We should reject any attempt by Western governments to greenwash the rivalry with Russia, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh
The last few weeks have seen a surge in political support for renewable energy. Germany has declared plans to be fully reliant on renewables by 2035, while in the UK, Johnson is apparently planning a ‘radical new energy strategy’ based purely on renewables and nuclear. These are steps in a general strategy to counteract what John Kerry recently called Putin’s ‘weaponizing’ of gas supplies to Europe; the beginning of a new era in which Europe manages without Russian fossil fuels. As Kerry explained, ‘energy is a key weapon in this fight, and if there was a lot less reliance on gas, there would be a different set of games.’
For some in the green movement, this might seem like a golden opportunity to advance the cause of clean energy, the only concern being how to ensure that the focus does remain on renewables and does not devolve onto locally-produced coal or liquified natural gas. Bill McKibben, for example, argues that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is providing the spur needed to overcome inertia and vested interests standing in the way of a shift to renewables. George Monbiot similarly sees a chance for ‘starving the Russian military machine of funds, [and] preventing the collapse of life on Earth’.
As the recent IPCC report has made abundantly clear, we do indeed need to implement a rapid, large-scale shift to renewable energy, along with other measures to avert as far as possible the worst of the climate catastrophe we’re facing. This does not mean, though, that falling in behind the rhetoric on energy security is a sensible strategy for climate campaigners.
The ‘energy of freedom’?
In the first place, it is important to recognise the role that the idea of renewables as providers of energy security plays in the Western mainstream view of the current situation. This is the view in which Nato is an innocent, defensive alliance against unprovoked Russian aggression, and in which therefore European countries importing Russian gas are suffering under the heel of the Russian tyrant. Thus, for example, Christian Lindner, Germany’s finance minister, called renewable energy ‘the energy of freedom.’ There is a similar logic underlying Third Act’s campaign for ‘heat pumps for peace’, which calls on President Biden to use the Defense Production Act to ship heat pumps to Europe and therefore ‘dramatically lessen Putin’s power and profits.’
There is no sense here that Nato expansion might have had anything to do with the situation in Ukraine, nor that Nato aggression is not also a threat to peace. Indeed, despite the peaceful framing of campaigns like Third Act’s, freedom from Russian fossil fuels is clearly seen as freedom from any need to maintain any sort of peaceful relations with Russia; as freeing the West up for more bellicose acts. The shift to renewables here is a necessary precursor to harsher sanctions, to be kept in place ‘until the country buckled’, as Bill McKibben put it with a remarkable insouciance about what that would mean for Russian working people. In these visions, a renewable-powered Europe is a Europe ready for a role in the new era of militarisation and cold (at best) war with Russia. It is hardly a future to embrace with enthusiasm.
The green defence would be that this is no time to be purist. It does not matter what governments’ motivations are for embracing renewables, as long as they do. It’s possible to have some sympathy with that position, but it is a mistake. A militarised Europe of increased defence spending will not be a greener Europe. War is a significant driver of climate change and there’s no reason to think that armies will be greening themselves any time soon. We may be able to heat our houses with renewable energy but jets and tanks still need fossil fuels.
Seeing renewables as an answer to energy security concerns may also undermine our ability to have a 100% renewable grid, as it restricts options to deal with intermittency. The argument that renewables can provide energy security is that everywhere has access to wind and solar, which is true, but of course not all the time. It is necessary to have some sort of back up for night-time peak demand and periods when it isn’t that windy. One way of doing that is to have international networks of renewables on the basis that it’s always windy or sunny somewhere. Some of these projects have been criticised for replicating colonial patterns of exporting benefits to the West and keeping the costs in the Third World, but that’s not a reason to reject the idea entirely. It simply underlines that a wholly renewable world needs to be one based in international cooperation and fairness, not imperialism and competition. Energy systems without the large scale that such international cooperation would bring will have to have back-up power, and without gas that’s going to be either nuclear (which relies on uranium imports) or domestic coal.
Cost of living crisis
Seizing on the energy security argument for renewables is unlikely to be the best way to get to the decarbonised system we so desperately need. There is also a danger that falling in behind the pro-Nato propaganda on this one pits greens against ordinary people. One immediate and hopefully short-lived reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was attempts to get people to do a coordinated turning off of lights ‘showing Putin that we'd rather sit in the dark than buy his gas and oil’. As an exercise in ‘Britain can take it’ it did not appear to have a wide support, but it came at the same time as many more people were posting and tweeting that they were having to turn their heating and lighting off because they couldn’t afford the coming dramatic increase in energy costs. These were of course energy price rises locked in before the Russian invasion; the results of the Ukraine crisis will be passed on to us all in the autumn.
The temptation here for climate campaigners is to embrace this energy austerity as patriotic green austerity: defeat Putin and climate change together by turning your thermostat down a degree, or go one better and get a heat pump. This would again be to take up the establishment casting of domestic heating as the home front in a war against Russia. It also would be to misunderstand the nature of the energy price crisis and to imply that people can avoid it through individual consumer behaviour.
Advice that people who won’t be able to afford to pay their energy bills should instead invest thousands, if not tens of thousands, in a new heating system appears tin-eared at best. It also misses the point that until this April, replacing a gas boiler with a heat pump was expected to increase household running costs, because electricity is so much more expensive than gas. From April 2022, electricity will only cost four times, rather than five times, as much as gas, so the balance tips the other way and heat pump users are projected to see a saving of a couple of hundred pounds.
If that sounds like a drop in the ocean compared to the eye-watering bills we’re seeing, that’s because it is. Positing it as a solution to soaring energy bills risks appearing as if greens don’t understand the nature of the crisis, which, to be clear, sees many people facing the worst cost of living increase in their lifetimes. A better approach would be to expose the politics behind the energy price mechanism, and the extent to which the price increases are driven by speculation and profiteering rather than any real increases in fossil-fuel production costs.
It's a trap
There can be a tendency in discussion about fossil fuels to see any problems as arising from inherent fossil-fuel characteristics. In effect, to view increases in gas prices as inevitable because fossil fuels are evil. Understanding the real mechanism behind energy prices allows us to see that the problem is the market and the role that energy plays in it. Renewables generated in a market system would play the same role and be vulnerable to the same volatility. Today, it’s market fears of oil and gas supply shortages; tomorrow those fears could be sparked by a long-range weather forecast of a particularly windless and cloudy summer. Changing the technology doesn’t fix the price issue, as evidenced by the fact that customers of green energy firms on 100% renewable tariffs are facing increases like everyone else.
If green campaigners appear not to understand the nature of energy crisis, nor to appreciate the seriousness for many people, we’re unlikely to win the wide public support we need to achieve a real energy transition. In the same way, hitching renewable energy to the ‘stick it to Putin’ wagon now leaves us with nowhere to stand when we want to oppose increased military spending on fossil-fuel powered tanks and planes. Those who have chosen to use the current situation to deride moves away from nuclear power as motivated by the fear of ‘tsunamis in Bavaria’ may find a similar difficulty when they need to oppose future nuclear escalations.
The sudden willingness of right-wing politicians to hug a wind turbine may seem like an opportunity for greens tired of trying to build a mass movement on the climate crisis. It isn’t; it’s a trap. The only way to get the response to the climate crisis that the IPCC report has emphasised we so urgently need is to continue with that work of building the movement on the streets. The new world order we’re facing does not come with a silver lining of any real green transition. We must not entertain the delusion that going along with jingoistic rhetoric now will conjure one up in future.
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Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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