By Robert Reich
Joe Biden is in Europe, consulting with NATO allies about how to ratchet up the pressure on Putin. I’ve been mulling how we might respond to Putin’s war not just by ratcheting up pressure but also by doing something positive for the world. As Europe and America cope with the energy problems resulting from the war, it strikes me that this is the perfect time to face the climate crisis and conserve energy. I think Biden should be asking Europeans and Americans to make this sacrifice. Let me explain.
United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said on Monday that the world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe” by continuing to rely on fossil fuels, and that nations racing to replace Russian oil with their own dirty energy are hastening the catastrophe. Guterres noted that the climate goals agreed to in Glasgow last year are being neutered by Putin’s war. The pollution that’s dangerously heating the planet continues to increase.
Joe Biden promised a rapid transition to clean energy in America but hasn’t started it yet. Legislation to accelerate America’s shift to renewables has been stalled in Congress, largely courtesy of West Virginia coal baron Joe Manchin. Biden has moved on to other priorities, such as containing Putin.
But climate change is completely entwined with Putin’s aggression. The world is experiencing the grave consequences of its dependence on oil from dictators like Putin, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime.
So why not make Putin’s war into an urgent invitation to conserve energy? While Ukrainians are on the front line in the battle between democracy and tyranny, shouldn’t the rest of us be summoned to sacrifice in that battle by conserving energy? Shouldn’t we be asked to do everything we can — from small acts such as turning off lights and traveling less to larger ones like switching to electric cars and putting up solar panels?
Yet Biden has not even asked Americans to conserve. Political pollsters are telling him not to. Lee Maringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, warns that Biden would face a backlash if he did. “People are becoming turned off to the whole notion of masks, so the message of personal sacrifice – having to alter their behavior in some way – gets into a freedom discussion that the White House doesn’t want to generate right now,” Maringoff says, echoing the views of other political operatives.
Asking us to sacrifice is precisely what’s needed now. By asking Americans and Europeans to conserve, Biden would send a clear message that we’re in this together – not just the working middle class and poor who are now being shafted at the gas pump and on heating bills, but all of us duty bound to preserve both democracy and the planet.
Why not a “freedom discussion” focused on the true predicate of freedom: the necessity that we all sacrifice for it, as in John F. Kennedy’s famous Cold War message “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The common good consists of our shared values about what we owe one another as citizens who are bound together in the same society—the norms we abide by, the sacrifices we make. A concern for the common good—keeping the common good in mind—is a moral attitude. It recognizes that we’re all in it together. If there is no common good, there is no society, no civilization.
If the current moment should show us anything, it’s how we tightly we are bound together. Like the ongoing global pandemic, the escalating crisis in Ukraine and the escalating impacts of climate change reveal in stunning clarity the necessity of common sacrifice for the common good. World leaders — starting with the President of the United States — should state this clearly and loudly, starting today.