Scaling up climate action like response to World War II?

August 22, 2016

While David Roberts favors urgent action on climate, he questions the strategy of referring to WWII (see for full article) 

…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.  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.