The world’s increasingly desperate effort to preserve a livable climate just took another hit, now that the two biggest climate villains — Putin and Trump — have clearly teamed up.
But not only do we now know Russia worked hard to elect climate science denier Donald Trump as president, we also know they have been working since 2004 to sway elections toward pro-Russian populists elsewhere — and most of those populists are also pro-fossil fuels and anti-clean energy.
In the past several days, a shocked world saw President Trump take the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin while attacking our major allies and U.S. intelligence agencies.
Trump’s actions raised the question with many observers about whether Putin has influence over Trump or whether Trump and his team have been colluding with the Russians from the very start.
“Will Trump repay Putin by ending Russian sanctions and killing the Paris climate deal?” was a question I posed back in January 2017, examining the growing evidence Russia helped elect Trump and questioning what kind of quid pro quo there could be.
Trump certainly worked to lift, weaken, or delay the sanctions, even as Congress pushed for stronger sanctions.
But Trump could and did announce last June his intention to unilaterally pull this country out of the Paris agreement.
Putin has never liked the Paris deal because it means a large fraction of Russia’s fossil fuel reserves would remain in the ground, unable to provide vast revenue for him and the Kremlin.
Indeed, Russia’s economy is unusually dependent on exporting fossil fuels as the chart below demonstrates — it is a major source of hard currency that Kremlin kleptocrats rely on.
Unsurprisingly, Putin put forward in Paris one of the weakest greenhouse gas (GHG) target of any nation. As Climate Action Tracker has explained. It “is so weak that it would not require a decrease in GHG emissions from current levels—nor would it require the Government to adopt a low-carbon economic development strategy.”
Even so, Russia still hasn’t ratified the deal — and has said it won’t until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. If the president of the second-largest emitter, the United States, works with the leader of the fifth-largest emitter, Russia, they could deal a fatal blow to the ongoing negotiating process.
Trump himself came out of the Helsinki summit downplaying the impact of global warming more than usual.
He absurdly told Fox News host Sean Hannity Monday night, “I know President Obama said global warming is our biggest problem and I would say that no, nuclear warming is our biggest problem, by a factor of about five million.”
A factor of about five million? Let’s suppose people worry a nuclear war might kill 500 million people. What does this mean for the impact of climate change according to Trump’s math — that climate change would only kill 100 people?
But who knows what Trump really means. It’s just a made up claim that has no meaning, much like “nuclear warming,” a term that Trump appears to have invented.
Serious leaders can and should acknowledge that both nuclear war and global warming are major threats. But only one of them has as a solution that means leaving most fossil fuels in the ground.
So, to the extent Putin wanted a president who would undermine our alliances and undermine climate action, he got exactly what he wanted with Trump.
But it’s not unique to the United States. Putin has meddled in more than two dozen other elections since 2004, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund.
And a key goal of the meddling has been to ensure countries in the region support growing dependence on Russian fossil fuel imports.
“We see a pattern of populist governments clearly opposing ambitious climate and energy regulations, which is in line with the primary Russian economic interest: exporting fossil fuels and nuclear technology,” as Benedek Jávor, vice-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee, told HuffPost last month.
Countries whose leaders have moved closer to Russia like Hungary and Bulgaria have “resisted ambitious climate targets in Brussels,” HuffPost points out. Bulgaria has used its EU presidency in 2018 to try replacing the EU’s “energy efficiency first” rule with one saying member states “cannot promote energy efficiency projects over gas infrastructure projects.”
The more Russia is able to sway elections toward candidates like Trump and other pro-fossil fuel populists, and the more Trump himself aligns with Putin, the closer the world moves towards climate catastrophe.