I have an admission. Like most expats who have lived and worked in Former Soviet Republics (for me places like Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan), I did not think Putin would really invade the Ukraine.
He had always been a good chess player, predictably and psychotically two steps ahead of the West. Throwing the chess board out the window entirely seemed like a waste of something that worked for him – so why would he do it with an invasion? But that is exactly what he did. Surprise factor aside, how did Putin think he would get away with this in the long term? There are many answers to this question, including Putin’s old-fashioned psychopathy.
But some of those answers point to the West – back to us. Especially groups of Naïve Western Enablers or as the @Quillette aptly dubbed them: Putin’s “useful Western idiots”. And I am not talking about promises of the Ukraine’s entry into NATO.
The West’s terrible energy policy decisions over the last decade created a reliance (most notably in Germany) on Russian natural gas. This reliance funded a Russian war machine, and produced the political wedges required for Putin to take the risk of crossing into Ukraine with an army.
While this war is Putin’s doing, the West collectively owes the Ukraine a moral debt. A debt each one of us is partially responsible for. To understand why, one must walk through the backstory of Naïve Western Enablers.
Cheap, Stable Energy Underwrites Literally Everything
Cheap energy supply has been the major contributor to every modern advancement of the last 150 years.
Need cancer treatment? Here is a heated hospital with gas-fired electricity chalk full of health equipment (plastics in MRI machines, saline bags, hypodermic needles, intubation equipment etc.). And because cheap energy supports everything else, our cancer treatment is free, thanks to universal health care.
Want to use a 32-calorie head of lettuce in the middle of winter for your Taco Salad? No problem. A farmer will grow it for us in Chile (using water pumps run on gas-fired power), truck it to a port (using diesel), put it on ship (using diesel), truck it (using diesel) to your Safeway (heated by gas-fired power) so that we can buy it for $4.99 (Safeway 3-pack!). Cheap energy permits the use of gobs of kilojoules of energy to import our silly 32-calorie head of lettuce for just under $5.
Same goes for that $12 shirt we bought last week at H&M.
So, if we mess with ANYTHING about energy policy, we mess with every modern benefit that we currently enjoy. This is where the Western naïveté and complacency started.
How Did the West Get So Dumb?
It is a good question. The short answer is “Entitlement”. The long answer is … longer.
The 2015 Paris Accord called on nations to abate Carbon emissions. Since energy transition means messing with every modern benefit, the initial plan was careful and data-based; namely push the use of natural gas as the interim solution over the next 30-40 years until battery and renewable technology are ready to swap hydrocarbons out for power (note the-then silence on the rational use of nuclear). Over 200 countries said “Sure. Great idea. Let’s do it.”
But starting about 5 years ago, and despite the global consensus around carbon abation, a smaller group of populist politicians, unelected plutocrats (to borrow Chrysta Freeland’s earlier descriptions), investment activists, NGOs and Social Media commentariat decided (all by themselves) that the plan was somehow just not fast enough. These are the Naïve Western Enablers.
They decided we ought to sprint towards Net-Zero without realistic reference to: the actual reliability of renewables, actual ability to scale technological development, real capital requirements and actual operating cost increases. It was as surreal as a Magritte painting, driven at least by naivety and at most by a wilful desire to ignore and discredit the logical concerns of real energy experts, just because they worked in the “bad” petroleum industry (an output of Social Media’s segregated echo-chambers, which I will leave for another post).
But it was much dumber (and more dangerous) to cut off the capital funding required to ensure that there would be enough natural gas around in the next 40 years to guarantee the continuation of every modern benefit. The Naïve Western Enablers decided there was no need for public or private funding for natural gas projects, because our use of hydrocarbons should be finished in 2020 – instead of 2060. Unfortunately, these decisions were made without referencing the virtually impossible groundwork and capital funding that would be required to actually achieve this energy transition pipe dream. When oil went to negative pricing during the pandemic, Naïve Western Enablers delusively proclaimed the ‘end of petroleum’ had arrived.
While good intentions were (probably) the motivator, the outcome was still not helpful. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
For example, the Naïve Western Enablers helped drive Germany away from its nuclear program to wind and solar. When it turned out that wind and solar could not even remotely support the world’s 4th largest economy, Germany turned to Russian natural gas to preserve every modern benefit. Before we pick on the Germans too much, realize that Naïve Western Enablers drove idiotic energy policy decisions all over the West (in government and business).
All the while, Putin was carefully watching our delusion. What Mark Carney might call ‘stranded Russian natural gas assets’ were really pointed spears. Assets that presented Putin with a perfect opportunity to create a reliance on Russian hydrocarbons – a geopolitical wedge to buy him the time and space (and weapons) to do what he really wanted. Putin used the Naïve Western Enablers as his “Useful Idiots” to advance his murderous agenda against the Ukrainian people. Note that MBS (Saudi) and Xi (China) have placed similar bets.
We all know who the Naïve Western Enablers are. For creditability’s sake, I feel like SOMEONE needs to call them out, if nothing else. Yes, I am looking at you @IEA @UnitedNations @IPCC @GovCan @GovUK @GovUS @BlackRock @Rystad @WEF @MarkCarney @FatihBirol @KarlSchwab @BigBanks @Bloomberg @NYT @Economist. There are many, many more that need to be called out.
To be clear, I am not against decarbonization. We are doing a ton of project work toward making decarbonization happen. Being a centrist, I am definitely not a proponent for right wing politics in general (especially social politics).
But I sure am opposed to stupid. Especially when stupid energy and climate policy needlessly exposes every modern benefit without clear thinking about the impact that exposure has on real people, including Ukrainian people, and on the protection of democracies.
From Climate Crisis to an Actual Ukrainian Crisis
Greta Thunberg’s famous missive to government and business leaders posed, “all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”. However, it is not just about “eternal economic growth”, but potential “terrible penury” too. Her castigation forgot two important things.
Firstly, preserving cheap, stable energy preserves every modern benefit. Responsible transition means examining everything in careful, data-based ways to create a realistic path to sustainable change. To do otherwise might risk treatment for the cancer patient, or an affordable gas bill for a single mother or ensuring there is enough lithium to even make all the required electric vehicle batteries. This is exactly what elected governments are supposed to do – protect real people and democracy.
Secondly, the downsides to not nailing that transition properly are our worst nightmares: wars for territorial ambition (e.g. the invasion of the Ukraine), neo-colonialism for resource ambition (e.g. China and African rare earth metals mining), wars for resource ambition (e.g. civil war in Libya), crushing inflation (e.g. everywhere now), energy embargos (e.g. Russia’s threat to suspend gas delivery to Europe), mass migration of peoples in need of humanitarian aide and resettlement opportunities (e.g., Syrians, Ukrainians), and starvation from food industry disruption (e.g. probably Sub-Saharan Africa in late 2022 and 2023). And hopefully not nuclear war.
Likely many Westerners, these things did not figure in Greta’s speech because she had become naively entitled to the certainty of every modern benefit. This is the true entitlement of the Naïve Western Enablers. The lights will always still come on. My home will always still be heated. I can afford these things. I can buy virtually anything, anytime of year for a fraction of their real cost. No one will ever invade my country.
But these worries are real. And they are happening now, in part because of Naïve Western Enablers. If you could restyle Greta’s speech today, but from a Ukrainian teenager in Kharkiv addressed to Naïve Western Enablers, it might sound like this:
“How dare you? All you can talk about is your own climate crisis political agenda and fairy tales of immediate net-zero without considering the impact on real people, like my neighbours in Kharkiv who are dying all around me.”
And that would be a fair criticism. As a I said, we owe a moral debt to the Ukraine.
Instead of being ashamed, maybe we should just start doing better. Thinking is hard, but maybe we owe it to real people (like Ukrainian people) to carefully consider how to achieve energy transition while preserving every modern benefit and democracy itself.
It is time to change the channel on Naïve Western Enablers before other bad actors also leverage them as Useful Idiots for their own purposes.