The story of the ageing, isolated strongmen who start to obsess about their legacy is a familiar one.
Putin needn’t worry. His place in world history is assured. His bloody footprint will serve as a symbol of hubris. His name will become a byword for irony.
When the history is written of how Europe was startled into urgent action on such gigantic issues as climate change, energy security, totalitarianism and our own aspiring autocrats within, not to mention migration and fiscal policy, its greatest enemy will have the starring role. It just won’t be the one that Putin envisaged.
As cameras pan over the biblical flooding of Pakistan, “a climate-induced humanitarian disaster of epic proportions” in the words of its minister for climate change, killing scores of the poorest people including hundreds of children and displacing 10 million in a country already toppling into financial ruin, some avert their gaze and mutter about wanton deforestation, reckless planning and self-sabotage. Most of us feel duty bound to watch and join all the dots.
Whole decades have passed since climate scientists got the notion of carbon pricing to incentivise energy reduction. Polluters had to be forced to face up to the true cost of greenhouse gas emissions – or that was the plan.
Most of us are vaguely aware of it and resent it or feel oppressed by the sense that we’ve hardly seen the beginning of it.
More than 30 jurisdictions around the world now have some form of carbon pricing or emissions trading scheme. That signifies progress. The problem is that last year most of them were pricing CO2 at $40 a tonne while the International Energy Agency believes it needs to hit at least five times that to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. That would bring us up to a fairly staggering $200-250 a tonne when energy prices were already on the rise. And 2050 now seems a very long time away.
Enter Putin and the vengeful squeeze that has chucked all our gentle timelines in the air. Today’s large gas price hikes are the equivalent of a carbon tax of around $600- $950 a tonne according to the chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, an international think tank.
Putin’s “tax” – which unlike the carbon tax goes to him of course and not to governments – has bounced us into a hyper awareness that Extinction Rebellion can only dream of. That is the great irony of Putin.
Last week Emmanuel Macron called on French citizens to reduce energy use as part of the national effort to support Ukraine. Freedom comes with a cost and France should prepare for a great upheaval, he said.
It was – said the optimist who always discerned a silver lining in every cloud – “the end of abundance, the end of recklessness, the end of taking things for granted”. It was the end of the idea of carefree globalisation, the end of raw materials and products “on a scale that [had] seemed endless”, the end of easy access to water, of easy financial liquidity, of negative interest rates. The end of “whatever it takes” in terms of the public finances.
Germany, jolted into consciousness by catastrophic flooding, a humiliating exposure to Putin’s gas and threats of emergency energy rationing has announced a “national effort” to reduce gas usage by 20 per cent this winter. Hot water will be switched off in public buildings and room heating set at 19 degrees max. Illumination of monuments and public buildings will be banned and lighting in shop windows and billboards switched off from 10pm.
Not world-saving measures in themselves but important symbols of a national drive that was a long time coming.
Meanwhile its gas storage facilities are filling up ahead of target and the country got under 10 per cent of its gas from Russia in August, versus well over half last year. Germany is coping.
Spain, limping under successive heatwaves, has also announced restrictions. Air-conditioners are no longer allowed to blow cold air below a sweaty 27c and business groups condemning it as an absolute disgrace were not mollified by Pedro Sanchez’s promise to take off his tie in solidarity. In winter, the heating in most indoor public spaces will be set at 19c max. Law breakers risk fines of between €60,000 and €100 million.
In Finland, people have been told to prepare for rolling power cuts and to lower their thermostats, take shorter showers and spend less time in saunas.
Here in Ireland, it’s hardly six months since Minister Eamon Ryan’s wild suggestion that motorists should slow down to save fuel had him “slammed” on social media and “defending” himself on the airwaves. As fuel prices soared, he was simply pointing out a fact; that costs increase dramatically above certain speeds.
The absence of any backup from the opposition was notable then despite the blinding connection between the tearful rhetoric about Ukraine and the sacrifices it would require.
Now – as happened with the pandemic – many people are ahead of the politicians, desperate to cut their way through the crazy fog of the electricity market, doing their best to plan for our own great upheaval. They need signs, lists, anything that looks like a serious, planned national effort for a national emergency.
Any government that fails to prepare for an energy crisis deserves to be eviscerated and will be. That time will come. But right now is the time for creativity, resolve, and clear, constructive statements from every side of the Oireachtas.
What are the chances?