Those who take the time to think seriously about our response to climate change understand the enormity of the predicament we are in. Quite simply, we are not going to solve the problem with unfeasible technologies like solar roadways, energy-generating footpaths or bicycles that promise to power our homes. Indeed, even deploying green energy technologies that do work – solar, wind and tidal generation – will require a Herculean effort just to replace the fossil fuels in the 20 percent of our energy use that comes in the form of electricity. Beyond that, we have barely begun to address the 40 percent of our energy – mostly in the form of oil – that is consumed by transportation. Nor have we made serious efforts (beyond rendering thousands of households so poor that they have to choose between food and heat) to cut consumption and waste.
The reality is that even as the evidence of climate change is mounting, we have yet to get serious about addressing it. As Mark Buchanan at Bloomberg notes:
“As global carbon emissions keep increasing, the consequences of climate change are getting very real — in temperature extremes, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. Even U.S. national security experts are concerned. The scale of the problem could grow quite suddenly if the Earth’s climate moves past a key tipping point — triggering a shift in ocean currents, for example. The worst issues may involve epidemics linked to emergent pathogens, or wars caused by large climate-associated human migrations.”
A familiar response in activist circles is that if only the wider public realised the seriousness of our predicament, we could mobilise in the way our grandparents did at the start of World War II. In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Hugh Rockoff provides a cautionary corrective to this belief:
“… the success of the United States in overcoming scarcities during World War II without a major deterioration in living standards provides a basis for optimism that environmental challenges can be met, but that the unique political consensus that prevailed during the war limits the practical usefulness of the wartime model.”
As Buchanan notes, from a US perspective there are four key differences between war and the climate crisis to be overcome. First, after the Pearl Harbour attack, the US government had a clear plan of action; today, governments around the world are clueless. Second, the US government and wider economy had access to massive financial resources with which to mobilise its arms industry; today, governments around the world are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Third, the US had access to leading-edge military technology that could be scaled up; today, we lack the technology to reverse climate change while maintaining at least some semblance of a modern global economy. Last, we are likely to lack staying power:
“In a climate crisis, we might not have the helpful emotions of patriotism to harness for the public good. During the war, people made sacrifices, accepting the rationing of food and fuel and the redirection of industry away from consumer goods toward war materials. A climate change emergency might not stimulate the necessary unifying feelings. Rather, it could be divisive, with various groups blaming one another for the predicament.”
This is bad news for those climate campaigners who had hoped for state-led action once the full extent of the crisis became clear. We are more likely to enter the war against climate change on a similar footing to the way the UK entered World War II: unprepared, bankrupt, devoid of plans, and led by grey old men long past their sell-by date.
It might be that the approach recently offered by Black Lives Matter is more realistic; acknowledging that we will inevitably approach climate change fundamentally divided along lines of race, class and gender. This being so, if government (and especially social democracy) intends playing its historical role of managing class conflict, it dare not wait for a full-blown crisis to mobilise the people. It will need to head off the worse of the crisis immediately; before its divisive impact becomes obvious for everyone to see.