There are, in fact, no human comparisons for the effort required to reverse the global-scale damage wrought by 300 years of industrial growth. Nevertheless, people still reach for past human endeavours to try to spur our political leaders to an action which, in truth, is far beyond them. How many times have we heard that tackling climate change requires an effort similar in scale to the Apollo moon landings or the Manhattan Project? And then there is the stubbornly undead comparison to the Second World War. Every time we think we have successfully driven a stake through the heart of this insane proposition, someone who has failed to understand what the war was really about, resurrects it and drafts it into service in the fight against climate change.
Today it is everyone’s favourite media environmentalist George Monbiot’s turn to suggest that:
“The astonishing story of how the US entered the second world war should be on everyone’s minds as Cop26 approaches.”
Monbiot gives a reasonable summary of the various measures taken by the Roosevelt Administration to mobilise the US economy for war in the wake of Pearl Harbour. Then he asks:
“So what stops the world from responding with the same decisive force to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced? It’s not a lack of money or capacity or technology. If anything, digitisation would make such a transformation quicker and easier. It’s a problem that Roosevelt faced until Pearl Harbor: a lack of political will. Now, just as then, public hostility and indifference, encouraged by legacy industries (today, above all, fossil fuel, transport, infrastructure, meat and media), outweighs the demand for intervention…
“As the US mobilisation showed, when governments and societies decide to be competent, they can achieve things that at other times are considered impossible. Catastrophe is not a matter of fate. It’s a matter of choice.”
This, of course, is the common error made by people who have been educated to believe that the economy is a financial system. All, it seems, that we need to do is to spirit enough new currency into existence and we will be able to buy giant new machines to suck three centuries of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the oceans. A few trillion here and a quadrillion there, and we can cover the deserts in solar panels and build lithium batteries as tall as the sky.
If winning wars was solely about focusing the will and creating enough new currency, Hitler would have won before America had even realised it had a fight on its hands. But fortunately, that is not how wars are won. Great generals and inspirational leaders may have had some impact – but again, the Nazis had those in spades. The same was true of technology – prior to 1944, German planes, tanks, artillery and machine guns were superior to anything the western allies could field against them. What made the difference was the neglected and tedious question of logistics and supply. As Norman F. Dixon explains:
“War is primarily concerned with two sorts of activity – the delivering of energy and the communication of information. Most combatants are involved in the former, a few – generals among them – with the latter.
“In war, each side is kept busy turning its wealth into energy which is then delivered, free, gratis and for nothing, to the other side. Such energy may be muscular, thermal, kinetic or chemical. Wars are only possible because the recipients are ill-prepared to receive it and convert it into a useful form for their own economy. If, by means of, say, impossibly large funnels and gigantic reservoirs, they could capture and store the energy flung at them by the other side, the recipients of this unsolicited gift would soon be rich, and the other side so poor, that further warfare would be unnecessary for them and impossible for their opponent.”
In 1941, the USA produced 70 percent of the world’s oil. The majority of the remaining 30 percent came from Venezuela and the Soviet Union. Smaller deposits in the Dutch East Indies and Persia provided Britain and France with some non-US oil. Meanwhile Germany depended upon the Ploesti oil field in Romania along with much smaller deposits in Hungary and Poland, for volumes of oil which were barely sufficient to keep Germany functioning in peacetime… which is why Germany engaged in the hugely wasteful Fischer–Tropsch process of turning coal into synthetic oil.
The reason Roosevelt was able to preside over what amounted to an industrial miracle between 1941 and 1945, was that the USA had sufficient surplus concentrated energy in the form of oil to open up the largely unexploited resources of the North American continent. It was that energy and those resources which allowed the USA to be “the arsenal of democracy” while simultaneously fighting and winning four separate campaigns – Southwest Pacific, Central pacific, North Africa-Italy, and Northern France-Belgium-Germany – across two oceans.
And there’s the problem for today’s purveyors of hopium when they argue that it is still possible to mobilise a Second World War-type response to climate change. because all of those resources and all of that oil is well along the path to depletion. As Professor of Petroleum and Chemical Engineering, Tad Patzek explains:
“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naive… This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold. The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII. There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”
The common response of the bright green lobby to this is that we don’t need fossil fuels and a host of increasingly rare and expensive minerals today because we have renewable energy. This though, ignores the fact that there is no part of the manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance of wind turbines and solar panels which does not involve fossil fuels. More importantly, there is no way that either technology can generate the heat required to build their replacements. Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are merely an expensive appendage to fossil fuels rather than a replacement. But even if they weren’t – even if some magic mix of rainbows and unicorn poop could be used to replace oil and coal – the material cost of raising renewable energy from its current five percent (excluding hydroelectric) of global energy to the full 100 percent – or perhaps 300 percent if the aim is also to lift the global south out of poverty – will surely consume all of the remaining minerals and more. As professor Roger Pielke explained in an article for Forbes two years ago:
“So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 Turkey Point nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a Turkey Point nuclear plant worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.
“I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.
It goes without saying that we delivered nothing like this between 2019 and 2021, so the rate of deployment has to increase. And nobody in their right mind imagines that the world leaders meeting in Glasgow next week are going to sign up to anything even close to as ambitious as this. Instead we are going to get another round of false promises based on technologies which not only don’t exist, but physically cannot exist, to pretend that they are doing anything more than imposing eco-austerity on the poor while doling out eco-socialism to the rich.
By giving the impression that a Second World War-style mobilisation against climate change is possible, campaigning journalists like Monbiot distract us from the stark reality that the only sensible option left to us is a process of managed de-growth. And even this is unlikely while we continue to squander the last of Earth’s accessible energy and resources on some version of a green new deal which can never work in practice.
As you made it to the end…
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