On Monday, against a backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its report on the impacts of a warming planet and the status of ongoing adaptation efforts. At a live event on Tuesday, Carnegie Europe visiting scholar Olivia Lazard spoke with François Gemenne, one of the report’s lead authors, about the document and how the crisis in Ukraine is intertwined with our warming planet. The latter part of the conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Olivia Lazard: It is taking a war in Ukraine for Europe to consider switching away from a fossil-fuel exporter, Russia. There is now an impetus to invest into renewable energy and to accelerate the transition toward renewables. Had Europe heeded IPCC calls twenty years ago, it is very unlikely today that energy systems and dependencies would be weaponized and that we’d find ourselves with the prospect of war combined with increasing climate disruptions, which weigh heavily on fiscal resources.

Olivia Lazard
Olivia Lazard is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of climate, the transition ushered by climate change, and the risks of conflict and fragility associated to climate change and environmental collapse.
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This is part of the constraints that we’re seeing in terms of adaptation. We’re dealing with multiple crises of incredible magnitude, some related to biophysics, others related to geopolitics. And we need to be able to really integrate in a systemic way geopolitical security, geoeconomic, and biophysical analysis.

François Gemenne: Yes, a lot of prospective thinking. And the problem is that in policymaking, we react to crises rather than anticipate them.

Olivia Lazard: Absolutely. Geopolitics and climate transitions were never separate—it’s that we had not understood the relevance of it. It had not trickled up in policy processes.

What are the intersections between the Ukraine crisis and climate transitions at the moment?

François Gemenne: There are many. I think we need to distinguish two clusters. The first one is that our dependence on Russian imports has put us in a situation of vulnerability like this. Thankfully, I’m not in the head of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, but I think that if he made the decision to invade Ukraine, it’s because he did bet on the fact that sanctions against him, or against Russia, would be light, given the huge dependence of European energy systems to Russian gas in particular. Clearly, if we had anticipated this some twenty years ago, I think we wouldn’t have been in that situation today.

Then the second cluster is the fact that the war itself, and the reactions to the war and the sanctions, will have long-lasting impacts on the energy future of European countries. First, some countries are willing to completely reverse their energy policies. And that is the case in Germany, but to a lesser extent in some other countries as well. Second, because some major investments in fossil fuel projects are being denounced or abandoned. We’ve seen British Petroleum and Shell abandoning major projects in fossil fuels, and maybe that would be a kind of game changer to accelerate either the transition toward renewable energies or possibly also to revive the nuclear energy sector. And probably a bit of both.

Olivia Lazard: I also think that we really need to look at the geostrategic relevance of Ukraine.

It is one of the massive breadbaskets of Europe. It is one of the countries that has long been central to global food markets. Just before the Arab Spring, there were a number of climate disruptions in Argentina, Ukraine, and Canada that led the price of food staples to skyrocket, which then cascaded into a number of vulnerable regions—specifically the Middle East and the North African region, which exacerbated preexisting grievances between people and their governments. This ignited a social revolution and the complete geopolitical change of map in the Middle East and North Africa.

We’ve heard Putin say that he intends to have Russia benefit from the climate crisis by opening up new trade routes, new agricultural lands, and being a breadbasket powerhouse for the global economy in the future. Putin is trying to hoard agricultural lands for Russia’s food security, thereby also increasing the world’s future dependence on Russia in agricultural markets.

And then there is another point that I find is really missing from the current conversation. In 2021, the European Union struck a partnership with Ukraine on supply chains for critical materials that are necessary for decarbonization and for digitalization. So Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to hoard mineral resources in addition to agricultural ones by gaining access to mineral resources outside of its territory.  

This is a pattern of behavior that we’re seeing more and more on the part of Russia: to try to become a power broker and to carve out spheres of influence in the world, be it in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, in Mali. Since climate transitions are accelerating and energy systems are changing, Russia wants to influence how other countries and regions, including the European Union, will be able to effectively move to renewables and maintain democratic, geoeconomic, and socioeconomic resilience in the face of climate change. Russia and China both aim to use supply chains, which are now connecting to how we regear the global economy in the face of disruptions, to try to carve out dependency relationships. So climate transitions are playing into the way international relationships are changing, and there is an impetus for the European Union to really use its geopolitical influence to enhance this notion of co-resilience and co-adaptation. This is why climate finance is becoming one key aspect of a sustainable future for all: we all depend on this ability to redistribute resources and to use transitions as a transformative power for equalization and for equity across the world.

François Gemenne: We must realize that the question of full independence or sovereignty is a myth, even in the era of renewable energy. Rather, the question is: who do we want to depend on? And this is where that the EU can definitely find a new strength, because I bet that most countries would rather depend on other European countries than on authoritarian regimes.

Olivia Lazard: As people who work in policy circles and think tanks, it’s our job to convey some key messages. One, it’s really important to look at the Ukraine crisis under the climate lens. We need to realize that climate adaptation and democratic resilience are really two pillars that go hand in hand.

The second thing—and this is something that I want to drive forward as a key message to EU policymakers—is that climate transitions today are at the heart of a new geopolitical game that threatens the stability and the ecological resilience of countries across the world. This is particularly true for countries that are climate vulnerable and well-endowed in those critical materials that we need for decarbonization. So the IPCC report is critical to drive a new vision for foreign policy: that good adaptation and mitigation are about international security based on human rights and human security.

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