Opinion: Ukraine is at war. Climate change is still our biggest emergency

President Biden waves at a lectern with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi behind him.
President Biden gestures during his first State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on March 1.
(Jim LoScalzo / EPA / Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 5, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

Fully aware that most adults can chew gum and scratch their heads at the same time, I am about to make what may seem a zero-sum comparison of the threats posed by Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine and climate change. So allow me to make a few points upfront: The Biden administration and the rest of us have the capacity to address both crises vigorously, while acknowledging that the gratuitous death and disruption inflicted on 44 million Ukrainians pose graver immediate consequences for a lot of people right now, whereas climate change looms over every problem faced by humanity.

That said, it’s hard not to be discouraged about our ability to focus on climate change right now. For this gloominess, I have none other to thank than the president who has put forth the most ambitious environmental agenda in our history.

Because it was President Biden’s decision to release 60 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve that was among the loudest applause lines during his State of the Union address Tuesday. In fact, within an administration that’s lasted barely more than 13 months, this is the second time that millions of barrels of oil kept in reserve by the federal government for national emergencies have been released on the market to combat high gas prices — and if we’re going to mitigate climate change, we need to burn a hell of a lot less gasoline, and the fastest way to accomplish that is by making it more expensive.


And fast is important. As the Times Editorial Board pointed out this week, a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted what should be obvious to anyone living in Southern California (where this week, during our “wet season,” a wildfire burned hundred of acres in the Cleveland National Forest) — that the climate catastrophe is already upon us and wreaking havoc sooner and more intensely than anticipated, and the window to cut fossil fuel use in half to avoid the worst effects down the road will likely close by 2030.

Not decades — eight years.

The war in Ukraine, maybe by then an insurgency, could still be raging in eight years (the U.S. was in Afghanistan much longer than that). Disruptions in the Russian economy could also persist that long, continuing to put upward pressure on gas prices. Even if by some miracle Congress were to pass every piece of Biden’s Build Back Better climate package, implementation would take years.

In other words, complicating factors like wars and pandemics and, yes, Republican control of government are always present and pose significant threats to us. There’s also the objection that higher fuel costs disproportionately burden middle- and low-income earners. This is true, but so is the reality of global warming, pollution and environmental injustice — which also disproportionately harm traditionally marginalized groups.

So count me deeply troubled when, faced with the dual catastrophes of war in Ukraine and climate change, making gas a little cheaper is met with a rare moment of bipartisan applause.

China may be regretting its alliance with Vladimir Putin. Long-term tensions between Ukraine and Russia might have been acceptable to China’s leaders, but the severity and recklessness of President Vladimir Putin’s attack and the unity of the West in response make it harder for Beijing to look the other way. “China’s long-term strategy to compete with the U.S. rests on the critical assumption that America’s European allies will stay neutral in the U.S.-China rivalry,” writes political scientist Minxin Pei. “But Western solidarity in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has called this assumption into question.” L.A. Times

Will Putin’s Ukraine invasion become a nuclear confrontation? Permit me to editorialize here and say I hope not, but even if it’s a remote possibility, Putin’s bombastic warning to West at the start of his invasion brings back memories of a time when seemingly any skirmish in the world risked setting off a nuclear holocaust between the Soviet Union and the United States. Columnist Nicholas Goldberg worries this could be a similar situation: “Though the chances are small that we’ll inadvertently stumble into a nuclear confrontation, it cannot be ruled out. Wars are easier to start than to stop, and easier to escalate than to limit.” L.A. Times


The United Nations should kick Russia off the Security Council. What a farce it was to see the representative of Russia chair a meeting of the Security Council as it considered a motion to condemn the war his country started, but there’s a lot about the last few weeks that seems utterly surreal. Ukrainian law professor Iryna Zaverukha says this is a terrible look for the U.N.: “The organization’s final insult to Ukraine and everyone horrified by its treatment has been Russia’s role presiding over the Security Council. From this soapbox, the highest stage in the world, the Russian ambassador has amplified the Kremlin’s propagandistic narrative for weeks.” L.A. Times

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He’s been teaching the truth about race for more than 30 years, but now efforts to censor teachers across the country worry Dorsey High School educator and football coach Irvin Davis. At the end of Black History Month, Davis shared his insight into the way kids learn about race and history in America — above all, he says, the best way to connect with students is to be honest with them — for our “Hear Me Out” series. Click here to watch our video featuring Davis; click here to read his letter to the editor.

Will Dianne Feinstein retire? California’s senior senator has already said she’s running for reelection in 2024, but her popularity during the Trump era has waned significantly. This week produced another devastating complication for Feinstein: The 88-year-old senator’s husband died of cancer. This makes it a “near-certainty” that she will not run in 2024, setting off a feeding frenzy among California politicians, writes Dan Walters: “[Gov. Gavin] Newsom is certainly not the only California politician who might want to succeed Feinstein. There are probably several dozen Democratic members of Congress who see a senator staring back when they look in the mirror, plus some other statewide officials and big city mayors.” Cal Matters

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