It’s Time To Declare War On Climate Change

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Above photo: “Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers,” wrote Bill McKibben in a new piece published Monday. “It required a wholesale industrial retooling.” Andrew Colin Beck/The New Republic

We’re under attack, said author and climate campaigner Bill McKibben, and the only way to defeat the enemy is to declare a global war against the destructive practices that threaten the world’s imperiled ecosystems and human civilization as we know it.

In a new piece published Monday in The New Republic, the co-founder of the global climate action group 350.org said there is simply no more time to waste and that a full-scale mobilization, like the one orchestrated by the U.S. government during World War II, is now necessary if the adversary—human-caused global warming and the climate change that results—is to be vanquished.

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

With the introductory paragraphs reading like a battlefield assessment in which melting ice sheets, firestorms and historic floods represent the movements of enemy forces, McKibben offered a rebuke to the inaction of world leaders who have refused to acknowledge the scale of the attack:

For years, our leaders chose to ignore the warnings of our best scientists and top military strategists. Global warming, they told us, was beginning a stealth campaign that would lay waste to vast stretches of the planet, uprooting and killing millions of innocent civilians. But instead of paying heed and taking obvious precautions, we chose to strengthen the enemy with our endless combustion; a billion explosions of a billion pistons inside a billion cylinders have fueled a global threat as lethal as the mushroom-shaped nuclear explosions we long feared. Carbon and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time, the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization.

It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.

We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.” But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments. (Over the past few years, record-setting droughts have helped undermine the brutal strongman of Syria and fuel the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria.) It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. Its first victims, ironically, are those who have done the least to cause the crisis. But it’s a world war aimed at us all. And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict–except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planetwide occupation that follows.

Though McKibben has become known for marshaling his research and literary skills to inform and inspire the climate movement, he is not alone in pushing the theme of wartime mobilization.

In 2013, environmental journalist David Roberts, then writing for Grist, wrote how the metaphor ofwartime mobilization “gets used a lot” but recognized it as an apt way to describe what will ultimately be necessary. More than three years later, following the Paris climate deal signed earlier this year and amid a torrent of increasingly ominous climate studies, the stakes are only that much higher.

“Language appears to be failing us,” said Russell Greene, a DNC platform committee member and leading climate activist for the Progressive Democrats of America and People Demanding Action, last month. “What is urgent? When is immediately? We have lost touch. We are living in the age of consequences. We can no longer pretend otherwise. With our every action and non-action we leave our imprint on generations. There is no time left for gradualism. That window has passed. This is a climate emergency—the moment to make a stand for the future. For each other. For our children.”

McKibben argued—despite the fossil fuel industry’s orchestrated effort to suppress or dismiss the scientific consensus—that there is no longer room for denial or delay.

With an eye toward the U.S. presidential outcome this fall and an unknown congressional makeup for the next administration, McKibben laments the loss of Bernie Sanders in the primary, bemoans the prospect of President Donald Trump, and indicates how Hillary Clinton—though the likely winner—may not willingly embrace the profound counter-assault needed to fight the unrelenting physics of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases. He wrote:

The next president doesn’t have to wait for a climate equivalent of Pearl Harbor to galvanize Congress. Much of what we need to do can—and must—be accomplished immediately, through the same use of executive action that FDR relied on to lay the groundwork for a wider mobilization. The president could immediately put a halt to drilling and mining on public lands and waters, which contain at least half of all the untapped carbon left in America. She could slow the build-out of the natural gas system simply by correcting the outmoded way the EPA calculates the warming effect of methane, just as Obama reined in coal-fired power plants. She could tell her various commissioners to put a stop to the federal practice of rubber-stamping new fossil fuel projects, rejecting those that would “significantly exacerbate” global warming. She could instruct every federal agency to buy all their power from green sources and rely exclusively on plug-in cars, creating new markets overnight. She could set a price on carbon for her agencies to follow internally, even without the congressional action that probably won’t be forthcoming. And just as FDR brought in experts from the private sector to plan for the defense build-out, she could get the blueprints for a full-scale climate mobilization in place even as she rallies the political will to make them plausible. Without the same urgency and foresight displayed by FDR—without immediate executive action—we will lose this war.

As with every war, notes McKibben, victory is not assured. “We’ve waited so long to fight back in this war that total victory is impossible, and total defeat can’t be ruled out,” he said.

But despite the enormous stakes and troubling odds, he continues, it is no longer an option to choose half measures against the enemy humanity now faces: “The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?”

  • mwildfire

    This is certainly profoundly dishonest. The question is, is McKibben right that an honest approach will fail and we have to mobilize people by taking the previous dishonesty–the pretense that it’s all the evil oil companies causing climate change, and the rest of us are innocent victims–a step further to pretending that all of humanity are the victims and we’re being assaulted by “the laws of physics” or by the warming Earth itself. No, actually WE are assaulting the Earth, causing climate change along with myriad other harms–we don’t need to fight back, we need to cease and desist our attacks. Maybe this is just semantics but I think a refusal to call a spade a spade, an assumption that Americans (or perhaps all people) must be coddled with illusions in which we are innocent parties who never have to change our ways, just “fight back” against the laws of physics with a few policy changes at the top–where 99.99 % of us have no agency, no power, no influence…well, good luck, McKibben. It sure would help to get policy change, but in the rigged system that is government, it’s unlikely. But all of us have the power to immediately, and steadily, shrink our own contribution to the problem–to recall some of our troops in the war against the Earth. And we can do things that are effective on a somewhat larger scale, like the thousands now blockading pipelines and fracking wells and LNG ports and coal mines. THOSE people are the real warriors against climate change.

  • Peter Baldwin

    1. find a buddy to commit to entering this “war” with.
    2. with your buddy, join an affinity group to share this “war” work with
    3. support each other in developing non-carbon decentralized access to water, food, and shelter even if it means relocating
    4. have or learn a skill or craft to barter with
    5. network with other groups for recreation, socialization (fun), and mutual aid
    6. after a period of time (2 – 5 yrs?) to allow global preparation, pull the plug on carbon based living
    7. plant trees and enjoy a non-rat-race life, but brace yourself for the consequences from the carbon we have already spewed which may wipe us out despite anything we can do, but if we don’t go to “war” and give ourselves a chance, the war will end probably sooner than later and we will not be on the winning side.

    Lots of people have demonstrated how to creatively live a comfortable modern life on “micro power”.

    PS – This “war” will necessitate ending the current ones. You know, the trillion dollar US military terrorist boondoggle and the war on drugs and the war on the poor and the war on the earth.

    PPS – This war will also require us to relearn how to feel and know ourselves to be not separate, but connected to each other, all life, and the earth. And if we do that a magical and essential missing ingredient will emerge – love!

  • Sam Leopold

    Good thoughts… but good luck. Your last point “PPS” is the first requirement. Being separate in society is the social new-norm. It is also an evolutionary step towards real morality as we learn to be true out of ourselves and not out of the dictates of the group. Self-government, or anarchy, will be the result of an enlightened humanity. The choice seems to be: fight the war of all against all in ourselves (our psychology), or fight it with each other. Only in the first case can we all “win”. And I agree with you that love is the answer.

  • Jon

    Hey, Bill McKibben, the “she” to whom you refer above, if Jill Stein, will follow this path! The other “she” won’t!” We are awaiting your endorsement of Jill, as Cornel West, a former Bernie guy, did. Your time is NOW! Don’t hesitate!