The World War to Save Livable Ecology

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Akuppa John Wigham | CC BY 2.0

Why Climate Change Trumps Nuclear War

One of many disturbing moments in the first “presidential” “debate” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump one week ago at Hofstra University came when the latter contender proclaimed dismissively that nuclear war, “not climate change,” posed the greatest threat to humanity today. His comment elicited no response from Mrs. Clinton or the debate moderator. There were no audible gasps from the audience.

Trump is wrong. Global warming is a bigger threat.

This might at first seem like a wild assertion. After all, a thermonuclear war – triggered, say, by escalated U.S. conflict with Russia and or China under a Hillary Clinton administration – would lead in one fell swoop to the death of billions. It would bring about the complete or almost complete eradication of human life and a habitable Earth (see the gruesome projections at It would probably be best not to survive such a Holocaust. (It was nice to see Trump momentarily distance himself from longstanding U.S. policy of the right to first use of nuclear weapons. Too bad he backtracked and probably didn’t even know what he was saying anyway).

Anthropogenic climate change (Trump’s Chinese-imported “hoax”) will deliver no such sudden and total knockout blows. It will kill humanity (and other species humanity hasn’t already deep-sixed) off far more slowly than that. Nobody can plot with certainty the exact date when humanity’s destruction of livable ecology would lead it to join the tens of thousands of other species it has eradicated in the current and ongoing Sixth Great Extinction.

But there’s a big difference between the two great threats relating to time, differently understood, and hence to the urgency of action. In a world without climate change and other and related and developing environmental catastrophes (ocean acidification, declining biodiversity, the disruption of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles and more), we could potentially live on with the specter of nuclear war hanging over heads for many more decades, centuries, and even millennia. It is, to be sure, something of a miracle that we haven’t blown ourselves up nuclear weapons yet (we’ve come close on at least three occasions). And, yes, the statistical chance of us doing so increases with the amount of time nuclear warheads are allowed to exist.

Still there’s nothing inherent about the existence of nuclear weapons that they have to be used. And the threat they pose would disappear immediately at the moment when and if humanity decided to abolish and dismantle them. Nuclear weapons don’t accumulate unlivable amounts of nuclear war from one year to the next.   There’s no point whereupon nuclear weapons have been in existence for so long that nuclear annihilation becomes inevitable. As long as they stay in their silos, launchers, and bays, we still have a chance to survive decently.

Things are different with “anthropogenic” – really capitalogenic – climate change. The consensus earth science judgement is that our reigning fossil fuels-based economy can’t exist for very much longer without pushing livable ecology past “tipping points” and “planetary boundaries” that promise to make Earth unfit for decent human habitation. Nobody really knows how long humanity could survive the ecosystem collapse certain to occur if carbon emissions are permitted to push planetary warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius by 2036. It is clear, however, that global catastrophe looms if we breach the two-degree threshold. It won’t be pretty and again, survivors might find themselves wishing they hadn’t – survived, that is. (See this chilling [no irony or pun originally intended] Scientific American essay by the leading Earth scientist Michael E. Mann).

By the calculations of leading Earth scientist Michael Mann (see the last hyperlink), Greenhouse Gasses were already sufficiently prevalent in the atmosphere to warm the planet by 1.7 degrees Celsius two years ago. If we continue with business-as-usual emissions, we’ll push past 2 degrees in just two decades.

Bernie Sanders was right when he said during one of his debates with Hillary Clinton that climate change was the single greatest threat to the security of the American people. (It’s the best thing St. Bernard has ever said in his entire political career). The point can be extended to all of humanity.

The World War II Analogy

Averting environmental catastrophe means radically slashing carbon emissions immediately, not by 2030, not by 2050. Right now. The 2015 Paris climate agreement see carbon emission rising until 2030. That would be suicide. As the Earth Scientist and activist Stan Cox recently noted on Counterpunch, “in the real world, those emissions have to drop off a cliff right now. We must start abandoning fossil fuels much faster,” Cox adds, “than we [can] replace them with renewable sources…We must pull back…very soon or risk global calamity.” And that will mean, among other things, “fair-shares rationing” and price controls somewhat on the model of World War II, as part of a “a national reallocation of resources among sectors of production, one that diverts a significant share of necessarily declining resources budget into building green infrastructure and leaves the consumer economy a lot less to work with.”

My strong sense is that Cox is correct. Serious left (and other) environmentalists must not indulge in pie-in-the-sky talk about how everything will be okay if we just neatly switch out fossil fuels for water, wind, and solar power by 2050. No, sorry: 2050 is too late. And mass consumption is ruining livable land, water, and air in numerous other ways beyond climate change.

Senator Sanders and Bill McKibben are right to argue that we need to conceptualize the struggle against climate change in terms analogous to the World War II mobilization: a reconversion of the economy, this time not to make bombers, tanks, and naval destroyers but to make wind turbines and photovoltaic solar arrays and the like – renewable technologies that have become cheaper and more viable in recent years.

It’s not a new historical metaphor. “Surely,” Noam Chomsky wrote six years ago, “U.S. manufacturing industries could be reconstructed to produce…what the world needs, and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. During World War II, industry was converted to wartime production and the semi-command economy” (emphasis added) to defeat global fascism.

Seven years ago, Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi showed in Scientific American that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar sources by 2030 called for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they wrote, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society” (emphasis added).

Where Cox rightly goes beyond McKibben’s recent call for a WWII-like mobilization to defeat the enemy of climate change is in the brutal honesty with which he argues that meeting the challenge will mean rapid and overall reductions in overall consumption, which will in turn require price controls, rations, and strictly progressive taxation “to prevent excess consumption by anyone.” It’s an important point: there is no sacrifice-free path to victory in the war against climate catastrophe.

The Only Candidate Who Gets It…Dragged Away by “Security”

Neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton (the preferred candidate of the nation’s unelected and interrelate dictatorships of money, empire, and eco-cide) are remotely on board with what is required – this even if it was nice to hear Hillary (a close campaign finance friend of the fracking industry) make positive reference to the need for “clean energy” jobs in her opening remarks in the horror show at Hofstra. The only U.S. presidential candidate who shows any serious understanding of what is required is the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Her party’s key policy demand is the Green New Deal, which combines a giant livable ecology-saving program of national energy and economic reconversion with a giant jobs program and universal health insurance paid for by genuinely progressive taxation (long overdue in “New Gilded Age” America) and massive reductions in the nation’s giant Pentagon System, which accounts for half the world’s military spending. (It was a predictable shame that Bernie Sanders made no space in his campaign and platform for a serious critique of the U.S. Pentagon System, the world’s single largest carbon emitter and an agent and enforcer of U.S.-led planetary petro-capitalism.)

Ms. Stein was escorted off the site of the presidential debate by Hofstra University Security personnel and the Nassau County police.

Nothing Else Will Matter

Meanwhile back here in the Northern Great Plains and in the Upper Midwest (I am writing in Iowa City, Iowa) – notably now in the high holy presidential-electoral state of Iowa – activists of various political stripes (“Bernie or Busters,” Lesser Evil Hillary voters, more enthusiastic Hillary voters, Green Party/Stein backers, anarchists, “constitutionalists,” and even a Tea Partier or two) are united in an epic struggle with the Texas-based pipeline giant Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). ETP is trying to construct a long eco-cidal “black snake” – the Dakota Access Bakken Pipeline (DAPL) – to carry fracked oil from the environmentally catastrophic Bakken oil fields across southern North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa to central Illinois. The DAPL has met fierce resistance from thousands of First Nations (Native American) and other “water protectors” and “pipeline fighters.” For these frontline North American soldiers in the global war against Big Carbon’s campaign to Greenhouse Gas life on Earth to death (a crime that could make the Nazis look like amateurs at Evil), the struggle to keep fossil fuels in the ground goes on before, during, and after the quadrennial candidate-centered major party electoral carnival. They understand the need for grassroots politics and activism beneath and beyond the election cycle, whatever its outcomes.

Protecting livable ecology is not these activists’ only concern. They sense correctly, however, that unless we avert the ever more imminent environmental catastrophe being led by climate change, none of the many and other related things progressives care about are going to matter all that much. Who wants to fight for the more just and equal sharing out of poisoned pie? This is a war to save prospects for a decent future. And strange as it may at first sound, winning that war is even a bigger priority right now than the necessary struggle for nuclear disarmament.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).