Overpowering Putin: Ukraine Activism Can Be Climate Activism
“I can’t think about climate change, because I can’t think about anything other than to try to survive.” These are the words of Svitlana Krakovska from her home in Kyiv, Ukraine, while Russian troops surrounded the city and bombarded peoples’ homes.
The urgency and terror engendered by these unprovoked attacks from a ruthless dictator rightly overshadow everything else, not least climate change. The release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report on February 28 with its own urgency and dire warnings . . . some changes now irreversible; 40% of world population highly vulnerable; billions more exposed to disease like dengue fever; extinctions doubling in certain areas if warming exceeds 1.5℃ . . . it was all drowned out by the explosion of Russian ordnance.
I have discovered these threats are intimately connected, and in my quest to be a born-again climate activist, I’m here to share how to do something about both. The connection comes from Krakovska herself, because she is not just any besieged Ukrainian. She is the Head of the Applied Climatology Laboratory at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute, and an author of the IPCC study. In an interview with the BBC, she made the Ukraine-Climate connection clear: All of Europe outside Russia and Belarus, united against Putin, is funding the war by buying gas and oil from Russia. “The money that’s invested in fossil fuels, they’re using against us,” she said. “Against freedom. Against humanity. . . (Europe) simply cannot rely so much on a supplier that explicitly threatens us.”
Two existential threats in a package, vividly experienced by Krakovska as very few have on that Monday, when the IPCC report and the Russian artillery dropped figurative and literal bombs, respectively. Yet she sees hope in the convergence. “It’s amazing how the people of Ukraine united against one enemy. If we all unite against climate change, we can survive as a civilization.”
My question then became: How can I do something on this enormous world stage to make a change? Is there a way to act on Krakovska’s message? I did some research, and learned that Russia receives 60% of its revenue from fossil fuel sales, so this “gas station with nukes” will indeed be crippled when we stop buying. NATO allies are not blind to the irony of indirectly paying for the bombs falling on Ukraine, and have acted aggressively. Germany stopped the Nord Stream 2 project to pipe natural gas directly from Russia to Western Europe, the European Commission set a goal of ending all Russian energy imports by 2030, and President Biden is banning Russian fuel from entering the U.S.
But this approach could backfire. Predictably, the petro giants and their political buddies see the invasion as something of a sick I-told-you-so teaching moment, a vindication of their endless quest for more exploration and extraction, more pipelines and LNG terminals (Germany is fast-tracking two new ones). We need to make clear to leaders that this is a golden opportunity to fight both climate change and Putin, by replacing Russian fossil fuels with renewables and conservation for the long haul, not by simply substituting climate-destroying oil and gas dug up elsewhere.
Now I don’t want anyone to freeze in Freiberg; there will and should be short-term gas provisioning from outside Russia, which as Fareed Zakaria indicates will not increase net emissions, and it may even reduce them (this is due to cleaner extraction in the U.S., and a potential swap of natural gas for dirty coal in places like Germany, but this is controversial). Ultimately “burying” Russia, to borrow from Nikita Khrushchev, would be accomplished by keeping their fossil fuels buried. This war is not a call to “drill, comrade, drill,” but to double-down on ending the global carbon economy.
So how could I act, specifically? My answer was provided by the tireless climate activist and acclaimed writer Bill McKibben, who suggested an immediate program to help Europe quit Russian energy. It simply involves replacing gas boilers with heat pumps which can run on electricity. It has been embraced by the massive youth climate movement and other climate leaders, and more than 200 organizations have signed off on the idea. McKibben’s research suggests there is already electrical capacity for fifty million more heat pumps in Europe, which are super-efficient even if some of the juice comes from burning coal or gas for now (note that Germany generates over 60% of its electricity without fossil fuels; in France it’s more than 90%). Where would the heat pumps come from? American manufacturers.
This is a brilliant example of the confluence of the “war footing” often called for to tackle the climate crisis, and the real war on European soil. As the U.S. struggles to end Ukrainian suffering and Putin’s dreams of empire, but wisely avoid confronting a Russian soldier up close and personal, President Biden can enlist the Defense Production Act to have Trane, Ingersoll-Rand, Carrier, and other companies ramp up production, just like GM built tanks and bombers for WWII — or Pfizer made vaccines for COVID. Providing guaranteed contracts for American companies and lend-lease programs with Europeans, the Russian umbilical cord could be severed by next winter. Other technologies could enjoy a similar push as well, such as insulation (where we have unused production capacity) and batteries (where we could begin to crack China’s dominance).
The proposal is very enticing given the unfortunate demise of the Build Back Better Act and its comprehensive climate provisions, thanks to every Republican and one Joe Manchin. Happily Biden needs no congressional consent to authorize heat pumps for Europe under the DPA. As McKibben states:
We can do this. Biden could make good on some of his energy promises and some of his manufacturing promises; we could peacefully punch Putin in the kidneys, doing him severe damage without raising the odds of nuclear war; and we could even start to head off the instability and war that will invariably accompany the climate crisis. Heat pumps for peace and freedom!
Inspired, I wrote a letter to President Biden encouraging the heat pump initiative. I am encouraging you, dear reader, to do the same, and if you think it’s an unlikely shot in the dark, think again. The Washington Post reported on March 8 that the White House had “. . . studied plans to dramatically scale up U.S. production of energy-efficient heat pumps that they hoped could be used in Europe . . .” and that “Biden officials have weighed whether these heat pumps could be produced through the Defense Production Act.”
Let’s make it clear to the president that he has public support. This is truly a war on the Two Tyrannies of authoritarian cowards and fossil carbon. We owe it to Svitlana Krakovska, sweating in fear for her life in Kyiv, who warned us of the sweat of our children yet to come if we ignore the climate crisis. “This war,” she said, “it makes this window of opportunity (for climate action) even more narrow, because now we have to solve this problem first.”
We can solve both, together.