CO CCL LTE of the month: Putin and climate change - Two maladies, one treatment

Aggressively reducing our fossil fuel consumption will both counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and address climate change. In this Pueblo Chieftain Op-Ed, Pikes Peak CCL chapter member Stephen Greenleaf presents the case for cutting our dependence on petroleum and the role carbon fee and dividend would play.

Putin and climate change - Two maladies, one treatment

By Stephen Greenleaf, Guest columnist

March 20, 2022

The term “polycrisis” describes the current state of the world. It denotes the fact that we find ourselves in the midst of more than one crisis at a time. Most recently, we faced the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic dislocation caused by the pandemic. Now, we face the return of war to Europe with the brutal invasion of Ukraine by the Putin regime. And we still have the continuing (and increasing) reality of climate change with which we must deal, which we haven’t yet done on the scale required.

In the face of these multiple challenges, we can deploy a response that would effectively address two huge concerns with one stroke: We immediately and aggressively reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

As to the immediate threat of Putin’s aggression, a reduction of our consumption of fossil fuels aids the current sanctions regime that seeks to starve the beast. More than one commentator has described Russia as “a gas station with nukes.” We can shut down (or at least cripple) the gas station by not buying the gas.

To be clear, at present, the U.S. is a net petroleum exporter. We purchase relatively little petroleum from Russia, and a complete cut-off will not limit U.S. supplies of oil or gas. The restrictions on imports from Russia won’t have much direct impact on U.S. energy prices, although worldwide we can expect higher prices.

This is because the market for petroleum is worldwide, with multiple global players, like Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and other petroleum exporters will affect oil and gas prices by deciding how much petroleum to produce. Also, the volatility in oil and gas prices, with sharp increases and drops, is a continuing characteristic of that global fossil fuels market. Increasing America’s oil and gas development and drilling, which some propose as a response to Putin’s aggression, would not have any significant impact on the high prices we are seeing at the pump now.

As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels, we’ll continue to be subject to manipulation of supplies and prices by the Gulf States and other large producers, like Russia. A clean energy economy would be our surest path towards stable and lower energy prices, and true energy independence from foreign producers.

Over the longer term, decreased use and dependence on fossil fuels will mean fewer dollars for Putin. Of course, reduced demand would result in fewer dollars paid to all fossil fuel providers, including oil and gas companies in the U.S. But they know (and have known for a long time) that the world must eventually drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Indeed, those European nations who oppose Putin’s aggression now have — and will increasingly have — access to cheaper alternative systems of energy, including renewables and other forms of clean energy. Accelerating the shift to renewable energy appears to be part of their short- and long-term strategies for opposing Russian aggression.

In addition to the moral and strategic imperatives to reduce fossil fuel consumption to counter Putin’s menace, accelerating our shift to renewable energy will reduce the pollution that fuels increasing global climate change. We have procrastinated in making the necessary transition to cleaner energy for over 30 years. Now the opportunity for gaining a strategic advantage over a hostile adversary should spur us to take the necessary actions that we have so long delayed. More foot-dragging only aids Putin and costs us more.

And remember, greater domestic production of fossil fuels in response to Putin’s aggression would put us further behind in facing up to climate reality. This merely threatens to pull the pin on a slow-motion grenade that will hurt us all. In short, the more petroleum that remains in the ground, the safer we all become. For the well-being—and even survival—of our children and grandchildren, we need to walk away from the fossil fuels that finance Russian aggression and that poison our Earth.

It’s unfortunate that Congress has not yet adopted a carbon fee and dividend scheme that will collect a price on carbon that would be paid back to Americans as a dividend. These significant dividend payments would help ordinary Americans ride out the price instability baked into the global fossil fuels market, including a transition away from it to a clean energy system. And, with a price on carbon, the U.S. could lawfully apply a carbon border adjustment that would aid American businesses that run efficiently and on clean energy (and overall, that tend to be cleaner than many foreign competitors).

But it’s not too late to adopt and apply this win-win-win — for democracy, the Earth, and American consumers — solution. We can convert our current polycrisis into an opportunity to improve the lives of all Americans. We can act to help preserve democracy and the rule of law. And we can establish a cleaner, safer, and cheaper energy system that at the same time helps create a safer, more hospitable climate for our children and grandchildren.

Stephen Greenleaf is a retired lawyer living in Colorado Springs, who’s involved in advocating for national policies to address climate change.