There is such joy in the greenness of spring and the revival of the natural world – as ephemeral wildflowers and ferns emerge from piles of last autumn’s fallen leaves; as buds open and leaves unfurl on tree branches; and as birdsong, sweet smells, and warmer air bring feelings of hope after the dark, cold winter.

I rejoice in this season of rebirth, grateful for my growing garden and for my family’s safety and freedom in our democratic nation. Biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson observed: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

This spring, there is also great sadness – the tragedy of Ukraine. Families and children are fleeing their homes to escape death and destruction: refugees from the most recent example of the utter madness of war. The courage of the people in Ukraine, and others who are risking their lives to help them, takes my breath away. Their brave actions are inspiring millions of people around the world, as they defend their country from an existential threat.  

War, climate, and fossil fuels 

Like other wars in the past century, this Russo-Ukrainian conflict reveals a root cause that enables Vladimir Putin’s aggression and largely dictates the political and military responses of other countries: the control of fossil fuels. For more than 150 years, the oil, gas, and coal formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms (fossil fuels) have powered labor-saving and life-enhancing technologies. The burning of these hydrocarbons has brought prosperity to many, but not all, and extreme wealth and power to a few.

Petroleum – its value and distribution – has become a dangerous weapon in the hands of those who crave absolute power and obscene wealth, exemplified by authoritarian petrostates like Russia, which supplies forty percent of Europe’s gas and eight percent of America’s imports. Along with international banks, Big Oil (the largest oil and gas companies) has inspired and enabled political strategies that have fueled armed conflict and now rising seas, as the planet heats. We have known these things for a long time, but – mired in disinformation and lacking political will – we have taken little more than incremental steps to achieve a safer, more peaceful, and carbon-free future.

Climate activist Bill McKibben describes the conflict in eastern Europe as “a war underwritten by oil and gas,” noting “the heart of Russia’s power… is almost entirely based on its production of gas and oil.” The late Sen. John McCain noted: “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas has placed its countries in a precarious position regarding the decisions they make to defend democratic Ukraine and themselves.

Understanding that the transition to renewables and energy security cannot be instantaneous, European countries are building liquified natural gas terminals to receive gas from other countries for near-term needs. President Biden has been urged to use the Defense Protection Act to get American manufacturers to produce cost-effective electric heat pumps in quantity for shipment to Europe, dubbed “Heat Pumps for Peace.” Experts say that a massive surge in the deployment of renewable energy (solar, wind, hydropower) could combat Russia’s grip on the world’s energy economy and fight the climate crisis. Oil and gas markets have always been volatile, while clean energy is affordable and reliable. 

The European Union is moving to upscale production of renewable energy and bolster energy efficiency measures, expressed in a new ten-point plan. “What is at stake is both the need to accelerate our fight against climate change and the energy security and independence of the European continent,” said a French official. In the U.S., the Build Back Better program, proposed by the Biden Administration, has faltered – thanks largely to a coal millionaire named Joe Manchin. The climate portion of this bold initiative includes $555 billion to move the American economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels and toward distributed, community-led energy solutions. 

A decision point

  Can we finally muster the collective courage – like the Ukrainian people – to defend ourselves, future generations, and our planet from the horrors of war and the devastation of a hotter world? Can we acknowledge our addiction to petroleum and support a rapid transition to renewable energy sources? Our parents and grandparents faced hardships, political upheaval, and dramatic change during the Great Depression, then World War II, to make the world a better place. Can we match their fortitude and courage to deal with the existential crises we face today, knowing that there will be personal sacrifices like those they made?

Not surprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine has triggered a push by Big Oil and its allies to ramp up fuel production, secure more subsidies, and loosen regulations to allow new domestic drilling – although thousands of approved drilling permits remain unused. Climate advocates hope that the Russo-Ukrainian war will provoke greater support for clean energy sources, including an aggressive program to develop a network of zero-emission, electric vehicles. Clean energy is not only now affordable and reliable, but also essential to the future of human habitation of our planet.

A recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that about half of the world’s population is now “acutely vulnerable to disasters stemming from the burning of fossil fuels.” Caring about the people of Ukraine, ourselves, and the rest of the world means working to bring an eventual end to our enslavement to oil and gas. We are at a critical decision point.

As each of us commits to do what we can to help foster peace and an energy-secure world, we should inspire our efforts by taking time to go outside and experience the infinite healing powers and possibilities of spring.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.