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 realisation 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.
These developments pose a significant challenge for contemporary environmentalism, a still-young intellectual framework that has seldom had to deal with geopolitical issues.
With roots in the pacifist, anti-capitalist movements of the 1960s, the movement became institutionalised at the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity were established. In addition to serving as the backbone of the environmental movement for three decades, these agreements long stood as a monument to the post-Soviet world order.
Comforted by the notion that all countries could agree, in principle, to be held accountable to environmental objectives, activists and environmental institutions focused their efforts on private and public actors’ predatory and illegal behavior.
Taking the rules-based system for granted, they relied on science-based targets to produce global roadmaps to desired outcomes. For a while, this politically neutral approach allowed everyone to avoid the question of whether outcomes delivered by authoritarian states are acceptable.
But those days are over: environmental goals can no longer be considered separately from the sources of power that define state authority.
Consider the issue of biodiversity protection. Most environmental organisations have mobilised behind a “30x30” target – protecting 30 per cent of land and ocean areas by 2030.
But protecting nature requires more than advocacy. It ultimately depends on the regulatory power of the state, which exercises sovereignty over territory, using force if necessary. Indeed, the Latin origin of “territory” is not the noun terra, “land,” but the verb terrere, “to terrorise.”
Until recently, this distinction would have seemed pedantic. Not anymore. Conservation depends on state power, so it matters very much which state we are talking about.
The problem is hardly limited to Putin’s delusions of empire. When Chinese President Xi Jinping, on his first visit to Davos in 2017, portrayed his government as a global environmental steward, he was met with applause. China’s “ecological civilisation” was hailed as an example of global environmentalist leadership, rather than as an application of ecological Marxism, a project that is indifferent to individuals’ civil and political rights.
But now, we should recognise the danger of elevating despots to the status of environmental heroes. Without the rule of law and the protection of human dignity, environmental commitments may not be worth the paper they are printed on.
Traditional Western environmentalism grew up protesting an order that it now must defend. The question is whether it is prepared, or even equipped, for the task. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz apparently saw no need to consult his Green Party coalition partners before he greenlit sending weapons to Ukraine and vastly increasing Germany’s military spending – two paradigm-shifting policy changes.
Moreover, as governments around the world sanction Russian oligarchs who owe their fortunes to Putin, we should not forget that many environmental initiatives have also benefited from wealth created under authoritarian regimes. Prince William’s “Earthshot Prize,” for example, has received grants from Emirati corporate giants and Chinese tycoons.
Modern environmentalism may now need to re-examine its methods. With the war in Eastern Europe dragging on, it is already clear that the movement can no longer afford to ignore the nature of political power. The defense of self-determination and political agency now must become a fundamental principle of environmental action.
Giulio Boccaletti, an honorary research associate at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, is a former chief strategy officer of The Nature Conservancy and the author of Water: A Biography (Pantheon, 2021).
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