Nord Stream’s Explosion Was a Climate Disaster. What It Signals Could Be Worse

Our twice-a-week dive into the most pressing news related to our rapidly warming world.

In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images
In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

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A growing number of international officials and global security experts believe Russia sabotaged its own natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, resulting in the release of an estimated 300,000 metric tons of methane gas into the atmosphere.

Researchers say that amounts to the largest-ever release of the potent greenhouse gas during a single event, with an impact similar to the annual emissions of 1 million cars. Because methane is 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet over a 20-year period, the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines, which deliver gas from Russia to Western Europe, could be considered a climate disaster in its own right.

The gas could be seen rising to the surface of the ocean Monday, following what seismologists say were two explosions that didn’t appear to be caused by natural forces, such as an earthquake or underwater landslide. European security officials also said they observed Russian Navy support ships and submarines in the vicinity of the pipeline leaks Monday and Tuesday. And NATO ambassadors released an official statement Thursday, declaring that “all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” which is “causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage.”

In that sense, the Nord Stream incident could also signal an ominous geopolitical trend that climate advocates and security experts have warned about for years—that a warmer world could also mean a less cooperative one, driven by rising conflict over territory, resources and the permeation of isolationist and nationalist ideologies.

“Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries,” the Department of Defense wrote to Congress members in a 2015 report.

Officials with the United Nations reiterated those concerns last year, during the COP26 global climate talks in Scotland. Although global warming itself may not always be a direct cause of conflict, they said, it can often act as a “risk multiplier,” by exacerbating financial burdens for communities and governments dealing with extreme weather, driving displacement and undermining human rights in regions where frequent disasters are contributing to a surge in migration, as well as leaving women especially vulnerable to harm in situations where societal laws and social safety nets are breaking down.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in his opening remarks at last year’s summit. “And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

In fact, a study published back in March by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group, found that climate change is “unambiguously worsening” conditions that contribute to clashes and deepen human suffering. Violent conflicts related to water disputes have increased sharply over the last 20 years, the study found, especially in regions where drought conditions and other climate impacts have made competition over dwindling resources fiercer. 

A fourth of the conflicts the researchers observed in that timeframe occurred in the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—areas that have been hit especially hard by climate change. Those clashes include a 2016 incident during Syria’s brutal civil war when government forces surrounded the city of Aleppo and deprived its residents of running water, as well as a 2018 incident in which rival groups destroyed water tanks at a hospital in Yemen and a similar 2019 incident where the extremist group Al Shabab blew up a water tank in Somalia.

In terms of the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, those who suspect Russia’s involvement see a similar situation unfolding in which resource access is being cut off—or being threatened to be cut off—to instill fear and gain leverage over rivals in a broader conflict. And while the impacts of climate change may not be directly influencing that conflict, including the Russian war in Ukraine, some political and energy analysts believe climate change issues are still playing a central role in it.

Russia has been accused before of using its dominance over the European energy market to bully other countries and bolster its influence. Turkmenistan accused Russia of similarly blowing up a gas pipeline in its country in 2009 for economic gain. And this summer, during its ongoing war with Ukraine, Russian troops occupied a Ukrainian nuclear power plant and put the facility at risk of a meltdown, prompting some American intelligence officials and policymakers to speculate that Russia was attempting to intimidate Ukraine’s leaders and warn the West to stay out of the conflict.

Russia generates most of its income from exporting fossil fuels, and likewise, nations in Western Europe have been dependent on those fuels to heat their homes and power their electrical grids. Over the years, tensions have grown between those countries and Russia, in part because Russian President Vladimir Putin feels threatened financially and politically by the European Union’s efforts to transition to renewable energy and by the expansion of NATO, a global defense coalition that Russia has long seen as a military threat to its interests. Political analysts broadly believe that those dynamics were among the core motivations behind Putin’s decision in February to invade Ukraine, which was considering joining NATO.

When European countries, along with the United States, imposed sanctions on Russian fuel imports as punishment for the country’s aggression, Putin responded by cutting off deliveries of natural gas to Western Europe, primarily by shutting down its Nord Stream pipelines last year. That has since caused widespread economic pain across the continent and exacerbated already record-high global inflation.

Now, by blowing the pipeline up just weeks before winter, when demand for heating and electricity in Europe is at its highest, Russia is sending another threatening message to its former clients, David Goldwyn, who ran the State Department’s energy program during the Obama administration, told POLITICO. “Prepare for a life without Russian gas,” he said. “It’s a threat of a complete cut-off.”

Such hostile dynamics also pose a serious threat to the global effort to curb climate change. Shifting geopolitics over fossil fuels and clean energy resources, compounded by the increasing cost of climate-driven natural disasters, is making it harder to foster cooperation between nations at a time when scientists say it’s most needed to prevent catastrophic global warming by the end of the century. 

Worsening tensions between Western Europe and Russia, as well as between the United States and China, are already jeopardizing international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. A report released earlier this week found that just 19 of the 193 countries that signed the climate accord have fulfilled their promise from last year to create more ambitious emissions reductions targets. That finding—paired with the possibility that Russia would sabotage its own pipelines to keep the world dependent on planet-warming fossil fuels—bodes poorly for smooth and easy negotiations at the upcoming COP27 climate talks, now just weeks away. 

Foreseeing those challenges, clean energy advocates urged U.S. and European leaders to double down on their efforts to build new renewable power sources in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it would reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon against other countries. Unlike the fossil fuel systems we use today, which rely on centralized power plants that burn fuels and deliver electricity to a large area, renewable energy systems draw from free sources—such as the sun and wind—and can power smaller, independent grids that are less vulnerable to power failures due to natural disasters or hostile attacks, advocates argue.

“Renewable energy such as wind and solar” not only “offers more control to local communities and businesses,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and renewable energy expert Scott Brown said in an opinion essay this summer, it can also “provide resilience from the impacts of war, natural disasters and corruption.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

24,000 kilometers

If combined together, that’s roughly the length of all the new oil and gas pipelines that are currently being developed around the world, u003ca href=u0022 new report foundu003c/au003e. The projects, led by the U.S., Russia, China and India, are “dramatically at odds” with the targets of the Paris Agreement, the report added.

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