WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
After six months of Russia’s war in Ukraine, climate activists share with The Frontline what must come next: the end of fossil fuels.
Exactly six months to the day have passed since Russia entered into Ukraine to launch a full-scale attack. The number of deaths is difficult to measure while the war is ongoing, but the United Nations estimates over 5,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine. What allows for the bombs to drop and missiles to fly is the billions of dollars Russia makes from selling fossil fuels.
How does the war end? Countries must stop funding Russia’s war machine by ending their consumption of the country’s oil and gas. Here’s the thing, though: as long as we rely on fossil fuels, war will never end. We’ll either fight over the resources themselves—remember the Iraq War?—or fight bad guys (like Vladimir Putin) using fossil fuel dollars to kill. Peace feels impossible in a world dominated by the greed fossil fuels breed.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we dream of peace. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Climate activists in Ukraine want a few things. They want the war in their country to end—and they want the rest of the world to wake up to the violence baked into oil and gas.
Ihor Sumliennyi lives in Kyiv, Ukraine. He’s a climate activist for Fridays for Future Ukraine who has begun a new collection of sorts: war artifacts and shrapnel left behind by Russian attacks.
“Victory is when Russia doesn’t have money to buy such things,” he said over Zoom while showing me a piece of a weapon that once hit his city.
Sumliennyi, his peers in Ukraine, and his allies throughout Eastern Europe haven’t stopped organizing around the climate crisis despite the war. They want the war to end—they’re demanding it—but they know that the key to peace is an end to fossil fuels. A world whose economy and infrastructure rely on oil and gas is what empowered Russia to build its military power in the first place. The country’s fossil fuel revenues make up 45% of its federal budget.
“If Russia didn’t have enough money for all this, they wouldn’t have started the war,” Sumliennyi said.
However, let’s not get it twisted. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not the first time fossil fuels sit at the center of a conflict. Until world leaders abandon their addiction to oil and gas, Ukraine won’t be the last victim, either. And wars are just one shape this violence can take.
Conflicts unravel every day in regions like the Gulf South, Appalachia, and Alaska where fossil fuel companies desire to come in and drill, extract, refine, and transport oil and gas alongside Black, Brown, and poor communities that don’t want them there. The air pollution and environmental degradation of such projects (be it a pipeline or plastics refinery) create a different sort of disaster zone. Rockets aren’t flying across their skies, but the casualties are immense. More than 8 million people die globally every year due to the air pollution fossil fuels emit.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about money,” said Elida Castillo, the program director for Chispa Texas, a sector of the League of Conservation Voters focused on Latine Texans. She has been in Germany meeting with activists from around the world to share and hear stories about how governments and companies are utilizing the war as an excuse to double down on liquified natural gas infrastructure—and the danger that poses to vulnerable folks everywhere.
“The war in Ukraine could end right now if these fossil fuel corporations say, Nope, we’re going to start investing in renewables,” she said. “The war would end the next day because Russia wouldn’t have the power.”
Castillo is especially concerned now that the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate bill in U.S. history, has passed. That’s because of the tax incentives it offers companies that invest in carbon capture and storage technologies. Liquid natural gas is becoming a huge interest area for the fossil fuel sector: 25 projects under construction or expansion (including four terminals in Louisiana and Texas) could wind up emitting more than 90 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, according to a 2022 report from the Environmental Integrity Project.
“What we saw directly after Russia invaded Ukraine was really a flurry of contracts signed and a lot of financial investment decisions by U.S. [liquid natural gas] developers,” said Alexandra Shaykevich, the research manager for the oil and gas program at the Environmental Integrity Project, who worked on the report. “Since Feb. 24, at least 19 agreements that supply around 24 million tons of [liquid natural gas] were signed. It was definitely a lot in a short time frame—and a huge turnaround from what we saw in 2020.”
If these companies decide to attach carbon capturing tech—which doesn’t capture all the carbon companies say it will, especially when considering the energy such plants require—their fossil fuel projects can essentially be subsidized due to the benefits created through the Inflation Reduction Act. This is why many climate advocates call carbon capture and storage a “false solution”—and why Castillo fears for her Gulf South neighbors. Russia’s war in Ukraine only gives fossil fuel companies another selling point despite the health and climate risks their developments pose to nearby communities (most of which are often Black, Brown, and poor).
“[The U.S. government] is once again investing in the same corporations that put us into this mess,” Castillo said. “[Fossil fuel companies] have been making multi-billion dollar profits quarter after quarter after quarter. Our communities, many can’t even put food on the table, but now you’re seeking government funding in billions of dollars so you can implement this unproven technology that kind of makes you feel good?”
In Ukraine, of course, the situation is quite urgent. Over 6 million refugees have fled their homelands. Ilyess El Kortbi is one of them. They are an active climate justice activist and Ukrainian spokesperson for the international chapter of Fridays for Future. When Russia began its invasion, El Kortbi was headed on a night train to a youth conference elsewhere in the country. “I woke up in a very different reality,” they said.
El Kortbi has been in Berlin since March 10, 2022. They don’t know if they can return to Ukraine. They fear they could face imprisonment for being in Berlin during wartime in Ukraine when the government expected them to stay and fight as men were conscripted to fight in the war and the government doesn’t recognize their gender identity. (They were assigned male at birth and have experienced online hate, harassment, and bullying as a result.) Now, they organize internationally from Berlin to raise awareness about their friends who have died in the war—and how governments and people who still rely on Russian fossil fuels are complicit. Ultimately, the end of fossil fuels is the goal.
It’s a message that echoes across Eastern Europe, especially for the climate leaders who remain inside Ukraine. Svitlana Romanko is organizing from Ivano Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. She recently founded Razom We Stand, an international nonprofit born out of the war focused on fossil fuel conflicts. She wants to see a “green revolution everywhere,” she said.
“The climate crisis is directly connected to fossil-fueled conflicts and wars—not only the Ukraine war but other conflicts we currently have in many places of the Earth: in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia,” Romanko said. “Speaking about one war, we also have to interlink the social and climate justice everywhere on Earth. So why are we speaking about phasing out fossil fuels? Because enough is enough. I don’t think that petro-colonialism and petro-dictators paid and fueled and empowered by enormous fossil fuel revenues can rule any longer.”
Indeed, the science tells us they can’t. Global leaders are meant to cut emissions by half in less than eight years, yet they are moving slowly if at all. Svitlana Krakovska is the head of the Applied Climatology Laboratory at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute and an author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which issued this rapidly approaching deadline of 2030.
When the war broke out, she was in the middle of finalizing the latest IPCC report. She has remained in Kyiv and seen the devastation war brings. And yet, she worries more for what will come as climate change strengthens.
“Climate change is worse than terrorism,” she said. “During this war, we already have so many victims. It’s tens of thousands of people, but if climate change will continue, we will have millions of people impacted as victims.”
August 24, 2022 12:30 pm
The story has been updated to clarify the situation of Ilyess El Kortbi being in Berlin and to add that they have faced online bullying due to their gender identity. The story now features a photo of them, too.