Our decisions and actions over what is now a very short period of time will determine how habitable our planet is in decades and generations to come
Due to Covid, this is my first time in the USA in three years, and so it is an absolute pleasure to be in Washington again.
I’m especially glad to be speaking here at the Brookings Institution – your expertise on international affairs is more crucial now than at any time in the last century.
When President Biden spoke at the United Nations last September, he said that the world was facing “an inflection point”.
He was referring to three issues in particular.
We were – and are – still coping with the impacts of the worst pandemic the world has experienced in more than a century.
We face – and must address – an urgent and accelerating climate emergency.
And we are seeing the rules-based international order come under increasing strain.
Since the President made that speech, of course, those strains have become even more severe, with Russia’s brutal, illegal and entirely unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Scotland stands with the rest of the UK, the EU and countries around the world – including of course the USA – in our condemnation of Putin’s actions.
We support the severity of economic sanctions on Russia, and also the supply of military assistance to Ukraine.
We are also playing our part in offering humanitarian aid and supporting as many as possible of those displaced from Ukraine to find refuge in Scotland.
There is no doubt that The first and most urgent duty of every country across the democratic world right now is to offer tangible support and solidarity to Ukraine as it fights for its democracy, independence and territorial integrity
However a war of this scale in Europe – not seen before in the 21st century – has also forced European nations to ask fundamental questions of ourselves.
As a result, many are now reassessing long established defence and security positions and priorities.
The pleas of Eastern European nations for a much greater focus on the continent’s border with Russia have been heard more clearly than ever – and are now being responded to.
Germany has reversed its long standing position of not supplying arms to conflict zones and set out plans to significantly increase its own defence spending.
And significantly two of Scotland’s northern neighbours, Sweden and Finland, which for decades have remained outside NATO, now seem firmly on track to join the alliance – and with a level of public support that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
That is highly relevant to Scotland. The party I lead, the Scottish National Party, decided in 2012 that if Scotland becomes independent it should seek membership of NATO.
The events of the last 3 months have strengthened my conviction that this position is absolutely the right one.
I am firm in my view that – coupled with a strong relationship with the UK – membership of the EU and of NATO will be cornerstones of an independent Scotland’s security policy.
The Scottish Government is acutely aware of Scotland’s strategic position on the northern edge of Europe, close to the Arctic.
Russian military aircraft regularly approach the UK’s area of interest, and in recent years there has been an increase in Russian submarine patrols within the North Atlantic.
And so we are clearer than ever that membership of NATO would not only be vital to Scotland’s security – though it most definitely would be – it would also be the principal way in which an independent Scotland, in an interdependent world, would contribute to the collective security of our neighbours and allies.
Current debates about security in Europe however are not just about military capabilities and strategic alliances.
The invasion of Ukraine is forcing us to rethink many long-held assumptions.
That includes assumptions about energy policy and energy security.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen – in setting out plans for the latest round of sanctions against the Kremlin – proposed the phasing out of Russian oil imports into the EU.
Moves to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas are also being accelerated rapidly.
Energy policy in Germany is shifting dramatically under the new German government – as is shown by the cancellation of the Nordstream II gas pipeline – while Poland announced in March it would become independent of Russian gas by the end of this year.
There is an understandable impatience from Ukraine about the timelines being adopted by many EU states for this transition.
The EU depends on Russia for around 25% of its oil supplies and 40% of its gas. In some countries the extent of that dependence is even greater – around 50% of Germany’s gas came from Russia at the start of the invasion, and for countries like Estonia, Latvia and Finland it is over 80%.
In Scotland and the UK, by contrast, there is no significant dependence on Russia oil and gas at all.
So it is perhaps not for me to lecture others on the pace at which they should turn away from Russian supplies. However, it is clear that this transition is increasingly fundamental to national and energy security.
It is also clear that to reduce its dependence on Russia, Europe – in the short term – does need to secure alternative supplies of fossil fuels in order to keep economies running. So Poland, for example, intends to import liquefied natural gas from the USA.
But the debate in Europe cannot be, and thankfully is not, just about finding new sources of fossil fuels.
It is also about how Europe – including the UK and Scotland – rapidly accelerates its transition to a new, lower carbon economy, and does so in a way that is just and fair.
That task is more urgent now than ever.
Like many in governments across the world, I spent much of the first half of November last year at the COP26 summit, hosted in my home city of Glasgow.
As an aside, it is worth noting the positive difference made at that summit by the fact that the USA was once again showing leadership and playing a constructive role in climate negotiations.
Partly because of that the summit achieved some significant progress – with, for example, welcome new commitments on financing, reversing forest loss, and cutting methane emissions. The reference in the final agreement to reducing fossil fuel use was also a valuable first step – although it was significantly weaker than many had hoped for.
But we all knew – even as the gavel fell on COP26 – that the Glasgow Climate Pact did not go far enough.
As things stand, the world is on course to exceed not just the threshold of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – but the 2 degree threshold as well.
There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that this will be catastrophic.
In the words of the UN Secretary General, a 2 degree rise will create a “hellscape” on earth.
Equally clear is the consensus that to avoid this “hellscape” and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must be halved by the end of this decade.
So it is not an exaggeration to say that the 2020s will be the most important decade in human history.
Our decisions and actions over what is now a very short period of time will determine how habitable our planet is in decades and generations to come.
The availability of natural resources, and the impact of major climate events, will also be – as has been the case in the past – a huge factor in global and national security.