For Chinese President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 visit to Washington to meet with President Obama, climate organization leaders co-signed an open letter urging the top two CO2-emitting countries to adopt ambitious “wartime-like mobilization” to fight climate change.
The overwhelmingly white and western co-signers were clearly referencing America’s mass production of war materiel during World War II. Yet for Chinese, the immediate connotation of the Second World War recalls an era of deep national trauma — eight years of tremendous suffering at the hands of Japanese invaders culminating in betrayal at the postwar negotiating table.
In calling for a World War II-style mobilization to “combat” climate change, climate advocates perpetuate what some call the “best war ever” narrative — a western-centric framing of history that erases sharply unequal wartime burdens and outcomes. The analogy has enjoyed wide popularity, with notable examples including Bill McKibben’s 2016 call to declare war on climate change, former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2019 announcement of the climate initiative World War Zero, and Seth Klein’s recent argument for a Canadian WWII-style climate mobilization in his new book A Good War.
Yet in reminiscing about Rosie the Riveter and the retooling of Detroit’s factories, the climate war analogy overlooks how the top-down, non-democratic conduct of the Second World War is a model climate leaders should avoid, not emulate. Our commitment to design fair climate policies fundamentally conflicts with World War II-inspired rhetoric and policies.
Given the holistic and global perspective needed to address climate change, it is bizarre to mythologize the memory of an inequitable war that the United States entered late, the Soviet Union entered on the wrong side, and that Switzerland and Sweden declined to participate in as a model for climate action.
Throughout the war, the US, UK, and USSR leveraged their power as the major members of the allied coalition, subordinating the needs of less-influential partners. After battling Japanese aggression for four years, the Republic of China would fight on with relatively little assistance after the United States and Britain agreed in late 1941 on a war strategy prioritizing Europe’s liberation first. Adding insult to injury, the major Allied nations later determined the postwar status quo in Asia at Yalta without any consultation of the Chinese government.
Britain even declared war on Germany on India’s behalf in September 1939, infuriating Indian leadership. Vast numbers of colonial troops served in the armies of Great Britain and France, where they endured acute discrimination and mistreatment. Meanwhile, the United States relied upon its Pacific-wide empire as a network of military bases and refueling stations, often imposing harsh, racist local labor regimes.
And despite Anglo-American promises in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 to respect the right to national self-determination, the Allies ultimately let colonial powers decide questions of independence, doing little to “liberate” the “little nations” of the world. Following Allied victory in North Africa, for instance, Allied forces moved quickly to support the French colonial status quo.
That less-powerful countries might end up bearing unfair, unacknowledged burdens in a rapid, large-scale diplomatic effort to curb climate change is hardly unthinkable to leaders of rising economies.
Proponents of the climate war analogy may counter that its real value lies in how America reoriented industry, policy, and daily life around the war effort, all while driving landmark social progress. However, national war mobilization and social progress were often at odds. Insofar as the Second World War saw progress for civil rights, labor, and women's liberation, this represented the product of difficult advocacy by organizations facing stiff resistance, including from the wartime government, rather than an immanent outcome of state-led war mobilization.
Behind wartime “victory gardens,” government child-care, and scrap metal drives, Americans at home witnessed labor activism met with government crackdowns against unions and racial discrimination and violence perpetrated against Black Americans entering previously segregated workforces. While many have pointed to the longer-term benefits of the immense changes in labor and race relations brought about by the Second World War, these arguments partly conflate hard-fought labor, civil rights, and social rights victories with mobilization policy. President Roosevelt only ordered desegregation of war industries, for instance, after activists like Asa Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began organizing a March on Washington to advocate for more equal work opportunities and treatment.
We should also recall that the American home front provides just one model of World War II national mobilization. Worldwide, an individual might have lived through an experience more resembling that of a Soviet citizen: grueling work conditions in munitions factories, conflict with Soviet authorities over requisitioning and conscription, and the mobilization of gulag labor in the war effort. That a desperate Japan near war’s end devastated much of its pine forests to produce a mere trickle of biofuels for the war effort should resonate particularly strongly with environmentalists in light of biofuels-related conversations today.
At the national level, a war-like climate mobilization would necessitate top-down, centralized decision-making that prioritizes the speed and scope of emissions cuts, rather than encouraging broader dialogue to accommodate labor and property rights and ensure that society shares the costs and benefits of decarbonization fairly.
Meanwhile, in international climate negotiations, as in wartime diplomacy, geopolitical weight allows influential powers to shape outcomes in their favor. That less-powerful countries might end up bearing unfair, unacknowledged burdens in a rapid, large-scale diplomatic effort to curb climate change is hardly unthinkable to leaders of rising economies.
Of course, many imagine that in a war-like mobilization to address climate change, we would modify policies to ensure that we pursue climate objectives fairly, democratically, and equitably. Yet even in the absence of a war footing, we are already grappling with important and under-acknowledged equity challenges associated with climate policies today.
Consider the exclusion of Taiwan, a nation with a population nearly on par with Australia’s, from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change at mainland China’s insistence. Or the controversial classification of biomass energy as renewable power at the self-interested prompting of European governments. Or the failure of wealthy nations to reliably meet contribution targets for the Paris Green Climate Fund, intended to aid climate mitigation and adaptation in emerging economies. And just as the United States once turned away European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, many countries today remain hesitant to accept war and climate refugees.
Meanwhile, vocal disagreements surround border carbon adjustments — tariffs on imported, carbon-intensive products — which critics argue violate the Paris Accord principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and economically penalize developing countries. Denial of financing for fossil fuel and nuclear power projects by international development institutions also conflicts with agreed-upon differentiated policies intended to permit growth in low and middle-income countries.
And just as powerful nations outsourced some combat dangers to their colonial troops, decarbonization policies may also disproportionately burden marginalized populations with labor and environmental costs. Activists and organizations are devoting increasing focus towards extraction of rare and precious minerals under unjust environmental or labor conditions in rising economies. Similarly, in the light of China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur people, we should seriously question the massive buildout of Chinese solar and wind energy in Xinjiang and its associated land appropriations, labor conditions, and economic arrangements.
In reminiscing about Rosie the Riveter and the retooling of Detroit’s factories, the climate war analogy overlooks how the top-down, non-democratic conduct of the Second World War is a model climate leaders should avoid, not emulate.
Climate equity challenges today are myriad. If international emissions goals don’t protect vulnerable small island states, what level of reparations represent meaningful climate justice? At the same time, is it fair for island nations with a few thousand citizens to wield the same voting power as countries with billion-strong populations? What decarbonization expectations are fair for Iran, a top ten global emitter hampered by international sanctions that impact its economy and access to clean technologies?
While global climate conferences remain widely disparaged, their slow pace of progress and nonbinding frameworks are still the product of an open and quasi-democratic, if highly imperfect, process.
At the national level too, democratic processes — halting and messy as they are — accommodate important concerns that faster-moving, top-down efforts often overlook.
For example, Germany’s painfully slow progress on emissions reductions results from a paradoxical choice to phase out clean nuclear energy while retaining coal-fired power. Coal-reliant communities in east Germany, warily distrustful of promises to replace coal jobs, protected the industry until extracting formal agreements for financial compensation from the national government. Prioritizing climate change foremost, Germany should have retired coal capacity while maintaining or even expanding nuclear power — but leaders would have needed to force these decisions down the throats of coal miners and a virulently nuclear-opposed public. While Germany’s resulting pace of action has proved far less rapid than hoped, the democratic process has ultimately produced climate policies that enjoy broader support.
Even stalemated discussions can prove important. In 2019, for example, negotiations over the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project in North Carolina collapsed in the face of opposition from Duke University. But this outcome was arguably preferable to accommodating Duke’s suggestion to redirect the rail line’s construction through the Crest Street neighborhood, a historically Black community, even if the project’s failure perpetuated regional road congestion and associated emissions.
Crafting just climate policy will prove messy, cumbersome, democratic, and open. It will incorporate economic and social considerations against environmental, climate, and ecological tradeoffs, with efforts to balance diverse interests and development ambitions arguably unparalleled in history. In practice, major proposals like the US Democratic presidential climate platform fundamentally depart from a wartime model by prioritizing coalition-building and acknowledging equity concerns, yet such policies remain awkwardly wrapped in World War II imagery and rhetoric.
We should set aside the climate war analogy. We have no need to selectively reinterpret World War Two to fit a desired theory of change. While the human urge to seek a suitable historical or literary analogy is understandable, we should recognize the value of admitting up-front that we are undertaking the unprecedented. By emphasizing the new mindset required to respond to climate change, we can explore creative solutions unfettered by history while signaling our commitment to craft long-term climate plans that are both bold and fair.
Acknowledgements: The authors wish to acknowledge Andrew Friedman for his valuable comments and feedback on this article.