Putin is also counting on the world doing nothing about Mother Nature, and Mother Nature taking that in stride. Some 70 percent of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, and they make up half of all state revenue. (When was the last time you bought something that was labeled “Made in Russia”?) Putin has basically bet his country’s economic present and future on hydrocarbons at a time when the chief economist of the International Energy Agency has declared that “about two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at 2 degrees Celsius” since the Industrial Revolution.
Crossing that 2-degrees line, say climate scientists, will dramatically increase the likelihood of melting the Arctic, dangerous sea level rises, more disruptive superstorms and unmanageable climate change.
The former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, once warned his OPEC colleagues something Putin should remember: “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” It ended because we invented bronze tools, which were more productive. The hydrocarbon age will also have to end with a lot of oil, coal and gas left in the ground, replaced by cleaner forms of power generation, or Mother Nature will have her way with us.
How do you say Moore’s Law in Russian? That’s the theorem posited by Gordon Moore, an Intel co-founder, that the processing power of microchips will double roughly every two years. Anyone following the clean power industry today can tell you that there is something of a Moore’s Law now at work around solar power, the price of which is falling so fast that more and more homes and even utilities are finding it as cheap to install as natural gas. Wind is on a similar trajectory, as is energy efficiency. China alone is on a track to be getting 15 percent of its total electricity production by 2020 from renewables, and it’s not stopping there. It can’t, or its people can’t breathe.
If America and Europe were to give even just a little more policy push now to renewables to reduce Putin’s oil income, these actions could pay dividends much sooner and bigger than people realize.
The legitimacy of China’s leaders today depends, in part, on their ability to make their country’s power system greener so their people can breathe. Putin’s legitimacy depends on keeping Russia and the world addicted to oil and gas. Whom do you want to bet on?
So, before we crown Putin the Time Person of the Year again, let’s wait and see how the morning after the morning after plays out.