Climate, war, and oil

Alongside genocide charges, Putin should be facing ecocide charges. His war has ignited an explosion of consequences with shockwaves that will last decades. For example, right now there is a humanitarian crisis in Somalia with children dying of hunger. Note that only 2.3% of the U.N.’s relief funds target have been donated so far.

Impacts of the Somalian drought. Image credit, Save the Children

Humanitarian and lethal aid is pouring into Ukraine to hopefully stall and defeat the aggressor, but it is drying up sources of funding to save lives elsewhere. Ukraine produces 50% of the UN’s World Food Programme. The likely disruption to this season’s supply will increase the cost of grain to feed the hungry and increase food prices and civil conflict in other parts of the world. Thus the death toll of this senseless war will extend far beyond Ukrainian borders. Germans are generous donors, ranking 18th in the 2022 World Giving Index. (Note that the autocratic countries, China and Russia, are ranked 2nd and 15th least giving). Putin’s war has prompted the German Government to change a decades-long principle of not sending armaments to conflict areas and is raising its defence budget to €100 billion. Germany’s capacity for philanthropy will be impacted. In 2021 global defence spending was $2 trillion.

What could we do with $2 trillion?

It is criminal that we squander that much money on warfare – and that is just the military, not the cost of repair to people and infrastructure. Just a fraction of that money would relieve the suffering of Somalians, and beyond repairing the damage, could fund the regeneration of their landscapes to heal the land, and reverse climate impacts.

Oil and war

Oil has been a root causal factor of wars over the last century. Japan entered World War II when the U.S. cut off its oil supplies. Economies that build their wealth on oil with not alot of other commercial activity tend to have autocratic governments. The elite capture the lion’s share of oil revenue and corruption is rife. In 2021 fossil fuels accounted for 43% of Russia’s exports. It supplies 12% of the global oil supplies, but prices of fuel have inflated far beyond a proportional response. Refining margins are very high right now, and we can only assume that speculators are benefitting from price increases. This imposes a further economic burden on people and reduces their ability to respond philanthropically to the needs of others.

Missiles and heavy military equipment burn huge amounts of fuel. They lay waste to landscapes and destroy the vegetation that heals our climate. When Ukraine rebuilds its devastated infrastructure it will increase the country’s carbon footprint dramatically.

The upside

I hesitate to write about an upside with so much tragedy unfolding. But Putin’s war is already accelerating the uptake of electric vehicles and will accelerate Europe’s adoption of renewable energy.

Even more encouraging is the growing global solidarity in support of Ukraine. People have found innovative ways to express support, including paying for Ukrainian bookings on Airbnb and leaving anti-war messages on Russian restaurant social media feedback.

If climate change was only a technical problem, we might have solved it by now. But collectively we can’t even end warfare, sacrificing funds, military muscle and innovation that might otherwise be used to address the greater threat of climate breakdown. Our biggest challenge is to change our thinking.

This calls us to reflect on human nature. Are we inherently warlike? Is that a defining feature of human nature? What do you think? If we can’t transcend that collective self-image, we are doomed to inflict misery on each other and will continue to do irreparable harm to the climate that succours us.

“Most particularly, it is in the glorification of material pursuits, at once the progenitor and common feature of all such ideologies, that we find the roots which nourish the falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. It is here that the ground must be cleared for the building of a new world fit for our descendants.”

The Promise of World Peace, Universal House of Justice, 1985

Human history has been a process of adopting wider and wider loyalties. We become empathetic to those regarded as enemies by an earlier generation. Jeremy Rifkin calls us Homo empathicus – our true nature is to be empathic, but when this is suppressed in our homes, schools and institutions our secondary drives of competition and greed emerge.

“Is it possible that we human beings who are soft-wired for empathic distress … can extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family? And to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family? And to the biosphere as part of our common community? If it is possible to imagine that, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet. … If it is impossible to even imagine that, I can’t see how we are going to make it.”

Jeremy Rikin – The Empatic Civilisation

We have made great progress over the last century towards greater empathy and unity. In my grandmother’s generation, there was still significant antipathy between Catholics and Protestants. My father fought in World War II. Now, the European Union is an exemplar of the trajectory of extending empathy. Putin’s aggression will hopefully just be a detour in our progress towards peace. When he has exited the world stage I look forward to the day that the peace created by the European Union extends all the way to Russia’s Pacific coast.

I am not saying that peace is an essential prerequisite for effective climate action, but we will heal the climate more rapidly if we are unified.

The wonderful thing about unity: It is a process of incalculable differences coming together to create one whole. Just like a musician uses a variety of notes and a painter all of the colours imaginable, having regard for every note, every shade of the colours used, even silences and blank spaces to create a masterpiece.

Naba Wolters

Featured image credit: New York Times

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