Overview:

Breaking our dependence on fossil fuel weakens dictators like Putin and fundamentalist theocracies whose lifeblood is petro-dollars. A technology called the heat pump will be a major part of that.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Fossil fuels pay for Vladimir Putin’s war. The oil and gas that Europe buys from Russia become the bombs and missiles falling on Ukraine.

If we had a way to break this dependence, if Europeans no longer relied on Russian gas to heat their homes, we could choke off Putin’s revenue and bring his invasion to a screeching halt. And in fact, we can.

The answer is a technology called the heat pump.

Refrigeration—it’s important, really!

Let’s talk about the sexy subject of refrigeration. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that normally, heat flows only one way, from hot things to cold things. Refrigeration allows us to reverse this with an input of energy, making heat flow “uphill”.

Inside a refrigerator, coolant fluid circulates through an evaporator valve, where it expands from a liquid into a gas. In thermodynamic terms, this phase change absorbs heat from the surroundings. It’s the same way sweat cools you down: when it evaporates from your skin, it absorbs heat and carries it away from your body.

The warm gas then passes through a condenser, where it’s compressed into a liquid and gives off heat to the surroundings. The cooler, liquid refrigerant then passes back through the evaporator valve, and the cycle repeats. The net effect is to capture heat from one place and move it to another.

Air conditioners, fridges, and freezers all use this cycle. An air conditioner captures heat from inside your house and moves it to the outside, cooling your house and making the outside slightly warmer. A refrigerator captures heat from the inside of an insulated box, making the contents colder, and discharges it to the outside. (Touch the back of your fridge, where the condenser coils usually are, and you’ll feel that warmth.)

A heat pump uses the same technology, but it works in both directions. In the summer, it captures heat from inside your house and discharges it to the outside, just like an air conditioner. In the winter, it captures heat from outside and moves it to the inside, making your house warmer. It replaces both furnaces and air conditioners.

Heat pumps are an old technology, going back to the 1920s. Older models used the deep underground, or a large body of water, as constant-temperature reservoirs that they could draw heat from or dump heat into as needed. But next-generation heat pumps have surmounted this limitation. They work perfectly well in the open air.

Some of the planet’s richest reservoirs of fossil fuel lie beneath land that’s claimed by the most conservative sects and the most violently repressive theocracies.

Unlike furnaces, heat pumps don’t burn fossil fuel. They don’t rely on constant shipments of heating oil or natural gas. They run on electricity which can come from solar, wind, hydropower or nuclear, meaning they’re as green as the grid is. If you pair them with rooftop solar, you can enjoy virtually-free heating and cooling.

Heat pump installations in Europe are already surging, and other plans to wean the continent off Russian gas are dramatically accelerating. But we can do more.

Bill McKibben argues that President Biden should invoke the Defense Production Act to get American manufacturers to churn out heat pumps as quickly as possible. We could ship them to Europe as we did with the Lend-Lease program of World War II. Every one that’s installed makes the world less dependent on Russian imports, which weakens petrocrats like Putin—a win-win for peace and the planet.

The connection between renewable energy and secularism

You might wonder what this has to do with secularism. In fact, the connection runs deep.

It’s a tragic historical accident that some of the planet’s richest reservoirs of fossil fuel lie beneath land that’s claimed by the most conservative sects and the most violently repressive theocracies. Beyond their contribution to war, corruption, and inequality; beyond, even, the fact that their emissions are cooking the planet – fossil fuels underwrite the worst manifestations of religion.

Just think of who profits from humanity’s fossil fuel addiction. Head-chopping, journalist-butchering Saudi potentates. Iranian ayatollahs who issue fatwas commanding the murder of authors. Putin’s toxic brew of Christian ethnonationalism, which has made Russia beloved by America’s religious right. And let’s not forget about coal-state barons like Joe Manchin who dam up every attempt at progress, or oil companies who sow mistrust of science for their own ends.

These autocrats get their blood money from oil, coal and gas. The less of it we burn, the weaker they become, and the less they’ll be able to resist progress and spread their poisonous dogmas.

Obviously, heat pumps are only part of the solution. We still need to decarbonize power generation, transportation, agriculture, construction, and all the other facets of our economy. This will be a colossal task, surpassing every other grand industrial project in the history of civilization.

But in a perverse way, Vladimir Putin has helped accelerate the transition. Through his bloody blunder, he’s shown the world the price of our dependence on dead dinosaurs. The fossil-fuel pushers are literally keeping humanity anchored to the past. Every link we break in their chains is another step toward a freer, more peaceful, and less religious world.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...