Shiver the timbers! Hackers, superspies, billions of stranded petro-rubles and global uncertainty.

Other than some still happy with Trump’s ascendance, few doubt that Russia intervened in US electoral politics. The hacking of Democratic Party and campaign staff communications and their release at critical times may not have determined the election outcome. Previously, Russia sought to influence elections in Europe and, as we will see, their stake in the US outcome was much higher.

President Obama imposed economic sanctions following Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. As a candidate Trump asserted admiration for Putin. His early campaign manager Paul Manafort resigned over revelations regarding receipt of $12.7 million from Russian‐backed Ukrainians. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, has resigned over ongoing and inappropriate contacts with the Russian Embassy in Washington. Incredibly, Flynn, a top spy, was seemingly unconcerned that the embassy phone lines might be bugged by American intelligence. His conversations were, of course, tapped, taped and visible to agencies who would soon report through him. Sounds like a good spy movie, except it is real.

Nominating Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was an implicit big wet kiss to Putin. Tillerson, on behalf of Exxon Corporation, negotiated one of the highest value business contracts in history with Russia. The deal to develop oil and gas in Russia’s north could be worth $500 billion dollars, potentially a centerpiece of Russia’s economic future.

Inconveniently, this agreement was effectively frozen by economic sanctions imposed by President Obama following Russian military action in the Ukraine. Compounding this ‘inconvenience’ is the Paris Accord on climate change. The agreement limits global temperature increases. Its targets, if seen through, guarantee that a large proportion of fossil fuels will remain in the ground forever. These so‐called “stranded assets” cannot be used and are thereby rendered utterly worthless. Moreover, extraction in Russia’s north is expensive compared to low cost extraction from existing fields in the Middle East and elsewhere. Corporations will not risk billions on assets that might be unsaleable. And, to round out the picture, solar and wind are fast becoming the cheapest option and those prices will fall as technologies improve.

All things considered, Russia must proceed soon or their undeveloped fossil energy resources may never be used. Regarding the avoidable need to abandon some fossil reserves see Mike Berners‐Lee and Duncan Clark, The Burning Question (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2013).

Climate decisions are at the heart of the matter."

Given the stakes, however, the Paris Agreement itself may not be safe. Even the cost effectiveness of renewable energy might not be the final arbiter. Oil prices can be manipulated or subsidized. Governments can change tax rules and governments themselves can be overthrown. Neither oil companies, nor desperate petro‐states like Russia, are likely to be shy when their backs are against the wall.

Rational decision‐making, however, could still prevail. Climate change is, after all, an existential threat. Rational people know that fossil fuels must stay in the ground, but which fossil fuels should never be developed? The economic fate of firms, nations and pension funds depend on such decisions. Cost of oil production is a crucial consideration. Tapping sources with infrastructure for extraction already in place is much cheaper than those requiring additional exploration and infrastructure. Another important consideration for rational decisions is carbon released per unit of energy. Here coal (and the tar sands) lose out to conventional oil and gas. They also lose with regard to noncarbon environmental impacts. Offshore oil located in delicate ecosystems such as the Arctic is also especially environmentally problematic.

The bottom line in all this is Russia’s Arctic sources might not make the cut if rationality dominates energy decision‐making. Natural gas or cheap‐to‐produce Middle Eastern oil might well prevail. Crucial to these decisions is the Paris Agreement time frame that sees fossil fuel use sharply curtailed by 2050. New development, as in Russia’s North, becomes now or never.

In order for Russia’s Arctic fossil fuel resources to be developed, rationality itself must be overwhelmed by political (or military) power. In Trump‐Putin world, one must ask, is rationality itself on the ropes? Canadians in particular might also ask: where will Canada stand in a struggle between power and rationality?

Climate decisions are at the heart of the matter. These issues and their outcome will profoundly affect the global future economically, technologically and socio‐politically. We cannot allow either Canadian fossil fuel reserves, or our neighbours momentary blustering, to tempt us into short‐term thinking. We need to recognize that the world right now is desperate for new multi‐lateral leadership.

Canada should ignore momentary pressures and move quickly toward getting ourselves, and helping to get the world, to where the global energy economy should be by 2050, not joining Trump and Putin dragging it back to the 1950s. Some possibilities here include increasing public funding for solar energy research and paying for it by reducing tax subsidies to fossil energy. Even without such politically difficult initiatives communities, firms, churches, universities, schools, and individuals can invest in rooftop solar installations.


Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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