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Stopping Putin starts with holding the fossil fuel industry accountable

Purim is, among other things, a festival of blame. We gather as a community to publicly name and boo the bad guy.

I have always hated this aspect of Purim; it feels wrong to revel in the evil of another human being. As a kid, I would cover my ears and shift uncomfortably in my seat. As an adult, I try not to focus on the final chapters where we read about the violent vengeance wrought by the hanging of Haman’s sons.

But the Megillah is unfurled each year for good reason: it’s a warning that evil really does exist in the world, and that we as Jews have the power to stop it in its tracks.

In recent weeks our minds have been on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The escalating military drama and the humanitarian crisis in that country have filled our heads and hearts. As we approach Purim, it’s easy to see Vladimir Putin as a vicious Haman and Volodymyr Zelenskyy as our modern-day Mordechai.

Jews have been quick to cast Putin as Haman, as well we should. To achieve his ends, he is prepared to wreak devastation upon the people of Ukraine and, if that’s what it takes, on the people of Russia too. But it has taken us many years to acknowledge just what a bad actor Putin is, and during that time, we as Americans and Jews have empowered him.

Sometimes we are reluctant to fully name the bad guy, but inaction only makes things worse. Putin bears full blame for the invasion of Ukraine, but he is only able to act brazenly thanks to the fossil fuel industry.

Without the global fossil fuel industry to bankroll it, Russia could not have invaded Ukraine. 60% of Russia’s exports and nearly 40% of its federal budget come from the sale of oil and gas. And wealthy Western countries are complicit in these figures. The EU purchases 45% of Russia’s gas, much of it extracted in partnership with Exxon, Shell and BP and financed by Citigroup, BlackRock and JPMorganChase.

The story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in many ways deeply entwined with the story of our unsustainable global energy system and of climate change. Ending the invasion requires starving Russia of oil and gas money. The result of critical sanctions and boycotts is a spike in energy prices worldwide, including here in the U.S. The fossil fuel industry is cynically taking advantage of this crisis by calling for more drilling and mining in the U.S. while hiking prices at the pump and getting rich off the crisis.

Americans should not be surprised. We have seen time and again the willingness of the fossil fuel industry to profit from destruction, but we have been reluctant to fully take in the facts.

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has deceived the public and investors, denied climate science, delayed political action and destroyed communities, all in service of maximizing profit. Just a few months ago, Exxon’s top lobbyist was caught on tape bragging about the members of Congress — of both parties — he had wrapped around his finger, and how he could get them to kill the Build Back Better Act, President Biden’s ambitious climate and jobs package.

There are numerous reasons — theological, political, temperamental, cultural, pragmatic — that many of us have been hesitant over the years to name the fossil fuel industry as an unequivocal villain. Moreover, as specialists in energy production and distribution, aren’t Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP best positioned to help us transition to clean energy? Most urgently, in order to have energy independence in this moment of crisis, don’t we need to drill more gas and oil fast?

No and no. Despite knowing about the climate crisis since the 1970s, oil, gas, and coal companies have not made significant investments in renewable energy. Their business model is based on one thing: extraction.

The truth is that oil and gas companies can’t ramp up production quickly in the U.S. They have already maxed out their staffing and capacity which means they currently have 9000 oil and gas permits on federal land that are not being used. Drilling and mining aren’t the answer to energy insecurity. Oil wells can’t be drilled tomorrow, and pipelines can’t be built in a week. Real energy independence can only come from transitioning to 100% clean energy as quickly as possible. Renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower are cheaper, more reliable, and faster to deploy than fossil fuels. Most importantly, only clean, renewable energy will give us and our children a chance at a just, livable and sustainable future.

It is time for us to take a hard look at our own reluctance to fully recognize the fossil fuel industry for the villain it is.

This Shabbat, leading up to Purim we read in the Torah about our tradition’s archetype of evil, Amalek, the forefather of Haman. We are called to “remember Amalek… blot out the memory of Amalek… not forget.” It is a confusing trifecta of commandments with nearly as many interpretations as there are rabbis. But at its core, this passage and the teachings over the centuries reflect just how difficult it can be to recognize evil, to grapple with evil, to blot it out, yet keep it front of mind — and how important.

We don’t single out individual people or entire systems for sweeping derision and condemnation very often. But, as we celebrate Purim this year, jeering Haman and sounding our groggers, let us remember that the future of the Jewish people — and the future of humanity — depend on us recognizing the fossil fuel industry as a true villain in today’s story.

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