The Ukrainian Crisis and Climate Change

The recent crisis in Ukraine is going to make these shale gas resources very tempting. If we’re not careful, that will mean more fracking and a lot more carbon emissions. Image from Kyivpost.

This is meant to be a technology blog, but, as I’ve argued previously, technology does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences and is influenced by society, politics, economics, culture, and the environment. And so, in order to properly introduce this post, I’m going to have to do a little bit of amateur speculation about geopolitics. Bear with me.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last few weeks, you will have noticed that things are a little bit tense in Ukraine. Honestly it looks pretty dire. Crimea is, for all intents and purposes, now part of Russia, and it seems like Vladimir Putin has his eye on the Donetsk region as well. The “Pro-Russian Militias” operating in Eastern Ukraine almost certainly include at least a few Russian soldiers sent to stir up exactly the kind of unrest we’re seeing now. And Moscow’s recent warnings issued to Kiev seem to be little more than flimsy pretext to invade another part of Ukraine, ostensibly in order to protect the welfare of Russians living there.

I think, however, that this will turn out a little bit differently than things turned out in Crimea. President Obama’s apparent impotence in the face of Putin’s aggression has been a pretty big embarrassment for him, and when Putin makes another move there will considerable pressure on Obama to act. Similar public pressure could assert itself in other Western countries. My own prime minister Stephen Harper seems particularly keen to get involved in the crisis.

I don’t mean to say that we are on the verge of World War 3. Western powers are probably not willing to risk starting a nuclear war over Ukraine. (Sorry, Ukraine). But I do think that we could see some very severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia. And Russia will retaliate with the most potent economic weapon they have available: Their energy resources. Ukraine and much of Europe are highly dependent on Russian gas to heat their homes, which gives Putin a pretty important strategic advantage.

This would not be the first time that energy resources have been used as a diplomatic weapon, of course. It was OPEC’s decision to use “the oil weapon” that led to the energy crisis of 1973, which was a major transitional moment in how the world thinks about both transportation and energy use. But it might not turn out that way this time. Joe Biden recently toured Ukraine, and engaged in a little bit of “Shale gas missionary work“, and the crisis is also giving a boost to the US domestic fracking industry: two Congressional bills have been introduced in an effort to speed up the approval of new fracking projects on the grounds that this will enhance US national security by reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. A Republican sponsor of the bill argued that “opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies”.

Outside the United States, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been promoting British fracking, pointing out that “Some countries are almost 100 percent reliant on Russian gas, so I think it is something of a wake-up call”. And in Canada, the Conservative Government has been promoting Tar Sands oil to counter Russia. Rather than causing us to rethink our energy consumption habits, as the 1973 crisis did, the crisis in Ukraine could cause the Western World to double down on unconventional fossil fuels.

This is very dangerous. Even if you ignore the fairly well-substantiated claims that fracking pollutes groundwater, the methane emissions from fracking sites alone are extremely dangerous for the climate. And some brief calculation reveals that if all 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the United States alone are fracked and burned, somewhere around 25.5 million tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. That gas needs to stay in the ground. There are, however, few things that can motivate for major technological change like geopolitical crises, and so it seems distressingly likely that the events in Ukraine could wind up locking in a whole lot more carbon emissions at precisely the time when we need to be promoting renewables.

Is there an alternative to this? I don’t know. Environmentalists don’t much chance of being heard in the discussions over Ukraine, which will undoubtedly be framed as serious discussions for serious people. (Serious people generally don’t care about the climate). But perhaps there is an opportunity to use this crisis for good. I don’t know what Ukrainian or European renewable resources look like, or whether they could be developed quickly enough to reduce dependence on Russian gas. Nor do I know if there’s much possibility-either technological or political-for the expansion of nuclear power or hydroelectricity to meet the demand. But environmentalists with a better eye for energy geopolitics than I have should be thinking very seriously about these things.

Geopolitics has always had a relationship to technological development, because it provides one of the most potent ways of disrupting existing socio-technical regimes. It was the First World War, for example, that really made the motor vehicle a force to contend with, while the Second World War made intercontinental air travel possible. Since the basic task of the environmentalist is to disrupt existing socio-technical regimes in ways that are favourable for the planet, we should learn to use these crises to our advantage. We should try and counter the narratives coming out of Ukraine that call on us to abandon our drive to sustainability so that we can thwart the new Red Menace, and instead argue that this is precisely the opportunity we need to make a real commitment to carbon neutral energy. Maybe if we manage to do this for once, a global political crisis can be used for some good.