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A shift to clean energy would halt Russia’s petro-thuggery and more

AP/Madeline Monroe/The Hill Illustration
AP/Madeline Monroe/The Hill Illustration

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is putting 44 million innocent lives in danger and threatening the sovereignty of a democratically governed country. It’s hard to imagine any possible upside, but apparently, the fossil fuel industry has found one. Oil and gas prices were already rising steadily before the invasion, stoking higher profits and global-scale inflation. Now, the Russian invasion is driving prices and inflation even higher, and Big Oil is leveraging this crisis to call for new policies to expand oil and gas production. The U.S. might genuinely have to come to the rescue of Europe with massive deliveries of fossil fuels if Russia follows through on threats to cut gas deliveries to Europe. The world is being blackmailed, thanks to an over-reliance on fossil fuels.

Instead of supporting knee-jerk policy shifts to produce more fossil fuels, we need to take a deep breath and examine how we got into this energy jam. Throughout the history of the fossil fuel era, wars have been fought over access to oil and gas, and fossil fuels have been used for political advantage both within petro-states and internationally for strategic goals. Often consumers are left to pay the price too: at the pump, via inflation, in the form of economic recessions and in blood and treasure when conflict erupts. 

Now imagine a world where all countries have access to affordable energy generated within their own borders, where petro-states no longer have the power to blackmail other countries or impact the international price of energy. This is not a fantasy — it’s the future we are heading toward, as clean renewable energy and storage displace fossil fuels in powering everything we do. This clean energy revolution is already engaging most nations, and with green energy, every country can choose if they want to deploy their own clean energy or depend on other countries for imported clean energy. Countries big and small, rich and poor, can all access a future of cheaper cleaner energy from wind and the sun.

Europe collaborated with Russia to build massive gas pipelines as a “bridge” to their clean energy future, and now Europe is paying the price as they decide how to fight back against Russia’s petro-thuggery. Russia has made the choice clear. Strong support for Ukraine will jeopardize natural gas imports from Russia. The United States is impacted as well. If our sanctions are too tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his billionaire cronies, then oil and gas prices could sky-rocket and Europe could experience gas shortages. Russia’s blackmail is pure petro-thuggery, and it impedes our ability to aid a country in need.

Avoiding future wars and petro-thuggery is reason enough to move beyond the era of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, storage and the electrification of almost everything. This clean energy world will also mean more affordable energy for everyone. Existing technologies (e.g., wind, solar and battery storage) will be augmented by emerging technologies such as “green” hydrogen generated using renewable energy for those few endeavors that can’t be electrified. A recent study confirmed that this clean energy future also will mean fewer power outages.

A clean energy future holds a wealth of additional benefits. The burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation is the primary cause of air pollution that kills an estimated 8 million people per year worldwide. This is more than the total confirmed global COVID-19 deaths so far — and keep in mind that air pollution kills 8 million every year, year upon year. This pollution is also implicated in neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease; all Americans are at risk. The good news: This pollution is virtually eliminated in a clean energy world. A super bonus indeed!

But wait, there’s more. As every reader probably knows, these fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change and increased climate hazards. We know this with high confidence: Eliminating fossil fuels from all we do is the most important step toward halting climate change. Those beholden to fossil fuels argue that it’s too late or too costly to make the switch, but we’re already transitioning to clean renewable energy because it is not too late or too costly. We need to accelerate this transition. By supporting a transition to renewable energy, Congress has the power to free the United States and the world from the evils of fossil fuels _ not just the risks from climate extremes and pollution, but also war, blackmail and petro-thuggery. Let’s hope they take this challenge seriously.

Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., is a climate scientist, professor and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He has researched drought, climate variability and climate change on five continents. Follow him on Twitter: @GreatLakesPeck.  

These opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Michigan.

Tags Big Oil Fossil fuels Jonathan Overpeck Nord Stream 2 oil and gas Russia Vladimir Putin

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