EDITOR’S NOTE: [Posted in March, 21, 2022, during the fourth week of Russian’s war on Ukraine.] Today the world is faced with two existential threats, one definite and one increasingly plausible. The definite threat is climate change. We are about a decade away from expending our remaining carbon budget and crossing the very dangerous threshold of 1.5ºC global temperature rise, which could make it impossible to prevent some of the worst effects of atmospheric heating. The increasingly plausible threat is that of an all-out war between the Russian, American and NATO nuclear superpowers that ultimately drags China and India into the conflict. Such a nuclear “WWIII” scenario would, of course, spell the total destruction of human civilization and quit possibly the end of life on earth. (Who would maintain the world’s 445 active nuclear power plants if all, or almost all humans are killed in a nuclear war? Within a few days those plants would start to melt down, spewing huge quantities of lethal radiation across the planet, ultimately eliminating all life forms.)
Every crisis, however, brings new opportunities. Even in this dark hour, the possibility of a new order rising, phoenix-like from the metaphorical ashes of the existing order is also palpable. (“Metaphorical” is used advisedly. There will be no possibility of renewal if the ashes are real.) So we stand at the proverbial inflection point. If we can survive the immediate threat of a nuclear war, we might leverage a change in macro environmental trends in time to save ourselves. This article discusses those possibilities. We’ll soon know the answers soon enough. — PSW
Humanity’s dark ending? Or bright beginning?
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things… ” — Rahm Emmanuel
This could be the end.
The war in Ukraine could easily mushroom, bringing the evolutionary experiment known as Homo Sapiens to an abrupt halt, terminated by a global nuclear war. Big wars usually start as small wars that grow in unpredictable ways — through accidents, misinterpreted blips on a radar screen, misinterpreted orders.
Or the war could grow organically: as the teetering Russian regime finds itself sinking deeper and deeper into the Ukrainian quagmire, it is increasingly likely to lash out with unconventional weapons, including so called “tactical” nuclear warheads, that can cause cross-border contamination. Even an “accidentally” destroyed nuclear facility could spew radiation across Europe. Eliciting a response. Eliciting a counter response.
We must face this possibility before we can conceive a new world free of the nuclear threat. And then we must acknowledge that if we do manage to head off WWIII, we’ll do so just in time to make our final, desperate attempt to keep global temperature rise below the critical 1.5ºC threshold.
And that’s where hope returns — hope that we can turn the global crisis sparked by the Ukrainian war into an opportunity to save ourselves. Hope that, as the (non-nuclear) dust settles in Ukraine, we will finally learn the tragic conflict’s lessons.
If we are to survive, we will learn that war is no longer a viable way to settle disputes; that fossil fuels are no longer a practicable source of energy; and that fossil fuels and war march side by side toward our mutually assured destruction.
Hearteningly, the global youth climate movement has already mastered these lessons. They see that the distributed nature of localized solar and wind energy production — who, after all, owns the sun and wind? — greatly reduces the impetus for conflict over energy reserves concentrated in specific locales. If Ireland boosts its energy efficiency and runs on offshore wind and home-grown biogas, why does it need Russian fossil fuels?
“No more wars for resources we no longer need!”
One week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Greta Thunberg-inspired movement Fridays for the Future called for global protests against the war, stating, “This is an eye-opening moment for humanity to see the world is aflame with new and old wars caused by fossil fuels.” More than 100,000 mostly young people marched in Hamburg, Germany, and thousands protested in at least 60 other cities around the world. A tweet from the Sierra Leone chapter of Fridays for the Future read, “No more wars for resources we no longer need!”
But while youth climate protests have become a familiar part of the political landscape, what’s new is that their message, along with that of climate scientists and “climate hawks” like Bill McKibben and others, may finally be catching on in the corridors of power. In the summer of 2021, the European Commission endorsed a plan, hailed as the European Green New Deal, to decarbonize the EU’s energy sector by 2030. The strategy entails significantly increasing energy efficiency and the energy performance of new and retrofitted buildings, developing the full potential of Europe’s offshore wind energy, creating an interconnected, pan-European grid to support and distribute diverse types of power and decarbonizing the gas sector.
Sounds good. Let’s get started sometime soon.
Then the war broke out, and the fossil-fuel cudgel Russia holds over Europe, particularly Germany — while using revenues from same to finance its war machine and corrupt oligarchy — became a primary obstacle to Europe’s ability to respond. In particular, the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, just completed at a cost of $11B and poised to deepen Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, became a sticking point. Would Germany cancel the deal?
Germany did, of course, because the new, immediate emergency — the war — sprang up within the context of the ongoing emergency — climate change — and drastic measures had to be taken. Meanwhile, the E.U. has decided to supercharge its green energy transition, in what could be a harbinger of a fast-tracked Global Green Transformation. There will be setbacks, of course. Europe will still need some Russian gas this coming winter — but much less than it needs now, and even less after that. The March 12, 2022 New York Times article How to Wean Europe off Russian Gas as Swiftly as Possible, written by a team of experts in economics and energy policy, describes the steps needed to significantly cut dependence by next winter. (Germany and other E.U. countries that rely on Russian gas for heating will have a hiatus of sorts during the upcoming summer months, giving them some time to implement new policies.) The steps include temporarily increasing fossil energy imports from the U.S. and elsewhere, while rapidly increasing demand through drastically accelerating the “green transition” in Europe and the U.S. In this regard, it is useful to understand that energy from renewables is now cheaper than that of fossil fuels, and quests for their supplies — drilling for, transporting and refining oil compared to building wind towers, for example — are both more economical and quicker to pursue.
Meanwhile, in what could be a harbinger of good things to come, Ukraine, in the midst of all this discussion, and about two weeks into the current war, managed to fast-track and complete its existing program for disconnecting from Russia’s electrical grid and connecting to the pan-European grid. With that done Ukraine, or what’s left of it if it survives the war as an independent nation, could be taking a giant step toward increasing its own energy sector while simultaneously cutting its ties with an autocratic petrostate.
And suddenly there is realistic hope that renewables could soon dominate the world’s energy sector — just in the nick of time at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.