Brian Moench: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine exposes our fossil fuel addiction

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Brian Moench speaks at a news conference by Stop the Polluting Port Coalition in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

I had a granddaughter born last month. After a prolonged struggle of her parents to conceive, and a potential serious delivery complication, her safe arrival came with overwhelming joy and tremendous relief. But she also enters a world clouded by great anxiety, and a much more ominous one than one I entered many decades ago. How will she fare in a world unraveling in a profoundly unsafe, perhaps apocalyptic climate?

At its core, the climate crisis has always been a morality crisis. By refusing to sacrifice comfort and convenience, all of us to some degree bear responsibility for throwing millions of people now, and virtually of all humanity in the decades to come (including my granddaughter), under the climate bus.

Of course, some have played much larger roles in this massive moral collapse. The CEOs of international dirty energy corporations will be immortalized as some of humanity’s greatest villains. Rupert Murdoch and many of our state and national politicians will join them.

But the moral overtones of our fossil fuel addiction have deepened considerably since Vladimir Putin decided to channel his inner Adolf Hitler and exterminate the country and the people of Ukraine. Despite international sanctions to choke off Putin’s finances, Europe is still helping to pay for Putin’s genocide by buying his oil and gas, giving an entirely new meaning to the term “dirty energy.”

Putin’s war machine has been bought and paid for by fossil fuel revenue, which he has only because America and the rest of the world continue to wallow in our dirty energy addiction. BP, Exxon, Shell, Equinor, Eni, and other fossil fuel internationals, have all had long-standing stakes in Russian natural gas. Their investments helped finance Putin’s army.

In the United States, Big Oil is taking a fresh dip in its longstanding moral cesspool by reaping record profits tied much more to genocidal chaos than to any real perturbations of supply and demand. Big Oil and Republicans in Congress are even now “peace washing,” urging energy independence from Russia via America pursuing a vast expanse of our fossil fuel exports.

Some analysts believe Putin’s war is driven less by perverse ideology and is more a grand theft of Ukraine’s natural resources — vast fossil fuel reserves and precious metals. If so, that sounds uncomfortably like the moral bankruptcy of America’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Biden and many other Democrats are timidly calculating that Putin is forcing them to sacrifice their climate aspirations to placate an American electorate unable to think beyond high gas prices and inflation. They are rightly worried voters will overlook Republicans’ brazen intent to dismantle democracy and institutionalize their long commitment to climate denial. If that happens, we are on our way to “fossil fueled fascism” and climate disaster.

A chance to avert that disaster is found in new polls that indicate the majority of Americans are still willing to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth. The same polls found 89% support tax credits for “Americans who install clean energy systems, like solar power, in their homes.” Giving businesses tax incentives to “promote their use of wind, solar and nuclear power” is supported by 75%. Seventy-one percent favor improved fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and 62% support “strict limits on the release of methane in the production of natural gas.” Tax credits for buying electric vehicles is endorsed by 61%, and 59% support federally funding electric vehicle charging stations.

This suggests Americans can be sold on the imperatives of clean energy. But we need Biden to channel his inner Winston Churchill and inspire Americans to that moral high ground, not pander to our selfish instincts.

The new IPCC report estimates that nearly half the world’s population is at serious risk directly from climate disaster. The fossil fuel primed death and misery Putin is unleashing upon Ukraine is but a tiny fraction of what the world will see once tipping points are reached and our climate spirals out of control, devastating global agriculture, water resources, and forcing massive migrations.

Many Americans see the horror in Ukraine and learn the wrong lesson, enticed by a “drill baby, drill” mentality. But that’s what empowered Putin in the first place. Our grandchildren’s future will mirror the tragedy in Ukraine unless we commit to a much higher moral ground.

Brian Moench, MD, is President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment