A Climate Movement at War

A War on Climate Can Be Neither Democratic Nor Effective


August 31, 2016 | Steve Rayner,

The invocation of war—in situations other than where people in uniforms are firing guns at each other—is the last political stop before despair. In declaring war on crime (Hoover 1930s), cancer and drugs (Nixon 1970s), and terror (Bush 2001), politicians have long demonstrated their frustration in the face of intractable problems that seem to defy all efforts to resolve them. So it was only a matter of time before someone declared war on climate change. “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing,” Bill McKibben wrote this month in an article for The New Republic titled “A World at War.”

“This is no metaphor,” he insisted, “carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.” He goes on to attribute the Syrian civil war and the rise of Boko Haram to “record-setting droughts,” themselves symptoms of climate change. “It’s a world war aimed at us all,” he argues.  The “powerful and inexorable enemy” in this war? Nothing less than “the laws of physics”.

The idea of the climate being at war with humanity is, in fact, just a metaphor. But is it a useful one? Does it move climate action any closer to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2°C or help us better cope with climate impacts?

Sadly, it does not.

Managing to be incoherent, contradictory, and counterproductive all at once, McKibben claims that the climate itself has launched an undeclared war against us, just as Japan did at Pearl Harbour. The “laws of physics” are the enemy! But soon enough, he is inveighing not only against this identified enemy, but also fifth columnists, collaborators, and profiteers. It seems that these include not only the standard cast of climate villains, such as Exxon, but also anyone, conservative or progressive, who advocates any approach to dealing with climate change that deviates from his particular all-out-war response.

The laws of physics, no longer the enemy, now justify his preferred political response to climate change as the only acceptable, indeed the only available, route to salvation. And here is the rub. Wartime is a state of emergency in which democratic and other civil rights, such as protection from government takings of assets, can be suspended.

This is, of course, exactly what McKibben’s war metaphor is designed to justify. And it should set off alarm bells for anyone committed to democratic governance, as states of emergency are not merely discovered, but are declared.  Whenever anyone uses nature or science to justify such a declaration, we are wise to cast a sceptical eye.

McKibben is quick to demonize fossil fuel companies. But he has little to say about the 1.5 billion people who currently have no access to reliable energy, nor about land-use or agriculture or the many other pressures associated with humanity’s complex intersecting, often conflicting, concerns at the root of climate change. These are what make it such an intractable “wicked problem.”

A true war footing would also presumably entail sacrifices that went beyond sticking it to fossil fuel companies and creating millions of new jobs manufacturing solar panels. But one would be hard pressed to find mention of any sacrifice that McKibben’s core audiences might find unpleasant or distasteful.

It is true, of course, that war can bring unprecedented unity of purpose to otherwise divided nation states. But McKibben’s statist programme—calling for direct government militarization of the economy—couldn’t be better calibrated to stoke exactly the fear that has made climate change such a divisive issue.

In describing the program, McKibben approvingly quotes historian Mark Wilson on the US government’s control of manufacturing for the Second World War effort: “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.” This is precisely the conservative’s worst nightmare. In the politically polarized context of the United States, any attempt to push through such a program would only harden resistance from the right.

McKibben’s call for climate solidarity also apparently ends at the water’s edge, morphing curiously into a call for trade war with other potential producers of renewable technologies. A World War Two-style mobilization of American manufacturing might, McKibben argues, position the United States as “the world’s dominant power in clean energy, just as our mobilization in World War II ensured our economic might for two generations. If we don’t get there first, others will.”(Emphasis added). 

But if there is a real danger that others will develop “cheap foreign-made panels” that would threaten US market dominance, then one has to ask what sense can be made of McKibben’s starting premise that the threat from climate is so great as to require America to go onto a wartime footing to produce them in the first place? Why not just import them from China?

And while it is true, as McKibben observes, that after Pearl Harbor, Americans were “willing to do hard things: pay more in taxes, buy billions upon billions in war bonds, endure the shortages and disruptions that came when the country’s entire economy converted to wartime production”, the militarization of the US economy during WWII essentially lasted for only four or five years. It was understood to be a temporary situation to deal with a tangible and immediate threat to the country.

McKibben doesn’t tell us for how long he thinks that the United States should be on such a war footing to combat climate change, but to make a global impact it would have to be a matter of decades rather than years. Such a permanent state of emergency sounds more redolent of North Korea than the USA. It seems both implausible and undesirable that Americans would submit to such an extended “regime of exception,” one that would almost certainly be erosive of their democratic values and institutions.

And while I entirely agree with McKibben that, “Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100—not the 1.5 to 2 degrees promised in the pact’s preamble,” he then proceeds to advocate the kind of old-style top-down approach that has demonstrably paralyzed international efforts to address climate change for decades.

I too share McKibben’s frustration with the lack of imagination and resolve of national governments to develop climate positive policies. But he ignores the fact that while the achievements of national governments have mostly been more rhetorical than real, progress is being made around the world at the level of city and provincial administrations and community action. What was most important about the Paris agreement was not the agreement to another round of temperature targets that nobody knows how to meet, but rather that it opened up international policy making to a much wider range of policy actors at different levels (a so-called polycentric turn).

McKibben’s call to arms takes no account of the contributions and lessons of such initiatives and instead remains firmly entrenched in the head-on approach to climate change that assumes national governments can effectively implement internationally agreed emission reductions through domestic regulation.  This is essentially an out-dated, end-of-the-pipe pollution control approach to climate change, substituting virtual national “pipes” for real ones, and has positioned climate change as a discourse of constraint, rather than a discourse of opportunity. But make no mistake: the complex climate discourse won’t be un-muddled by dressing it up in confused metaphors about the Second World War.

None of this is likely news to McKibben. He is widely read on all matters climate related and it is hard to read the various off-handed caveats and qualifications woven into the text and not think that McKibben is well aware of all of these critiques. But having set about the business of raising an army, such objections are no doubt easy enough to dismiss as mere trifles.

That won’t change the fact that climate change is a “wicked problem,” one that we can cope with more or less well, but cannot definitively solve, much less wage war upon. While America’s metaphorical wars of recent decades have been used to great political advantage by those who have deployed them, they haven’t made much of a dent in crime, drug use, or terrorism. In this, McKibben’s agenda, based on the flawed metaphor of war, is ultimately antithetical to America’s traditions. These are the traditions, principally pragmatism and pluralism, that have always defined the country in its finest moments and that will be necessary if we are to make real progress toward addressing climate change.