What it really means to fight climate change like a war

By Dawn Stover | September 22, 2016


“By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal,” wrote Bill McKibben, one of America’s most prominent climate activists, in an August New Republic article. “Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments … It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war.”

McKibben isn’t the first to suggest that the best way to defeat climate change is to consider it World War III. The 2016 Democratic Party Platform contains some equally strong language: “We are committed to a national mobilization, and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address [the climate crisis] on a scale not seen since World War II.” And leading climate scientists, such as James Hansen, have been saying for years that the task of stabilizing the climate is “herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II.”

Hansen, McKibben, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton all have different ideas about how to wage the climate war, but they share a faith that technology can solve the problem. As Hansen sees it, a massive scale-up of nuclear energy is the best approach. For Clinton, the focus is on investing more in “clean energy” (both nuclear and renewables), with the promise of millions of new jobs. McKibben touts the calculations of Stanford University engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and his colleagues, who say it’s possible to power the entire world with 100 percent wind, water, and solar power.

Replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources should be a no-brainer. (Although one political party appears to have lost its collective mind when it comes to global warming.) But if climate change is a war, Americans should fight it with everything we’ve got. World War II wasn’t won with technology alone; it also required sacrifices and hard work by millions of people. The same will be needed to win World War III.

The war effort. Building 115 new nuclear reactors a year between now and 2050, as Hansen and his colleagues propose, would be an extremely daunting task. Even more formidable would be erecting 78 million new rooftop photovoltaic arrays, almost 500,000 new wind plants, and tens of thousands of wave-energy devices—in the United States alone—as Jacobson and his colleagues propose. These plans rely on optimistic models and best-case scenarios. (For example, energy consultant Edward Dodge criticizes the Jacobson plan for assuming that concentrated-solar-power arrays would be as effective and economical to construct in hilly, wooded, often cloudy New York state as in the flat, unobstructed, sunny Southwest.) But let’s leave aside, for the moment, all of this arguing over the merits and shortcomings of various energy technologies. I want to take issue instead with the premise that technology alone can win the climate war.

In McKibben’s view, what won World War II was “not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale.” Winning the climate war, he says, is thus a matter of “building big factories, and building them really, really fast.”

That’s only half the story, though. The Roosevelt administration didn’t just mobilize industry to build technology; it also mobilized the public to make sacrifices and reduce consumption. McKibben acknowledges that individual Americans did hard things to win World War II: They paid more in taxes, bought war bonds, endured shortages and disruptions, used more public transit, and grew 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables in victory gardens. But McKibben, Hansen, and Clinton don’t ask for such sacrifices today. McKibben suggests that they won’t happen without “a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” although he adds that the next president shouldn’t wait for such a catastrophe “to galvanize Congress.” Congress certainly needs galvanizing, but World War II demonstrated the far greater effectiveness of galvanizing the American people and the nation’s corporations.

Slogans for the climate war. One only has to look to World War II posters to find inspiration for the austerity measures that could help win the climate war. Here are some slogans and advice that confronted Americans of that era in public places:

On carpooling to work. “Hitler rides in the empty seat…double up!” “Squeeze in one more” to help win the war.

On saving energy. “Dress warmly indoors” to save fuel. And turn off the lights at night to avoid helping the enemy.

On conserving materials. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do!” “Do with less so they’ll have more.” Citizens were asked to collect scrap rubber and metal for the war effort. Textiles and shoes were rationed. There was a new simplicity in clothing, and nylon was used for parachutes rather than stockings.

On changing food consumption. “Buy wisely … cook carefully … eat it all.” The government rationed some food items, and gardening and canning increased dramatically. Red meat was at a premium, with the best cuts reserved for the war effort.

On funding the war effort. “The greatest investment on Earth: war bonds.” “This is my fight too!” “Will you give at least 10 percent of your pay in war bonds?”

I don’t mean to suggest that personal actions alone can win the climate war. Corporations, and their unrestrained growth, bear the primary responsibility for global warming. The vast majority of US energy consumption is not by individuals in their homes and cars, but rather by the commercial, industrial, agricultural, and government (particularly military) sectors. The idea that “big factories” are the solution to climate change seems patently absurd, unless by this we mean that big factories are where radical transformations—not just solar panels—must be made.

As in World War II, every aspect of everyday life has to change if the world is going to win the climate war. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it won’t require sacrifices, including some as difficult as those made by the Native Americans, farmers, and ranchers who had to give up their homes to make way for the Hanford Site and other Manhattan Project facilities. And we’re underestimating the climate threat if we think it can be fixed without addressing sensitive issues such as meat eating, air travel, and continued population growth.

Many proponents of the “war on climate change” fixate too much on the supply side of the energy market. “Attempts to fight climate change by reducing the demand for energy haven’t worked,” scoffed venture capitalist Chris Dixon on Medium.com in August, citing a Wikipedia page on global energy consumption that shows it rising. Leaving aside the fact that Dixon makes his living as a technology startup investor, the Wikipedia page doesn’t describe any attempts to reduce demand other than the Kyoto Protocol adopted 20 years ago—which the United States signed but never ratified. If this was the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones would point out that we have not yet begun to fight. We certainly haven’t exerted anything like a World War II-level effort to rein in energy consumption.

Learning from the past. Political scientist Graham Allison and historian Niall Ferguson recently proposed creating a White House Council of Historical Advisers to inform the president about historical precedents for current problems. Such a council could remind the president, for example, that the United States prevailed in World War II by combining a massive industrial scale-up with an equally impressive mobilization of public attitudes and behaviors.

If history is any guide, the ultimate result of trusting technology to win wars might be something like an atomic bomb. The jury of historians is still out on whether the Bomb made a decisive difference in the outcome of World War II. Whether it did or didn’t, though, inventing nuclear weapons has had unintended consequences that continue to threaten the future of humanity.

There is no magic bullet for climate change, either. “All of the above” shouldn’t be just a portfolio of preferred technologies. It must encompass all of human ingenuity and willpower. There is no technology in the world that can keep fossil fuels in the ground. Only people can do that.

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