The Ukraine crisis shows the far-reaching effects of environmental policy

The crisis in Ukraine is a cautionary tale for energy policy.  While Russia is to blame for its military aggression against Ukraine, European countries suffering as a result of their dependence on Russian fuel have no one to blame but themselves. 

For years, Germany and others have had polar ice caps in mind as they celebrated shutting down the very backup options that have left them dependent on an aggressive world power.  Now, as central European powers stare down a cold winter and Ukrainians endure a conflict with no clear resolution in sight, the human cost should make one thing abundantly clear: climate policy was never just about the polar bears.

From Earth Day–style brands featuring leaves and twigs to greenwashed marketing campaigns, more and more climate policy nowadays feels like pure charity or a zero-sum game enacted at the expense of humans to benefit the environment.  We talk about using paper straws on behalf of the turtles and palm oil harming the orangutans as if we don't live here, too.  Then, every once in a while, years like this one remind us that climate and energy policy don't exist in a bubble.  They're interlaced with our national security, energy, human rights, and economic policy.

Arguably the most frustrating aspect of European energy policy has been a stubbornly anti-scientific, anti-nuclear sentiment plaguing climate policy movements in recent decades.  Likely rooted in Cold War–era fears of nuclear war as well as the Fukushima disaster, many of policymaking age are tinged with an uneasiness rooted in the past.  Yet there's optimism to be found in younger generations' embrace of nuclear power as a powerful tool for reducing emissions. 

Of course, there is a level of irony in the fact that nuclearphobia now contributes to the weakened state of national security for much of Europe.  Whereas Soviet command of nuclear power was once the source of fear, it is a neglected source of security against Russian aggression.  Germany has been steadily shutting down its nuclear power plants since 2002, setting itself back in its climate and national security goals alike by eliminating a reliable, clean source of power.  Now, for the first time in decades, the E.U. leader is second-guessing its decision to close its last few plants, mimicking similar regrets in U.S. states like California and New York, which have gotten less bullish on their phase-outs in light of recent energy markets.

Even putting nuclear power to one side, central Europe's reliance on foreign fossil fuels has shown that dirty energy sources — from the likes of Russia, Norway, Algeria, and Azerbaijan — were in use all along.  Policies against domestic fuel production that rely on importing gas from across borders do little but pay lip service to environmentalism at the cost of energy independence.  Now that much of Europe needs to choose between sanctioning Russia and keeping warm this winter, the costs of looking good on paper are becoming clear.

Centering our focus on the human impacts of environmental policy shouldn't diminish the importance of stewardship over endangered lands and species.  But let's not forget: the Earth will outlive us all, so it's a mistake to assume that the planet's well-being is indexed to that of our species.  Environmental policy should always begin with humans in mind for two reasons: first, so that we realize that unflashy, pragmatic approaches must trump the lip service of quick progress on paper, and secondly to appeal to the interests of those who might have other crucially important policy priorities on their minds.

Emotional appeals about dying animals are neither the most truthful nor effective arguments for well constructed environmental policies.  All said and done, we're affecting human lives.  Let's act like it.

Alina Clough is an Energy and Environment Fellow with the American Conservation Coalition and Young Voices. 

Image: Ken Lund.

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