Thursday, August 18, 2016

A World At War - by Bill McKibben

We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.

Working on a windmill (Credit: Illustrations by Andrew Colin Beck) Click to Enlarge.
In the North this summer, a devastating offensive is underway.  Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears.  Experts dispatched to the battlefield in July saw little cause for hope, especially since this siege is one of the oldest fronts in the war.  “In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught.  “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.”

In the Pacific this spring, the enemy staged a daring breakout across thousands of miles of ocean, waging a full-scale assault on the region’s coral reefs.  In a matter of months, long stretches of formations like the Great Barrier Reef—dating back past the start of human civilization and visible from space—were reduced to white bone-yards.

Day after day, week after week, saboteurs behind our lines are unleashing a series of brilliant and overwhelming attacks.  In the past few months alone, our foes have used a firestorm to force the total evacuation of a city of 90,000 in Canada, drought to ravage crops to the point where southern Africans are literally eating their seed corn, and floods to threaten the priceless repository of art in the Louvre.  The enemy is even deploying biological weapons to spread psychological terror:  The Zika virus, loaded like a bomb into a growing army of mosquitoes, has shrunk the heads of newborn babies across an entire continent; panicked health ministers in seven countries are now urging women not to get pregnant.  And as in all conflicts, millions of refugees are fleeing the horrors of war, their numbers swelling daily as they’re forced to abandon their homes to escape famine and desolation and disease.

World War III is well and truly underway.  And we are losing.
We’re used to war as metaphor:  the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.”  But this is no metaphor.  By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal:  Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.  (Over the past few years, record-setting droughts have helped undermine the brutal strongman of Syria and fuel the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria.)  It’s not that global warming is like a world war.  It is a world war.  Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis.  But it’s a world war aimed at us all.  And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict--except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planet wide occupation that follows.

The question is not, are we in a world war?  The question is, will we fight back?  And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?
Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100—not the 1.5 to 2 degrees promised in the pact’s preamble.  And it may be too late already to meet that stated target:  We actually flirted with that 1.5 degree line at the height of the El Niño warming in February, a mere 60 days after the world’s governments solemnly pledged their best efforts to slow global warming.  Our leaders have been anticipating what French strategists in World War II called the guerre du longue durée, even as each new edition of Science or Nature makes clear that climate change is mounting an all-out blitzkrieg, setting new record highs for global temperatures in each of the past 14 months.

What would it mean to mobilize for World War III on the same scale as we did for the last world war?

As it happens, American scientists have been engaged in a quiet but concentrated effort to figure out how quickly existing technology can be deployed to defeat global warming; a modest start, in effect, for a mighty Manhattan Project.  Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and the director of its Atmosphere and Energy Program, has been working for years with a team of experts to calculate precisely how each of the 50 states could power itself from renewable resources.  The numbers are remarkably detailed:  In Alabama, for example, residential rooftops offer a total of 59.7 square kilometers that are unshaded by trees and pointed in the right direction for solar panels.  Taken together, Jacobson’s work demonstrates conclusively that America could generate 80 to 85 percent of its power from sun, wind, and water by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.  In the past year, the Stanford team has offered similar plans for 139 nations around the world.
Today we live in the privatized, siloed, business-dominated world that took root under McNamara and flourished under Reagan.  The actual wars we fight are marked by profiteering, and employ as many private contractors as they do soldiers.  Our spirit of social solidarity is, to put it mildly, thin.  (The modern-day equivalent of Father Coughlin is now the Republican candidate for president.)  So it’s reasonable to ask if we can find the collective will to fight back in this war against global warming, as we once fought fascism.

For starters, it’s important to remember that a truly global mobilization to defeat climate change wouldn’t wreck our economy or throw coal miners out of work.  Quite the contrary:  Gearing up to stop global warming would provide a host of social and economic benefits, just as World War II did.  It would save lives.  (A worldwide switch to renewable energy would cut air pollution deaths by 4 to 7 million a year, according to the Stanford data.)  It would produce an awful lot of jobs.  (An estimated net gain of roughly two million in the United States alone.)  It would provide safer, better-paying employment to energy workers. 
If you add up every last coal mine and filling station in the world, governments and corporations have spent $20 trillion on fossil fuel infrastructure.  “No country will walk away from such investments,” writes Vaclav Smil, a Canadian energy expert.  As investigative journalists have shown over the past year, the oil giant Exxon knew all about global warming for decades—yet spent millions to spread climate-denial propaganda.  The only way to overcome that concerted opposition—from the very same industrial forces that opposed America’s entry into World War II—is to adopt a wartime mentality, rewriting the old mindset that stands in the way of victory.  “The first step is we have to win,” says Jonathan Koomey, an energy researcher at Stanford University.  “That is, we have to have broad acceptance among the broader political community that we need urgent action, not just nibbling around the edges, which is what the D.C. crowd still thinks.”
Without a Pearl Harbor, in fact, there was only so much even FDR could have accomplished. So far, there has been no equivalent in the climate war—no single moment that galvanizes the world to realize that nothing short of total war will save civilization.
The next president doesn’t have to wait for a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor to galvanize Congress.  Much of what we need to do can—and must—be accomplished immediately, through the same use of executive action that FDR relied on to lay the groundwork for a wider mobilization.  The president could immediately put a halt to drilling and mining on public lands and waters, which contain at least half of all the untapped carbon left in America.  She could slow the build-out of the natural gas system simply by correcting the outmoded way the EPA calculates the warming effect of methane, just as Obama reined in coal-fired power plants. She could tell her various commissioners to put a stop to the federal practice of rubber-stamping new fossil fuel projects, rejecting those that would “significantly exacerbate” global warming. 

Read more at A World At War

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