“This is a fossil fuel war”

“No SWIFT. No gas. I gladly freeze for democracy.” (Protesters in Germany demonstrating against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) Photo credit: Noah Eleazar, Unsplash.

On February 28th, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment. According to Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, “This IPCC report marks a turning point in the fight against climate change. It forces us to reckon with a stark reality. The crisis is here, and it is all around us.” Four days earlier, Russian troops had invaded Ukraine, beginning a conflict killing thousands of soldiers and civilians, destroying Ukrainian cities and towns, and causimg millions to flee to neighboring countries. For those of us trying to maintain a focus on what we believe is the greatest challenge to human lives and the welfare of the planet, will this war have any impact on our efforts to combat the climate crisis?

The IPCC report led Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, to see the connection between war and 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. 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. [1]

The West has imposed a high level of sanctions designed to disrupt Putin’s plans for a complete takeover of Ukraine. Europe and the US are using measures like freezing Russian oligarchs’ foreign bank accounts and cutting Russia off from SWIFT (“the global provider of secure financial messaging services”) to stop the war. There can be no doubt, however, that Putin is counting on Europe’s heavy dependence on Russia’s oil and natural gas to help keep paying for the war. On March 11th at a meeting of European leaders in France, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said “We are supporting and actually financing Russia’s war by purchasing oil, gas and other fossil fuels.” [2]

President Biden has proposed an increase in shipments of America’s gas and oil to Europe to help wean it off Russian fossil fuels. There are considerable logistical hurdles to overcome before that effort could hope to succeed (e.g., insufficient fossil fuel delivery infrastructure). For climate change activists Biden’s proposal, if enacted, would be a major setback in the effort to reduce global warming. According to Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, “I’m very worried our climate goals may be another victim of Russia’s aggression.” [3]

Has this war, then, significantly lowered our chances to make real gains in decarbonizing our energy usage? Conservation International news writer Will McCarry asked conservation scientist Will Turner if, given the grimness of the assessment’s report, the situation has become hopeless. Turner responded “We must take the warnings in this new report just as seriously (as we have with previous IPCC reports). At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” [4] And action against global warming can’t take a break because of the war. Biden shouldn’t be advocating for more oil to be pumped. To this point, Thomas Friedman writes 

Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. . . . Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore. Climate change has not taken a timeout for the war in Ukraine. [5]

Yes, there is no question that the victims of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying massive flow of refugees need our most compassionate response. But climate change is also a moral crisis [6] that continues to concern us deeply and requires an equally compassionate response. Both the war and global warming are and will continue destroying infrastructure needed for providing food, shelter, and public health care. But over time the destruction from climate change will be even greater than that resulting from this war. This is a critical moment for us to continue to do as much as we can for the well being of the Earth community. At the same time, an end to dependence on fossil fuels would mean an end to the power wielded by petro-dictators like Putin.


[1] Quoted in Oliver Milman, “‘This is a fossil fuel war’: Ukraine’s top climate scientist speaks out,” The Guardian, March 9, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/09/ukraine-climate-scientist-russia-invasion-fossil-fuels.

[2] Euronews, March 14, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/12/finnish-prime-minister-we-are-actually-financing-russia-s-war-by-purchasing-oil-and-gas.

[3] Quoted in: Somini Sengupta, New York Times: Climate Forward. Newsletter. March 25, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/climate/the-problem-with-shipping-gas-to-europe.html

[4] Will McCarry, “Don’t panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report,” Conservation News, September 30, 2021, https://www.conservation.org/blog/don’t-panic-reasons-for-hope-despite-a-grim-un-climate-report

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, “How to defeat Putin and save the Planet,” New York Times, March 30, 2022, Section A, Page 24, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/opinion/how-to-defeat-putin-and-save-the-planet.html.

[6] On climate change as a moral crisis, see for example: “Morality of Climate Change,” AARCC Newsletter, https://www.arrcc.org.au/about-climate-change-morality.

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