Overview:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine could mean Cold War II. Does that mean renewable energy and climate priorities get left behind?

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During the first Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race, both countries rushing to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. Both spent an unfathomable amount of money on nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems in order to gain a competitive advantage. The result was massive defense budgets which consumed the lion’s share of each government’s spending.

Stephen I. Schwartz, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in the 1990s, found that the US government spent nearly $5.5 trillion on its nuclear arsenal between 1940 and 1996. As the Cold War eased and the Soviet Union collapsed, the US changed its defense spending strategy. At the height of the Cold War, the US was spending upwards of 9% of its GDP on military spending. That number has fallen to roughly 3% since 2000 as the US has moved to spend more on social services and other domestic priorities. Spending on butter instead of guns allows the US government to fund programs that improve citizens’ lives. 

This has been the status quo for the past three decades or so—until February 24th, when Russia invaded Ukraine, sending the US-led international order into a tailspin.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just a challenge to Ukraine’s territorial integrity; it’s a challenge to the geopolitical status quo. The current international order has not seen much change since the Soviet Union collapsed, aside from China’s growth as an economic power. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked a dramatic western response, with the US and its European allies moving to cut off trade and levy heavy sanctions. Germany has already announced it will re-arm its military forces in response to Russia’s actions. It is highly likely that much of the rest of western Europe and the United States will follow suit. This is going to have a dramatic impact on US domestic politics and spending priorities. 

the global impact of the war in ukraine | balls painted like national flags colliding in a newton's cradle

For a different opinion on the likely geopolitical impact of the invasion of Ukraine, see Kaveh Mousavi, The global impact of the war in Ukraine

In domestic US politics, containing Russia will be the major issue priority going forward. Todd Harrison, a Center for Strategic and International Studies defense analyst, argued it would change national defense strategy. “Definitely raises the importance of countering and deterring Russia in overall US national security strategy,” he said. “I imagine there is some rewriting going on for the NSS and NDS right now to reflect that reality.” Both parties are going to put a portion of their domestic agenda on the shelf to focus on how to keep Moscow in check. If we are truly entering a second Cold War, that likely means a return to the military spending of decades past. The defense budget is likely to balloon, with government spending on social programs taking the biggest hit.

The left is likely a political loser here. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been fierce advocates for wealth redistribution in the US. The money they were hoping to spend on healthcare, education, will probably go toward the development of new arms to defend from Moscow. The far right is a political loser too – former President Trump’s warm relationship with Russian leaders is now a critical liability as Republicans move to return to their Cold War hawkishness.

What emerges is a more centrist country with politicians who are going to place many domestic priorities below Russian containment. 

The severity of the Russian sanctions has already had an impact on global markets, causing significant increases in food and energy prices. While some European countries have called for the development of renewable energy that can counter Russian oil and natural gas exports, the US has continued to focus on fossil fuels. The US has asked autocratic nations such as Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to pump more oil in a bid to keep global energy markets under control. The US focus on keeping the oil flowing and preventing gas prices from rising is potentially a serious roadblock for climate change advocates. Historically, there has been some evidence of higher gas prices having a negative impact on Presidential approval ratings. This pushes administrations facing high gas prices to seek out more oil flows, which perpetuates the current fossil fuel regime and lowers the odds of major investments in renewable energy.

The US government has made it clear it is looking to substantially increase oil production around the world, which could just make the climate crisis even worse. 

Climate scientists believe that the planet is nearing a “tipping point” from which negative change to the planet’s environment is irreversible. There is only a short time left for global powers to meaningfully change their energy consumption habits. Climate groups have had some success in lobbying governments and multinational corporations on the need to invest in renewable sources of energy. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to upend much of that success. With western governments moving to increase defense spending, new domestic initiatives on issues such as healthcare, education, and climate will all face difficulty receiving funding before military interests. The US government has made it clear it is looking to substantially increase oil production around the world, which could just make the climate crisis even worse. 

So what does this mean for climate advocates? And humanists, who believe that renewable energy is an important priority for creating a more just world for future generations?

The fight for renewable energy has been difficult, even throughout much of the last three decades when the West felt it didn’t face a serious political or military threat. With the return of a hostile Western posture towards Russia, the US government is going to be primarily focused on the development of new weapons systems and keeping the oil flowing. But that doesn’t mean climate advocates should give up. It is vital that they redouble their efforts, even in the face of difficult odds. The climate crisis is too important to put on the back burner for future generations to deal with, and only a limited time remains before the damage rises from serious to irreversibly catastrophic.

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.