Froma Harrop commentary: Has Ukraine made us hit bottom on our addiction to oil?
Summary: It is said that alcoholics often need to "hit bottom" before they will make the necessary changes to kick their craving. The crisis in Ukraine has made us hit bottom on our addiction to oil. It is best for humanity's survival, and the planet's, that we kick it now.
Well before Russia launched its bloody attack on Ukraine, the civilized world had vowed to replace dirty fossil fuels with clean energy. The reason was climate change: Planet-warming carbon emissions are threatening our way of life, if not today, then tomorrow.
The invasion of Ukraine by an unstable Vladimir Putin, however, made yesterday's concern today's concern. It has ignited dread of nuclear disaster, primarily in the form of an escalated conflict between Russia and the U.S. This fear — added to horror at the brutality against a peaceful country — has concentrated minds on the need to deprive Putin of the money that feeds his power to hurt others, Russia's oil and gas revenues.
When the price of oil surged past $100 a barrel, Americans engaged in a familiar debate. Do we need to extract more fossil fuels? Or should we redouble efforts to replace them altogether with clean energy?
Predictably, some on the right blamed environmentalists, specifically President Joe Biden, for the recent spike in gasoline prices. As Biden noted and fact-checkers have confirmed, the domestic oil industry has 9,000 unused permits with which it could drill right now.
These companies are not jumping on the opportunity for a solid business reason: They've suffered two oil busts in five years, and the price has already dipped back under $100 a barrel. As further evidence of their reluctance to expand, Houston, the oil capital, is seeing virtually no new office construction, unlike nearly 10 years ago when high prices and the shale-oil boom unleashed a massive building spree.
In addition, the industrial world has been moving away from fossil fuels in any case. For Europe especially, aggression against Ukraine has delivered a shock to countries that let themselves become ridiculously dependent on Russia's oil and natural gas.
Days after the tanks first crossed Ukraine's border, the European Union vowed to kick its reliance on Russian fossil fuels, but also fossil fuels in general. Though Germany is now building terminals to accept the delivery of liquefied natural gas from the U.S., it has also sped up its deadline for obtaining all its energy from renewable sources — to 2035 rather than the previous goal of sometime before 2040.
High oil prices have long been good for the climate, and now is no different, Christopher Hohn, the British hedge fund billionaire, recently told a Financial Times conference. "This is a massive wake-up call that is going to accelerate decarbonization and investments by countries and governments," he said.
You'd think that higher pump prices would spur demand in electric vehicles — and you'd be right. Edmunds, the car information site, says that searches for almost every kind of vehicle that doesn't guzzle gas -- whether hybrid, plug-in or battery-powered — rose 40% over the past month.
But try to get an EV. They are scarce, due in large part to the global shortage of computer chips. And though that has enabled EV makers to raise their prices, it has not kept these cars in the lot. Today's scarce supply may push consumers currently window-shopping for electric cars to strike when they again become widely available.
Notably, the conflict drained attention from a scary new United Nations report that climate calamities are already upon us and there's little time left to avert them. How ironic, that this war will do more for confronting climate change than terrible warnings from leading scientists.
It is said that alcoholics often need to "hit bottom" before they will make the necessary changes to kick their craving. The crisis in Ukraine has made us hit bottom on our addiction to oil. It is best for humanity's survival, and the planet's, that we kick it now.