Environmentalism After Ukraine
Since its birth in the 1960s, the modern environmental movement has taken the rules-based system for granted, trusting in national commitments even when they came from authoritarian states. But now that Russia has exposed the fragility of the global order, the time has come to reconsider core principles.
LONDON – Russia’s war in Ukraine is tragic, infuriating, and unspeakably sad. It is also an unexpected turning point for environmentalism. Until a few days ago, climate change topped the global agenda, with science-based targets pointing the way to a cleaner, more sustainable future. But now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless decision to invade a sovereign country and threaten nuclear war has revealed weaknesses in the architecture of international rules and multilateral governance. It is hard to believe that global environmental efforts have any chance of succeeding within such a fragile system.
Strikingly, this realization has not yet dawned on those engaged in environmental work. A week into the war, the United Nations hailed a major agreement on single-use plastics as a “triumph” for planet Earth. But such agreements depend on the mutual recognition of sovereign nation-states – precisely the principle that Putin has called into question.
The war also imperils efforts to transform the energy system through global cooperation. Sharp increases in oil and gas prices are testing the goodwill of governments and companies. Many OPEC suppliers are seeking to profit from the situation rather than helping to mitigate the shock. Yes, high oil and gas prices and the clear security risk implied by dependence on petrostates like Russia may well accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. But the economic turmoil on the horizon will discourage investment, and green energy may find itself competing against the military-industrial complex for public finance.