Looked at from where we are now (and this is hardly the most important facet of the global crisis), and all things considered, it’s probably time to admit that Donald Trump was right. Right, that is about one thing, if only one thing, which is that Germany completely has totally and completely (to use a Trumpism) messed up its energy and security policy – and that has made it much harder to save Ukraine.
Make no mistake, Trump was a monster; a national security risk; a friend to Putin; inhuman; he threatened Volodymyr Zelensky that he’d delay military aid to Ukraine unless he dished dirt on Hunter Biden. I did plenty wrong. Trump was generally bad for America and the rest of the world; but when he came to the Nato meeting in Brussels in 2018 and was rude to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, you have to admit the-then president was prescient.
Chillingly so, actually. He said that the Germans (and other Europeans) were getting over-reliant on Russia for energy; and that they weren’t spending enough on their own defence. Goodness, how we mocked his boorish ways of him, his undiplomatic language and crude analysis of him; yet Germany and the EU ought to have heard his warnings from him. For now we can’t slap an embargo on Russian oil and gas – and stop funding Putin’s war machine – because we’d crash the European economy.
This is what President Trump said: “We’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France, we’re protecting all of these countries. And then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they’re paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia.
“So we’re supposed to protect you against Russia and you pay billions of dollars to Russia and I think that’s very inappropriate…I think these countries have to step it up, not over a 10 year period, they have to step it up immediately . Germany is a rich country, they talk about increasing it a tiny bit by 2030. Well they could increase it immediately, tomorrow, and have no problem.
“If you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia. They got rid of their coal plants, they got rid of their nuclear, they’re getting so much of their oil and gas from Russia. I think it is something Nato has to look at. It is very inappropriate.”
Which brings us to what we in Europe can do now about energy security – and the importance of drawing the right conclusions. Such is the price of hydrocarbons that Shell is reportedly considering re-booting a plan to pump more oil out of the North Sea, off Shetland. There’s talk of fracking Lancashire. Some might like to re-open the coal pits closed by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s.
If we didn’t care about the future of the planet and the hard-won gains at Cop26, the UK could probably be self-sufficient in carbon-based energy in a few years. But we’re not that obtuse, are we?
We do care about life on earth, and terrible as the war in Ukraine is, we have to stay focused on the long term and the future of the world. It is precisely German and European use of fossil fuels that helped get us into this mess (Trump was right but with the wrong answer, as it turns out). Becoming self sufficient in fossil fuels isn’t possible for many large economies (notably Japan), any now, and even where it is, it is no use sacrificing the planet for it.
Besides, the hard fact is that by the time the new oil and shale gas gets into the pipelines the war in Ukraine will be over, and a global recession might have pushed the price of oil to record lows. If there is one thing that the last few decades should have taught us, it is that the price of natural resources is very volatile, and that global warming is a reality. Green energy can be unreliable when it depends on the weather, but it is not so susceptible to geopolitical shocks.
Of course, there is a cost of living crisis – but the economy needs to adjust to a world of more expensive, or least more volatile, energy costs, as it has had to in every energy crisis since 1973. The problem is now to protect those most exposed to the rising costs of energy and indeed of food, given that much of the Middle East and emerging economies source their wheat from Ukraine and Russia.
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That shouldn’t be so difficult to solve, at least in principle. At home and abroad, governments could subsidize basic food costs, and they could increase the incomes of the poorest via cutting taxes and increasing benefits for those at the bottom of the income scale. The rich would face higher taxes on their spending on luxury items (via new VAT bands, a post-Brexit freedom) and on their incomes. Instead, the current calls for cuts in VAT on energy bills and fuel duties would mostly help the people in the big houses with the big cars. There’s absolutely no sense to that at all.
Fighting an economic war against Putin and a war against the climate crisis is going to cost us and be painful; it’s a matter of who pays and who gets the pain.
Longer term, the solution both to the energy crisis and the climate crisis is to build more renewable energy sources – wind, solar, hydro and wave, as appropriate. We all know there’s a problem when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but the scientists and engineers ought to be able to crack that with enough time and investment – who thought the electric car had a viable future a few years Aug?
There are other technologies that can help us plug gaps – international energy pipelines (in the free world) and cables to balance weather risks, nuclear, of course (though militarily vulnerable) and hydrogen, possibly. But we can’t solve the energy crisis or the cost of living crisis by exacerbating the climate crisis or striving for national self-sufficiency).
Donald Trump also warned us that wind turbines would kill all the birds, and that global warming was some sort of Chinese hoax. But I should add he was wrong about those. I hope.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.