Why Trump's cooperation with Putin could break EU action on climate change

While climate change may appear to be a minor issue in Trump's links to Russia, their combined efforts to undermine international cooperation could have a major impact. 

Frederick Guy
23 August 2017

Russian president Vladimir Putin holding a cup of tea. Credit: Thomas Cizauskas/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Trump’s Russia connection can seem just one more sideshow in his horrific political circus. Yet that connection, and the American Republican establishment’s acquiescence to it, needs some explanation: how can we have a government in the USA elected with the open support of the KGB man? The answer could lie entirely in electoral expediency, but it is worth considering that, between the Republicans and the Russian oligarchy, there is a deeper commonality of interests. Their common ground is that both aim to stall meaningful action on climate change. This common interest is reflected not only in the climate-related policies Trump and Putin promulgate for their respective states, but in their support for nationalism generally, and for fragmentation of the European Union in particular.

Even modest actions to reduce demand for fossil fuels would devastate fossil fuel wealth.Any hope of avoiding a very high risk of dangerous climate change requires stopping the accumulation of greenhouse gases soon. In all likelihood – absent some miraculous carbon capture and storage technology – that would mean leaving the world’s fossil fuel reserves where they are, in the ground. Because action has been delayed so long, this weaning now needs to be quick, and every human’s way of life would be affected to some degree. Those with wealth in fossil fuel reserves, however, stand to lose vast fortunes. Even more modest actions to reduce demand for fossil fuels would mean that less is sold, and at a lower price, devastating fossil fuel wealth.

The world’s fossil fuel billionaires include much of the Russian oligarchy. They also include some powerful Republican donors, like the Koch brothers. These people have a common interest in delaying effective action on climate change as long as they can.

Getting action on climate change is a massive and complex collective action problem, one which demands international cooperation both to reach agreements, and then to implement and enforce them. One route to blocking action on climate is to undermine international cooperation, and the development of international institutions. It is in keeping with the interests of the Russian oligarchy, and of the US Republicans’ petro-backers, that both countries are now both led by men who promote bellicose nationalism – both of their own respective countries, and in others – and particularly, in member states of the European Union.

Oil and Russia’s oligarchy


The graph tells you just how important oil is to the Russian elite. It shows the world’s thirty largest economies (on this graph I have, in somewhat premature recognition of Brexit, separated the UK from the rest of the EU). Gross domestic product (GDP) is on the horizontal axis; the horizontal scale is logarithmic, so GDP doubles from one tick to the next. The vertical axis shows the value of net fuel exports (oil, coal, natural gas) as a proportion of GDP. You can see that most large economies are net importers of fuel. Russia is the largest economy that is a net exporter of fuel, and it is also a major net exporter: of countries with GDP of over $1 trillion, Russia is far and away the most dependent on exports of fuel, at about 17% of its GDP. Of the $1 trillion-plus economies, Canada [CAN] is the second most dependent on fuel exports, at less than 5% of GDP. Among all the top thirty shown here, the only ones more dependent on fuel exports than Russia are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Iran should be on the chart but data is not available).Russia is the largest economy that is a net exporter of fuel.

GDP is of course the market value of a country’s combined consumption, investment and government spending - all the groceries, all the new buildings and equipment, all the heating bills, all the government services... everything that's paid for in the country: for net fuel exports to be worth 17% of that for such a large country as Russia is staggering. For the US, for example, total exports of all goods and services are only 13.5% of GDP.

Even so, Russia, as a country, could adjust well to life after fossil fuel. It has an educated population, a good technological base, and climate models tell us that it is likely to be relatively unharmed – perhaps even helped – by climate change for decades to come: without oil exports, it could easily find new sources of comparative advantage, new roles in the international division of labour. But that would be cold comfort for Putin and his circle of oligarchs. Like other autocrats, plutocrats and corrupt officials around the world, they love oil, coal and natural gas because they can abstract large cash incomes from these industries without adversely affecting production (in technical terms, most of the revenue from oil is rent); if they tried to squeeze such emoluments out of most other lines of business, they would only squeeze the businesses to death and be left holding dead geese, not golden eggs. If the fossil fuels were to be left in the ground, the oligarchy would be history.

The elites of most other fuel-dependent countries are in the same position as Putin and the Russian oligarchs – serious action on climate change would shatter their rice bowls. But Russia has power that the others lack. It has largest military budget of any fuel exporter: the circles in the graph are proportional to military expenditure, so big circles mean big armies (Saudi military expenditures look as large as Russia’s on the graph, but the Saudi figure is inflated by reporting of their considerable internal security spending together with military). Russia is also the only net fuel exporter with nuclear weapons; it has a large population - excepting Nigeria, by far the biggest population of any substantial net exporter – and Nigeria is a poor country with negligible military and technological capability; and, in addition to its own resources, Russia controls the flow of natural gas from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia to Europe – control that it’s shown itself willing to use against its neighbors.

Oil and the Republican Party

In climate policy as in all other things, Trump’s personal arbitrariness and outrageousness are so vast that they fill the whole frame, and make it hard to look past the individual to see who backs him. But his dismissal of climate science, and of international efforts to cooperate on mitigation of global warming, are completely normal for today’s Republican Party. That party now controls the White House and both houses of Congress; if they stick to the positions they have articulated over the past decade, the US will line up with petro-states like Russia and the Gulf monarchies, to delay meaningful action on climate.

How have the Republicans come to a point where they are prepared to bet human civilization’s future on what is, to put it most kindly, the speculative proposition that the predictions of climate science badly overstate both the likely magnitude of damage and the risk of actual catastrophe? This is a question because, unlike the Russian oligarchs, Republican dependence on fossil fuels is not absolute. While fossil fuel interests do give lavish support to Republican candidates, many other interests do so as well. The dependence of American politicians on donated campaign funds leads politicians to sell out to collections of interests; in the Republican case, the party has also been mortgaged to, among others, the pharmaceutical, health insurance, gun manufacturing, banking, and for-profit education industries – to the extent of supporting, in partisan lock-step, some truly bizarre policies.

But while most of these industries have merely managed to protect some lucrative if manifestly unpopular privileges, fossil fuel funding has managed to make the demonization of environmentalism a cultural value for millions on the American right (the gun industry has had similar success).

One of the Tea Party’s greatest bugaboos was environmental policy.Trump has taken the political space previously occupied by the Tea Party, an ostensibly grassroots Republican movement of the Obama years which was in fact funded by the Koch brothers. In principle the Tea Party was for small government, low taxes, pro-gun, nationalist, and in favour of some sort of “traditional” values. Yet, for reasons which are not entirely mysterious given the identity of its sugar daddies, one of the Tea Party’s greatest bugaboos was environmental policy, and in particular any hint of international cooperation to combat global warming. The idea that climate change is a serious problem and caused by humans was denounced as a pernicious fabrication, the fruit of an implausible conspiracy in which numerous national governments had suborned a large community of scientists to advise the governments to cut CO2 emissions (something the governments have been largely unwilling to do, making their motive in this conspiracy a bit difficult to understand); the UN’s Agenda 21 program for sustainable development was presented as a sort of collectivist-globalist plot to destroy the American way of life.

The Tea Party with its anti-establishment posturing gave its petro-billionaire backers a vehicle for controlling Republican politicians: step out of line on climate change, and you got a well-funded “Tea Party” challenger. Although the Tea Party label has lost its luster, its political method is still in use. For this reason, most Republicans in Congress – and all who entertained hope of becoming President - became climate science “sceptics”, denying any ability to understand climate science themselves (“I am not a scientist”, as Marco Rubio and many others have intoned to justify their claims of ignorance), and at the same time unwilling to accept the advice of scientists.

An exception that proves this rule is an initiative by the Climate Leadership Council. The public faces of this group are all Republican elders, veterans of the cabinets of Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes, and they are bent on persuading Trump to support a carbon tax of $40 per ton. Their sales pitch correctly notes that such a tax, rebated to the public – the group proposes equal distribution among US citizens, paid directly to personal bank accounts – would provide powerful encouragement for CO2 reduction and green investment, that it would leave most citizens better off financially, and that it is consistent with a small-state, market-friendly philosophy (to say nothing of the electoral benefits of taxing the entire US population and then paying the proceeds into citizen’s bank accounts – a heavy burden on the non-citizen 7%).

But, while we can quibble over the details of their plan, on balance this is a worthy effort: we can wish them luck, which they will need, for it is not auspicious that these elders, like most prominent Republicans supporting real action on climate, are people who retired from politics years ago. Among people who are not Republican Party leaders, the relationship between age and support for action on climate is the exact reverse, with younger people far more likely to support action than older ones; but people who are not Republican Party leaders do not need the Koch brothers’ support to keep their jobs until pension age.

Oil, climate, nationalism, and Europe

Thus, a common interest in continuing to use fossil fuels can explain Russian support for Trump and the Republican party’s acquiescence in that arrangement. It can also help us understand the inclination of both Trump and Putin to support nationalist politicians in other countries, particularly within the European Union.

The two men might have various motives for this behavior – keeping Europe weak for reasons of territorial (Putin) or commercial (Trump) rivalry, or simple personal identification with authoritarian nationalist leaders (both). But the motive important to the Russian oligarchy as a whole, and to the American fossil fuel interests, is that nationalism helps undermine international cooperation, particularly in Europe.

If Europe breaks up, there will be no coordinated action until it is too late.Climate change poses a complex global collective action problem, requiring international cooperation and international governance if it is to be solved. Fragmenting the EU would be an especially heavy blow to hopes for international action on climate: the EU brings 28 countries, comprising most of the world’s rich industrial countries, together in one policy and negotiating unit; Europe has been relatively successful (against, one must admit, pretty feeble competition) in cutting its own emissions. In a world where the EU, US, China and India can sit at one small table we can at least imagine an avenue through which realistic deals can be done, and enforced. If Europe breaks up, or becomes immobilized by internal conflicts, while the US turns its back on international cooperation, there will be no coordinated action on climate until it is too late to avoid extremely dangerous climate change.

People have many reasons for embracing nationalism, but petro-billionaires have one reason to support it: undermining international cooperation that threatens their fortunes. Both the strength of nationalist movements and their posture on environmental issues owe something to the financial and organizational (hacking, fake news propagation) support provided by individual plutocrats, oil companies, and the Russian government. With such backing, it comes as little surprise that leaders of Europe’s nationalist parties and of the Brexit campaign include more than their share of climate denialists.

Those whose wealth consists of fossil fuel in the ground understand that they have a common interest in blocking or stalling anything that would cut the demand for their product, which is to say any serious steps to mitigate climate change. This compulsion has become a critical force in national elections, in the discourse that shapes public understanding of the line between national and international governance, and in the determination of the future of Europe. We need to recognize it as such, and confront it.

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