War in Ukraine and the Climate Crisis Are Connected: Our Future Depends on Solutions that Address Both

March 30, 2022 | 1:47 pm
Pakkin Leung/CC by 4.0
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

It’s been over a month since President Putin launched a deadly and destructive war in Ukraine. Conditions continue to worsen, with the death toll rising rapidly, 4 million people forced to flee abroad, a quarter of the country’s population displaced, and the wider humanitarian and economic impacts increasingly evident. Restoring peace must be a priority for world leaders.

The climate crisis, too, continues unabated, also requiring urgent solutions. Rather than viewing these as disconnected crises that must be traded off against each other for attention from world leaders, it’s time to connect the dots and push for transformative solutions that can improve people’s lives and create a safer world, now and in the future.  

Aligning near- and long-term imperatives

The most important near-term imperative is for this unjustified war to be brought to a peaceful end as soon as possible, as President Zelensky has repeatedly called for. Wider repercussions, including the inequitable impacts of rising food and energy prices and the potential for a food crisis hitting vulnerable populations around the world, must also be urgently addressed by global leaders.

Fossil fuels are the root cause of climate change, of long-standing environmental injustices, and are also frequently connected to geopolitical strife and violent conflicts. Ukrainian climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska has spoken powerfully about the connections between climate change and this war: “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.”

Earlier this month the International Energy Agency (IEA) released data showing that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions hit an all-time high in 2021, rebounding sharply from the 2020 decline caused by COVID-19 related economic slump. And the US Energy Information Administration released its latest energy projections, which show that, without new policies, US energy-related CO2 emissions will stay essentially at their current levels through 2050 which is nowhere close to the steep reductions needed. These data are alarming—underscoring how far off track the world continues to be in cutting the heat-trapping emissions fueling climate change.

The science is clear: we must cut global heat-trapping emissions in half within this decade to have a fighting chance of meeting global climate goals. With less than eight years left, our near-term choices in confronting the current energy crisis must align with those goals too. This is no time for the fossil-fueled detour that some are opportunistically using the war to call for. Quite the opposite: today’s high oil and gas prices are a fresh reinforcement, if we needed that, for why a rapid transition to clean energy is imperative.

Multiple crises colliding with climate change

The week in February when Russia attacked Ukraine, government representatives and scientists from around the world were hard at work finalizing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Its findings are incredibly sobering, showing that millions of people around the world are already living in places vulnerable to climate change and as climate impacts worsen, many more will face acute water and food shortages, loss of land and livelihoods, and deadly heatwaves, and many of the world’s critical ecosystems will increasingly reach the limits of their ability to adapt, with vast extinctions of species likely.

The report also points out that the many impacts of human-caused climate change will collide with increasing frequency with each other, and with other crises such as economic downturns, pandemics and wars. We simply don’t have the luxury of tackling one crisis at a time. In the era of climate change that is now firmly here, global leaders and policymakers must recognize and work within this reality to implement multi-faceted solutions that can help solve for crises simultaneously.

What’s more, all of these intersecting and compounding crises reveal similar fundamental flaws in our current social, political and economic systems—including that those who are most marginalized in society suffer disproportionate harms. Long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequities and discrimination put certain populations at significantly higher risk of being exposed to the worst impacts and being least able to recover quickly from disasters. Short-term crisis-driven thinking often sidelines the voices of disadvantaged communities even more, as their needs get repeatedly sacrificed to the “greater good.”

People need direct economic relief, not fossil fuel subsidies

The war in Ukraine and resulting economic sanctions against Russia have roiled world energy markets, triggering rising oil and gas prices. A lot of attention has been focused on assisting Europe, as its dependence on Russian oil and gas has left it particularly vulnerable. The impacts of these price increases are felt most acutely by low- and fixed-income households and those who live in poverty around the world. With high—and highly volatile—oil and gas prices, and with LNG supplies being diverted to Europe, low-income nations in Asia and Africa are feeling the pinch. The scramble for “affordable” energy alternatives also creates a risk of furthering dependence on dirty coal, a scourge for public health and for the climate.  

In the US, the fossil fuel industry and its allies are using this moment to demand we further double down on oil and gas drilling and more fossil fuel infrastructure, claiming that that is the best way to help meet energy demand affordably. Many policymakers seem determined to cave to those demands. Here’s the reality: the major fossil fuel companies are making record profits today (as they did last year) even as consumers are stuck paying high energy bills. And none of the “solutions” fossil fuel companies and their trade associations are proposing would be able to deliver short-term relief in consumer costs because they would take too long to provide a meaningful increase in fuel supply. What they would do is risk locking us further into a fossil-fueled future—the opposite of what we need.

So, what would be meaningful right now? Direct economic relief for those consumers who are hardest hit by price shocks. Low-income households are struggling to meet a range of basic needs—housing, food, childcare, medical care—not just gas bills. And rising energy prices filter through the economy to directly and indirectly affect the prices of all energy-intensive goods and services. Direct relief (e.g. in the form of checks to households delivered equitably to target those most in need) and robust investments in our nation’s social safety net are vital.

And what would be meaningful and helpful going forward? Sharply phasing down our dependence on fossil fuels, which are the primary driver of the climate crisis and other harmful pollution, in addition to being prone to extreme price volatility and geopolitical strife.

A rapid clean energy transition is (still) the best path forward

According to the IPCC, global emissions must be cut in half by 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and IEA research shows it can be done. The US has pledged to cut its emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—though we have yet to secure the policies to deliver on that goal.

Despite the siren song of the fossil fuel industry, this is moment to recommit and double down on the clean energy transition. Europe is starting to take some important steps in that direction through its REPowerEU plan aimed at getting off Russian gas before 2030. Here in the US, too, we need investments in more public transit, more electric vehicles, more charging infrastructure, more renewable electricity, more energy efficiency, more battery storage, and an upgraded electric grid—all of which are durable solutions, not dead-ends.

A robust package of investments in clean energy, environmental justice and jobs would get us firmly on a path to a just and equitable transition to a clean energy economy—yet has remain stalled in Congress, in no small part due to the outsize power of the fossil fuel lobby. Congress must move quickly to enact legislation that includes these critical components:

  • Clean energy tax credits to accelerate the shift to wind, solar, and storage and investments in a modernized electric grid
  • Electric vehicle tax credits and investments in charging infrastructure
  • Investments in clean transit, affordable housing, climate justice block grants, and cleaning up legacy pollution that would help advance environmental justice
  • Investments in domestic manufacturing and supply chains to create high-quality jobs and limit supply chain disruptions
  • Investments in a healthier, more resilient, and sustainable farm and food system
  • Investments in helping all communities build resilience to climate impacts

These valuable investments will bring enormous health and economic benefits, while giving us a fighting chance of keeping our climate goals alive. Ramping up international climate finance to help low-income countries make a clean energy transition too, is vital—and, so far, Congress has fallen woefully short in its budget appropriations. The climate finance funding in President Biden’s latest budget proposal looks promising but those funds must now be secured by Congress.

These kinds of choices are a far better investment in a safer, fairer world than expanding fossil fuel infrastructure or rolling back environmental and health protections—or, indeed, untrammeled military expenditures.

Upholding the rights of refugees and displaced people

Some of the most heartbreaking images from the war in Ukraine have been those of young children and their mothers forced to flee from the bullets and bombs, many being gravely injured or even losing their lives in the process. It has been very encouraging to see the warm welcome received by those arriving in neighboring countries. The US too has just offered to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. (Notably, this is in sharp contrast to the racism and xenophobia that has often greeted Black and Brown refugees from Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere).

Around the world, a mid-2021 estimate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) showed over 84 million people, including 35 million children, forcibly displaced from their homes. Syria (with 6.8 million displaced people), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million) and Myanmar (1.1 million) are among the nations with the highest number of refugees. In addition, Yemen has 4 million internally displaced people and Venezuela has 4.1 million people displaced abroad. Ukraine’s refugee crisis would now place it high on that global list. Eighty-five percent of the world’s refugees are currently hosted in low- and middle-income countries (Turkey being the leading host nation), with Germany as the only richer nation in the top five host nations.

And there is no doubt that the climate crisis will contribute significantly to the numbers of people who will be displaced from their homes in the years to come, most of them likely in climate vulnerable countries within Africa, Asia, Latin America and in small island nations, although no country will be immune. Sea level rise, rising heat, wildfires, drought, and food and water shortages—these threats are already forcing people to be on the move and, as climate change worsens, many more will be affected. Right now, there is no funding, no governance framework, no international agreement to help people displaced by climate impacts and protect their human rights.

As the IPCC WGII report makes clear, because of our past failure to limit carbon emissions, we won’t be able to fend off some of these stark realities from unfolding. Richer nations like the United States, who have contributed the most to global heat-trapping emissions, bear primary responsibility for these existential threats they are foisting on others. They must act now to put resources and a human rights-centered framework in place to address the needs of the growing numbers of people who will be displaced by the climate crisis. Major fossil fuel companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil must also be held accountable, and there is a growing interest in climate litigation around the globe.

Perhaps we can start by learning from how refugees from Ukraine are being treated and extend that care to all those affected by war and humanitarian crises, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity or religion. For example, the UNHCR calls the over six-year-old conflict in Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis—four million people displaced, five million just a step away from living in famine. The World Food Program recently sounded the alarm about severe shortages in food aid for the Yemeni people, which have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. And the conflict in Yemen, too, is one where an undemocratic fossil fuel regime, Saudi Arabia, is hugely implicated (and is still not being held accountable by world leaders). Similarly, African migrants trying to flee to Europe have been met with racist, inhumane responses and so many have lost their lives in desperate attempts to cross the seas. And the United States, for all its rhetoric about being a nation of immigrants, currently welcomes so few refugees.

Connected crises point to connected solutions

The war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, the crises of poverty, hunger and injustice are all connected. They are occurring together, creating compounding risks and impacts especially for those most marginalized. They share common roots such as our dependence on fossil fuels, the harmful legacy of racism and colonialism, and the dangerous rise in authoritarianism and militarism. Solutions that move forward a just, equitable and transformative shift to clean energy and climate resilience are not a panacea for all the world’s problems but they are a very powerful way to help address multiple crises—or at least help ensure we don’t worsen them.

Whether it is protecting those on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine or those facing existential threats from climate change, we can only succeed if we see our common humanity and are willing to push for the transformational changes that are needed to secure our common destiny.