Every once in a while, a thoughtful piece of editorial is published that recalibrates the national dialogue about climate change. Sustainability activist Bill McKibben just wrote such an article, putting the war against global warming into perspective and calling for a massive WWII-scale mobilization that completely retools our national economy.
Climate activist Bill McKibben takes no prisoners. He writes bold and impassioned editorial pieces that call out the major players in the fossil fuel economy. He protests against pipelines and rallies like a rockstar. He doesn’t hesitate to get arrested for causes that he believes in. His perspective on global warming and the urgent need for climate action is powerful and persuasive.
Earlier this week, McKibben released a seminal article published by New Republic, asserting that, whether we realize it or not, we’re deeply engaged in World War III, with global warming as the enemy force that is staging daring and devastating offensives:
Day after day, week after week, saboteurs behind our lines are unleashing a series of brilliant and overwhelming attacks. In the past few months alone, our foes have used a firestorm to force the total evacuation of a city of 90,000 in Canada, drought to ravage crops to the point where southern Africans are literally eating their seed corn, and floods to threaten the priceless repository of art in the Louvre. The enemy is even deploying biological weapons to spread psychological terror: The Zika virus, loaded like a bomb into a growing army of mosquitoes, has shrunk the heads of newborn babies across an entire continent; panicked health ministers in seven countries are now urging women not to get pregnant. And as in all conflicts, millions of refugees are fleeing the horrors of war, their numbers swelling daily as they’re forced to abandon their homes to escape famine and desolation and disease.
World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing.
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.
McKibben poses vital questions—can we adequately fight and defeat an enemy as inexorable as physics? And, if so, can we act fast enough to avoid catastrophic consequences? Are we already too late?
McKibben points out that if we have even the remotest chance of vanquishing the enemy forces of global warming, we will need to face it head-on “with the same resolve we brought to bear on Germany and Japan in the last world war.” He stresses that businesses must roll up their sleeves and go to war against climate change, and that we must march in lock-step towards a sustainable economy.
If we move quickly enough to meet the goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030, then the world’s carbon dioxide levels would fall below the relative safety of 350 parts per million by the end of the century. The planet would stop heating up, or at least the pace of that heating would slow substantially. That’s as close to winning this war as we could plausibly get. We’d endure lots of damage in the meantime, but not the civilization-scale destruction we currently face.
The only way we can win, McKibben argues, is through a complete retooling of our economy, constructing hundreds of giga-factories that mass produce solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and other clean technologies.
Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale. Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers. It required building big factories, and building them really, really fast.
McKibben reminds us that a global mobilization to defeat climate change wouldn’t wreck our economy. Rather it would reinvent our society and reinvigorate job growth. It would be culturally transformative by bringing people together to develop solutions and rally behind a common cause.
He underlines that the next elected President will play a meaningful role in determining how the next chapter—hopefully not the final chapter—unfolds. Fracking, carbon taxation, and the prohibition of mining and drilling for fossil fuels on public lands are watershed issues that must be addressed, quickly.
Climate change is one of those rare crises that gets stronger if you don’t attack. In every war, there are very real tipping points, past which victory, or even a draw, will become impossible. And when the enemy manages to decimate some of the planet’s oldest and most essential physical features—a polar ice cap, say, or the Pacific’s coral reefs—that’s a pretty good sign that a tipping point is near. In this war that we’re in—the war that physics is fighting hard, and that we aren’t—winning slowly is exactly the same as losing.
McKibben’s article is already lighting up social media. Let’s hope that it has the same thunderbolt effect in boardrooms, situation rooms, and classrooms around the world.
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