Is it useful to think of climate change as a “world war”?

Bill McKibben — author, activist, mensch, and, though he would hate me saying so, the closest thing the climate movement has to a spokesperson — has a bracing new piece in the New Republic called “A World at War.” His thesis is simple: Climate change is tantamount to a global war, being waged on us by physics.


“World War III is well and truly underway,” he writes. “And we are losing.”


Our only hope of winning (insofar as anything like “winning” is still possible) is to mobilize like the US did in the run-up to World War II, bending our collective resources toward a single, urgent purpose.

The analogy — climate change as a war, our response to it as a kind of wartime mobilization — has been bouncing around climate circles for years now (I wrote about it in 2013). I’m glad to see McKibben flesh it out. Like everything he touches, the piece is thought-provoking, elegantly written, and suffused with moral urgency. Go read it if you haven’t.

I have two points of praise, two points of critique, and, because I am me, one point of despair.

Bill McKibben, speaking in support of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire in Jan. 2016. (Gage Skidmore, via Wikipedia)
Bill McKibben, speaking in support of Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire in Jan. 2016.

Praise 1: The war metaphor helps convey the significance of 2 degrees

Virtually all the world’s nations have signed on to international climate agreements that enshrine a shared target: 2 degrees.

More precisely, they have agreed on the urgent need to limit the rise in global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. (It’s up about 1 degree so far.)


That 2 degree target has become reasonably well known, but most discussion around it retains an oddly fantastical quality. Very few people — this includes policymakers and political operatives of all sorts, media, and even many activists who consider themselves familiar with climate change — understand a) just how bad it could get if temperatures climb above 2 degrees and b) just how radically and rapidly global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to have a reasonable chance of avoiding 2 degrees.

To stay under 2 degrees, developed nations, including the US, must immediately begin reducing their emissions at roughly 10 percent a year, every year, until they hit zero. Developing countries must do the same, though they have until 2020 or so to peak and begin reducing. (These scenarios are based on the work of climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows.)

There is no precedent for an industrial shift that size. Ever. Anywhere.

Climate change 2 degrees article

Arguably America’s mobilization in the run up to WWII is the only historical antecedent that conveys anything like the scale involved — the rapid reallocation of industrial resources, the new factories and output, the unity of purpose.

I have little faith that this particular historical analogy will help drive any action (more on that in the note of despair), but it certainly evokes a better sense of what’s necessary than most climate change discussions.

Praise 2: A tangible sense of what mobilization would look like

The best part of the article is how vivid it makes the fact that mobilization would be primarily industrial — i.e., it would mean building a huge amount of shit.

For instance, what would it take for the US to move to 100 percent wind, water, and solar (WWS) power by 2050?

Well, have a look at SolarCity’s gigafactory, opening soon in Buffalo, New York. It will be the biggest solar manufacturing facility in North America and one of the biggest in the world, covering 27 acres, capable of cranking out 10,000 solar panels a day — a gigawatt’s worth in a year.

At the height of its transition to WWS, the US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year.

SolarCity’s planned gigafactory in Buffalo. (SolarCity)
SolarCity’s planned gigafactory in Buffalo.

That is a mind-boggling pace of building, but McKibben draws from WWII history, particularly historian Mark Wilson’s Destructive Creation, to show that it is not entirely unprecedented.

It turns out that, despite American industry’s post-war self-image as heroes of the war effort, many business leaders (and the Chamber of Commerce) opposed the mobilization. They were basically dragged into it by FDR, and the feds coughed up most of the money.

“It was public capital that built most of the stuff, not Wall Street,” Wilson told McKibben. And the feds managed the effort. McKibben goes on:

The feds acted aggressively—they would cancel contracts as war needs changed, tossing factories full of people abruptly out of work. If firms refused to take direction, FDR ordered many of them seized. Though companies made money, there was little in the way of profiteering—bad memories from World War I, Wilson says, led to “robust profit controls,” which were mostly accepted by America’s industrial tycoons.

Normally, this would have resulted in revolt, but in the wake of Pearl Harbor, with FDR’s support in Congress, objections were muted.

In short, if the government is willing to seize the means of production and direct industrial resources, it can get a lot done, quickly. Which brings us to the critique.

Critique 1: No mention of the elephant in the room

I find the politics of the climate left somewhat frustrating. (In fairness, I find almost everyone’s politics somewhat frustrating.) In the story they tell, politics is a venal tissue of greed that must be torn asunder with people power, with dramatic gestures and proclamations. Sanders was the candidate with this instinct — a desire to shove the whole messy business of politics out of the way, a craving for declarations and revolutions and sweeping new policies.

This leads to an excessive focus on Democrats (who are more inclined to listen), an obsession with the presidency, and a contempt for incrementalism, all of which show through in the piece.

McKibben tells the story of his travails at Democratic platform meetings as though they carry deep lessons, but I don’t think they do. The Democratic platform, to put it bluntly, doesn’t matter — it has no legal status and in no way constrains Democrats once they are in office. It’s more of an internal document, a series of signals among left interest groups about who has influence and who doesn’t.

Sanders’s claim in the Democratic primary debate that climate change is the top national security threat is in no way, even a little, like FDR’s “date of infamy” speech. The words of presidents (to say nothing of presidential candidates) do not move mountains. FDR was channeling national sentiment in his speech. Is Sanders channeling similar sentiment? Concern about climate change is at a historic high in the US, but Americans still rank it low on their list of concerns.

And no, it is not “possible that Bernie could have combined his focus on jobs and climate and infrastructure into some kind of overarching effort that really mattered,” because any overarching effort — anything close to the kind of mobilization McKibben is talking about — would require legislation, and lots of it. (Much can be done through executive action, but nothing like a wartime effort.)

Legislation, at least for the foreseeable future, requires Republican assent. And Republicans a) reject the very existence of climate change and b) do not, and will not, cooperate with Democratic presidents.

JANESVILLE, WI - AUGUST 09: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at his Primary Night press conference, August 9, 2016 in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan defeated Republican challenger, Paul Nehlen for the first district primary election. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
Not quite ready for wartime mobilization.

The word “Republican” appears only once in McKibben’s piece, and not in reference to Congress. But the Republican Party — not wobbly Dems, not invidious CEOs — is the biggest and most daunting barrier to climate action in the US, by far.

And it’s not just the current craziness in the party that’s at issue. The kind of stuff that FDR did in the runup to the war is deeply offensive to longstanding conservative economic orthodoxy. It is big, activist, tax-and-spend government, intervening in the economy, directing industrial activity.

That’s what would be required for the kind of wartime mobilization McKibben is talking about: big, activist, tax-and-spend government.

The conservative movement in the US believes in its intellectual wing that government should do less and that lower taxes on upper income brackets are the overriding priority of economic policy. It believes in its Trumpian nativist wing that government is a tool by which Democrats transfer money from hard-working white Americans to minorities and immigrants, in exchange for their votes.

Together those wings are spread out geographically, dominating rural and suburban areas and thus state governments and the House of Representatives. (They might lose the Senate this year.)

No revolutionary mobilization of the sort McKibben describes is possible without sweeping legislation, no sweeping legislation is possible without GOP cooperation, and no GOP cooperation seems possible. That, not the machinations of the Democratic Party elite, is the nut of the political problem.

Critique 2: War requires a big tent

A truly national wartime mobilization will require broad public buy-in. People of many different faiths, colors, socioeconomic circumstances, and beliefs will need to climb on the bandwagon.

So while I think it is laudable to speak frankly about the scale of the challenge, I worry about being too prescriptive, too specific about the kinds of political allegiances and policies that are required for membership in the climate army.

Police arrest protesters demonstrating infront of the White House on August 24, 2011 in Washington, DC. Over 50 demonstrators protesting against the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to Texas, were arrested. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Laudable but not mandatory.

This pops up in two ways in McKibben’s piece. First is a series of leftie cultural references that carry, in an American context, all kinds of connotations. There’s Bernie Sanders, of course, and his insistence on a carbon tax and a fracking ban. There’s a reference to Naomi Klein, whose book argues that solving climate change means the end of capitalism. There’s a reference to Cornel West, who went on to endorse Jill Stein.

I am entirely convinced of the urgency of climate change and I don’t think an immediate ban on fracking makes much sense. I suspect capitalism will serve as one important tool in reducing emissions. And I want nothing to do with West.

That’s fine — people of good faith can disagree about any of those people or policies. But that’s the point. Why signal that taking climate seriously, taking it as a war, requires signing on to the agenda of a fairly specific sociocultural cohort?

Similarly, McKibben sets the proper goal as 100 percent wind, water, and solar power, based on the work of Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and colleagues. It is bold and provocative work. I won’t get into the whole debate over it now (I wrote about it here), but suffice to say, it is at the very outer edge of mainstream opinion. Plenty of people who are convinced of the urgency of climate change disagree that nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) should be taken off the table. They worry it will take longer, and cost more, to get to zero carbon without nuclear in the arsenal.

Again, people of good faith can disagree about the best path to zero carbon. If it’s a war, though, we want as many people as possible on board. Signing on to a 100 percent WWS agenda, at least at this point, is a pretty high bar to entry.

Note of despair: Climate change defies all metaphors

Despite his bravura effort, I’m not sure McKibben can make the war metaphor work.

Two problems. First, McKibben is torn between two roles here. As an activist, his job is to tug the system left, to push for the most ambitious or radical option on the table, to widen the window of the possible, to stir shit.

But as I said above, trying to rally the American people for a war is never going to work from a perch on the far cultural left. There’s nothing wrong with the far cultural left — I own a summer home there — but it is by definition on the edge, pulling. Any kind of war effort would require going after the mainstream, pushing from the middle out, with trusted, familiar voices.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25: Actor Morgan Freeman speaks at the 43rd Chaplin Award Gala on April 25, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Would you go to war for this man? Of course you would.

Second, the metaphor has awkward limits.

Who is the enemy in this war? If it’s physics, well, people don’t get very fired up over physics (though, to be clear, they should!). If it’s the people who emit carbon, that’s all of us. If it’s fossil fuel executives, that puts McKibben in the position of comparing them to Hitler, which is generally a bad idea (almost as bad as comparing the Paris climate agreement to Munich, which … come on).

And the metaphor of climate change as a war sits somewhat uneasily next to the other popular narrative about climate action, which is that reducing emissions will bring all sorts of benefits: new jobs, economic competitiveness, less pollution, and so on. It’s good for us.

Consider the odd tenor of McKibben’s assurance that “gearing up to stop global warming would provide a host of social and economic benefits, just as World War II did.” I know what he means, but “a war that’s good for us” is a weird pitch.

But whatever. If the analogy works to impress upon folks the severity of the situation and the scale of the action being contemplated, I’m all for it.

In the end, though, I think climate change is too big and unwieldy to be captured by any single metaphor or narrative. It’s wicked like that.

It’s an environmental problem, an energy transition, a national security threat, a market failure, an economic opportunity, an obligation to our children, a political dispute, a question of justice. Everyone has their climate thing, their way of approaching it, like the proverbial blind men around the elephant. But no metaphor really captures it all.

More importantly, there’s no way to short-circuit politics. Actual wars don’t even short-circuit partisan politics anymore. There’s no skeleton key, no framing so dire that it will part the political waters. The hard boards must be bored.

I love the idea of mobilization behind a common national purpose. But if it’s a war, surely, while we wait for the cavalry to arrive, we should take every little inch of ground we can.


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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