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OPINION

Heat pumps could help ease the climate crisis — and the war in Ukraine

If the United States delivers millions of heat pumps to Europe before October, then Russian President Vladimir Putin’s energy weapon would be much less potent.

Engineers work on installing an Ecoforest heat pump at the Octopus Energy Limiteds heat pump facility in Slough, U.K., on Sept. 28, 2021.Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Those of us at Third Act — the new national group organizing people over 60 in defense of climate and democracy — started pushing a plan we call Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some of our members are old enough to have fought in World War II; some remember the national efforts that preceded and followed that titanic conflict. In the years before America officially entered the war, the Lend-Lease program provided massive quantities of materiel to nations standing up to Adolf Hitler; in the years after VE Day, the Marshall Plan rebuilt the continent’s economy.

Now all of us face not only the too-familiar threat of Russian President Vladimir Putin — and perhaps his nuclear weapons — but also the peril of climate change, the urgency of which is made more imperative with the release Monday of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Both threats are, in different ways, products of fossil fuel.

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Putin built his army on oil and gas earnings, and he’s made Europe cower by threatening to turn off the energy spigot. Both can be addressed in part by the massive application of technology. The simple heat pump, for instance, which is basically a highly efficient air conditioner that also works in reverse, uses electricity to take the ambient heat from the outside air to warm a home.

Which means that if the United States delivers millions of heat pumps to Europe before October, then Putin’s energy weapon would be much less potent. That’s why five senators — including both Massachusetts senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren — wrote to the White House last week asking President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act and get America’s air conditioner factories churning out the machines for immediate export.

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As they put it, “With guaranteed federal contracts and other financial incentives, U.S. manufacturers will have the support they need to ramp up their production of electric heat pumps and key components — creating thousands of jobs, boosting local economies, saving money for consumers, reducing unhealthy emissions, and destroying President Putin’s oil and gas-based business model.”

The Defense Production Act is another historical relic — it dates back to the Korean War — and has been used by every president since to navigate around bottlenecks in Congress. Donald Trump and Biden both used it to spur vaccine production, and the current White House also invoked it when the United States began to run out of firehose during last summer’s record wildfires; soon an Oklahoma factory was churning out miles of the stuff. Last week, Biden used it again to ensure supplies of critical minerals for batteries used in electric vehicles. Surely the war in Ukraine fits this pattern — and what a pleasure to imagine addressing it with technology that’s not only nonlethal but that also takes on our other crisis. Because it was amid the bombing of Kyiv that scientists also reported temperatures 70 degrees above normal in the Antarctic. Pick your apocalypse.

There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen, of course. So far the White House has mostly bent to the wishes of the fossil fuel industry, which has seized the moment to push for more hydrocarbons. They want to replace Russian gas with North American gas, even though scientists have made it clear that leaking methane means natural gas is a climate bomb, and even though economists point out that keeping the world dependent on fossil fuels is actually a gift to Putin: The oil market is global, and only collapsing demand really drives down the value of his asset.

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John Kerry, America’s climate envoy, has tried to straddle the middle. He’s been backing the gas-to-Europe ploy, but he also told CNN: “There’s a lot of discussion going on right now about heat pumps specifically and about other things that we can do to assist Europe. . . . Not all these plans have been carved in stone at this point. I think heat pumps are a very real alternative to the burning of fuel that takes place today.”

Kerry, of course, has plenty of his own history when it comes to America’s wartime past. Fifty years ago, testifying in Congress on his return from Vietnam, Kerry said, “We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country?” That’s not clear at the moment when it comes to energy — so far, hobbled by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, the Biden administration has little to show for all its climate promises. Since the Defense Production Act lets the president work on his own, a serious commitment to clean tech for Europe would signal a bold new (and old) start for peace and the climate.

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Bill McKibben is the founder of Third Act. His forthcoming book about growing up in Lexington is “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened.”