A crowd of climate activists protesting the war in Germany
Michael Hanschke/picture alliance via Getty Images

How War in Ukraine Is Changing Everything for Climate Activists

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is shaping the lives and work of European climate activists, who are asking their governments to stop financing the war through fossil fuels.

On the streets of Bonn and Brussels, Stockholm and Strasbourg, Vienna and Davos -- wherever Europe's political elite are gathering -- young climate activists are present. Over the past four months, their pleas for climate justice and an end to reliance on fossil fuels have gained urgency with the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Above all else, they are asking for one thing: for European countries to cut financial ties with Russia by ceasing the purchase of fossil fuels from the country. If the purchases continue, the activists argue, those countries are financing Putin's war, which is causing death and destruction in Ukraine. Many believe that if Europe had taken more decisive action to move earlier to renewables (solar, wind, geothermal and hydro, for example), Russia might never have had the economic strength to invade Ukraine in the first place.

"We see Ukraine as one of the first climate wars," said Ukrainian activist Ilyess El Kortbi, who is a member of Fridays for Future, the international youth movement associated with Greta Thunberg. El Kortbi (whose pronouns are they/them) asks how many lives will be lost in order to keep feeding the world's addiction to fossil fuels.

El Kortbi's is not a fringe viewpoint. Last week, Secretary General of the UN Antonio Guterres spoke at the Sixth Austrian World Summit in Vienna about how the world's biggest economies were doubling down on fossil fuels when they should be doing the opposite.

"New funding for fossil fuels is delusional," he said on Twitter. "It will only further feed the scourge of war, pollution and climate catastrophe."

There's an intrinsic link among the scourges Guterres lists. Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February has thrown the energy markets into chaos, which has caused fuel prices to rocket around the globe. This geopolitical crisis, the effects of which people are feeling keenly in their everyday lives, is happening against the backdrop of a world that's warming rapidly and feeling other consequences of climate change spurred by the burning of fossil fuels.

As with the climate crisis more widely, it's fallen to the climate justice movement to call out this connection and challenge politicians over why they're continuing to pursue fossil fuels-based energy strategies. Climate justice activists have long pointed out that those who suffer the most from climate change have done the least to cause it. They are now turning their human rights-centered approach to the climate crisis to campaign for Europe to starve Russia, a major producer of fossil fuels, of all financing that would allow it to continue its assault on Ukraine.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but to date, tens of thousands of citizens and soldiers are estimated to have died in Ukraine, which has leveled cities and devastated swaths of the country, while displacing over 13 million refugees within Ukraine and sending many to countries beyond, according to the UN.

In Guterres, the activists have found a natural ally. But they've also been carrying their message to other high-ranking politicians around Europe.

Sometimes that involves dramatic initiative. El Kortbi, for instance, broke protocol while meeting dignitaries at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May, to speak with Albert II, the crown prince of Monaco. Not only did El Kortbi feel listened to, but the prince returned to speak with them later at a side event and ask questions. El Kortbi showed him a Ukrainian flag signed by climate activists from around the world.

"I presented him this flag, telling this person that this flag belongs to young people from Ukraine who wish to live in peace and have a safe future, but some of them are already dead," they said. "I think he was touched."

Fleeing war, fighting for the climate

The flag was one of few personal possessions El Kortbi had when they left home from the northeastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv on Feb. 23 and had no idea they would not be returning. "I left my hometown by accident," they said.

Ukrainian Fridays for Future activist Ilyess El Kortbi

Ukrainian Fridays for Future activist Ilyess El Kortbi at a protest in Germany.

John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

El Kortbi was on a train to a peace-building conference in Kyiv when the news arrived that Russian troops had invaded on Feb.24. Through Fridays For Future, El Kortbi has friends from Syria and Afghanistan who have lived through war. Knowing something about the toll it's taken on those countries, their initial reaction when the train arrived in Kyiv was to try to volunteer with UNICEF (the UN Children's Fund).

When UNICEF told El Kortbi to leave Ukraine, they traveled to the border with Hungary, where they were stopped because at 25 years old they were the right age to be drafted into the army. El Kortbi tried to explain that their disability (a lifelong neurological disorder and ongoing health problems stemming from being assaulted for their climate activism) prevented them from fighting, but no one would listen. In the end they had no choice but to cross the border illegally. They then traveled to Germany where activist friends provided shelter.

El Kortbi is far from the only Ukrainian climate activist who has experienced a fundamental shift in life and work following the Russian invasion. Svitlana Romanko got involved in climate activism when she was employed by the University of Colorado and the Ukrainian government as an environmental expert to conduct a strategic impact assessment of Chevron's potential fracking activities between 2011 and 2013. 

"I found it extremely unjust and dangerous for the environment, for climate and for the local communities," she said. While working as a professor at Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University, she also spent her time campaigning against fracking, working as a zero fossil fuel campaign manager for climate justice organization Laudato Si Movement.

When war broke out, everything changed. Over the past few months, Romanko has poured all of her energy into coordinating Stand Up for Ukraine, an alliance of 820 organizations from 57 countries campaigning to dry up Russia's oil, coal and gas revenues and phase out fossil fuels to restore peace. 

"If we won't act fast and rapidly transition to a clean community-owned energy [an approach based on renewable energy sources owned by and benefiting local communities] it won't be a last fossil-fueled war," she said via email. "It keeps me busy, motivated and resilient towards ending the global fossil fuel addiction that feeds Putin's war machine."

Climate wars: A global struggle

But it hasn't been solely left to Ukrainian climate activists to carry the burden of asking governments globally to wean themselves off fossil fuels. 

Solidarity from the international climate movement has been "outstanding," said Romanko. "We understand that this is a critical moment in history that can lead us to ending fossil-fueled injustice and conflicts everywhere." 

On March 3, 120,000 people joined Fridays For Future on the streets of Hamburg, Germany, to protest against the war and for freedom from fossil fuels. Many of the group's activists are now putting all their energy into the dual causes. 

Dominika Lasota and Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak, both 20 years old from Poland, have been almost constantly on the move across the continent ever since. As the shock of Russia's invasion wore off, the organizing and protests began to taper off and many people started to go silent, said Lasota. If they didn't continue to support Ukrainian activitst in hammering home the point, who would?

Three climate activists holding banners outside the Russian Embassy in Berlin

Dominika Lasota (right) protests with other climate activists outside the Russian embassy in Berlin.

Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

Together they've met with other activists to protest, with experts to learn more about Europe's dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal, and with politicians to try to get their support. As was the case at COP26, the UN climate summit held in Glasgow in November, these politicians are keen to invite them to speak at events and are quick to proclaim them the ones who hold the keys to solving the climate crisis.

But there is a difference between being receptive to their message and reactive in a way that's adequate, said Lasota and Jędroszkowiak. The pair met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for an hour and a half in March to talk about fossil fuels and Ukraine.

They told her the war in Ukraine was a fossil fuel-based war and if Europe was to address it fully, it would need to completely phase out fossil fuels to be sure it was not funding any war or crisis. It would also need to transition to renewables, said Lasota, which "can be the energy of peace while fossil fuels fundamentally are an energy of war."

Von der Leyen agreed with them wholeheartedly, she said, which gave them hope, but the subsequent lack of a gas embargo has been disappointing, as was watching the oil embargo descend into a topic for debate. It's hard to watch von der Leyen appear frequently on social media wearing blue and yellow (the colors of Ukraine), said Jędroszkowiak, and also see her tweet about striking new gas deals with Israel and other countries. 

A spokesman for Von der Leyen responded by highlighting the RepowerEU strategy, designed to move Europe away from reliance on Russian fossil fuels and toward renewables. "Since some member states are heavily dependent on gas from Russia it is clear that we will have to diversify from RUS gas first, before we can fully replace it with renewable energies," he said over email. "With almost all new gas suppliers to the EU we also negotiated long-term partnerships on clean energy supply and green hydrogen."

Likewise, the pair were baffled when they confronted French President Emmanuel Macron in Strasbourg in May over failing to halt a controversial oil pipeline by French company Total and he told them he was powerless to stop it. "I'm like, are you for real?" said Lasota. "Who has more power than him?"

From a fossil-fueled war to renewables and peace

This week it will be four months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and though the initial shock has worn off, climate activists want people to see this as not just another geopolitical chess game. For many working at the grassroots level, it is deeply personal. 

"The war is a horrific experience," said Romanko. "Emotionally it's hard to expect the explosions every time after constant air alarms and see what severe and dreadful destruction, death, sexual violence and terror the war brought to our peaceful and beautiful country, people, children."

El Kortbi was in tears while describing the impact on Ukrainians. Jędroszkowiak explained that Ukrainian friends she used to work with at Fridays For Future had been killed in the war. For climate activists, the link between the work they'd already been doing and this tragedy was immediately obvious and has influenced their entire lives.

Climate activists protest outside the TotalEnergies SE annual general meeting in Paris

Wiktoria Jędroszkowiak holds a banner while protesting outside the TotalEnergies SE annual general meeting in Paris.

Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"It's about addressing the fact that the European community, which grants itself as the haven of democracy and freedom, is literally now sponsoring the war that is affecting our friends," said Lasota. "No war, no conflict, no crisis is just about specific people -- it's about all of us."

She found that advocating for an embargo on fossil fuels was taking up so much of her time that she had to make major changes to her life. Hours after speaking with Macron, she received an email from her professor saying she would fail the year if she didn't return to her university within two days. The "chaos" around her left her feeling she had no choice but to put her studies on hold in favor of focusing on Ukraine and the climate crisis -- something that Jędroszkowiak has also had to do.

It's clear that for these activists, some from Ukraine, others from surrounding countries, Russia's actions have changed the course of their lives and work. In some circles there are already talks about what Ukraine's green recovery should look like, but it's important not to jump too far ahead, said Lasota. As someone from Poland -- a country neighboring Ukraine that was once under Russian control -- she worries that for as long as Europe relies on fossil fuels, Russia will always remain a threat.

El Kortbi is hopeful about the future of Ukraine, but that hope lies in people not leaders, they said. If the war is to end, renewables can no longer be viewed as a "solution of the future," when they are needed right now, they added. 

These sentiments were echoed by Romanko, who said she believes the fight for Ukraine's freedom can do what science demands and spur a transition to green energy.

"Fossil fuels themselves, like the missiles they finance, are weapons of mass destruction and the sooner we end their exploration and use and accelerate the clean energy revolution, the sooner we can all live in peace," she said.