BRUSSELS — Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, had just finished a speech at a major conference on Europe.
While he lingered onstage, soaking up adulation and taking pictures with fans, little did he know that two young women in the back of the room were eying him closely.
“There are no metal barriers,” Dominika Lasota whispered. “Now’s our chance.”
She and her activist comrade, Wiktoria Jedroszkowiak, stood up fast. They clicked on a camera. They marched right up to Mr. Macron, who greeted them with a charming smile, apparently thinking all they wanted was a selfie.
But then they blasted him with questions about a controversial new pipeline in Uganda (which the French oil company Total is helping build) and the war in Ukraine.
“My point is…” Mr. Macron tried to say.
“I know what your point is,” Ms. Lasota, 20, said, cutting him off. “But we are living in a climate crisis, and you must stop it.”
Ms. Jedroszkowiak, also 20, then jumped in, saying, “You can stop the war in Ukraine by stopping buying fossil fuels from Russia.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Macron mumbled, before being broadsided by a bunch of other questions.
Even weeks later — this unfolded in May in Strasbourg, France — the two activists are still giddy about that confrontation. Ms. Lasota and Ms. Jedroszkowiak have emerged as leaders in a dynamic new wing of the antiwar movement, and the video of them lecturing Mr. Macron went viral, making them celebrities for a moment in France and in Poland, where they are from.
This is a different brand of activist — young, mostly female and mostly from Eastern Europe — who believes that the Ukraine war is a brutal manifestation of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. They have joined two causes — antiwar activism and climate change — to take full advantage of this moment when the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine. And to make their case, they confront Europe’s leaders face-to-face.
They circulate around the continent, riding trains, staying in cheap hotels, powering themselves on cornflakes and almond milk, trying to corner Europe’s top politicians and business people. While perhaps not as famous as Greta Thunberg, they are cut from the same hardy cloth and work closely with her Fridays for Future movement.
Their message, which Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Lasota focused in a recent video, is that humankind’s addiction to fossil fuels is driving misery and bloodshed. They point not only to Russia but also to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other petrostates with long histories of conflict and repression.
“These things are connected,” Ms. Thunberg said. “More and more fossil fuel expansion means more power to autocrats. This enables them to start wars like the one in Ukraine.”
None of these activists were satisfied with the European Union’s recent moves to embargo Russian coal and most Russian oil by the end of the year — they want a total embargo on all Russian energy right now, which they say would starve Russia of billions of dollars and shut down its war machine in eight weeks.
Europe’s Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
The European Union has begun a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate the efforts.
It is an enormous demand with far-reaching consequences that few European politicians dare publicly raise, let alone embrace. Many people the world over believe it is simply not possible to just switch off from fossil fuels. Eighty percent of global energy still comes from them. And Europe is closely tied to Russian fossil fuels in particular, especially natural gas.
But more environmental groups are calling for the same sweeping embargo. They are disturbed by Europe claiming that it stands with Ukraine while it continues to buy billions of dollars of Russian fuel, helping the Russians reap record profits at the same time that their military slaughters civilians and commits other atrocities in Ukraine. Energy experts agree something different must be done.
“The activists are right that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a reminder of the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels,” said Jason Bordoff, a dean of the Columbia Climate School. “But the hard reality is that if Europe wants to eliminate dependence on Russia, it is going to need some alternative sources of oil and gas for a period of time while it transitions.”
Ms. Lasota and Ms. Jedroszkowiak says the only solution is to accelerate the transition to renewables, like wind and solar, and that until then, more Ukrainians will die needlessly. They have organized protests across Europe and confronted not only Mr. Macron but also Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister; Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament; top business people, including Total shareholders; and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who seemed impressed.
“They are very bright young women, very knowledgeable,” said Ms. von der Leyen, who met Ms. Lasota and other young activists in March.
Since then, the European Union has held endless meetings about sanctions on Russia. At the end of May, European leaders scheduled another summit in Brussels. Ms. Lasota and Ms. Jedroszkowiak saw it as the perfect opportunity to “hijack attention.”
The two recently put those skills to use, joining a blockade outside Total’s headquarters in Paris. Now they were arriving in Brussels to organize a series of “actions” timed to the EU’s summit.
They checked into a transit hotel near Brussels’s Midi train station. While Ms. Jedroszkowiak sat on the floor of their small room, headphones on, hosting a radio show for a new Polish outlet, Ms. Lasota sat at a desk writing an email to Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.
“She’s the cool one and I’m the serious one,” Ms. Lasota laughed as she typed away.
“No,” Ms. Jedroszkowiak corrected her. “We’re both cool and serious.”
The next morning, at Greenpeace’s office in Brussels, more than a dozen other activists showed up, most in their early 20s, some in their teens. They gathered around a table piled with cereal bowls, coffee cups and glowing laptops.
Their mission: hold a boisterous antiwar event at Schuman Square, in front of the European Commission’s headquarters, on the eve of the big meeting.
“What do we need for the strike tomorrow?” Ms. Jedroszkowiak asked.
“Sunflowers,” someone said. (Sunflowers have become a symbol of the Ukraine war.)
“Cardboard,” another piped up.
“Paint,” someone else said.
Many of the activists hailed from Moldova, the Czech Republic, Poland, even Ukraine. Eastern Europeans tend to have a deeper, more intuitive connection to Ukraine’s suffering than Western Europeans, Ms. Lasota said.
“Honey, we come from such different contexts,” she explained. “I come from a country that has been nonexisting for 200 years. Countries near us just divided our nation and took our resources and land. For us, the war in Ukraine is easily understandable and easily felt.”
Ms. Jedroszkowiak agrees. She said that some German environmental activists, for example, were more concerned about the embargo’s economic effects than she would have expected.
“I was like, wait, are you serious?” she said. “You’re talking about the economy? And money? That’s the language of lobbyists, not activists.”
Officials in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, have said they could lose a half-million jobs if they suddenly banned Russian gas, which powers many German industries.
Ms. Jedroszkowiak’s response: “We can create green jobs. That’s the whole point. We have to change the entire system.”
Most of the young people gathered around the table were women, which Ms. Jedroszkowiak said was no coincidence, either.
“’What’s this pretty young girl doing in the Polish Parliament?’ I’ve been hearing that my whole life. I heard it was I was 14, and I’m still hearing it when I’m nearly 21,” she said. “And when you face that injustice, a rage grows inside you. And you start to see that all these injustices come from the same place: rich men who don’t want to admit they’re wrong.”
“And what more collapse do we need?” she asked. “As a Polish survivor from Auschwitz once said,” she added, referring to the well-known historian Marian Turski, “Auschwitz didn’t fall from the sky. Well, wars don’t fall from the sky, either.”
“People like to say wars ‘break out,'” she continued. “Wars don’t just ‘break out.’ Wars are the result of a political system designed for war.”
‘Chaos on the Table’
The next morning, the day of the big event at Schuman Square, Greenpeace’s front door kept banging open. Young activists brushed past each other, hauling sunflowers, signs and megaphones.
“I’m really excited about all the chaos on the table,” said Pavel Rysula, 17, from Prague. He was one of the few young male activists at the meetings.
With their iPhones and train tickets, they have built their own fluid community. Though many have stopped their formal educations, they read essays on social justice, research the latest climate science and constantly write letters and papers (for world leaders, not teachers). They also have fun.
“We scream. We sing. We dance,” Ms. Lasota said. “There’s nothing more energizing than this work. It’s the closest to love I’ve gotten in life.”
But, as with everything, there is a cost.
Both Ms. Lasota and Ms. Jedroszkowiak recently dropped out of university programs in Warsaw, stressing out their families.
“My mom said she was terrified for me,” Ms. Jedroszkowiak said. “I was like, mom, I’m not a drug addict or going to war. Don’t be terrified.”
Ms. Lasota said that many childhood friendships simply “disappeared.” One of her friends was so hurt over a missed birthday party that they have not spoken since.
“It will be fine, eventually,” Ms. Lasota said with a sigh.
A few hours before the action in front of the European Commission, the skies opened up. People huddled in Brussels’s parks under the eaves of rain-lashed gazebos. Walking through the streets, the protesters got soaked.
When they reached Schuman Square, they found it virtually empty. Still, they are carried on, lining up shoulder to shoulder, hoisting their sunflowers and their signs.
“Even if it rains, even if it would snow today, even if there would be a storm today, we would come here,” Ms. Lasota belted out, in the rhythms of a veteran orator. “Because we will do everything we can to get this bloody embargo done and stop the horror that is happening in Ukraine and all over the world.”
“Em-bar-go! Em-bar-go!” they chanted.
The next day, the EU leaders did not touch the issue of Russian gas but agreed to embargo about 80 percent of Russian oil. The activists took it as a mixed success.
“Catastrophe was avoided,” Ms. Lasota said. “But to celebrate this as a major achievement, that’s ridiculous.”