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Opinion Putin’s war and high gas prices hand Democrats an opening on climate

A customer puts gas into her vehicle at a Quicktrip in Morrow, Ga., on May 13, 2021. (Dustin Chambers for The Washington Post)
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The high price of gas poses a serious challenge to the Democratic Party — but in far more complicated ways than is usually appreciated.

This challenge has numerous dimensions. One is that, as president, Joe Biden will inevitably get most of the blame, even though there’s no easy way for a president to bring that price down. Another is that addressing gas prices could conflict with the long-term goal of addressing climate change.

Democrats want to encourage less fossil fuel use, including by offering incentives for people to switch to hybrid and electric cars. But they also want to treat people’s hardships from high gas prices as a problem that needs addressing. So for a time they argued that oil companies have plenty of drilling opportunities on Biden’s watch. Yet cheap and plentiful gas is precisely what makes climate change worse.

But there might be a way to make a cleaner, less muddled argument here. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might provide it.

A coalition of progressive groups is launching a new campaign urging Democrats to appreciate that a confluence of factors — Vladimir Putin’s war, high gas prices, soaring oil company profits — creates a unique and actionable political moment for a new push to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

In a statement launching the campaign, these groups argue that tackling these challenges “with clarity” requires leaning into an argument like this one:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaffirms that America must lead the world in a clean energy transition. Our dependence on fossil fuel empowers authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, rogue oil-producing nations, and price-gouging oil companies. For the sake of our national security and planet, we call on America’s leaders to take immediate action to invest in domestic clean energy jobs and end our dependence on fossil fuel.

The constellation of groups involved — which include Indivisible, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Sierra Club, Win Without War and many others — suggests such a message could mobilize a broad left-leaning coalition.

It might appeal to people concerned about climate change, warriors against corporate concentration, left-leaning foreign policy types and pro-democracy advocates. The case is that authoritarianism and fossil fuel rapaciousness mutually reinforce each other — as we see in Putin and his war — in a highly destructive fashion, and weakening authoritarian regimes such as his requires hobbling their fossil fuel foundations. For good measure, this would also reduce dependence on oil companies.

“This is an opportunity to take aim at price-gouging oil companies and reframe energy as a national security issue heading into the midterms,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, tells us.

The groups cite progressive polling that shows very broad support — including among independents and Republicans — for the idea that, in light of the Russian invasion, the U.S. government should invest in clean energy production at home.

A major difficulty for the movement combating climate change is that the risks feel long term and lack a sense of imminent urgency, even as the sacrifices needed to mitigate those risks are immediate and threaten political costs to leaders implementing them. This argument might be a way to give the problem more immediacy.

There are signs that Democrats are already leaning toward at least part of this message. Democratic committee chairs plan to call oil company CEOs to testify.

Republicans claim this would be just an exercise in grandstanding, and they’re partly right. But even if such hearings won’t do much to bring down gas prices immediately, highlighting the fact that oil companies are highly profitable right now seems fair enough, as a way to channel anger over high gas prices toward the public good of reducing long-term dependence on fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Putin, Americans appear very open to the argument that cutting off dependence on Russian oil is a public good worth pursuing. Some polls show that Americans would support an embargo on Russian oil even if it raises gas prices. And other polls show that Putin gets the most blame for the current price increase, followed by oil companies. People were least likely to blame environmental policies.

In other words, there might never have been a better time to convince Americans that a future where no one even worries about the price of gas — or the effect it has on the climate — is absolutely possible, and that sacrifices in that direction are very much worth making.