Bill McKibben Calls for 'Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom'

He and many others are suggesting that we need a massive mobilization to get off oil and gas.

Heat pump being installed by a man standing on the ladder.

Sunti Phuangphila / Getty Images

We recently discussed a World War II-style mobilization for electrifying, heatpumpifying, insulating, and bicycling in a recent post, titled "We Need to Electrify, Heatpumpify and Insulate Our Way Out of the Current Crises." We are not alone in this.

Author and educator Bill McKibben, once described on Treehugger as the energizer bunny of the climate fight, is girding for another battle to help get Europeans off Russian gas and oil. He writes on his website, The Crucial Years:

"New technology—affordable and workable—means Europeans can heat their homes with electricity instead of gas. And if we wanted to we could—before next winter comes—help enormously in this task. President Biden should immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get American manufacturers to start producing electric heat pumps in quantity, so we can ship them to Europe where they can be installed in time to dramatically lessen Putin’s power."
Black and white image of B24s being manufactured at Ford's Willow Run factory
B24s being manufactured at Ford's Willow Run factory.

Bettman Archive / Getty Images

McKibben reminds us this was done before, prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, when the government set up the War Production Board and switched the economy over to war production. In an earlier article he wrote, with the subhead "We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII":

Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns; Oldsmobile churned out cannons; Studebaker built engines for Flying Fortresses; Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers for British de Havillands; Hudson Motors fabricated wings for Helldivers and P-38 fighters; Buick manufactured tank destroyers; Fisher Body built thousands of M4 Sherman tanks; Cadillac turned out more than 10,000 light tanks. And that was just Detroit—the same sort of industrial mobilization took place all across America.

He is not alone in this idea: Ari Matusiak of Rewiring America, the nonprofit set up by Saul Griffith that has been doing fist pumps for heat pumps, agrees. Matusiak tells McKibben:

"Every home electrified with an American flag-stamped heat pump will provide European leaders with more political ballast because they will be alleviating economic pain for their people. It will also enable us to create a new industry — resulting in hundreds of thousands of jobs subsidized with European investment — that will spur the transformation of our own economy. This vigorous, proud and confident reclaiming of our trans-Atlantic alliance gives us a real shot at winning the climate fight once and for all. What's not to like?"

Treehugger has been discussing heatpumpification a lot lately, as well as the change in thinking among the green building and climate crowd since heat pumps became practical and worked at low temperatures. As engineer and Passive House proponent Toby Cambray noted, "The climate crisis is more urgent and the heat pump market has matured significantly." Since then, added to the climate risk, we have a political risk that comes from Europe being so dependent on Russian gas and oil.

Jimmy Carter in a sweater sitting on a chair
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

Dirck Halstead / Getty Images

This is not the first time that we have seen politics and energy policy intersect, with the climate getting a boost as a side-effect. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Arab oil-producing countries started an oil embargo against the countries that supported Israel. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter told everyone to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater, while fuel efficiency standards were introduced for cars, speed limits were dropped, building codes were tightened, and appliance efficiency standards were introduced.

On the 40th anniversary of the war, Amory Lovins of The Rocky Mountain Institute wrote for National Geographic:

"The results were stunning. During 1977–85, the U.S. economy grew 27 percent, oil use fell 17 percent, oil imports fell 50 percent, and imports from the Persian Gulf fell 87 percent; they’d have reached zero in 1986 had President Reagan not reversed the policy. Oil burned per dollar of GDP fell by 35 percent in eight years, or an average of 5.2 percent per year—enough to displace a Persian Gulf’s worth of net imports every two and a half years." 
Burning oil fields Kuwait. Image shows landscpae with 3 fires in the foreground and background.
Burning oil fields in Kuwait in 1991.

Peter Turnley / Getty Images

Lovins continues, describing how U.S. forces have intervened in the Persian Gulf four times since to protect its oil supply.

"The Gulf hasn’t become more stable. Readiness for such interventions costs a half-trillion dollars per year—about ten times what we pay for oil from the Gulf, and rivaling total defense expenditures at the height of the Cold War. And burning oil emits two-fifths of fossil carbon, so abundant oil only speeds dangerous climate change that destabilizes the world and multiplies security threats."

And now we have Russia. While the U.S. is watching from the sidelines for now, a lot more people are thinking this way. Sammy Roth writes about Carter in the Los Angeles Times in an article titled "One way to combat Russia? Move faster on clean energy."

“There’s been a lot of concern about dependence on Russian [natural] gas, and whether that inhibits countries’ ability to stand up to Russia,” Erin Sikorsky, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security, told Roth. “The more that countries can wean themselves off oil and gas and move toward renewables, the more independence they have in terms of action.”

Tweet with Adrian. Pictured is a screenshot of a DM on Twitter.


As Adrian Hiel of Energy Cities in Brussels notes, the Russian attack has changed a lot of the thinking in Europe and opened "a world of possibilities that hadn't existed previously." Change is in the air, and even fist pump for heat pump skeptics like me who called for efficiency first are beginning to come around to McKibbon's rallying cry: Heat pumps for peace and freedom!