Rich Lowry: What Putin Knew
There are forgivable intellectual and political mistakes, and then there is the self-delusion that has led the West to its dependence on Vladimir Putin’s oil and gas.
Russia has long been an important energy supplier for Europe. The depletion of European natural gas reserves has played a role in Russia’s increased importance.
Moscow has also benefited, however, from a deliberate choice by Europe to take a big leap towards a green energy future, especially in a Germany that has turned its back on both nuclear and coal.
By going down this path, Europe has taken the historic decision to forget about the incredible power of oil, gas and coal – the most reliable and efficient sources of energy the world has ever known – and ignore the inevitable centrality of energy in geopolitics.
Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist who was elevated to the status of oracle of all that is good and true, demanded nothing less.
No matter what you’ve heard, the world didn’t embrace fossil fuels out of hatred for the planet, but rather because they’re incredibly useful. If they didn’t already exist – thanks to sunlight and plants that lived millions of years ago – we would have to invent them and we couldn’t.
Oil is a miracle fuel. Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress writes that it’s “almost oddly designed by natural processes, not just for cheapness, not just for reliability, not just for scalability, but also for another crucial feature for a functional civilisation: portability”. It powers cars, trucks and jets, without which the modern world as we know it would not exist.
Coal, Epstein notes, is also affordable, plentiful, and easy to mine and transport. There’s a reason developing countries invariably use it to fuel their economic progress.
It is therefore not surprising that fossil fuels are still the main source of global electricity, with coal accounting for 36.7% and gas for 23.5%. The total contribution of fossil fuels, at 63.3%, is only slightly lower than two decades ago.
In terms of overall energy, fossil fuels account for an even larger proportion, 84.3%.
For its part, green energy — wind, solar and other renewable energies — accounts for about 10% of the world’s electricity, and even less of total energy.
Vladimir Putin knew this and understood the power it gave him, even if European policymakers could not bother to think even a little bit strategically.
Didn’t they notice that coal was the mainstay of Britain’s rise to world power in the 19th century?
Have they forgotten the role of oil in World War I and World War II, not to mention the 20th century history that followed?
Oil was not particularly useful before World War I, and by the end of it had become a pillar of national power. It fueled the motorized vehicles and aircraft that transformed warfare. British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon said at the end of the war that the Allies had “floated to victory on a wave of oil”.
During World War II, the Japanese attacked the United States partly out of fear that the de facto American oil embargo would starve its war machine, and one of the reasons the Nazis were defeated was that they were running out of fuel.
Of course, the strategic importance of the Middle East owes almost entirely to its vast oil reserves. The phrase “war for oil” is a cliché and generally a slander, but it is certainly true that no one has ever waged a war for wind.
In light of all this, Europe still chooses to submit to an authoritarian anti-Western regime and, even as Russian opera stars are canceled, it has not stopped buying oil and Russian gases.
Some hindsight is necessary. While climate change may indeed prove a serious long-term challenge, it does not reduce parts of Europe’s cities to rubble or threaten to use a tactical nuclear weapon.
If this horrifying episode didn’t scare away the energy of the West, nothing will.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He’s on Twitter: @RichLowry.