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Fossil Fuels Link Russia and Climate Crises

March 1, 2022, 9:00 AM

My grandmother used to say, “When someone shows you who they are believe them.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done so in Ukraine, and the world is watching how the U.S. and its allies will respond to this baseless, illegal, and devastating aggression. One critical area where our leaders needs to focus and respond is to one of Putin’s more important, but unstated allies: climate change.

The world’s addiction to fossil fuels has given states like Russia leverage as they harass, intimidate, and now invade neighboring countries. Russia is the largest supplier of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas to Europe. These exports to Europe have effectively funded the invasion underway now in Ukraine—despite U.S. sanctions enacted over the past decade.

The Biden administration is understandably and immediately focused on how to bolster our allies in Europe against the threat of Russian military aggression, but it needs to strive at home to act on the climate crisis.

Russia’s defense and military dominance in World War II and other conflicts—once built upon the strategic advantage of its winters, dubbed “General Frost”—is now fueled by and premised on a hotter world. If we’re serious about taking the fight to Putin, we need to confront climate change before it fundamentally reshapes the world and gives Russia a greater strategic edge than its winters did in decades past.

Thawing Ice, More Greenhouse Gases

Warming temperatures are opening new trade routes, ports, and opportunities for offshore energy development for Russia in the Arctic Ocean. Some experts believe these thawing waters, which are already seeing increases in shipping traffic, could become a “Suez of the north” thanks to climate change.

These changes also are, in turn, accelerating the release of greenhouse gasses and exacerbating the changing climate. Melting permafrost in the Arctic in North America, Europe and Asia is releasing methane gas—a greenhouse gas 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. These changes may be good for Russian oligarchs, but they aren’t good for the rest of us.

Putin’s intentional actions are creating “sacrifice zones” both in Ukraine from war and across the planet from the toxic pollution created from the burning of fossil fuels. Just as Putin’s actions are displacing the Ukrainian people—creating a new refugee crisis with more than half a million people fleeing the country, with racism exacerbating the challenges facing Black and Asian peoples trying to leave the war zone—so will the further utilization of fossil fuels on the global scale.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, best described our situation: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. It’s time to say: enough. Enough brutalizing biodiversity. Enough killing ourselves with carbon. Enough treating nature like a toilet. Enough burning and drilling our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”

In the U.S. the typical family spends $2,060 on home utility bills, according to EnergyStar.gov. We know that Black, Hispanic, and Native American and lower wealth households spend a greater percentage of their income on energy bills than White households, with Black communities spending 43% more. Our most vulnerable communities both domestically and internationally need us to rapidly transition to renewable energy and bring energy security and price predictability as soon as possible.

Critical First Steps Taken—But More Is Needed

Now is the moment for bold and transformative climate solutions. President Biden’s regulatory reforms and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, have taken important first steps toward reducing carbon emissions and advancing clean energy solutions. This administration has made historic investments in electric vehicle infrastructure, passenger rail, and public transit, and natural infrastructure and natural carbon sequestration.

These are critical first steps on climate, but they cannot be the last.

Video: Here’s a look at legal options impacted communities have to combat negative environmental impacts.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just another reason the Biden administration and its allies in Congress must be laser-focused on advancing the climate, clean energy, and environmental justice provisions in the Build Back Better Act as soon as possible.

It is up to the U.S. to show the world the way out of the climate crisis. If Congress cannot rally around this important cause, the changing climate will only strengthen Putin’s hand in establishing Russian hegemony in eastern Europe and beyond.

We will never fully break Putin’s stranglehold on Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the world unless and until we reduce our collective dependence on the oil, natural gas, and other resources fueling and funding Russia’s aggression.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Mustafa Santiago Ali (Ph.D.), is vice president for Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. He served as assistant associate administrator in the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice for more than two decades.