cannot fully engage in because we remain dependent on oil and some gas. If you want to stand with the brave people of Ukraine, you have to find a way to oppose oil and gas.
Russia has a pathetic economy – you can see that for yourself by looking around and seeing how many of the things you use were made within its borders. Today, 60% of its exports are oil and gas; they provide the money that feeds the country’s military machine.
And, alongside this military machine, controlling the supply of oil and gas is Russia’s main weapon. They have repeatedly threatened to cut off the flow of hydrocarbons to Western Europe. When the Germans finally halted the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline project this week, Putin’s President Dimtry Medvedyev said: “Welcome to the new world where Europeans will soon have to pay 2,000 euros ($2,270) per thousand meters cubes!” His not very subtle notion: if the price of keeping houses warm doubles, Europe will have no choice but to give in.
Finally, even the Biden administration – which wisely played its game before the invasion – is constrained by oil and gas. As we impose sanctions, everyone is looking for a way out: the Italians want to exempt high-end luxury goods and the Belgians diamonds, but America has made it clear that it does not seriously want to interrupt the flow of Russian oil for fear of driving up gasoline prices and weakening American resolve.
As a “senior State Department official” told the Wall Street Journal this week, “doing anything that affects…or stops energy transactions would have a great impact on the United States, American citizens and our allies. Our intention here, therefore, is to impose the strongest possible sanctions while trying to protect the American public and the rest of the world from these measures,” the official said. This is obviously not an unnecessary fear: since this morning, Tucker Carlson has been attacking the Russian hawk Lindsay Graham for having supported a conflict which will lead to “higher gas prices” when he has a “generous congress pension. If you are an apologist for fascism, high gas prices are your first decision.
It is therefore time to remind ourselves that over the past decade scientists and engineers have driven the cost of solar and wind energy down by an order of magnitude, to the point where it is one of the cheapest energies in the world. The best reason to deploy it immediately is to stave off the existential crisis that is climate change, and the second-best is to stop the murder of nine million people each year who die breathing in the particles produced by burning fossil fuels. . But the third best reason – and perhaps the most plausible reason for spurring our leaders to action – is that it drastically reduces the power of autocrats, dictators and thugs.
Imagine a Europe that runs on solar and wind power: whose cars run on locally supplied electricity and whose homes are heated by electric air-source heat pumps. That Europe wouldn’t fund Putin’s Russia, and it would be much less afraid of Putin’s Russia – it could impose all sorts of sanctions and keep them in place until the country gave in. Imagine an America where the cost of gas was not a political trigger, because if people had to have a van to feel manly enough, that van ran on electricity that came from the sun and the wind. It would take an evil genius like Vladimir Putin to figure out how to embargo the sun.
These are not new technologies – they exist, are developing and could be developed quickly. In the years following Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland, America turned its industrial prowess to building tanks, bombers and destroyers. In 1941, in Ypsilanti, the largest industrial plant in the world was built in six months, and soon it was producing a B-24 bomber every hour. A bomber is a complicated machine with over a million parts; a wind turbine, on the other hand, is relatively simple. In Michigan alone (“the arsenal of democracy”), a radiator company reorganized to manufacture 20 m steel helmets and a rubber factory was retooled to produce the liners for these helmets; the company that made fabric for Ford’s seat cushions stopped making it and started making parachutes. Do we think it is beyond us to quickly produce the solar panels and batteries needed to end our dependence on fossil fuels?
It’s not easy – among other things, Russia has a good part of some of the minerals that contribute to the production of renewable energy. (Nickel, for example.) But, again, the example of World War II is helpful – with the Axis controlling commodities like rubber, we quickly figured out how to mass-produce substitutes.
It’s true that we could produce carbon-free energy with nuclear power too, as long as we were willing to pay the high premium the technology demands – and right now Germany is probably regretting its decision to stop at hastily its reactors following the Fukushima accident. But if you think of the scenario unfolding right now across Europe, it reminds you of another of the benefits of renewable energy, which is that it is widely distributed. There are far fewer central nodes to attack with cruise missiles and artillery shells – targeting reactors is easy enough, but drive your tank across Europe from solar panel to solar panel to be able to breaking with a hammer is comical.
Right now, big oil companies are using the fighting in Ukraine as an excuse to try to expand their footprint – reliable industry ally Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, went on Fox this week to claim that the shutdown of the Keystone XL pipeline empowered the Russian leader, for example, and the American Petroleum Institute today called for more oil and gas development. But that’s nonsense – we may need, for the remaining weeks of this winter, to secure gas supplies to Europe, but by next winter we will have to remove that lever. This means a total effort to decarbonize this continent, and then ours. It is not impossible.
We have to do it anyway, if we are to have any hope of slowing down climate change. And we can do it quickly if we want: huge offshore wind farms in Europe were built in 18 months without any war pressure.
We should be in agony today – people are dying because they want to live in a democracy, want to decide their own affairs. But that agony should, and can, produce real change. (And not just in Europe. Imagine not having to worry about what the King of Saudi Arabia or the Koch brothers thought – access to fossil fuel wealth so often produces backsliding thugs). Caring about the Ukrainian people means caring about the end of oil and gas.