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Climate and Conflict: Lessons from Fossil Fuel Industry Exploitation of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Climate Justice Climate

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska was working from her home with international colleagues to finalize the second installment of the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war, and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels,” she told The Guardian. “This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way; it will destroy our civilization.”

Krakovska is right. Fossil fuels remain tragically intertwined with the global economy and energy access, empowering those who control supply to wage war on other nations and on the climate system — even as the catastrophic threats presented by fossil fuel-based power are ever more apparent and realized.

This fossil-fuel driven precarity was brought into sharp relief by the recent practically certain sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines, which run under the Baltic Sea between Europe and Russia. Not only did the four simultaneous ruptures release a still undetermined amount of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas; they also demonstrate the high vulnerability of fossil-fuel based energy systems that require vast, centralized transport structures, particularly in conflict situations.

Krakovska’s painfully accurate framing of fossil fuels as a multi-faceted existential threat on a global scale, however, presents an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry, which has stood ready throughout the entire war to fend it off with rapid-fire preemptive strikes.

Indeed, fossil fuel companies have capitalized on Russia’s invasion and the continued war to amplify their decades-long disinformation campaign to further entrench society on a fossil-fuel dependent path to planetary suicide. This campaign involves not only downplaying the science establishing the catastrophic risks of climate disruption, but also equating fossil fuel production with U.S. national security and economic prosperity, all laced with American exceptionalist rhetoric that is in deep tension with the urgent need for global solidarity in response to Vladimir Putin’s brutality, as well as to climate breakdown.

On the day before Russia invaded, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry’s leading lobbying arm, tweeted: “As crisis looms in Ukraine, U.S. energy leadership is more important than ever.” By “U.S. leadership,” the API basically means putting the industry in charge of policy decisions; in the same tweet, the API called on the Biden administration to permit more fossil fuel exploration and production on federal lands and offshore and relax regulatory requirements.

Two days after the Nord Stream leaks were discovered, the API tweeted that “U.S. LNG (liquified natural gas) is needed to help meet the global energy demand,” calling for “new long-term supplies” (emphasis added). It made a similar foreign-policy prescription for the U.S. response to the decision last week by the energy ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which is headed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Russia (OPEC+), to cut the cartel’s daily production by two million barrels. In a blog post on its website, the API maintained that there is “no other way” for the Biden administration to respond other than to “[c]ommit wholeheartedly to supporting and advancing American oil and natural gas production, now and in the future.”

Such demands are, of course, entirely inconsistent with the International Energy Agency’s report published over a year ago concluding that, to meet the Paris temperature goal, fossil fuel use must precipitously decline, which means there should be “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projectsfrom now on.

Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle explains the role of the industry’s framing in climate policy debates in an important recent peer-reviewed article about the industry’s interference with international climate law and policymaking. According to Brulle, the industry has successfully captured the dominant frame around climate policy, which is one that “defines the use of fossil fuels as the appropriate practice in energy policy” and links “the availability of cheap fossil fuel energy to a definition of the ‘good life.’”

The industry’s frame puts the cart before the horse. A principal reason that fossil fuels have dominated policy is because the industry has successfully polluted the policy debate with disinformation to shape law and policy in ways to support a global fossil-fuel based economy. A different dominant frame — one that is not based on fossil fuel industry security, but rather on planetary security — would compel very different law and policy.

The Ukraine crisis and the fossil fuel industry’s exploitative response to it bring into sharp relief the need to stop letting it dominate our law and policy discourse with its toxic framing.

Climate Justice Climate

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