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If There’s a World War II-Style Climate Mobilization, It has to Go All the Way—and Then Some

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As global warming has surged this year, so too has America’s ambition for heroic climate action. Politicians, economists, and activists have been looking to America’s astonishing mobilization for World War II as a model for victory in the twenty-first century’s great climate emergency.

This spring, Senator Bernie Sanders called for a World War II-scale climate mobilization at the CNN presidential debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In July, the Democratic Party included in its campaign platform a climate plank that read, in part, “We are committed to a national mobilization, and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II.”

In August, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote in The New Republic that we are “literally at war” with climate change, and, like the America of the 1940s, we will have to retool our economy for wartime production; this time, he argued, the weaponry will not be not planes and tanks but photovoltaic solar arrays and wind turbines.

Critiquing McKibben’s article, Elliot Sperber argued forcefully that simply shifting to non-fossil energy will do nothing about the exploitation of humans and ecosytems that nourishes both capitalism and the global climate emergency. Yes, the mobilization for World War II has something to teach us about dealing with today’s ecological crisis, but we can’t forget that those wartime policies and actions went far beyond stepping up the production of armaments, to a complete reshaping of the political and economic landscape.

The climate movement tends to ignore those challenges and focus on technical production goals such as achieving 100% renewable energy by 2050. But that’s far from enough; we have to rein in the economy and eliminate net greenhouse emissions far sooner and be prepared to deal with the economic consequences.

According to leading climate scientist Michael Mann, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere two years ago was already sufficient to eventually warm the earth 1.7°C. Mann has projected that if the world community carries on with a business-as-usual emissions trajectory, the earth will push that warming beyond 2°C by 2036, and we’ll descend into climate catastrophe; on the grave danger presented by that two-degree threshold there is broad scientific consensus.

Yet last year’s Paris climate agreement foresees greenhouse gas emissions actually rising until 2030. In the real world, those emissions have to drop off a cliff right now. We must start abandoning fossil fuels much faster than we replace them with renewable sources.

We are trespassing across other critical thresholds. For more than seven years, a group of leading ecologists from eleven countries has been monitoring the biggest threats that human activities pose to life on Earth. For several threats, including not only greenhouse emissions but also landscape disturbance, species extinction, and disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, the scientists conclude that humanity has already transgressed safe “planetary boundaries.” We must pull back within those limits very soon or risk global calamity.

The necessity for the consumer economy to get by on a lower input of energy and other resources while achieving sufficiency for all brings us back to the World War II model. If we’re to emulate the “Greatest Generation,” we can’t do a halfway job of it, focusing solely on “green” production; we have to build a fairer economy as well.

So far, I have seen only one effective strategy for doing that: a “Victory Plan” recently drawn up by Ezra Silk, a co-founder of The Climate Mobilization movement. (It can be downloaded here.) The document, radical and at the same time realistic and practical, calls for reworking the government and economy even more thoroughly than during World War II, in order to cut America’s net greenhouse emissions down to zero by 2025 while also reversing degradation of ecosystems and halting the mass extinction of species.

Necessary steps will include phasing out fossil-fuel use within a decade; directing a large share of our energy, materials, and labor toward building a renewable energy sector and a high speed rail network; restoring our forests, grasslands, and croplands so that we are putting more carbon into the soil and less into the atmosphere; deeply cutting meat and dairy consumption; and converting a large portion of the U.S. military into a kind of climate mobilization force.

All of that will require a national reallocation of resources among sectors of production, one that diverts a significant share of a necessarily declining resource budget into building green infrastructure and leaves the consumer economy a lot less to work with.

We know from wartime experience that with resources diverted away from the consumer economy, shrinking supply will collide with still-high demand, bringing the threat of runaway inflation. Price controls will be essential, but with goods in short supply at reasonable prices, we will have to move quickly to prevent severe shortages, hoarding, and “rationing by queueing.” As in the 1940s, that will require fair-shares rationing.

Anticipating those circumstances, the Victory Plan calls for a declaration of a “national climate and sustainability emergency” under which new agencies will be formed for investing in a massive program for jobs at solid wages in green production, supporting research and development, allocating resources, stabilizing prices, and rationing goods and services according to their ecological impacts in a way that meets everyone’s basic needs while preventing excess consumption by anyone, whatever their wealth or income. That will be accompanied by much more progressive taxation, including a marginal 100 percent tax on income over $500,000.

If we take these necessary steps to place both a firm ceiling on society-wide consumption and a secure floor under household income and standard of living, affluent America will be asked to engage in shared sacrifice to a degree not seen since the 1940s. The nation will either make those sacrifices over the next decade to save civilization or wait and lose everything as we veer toward civilizational collapse. If capitalism can’t survive such sacrifices, that tells us something: that we can have healthy capitalism or a healthy planet but not both.

In a deep-green future, with the balance of economic power shifting from corporations and the kings of finance to working people, we won’t be providing our affluent minority the material luxury to which they have become accustomed. But for the majority of us, it will be a future of mutual aid and shared striving for the common good, one in which we eliminate economic exploitation and reduce inequality.

Our national acclimatization to ecological reality can succeed only with sweeping grassroots support and participation. It’s the job of the American people to launch that mobilization—not next year or in the next decade but right now.

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of “Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing” and most recently, with Paul Cox, of “How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia.” Contact them at info@howtheworldbreaks.com.

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Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

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