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Going to War on Climate Change

"We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do, but when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money fairly easily.”

"Those who heard Roosevelt’s speech were aware that confronting fascism would result in dramatic changes to their lives within months if not weeks." (Photo: Wikicommons)

"Those who heard Roosevelt’s speech were aware that confronting fascism would result in dramatic changes to their lives within months if not weeks." (Photo: Wikicommons)

With the federal government currently flooring the accelerator on the road toward the climate precipice, it is somewhat comforting to know that a likely majority believes in “avoid(ing) the apocalyptic future” by requiring a shift to renewable energy sources. At least, that is what Kate Aronoff, writing in The Intercept, suggests is the case.

Also contained in Aronoff's piece is an equally obvious though perhaps more controversial assertion from climate scientist Will Steffen: the only way that we will get there ”is to “shift to a 'wartime footing.'” Only a fundamental change in attitudes will allow us to "roll out renewable energy and dramatically reimagine sectors like transportation and agriculture . . . at very fast rates,” necessary to address the scale of the problem.

Steffen's view has, of course, few friends on a political right who, even if they do not view climate change as a hoax are philosophically committed to limited government. Somewhat surprisingly, it also has not circulated widely on the political left. A likely reason has to do with the militaristic imagery which has in the past functioned as a bludgeon to repress political dissent and to pre-empt questions about elites' fitness to rule.

But, as Aronoff notes, a war footing can also point in a very different direction. In particular, producing weapons of war requires that "the government play a heavy hand in industry, essentially shifting . . . to a centrally planned economy”-- anathema to the right which has always been at least rhetorically hostile to government intervention in the economy. Also, as Aronoff observes, insofar as these “interventions" have been permitted, they have "tend(ed) to be on behalf of corporations.” 

Our history shows that it doesn’t have to be that way: fighting Hitler wasn't a service to private corporations, it served a public united in its revulsion for fascism. Furthermore, doing so required a massive, centrally planned effort. No one raised questions about the cost of protecting ourselves when President Roosevelt appeared before congress on December 8, 1941. The same should apply to the massive investment which fighting climate change requires now.

Those who heard Roosevelt’s speech were aware that confronting fascism would result in dramatic changes to their lives within months if not weeks.

We did not ask “can we afford it” when we invested a full one quarter of our economy into producing the infrastructure which was required to beat back the axis powers.

Similarly, most of us are aware that equally dramatic changes will be required by our response to global warming. What these are are not yet clear, however the rough outlines are apparent to anyone who has thought about what needs to be accomplished.

In particular, many of these will be centered around the broad objective of achieving massively higher levels of energy efficiency, one component of which will be to meet strict zero emissions building standards

Doing so will involve millions of workers installing insulation, efficient heating and cooling systems, and where necessary, effecting structural and architectural alterations to support a sustainable lifestyle. Others will be involved in the procurement, production and distribution of necessary materials with many thousands of others involved in site assessments, planning and scheduling of work crews and associated logistics. 

Another component would achieve similar efficiencies in the transportation sector. This would likely have at its center rail electrification  targeting commercial freight currently powered by diesel fueled locomotives. Raw materials and product shipments will be shifted to rail with fossil fuel intensive trucking industry limited to short routes in electrified vehicles. 

Once in place, an electrified rail system would function as well as a conduit for excess electricity provided by intermittent renewable sources whose full incorporation will require a thoroughly redesigned and reconstructed electrical grid, itself requiring the investment of many millions of man hours. 

On a roughly similar order of magnitude will be required investments in infrastructure improvements to address the effects of climate change, most notably in the protection of low lying areas vulnerable to floods and sea surges. 

All of these components of the climate initiative would require personnel with appropriate training in relevant fields provided at trade schools, junior colleges and colleges extending to the university level. Federal funding would encourage matriculation into these programs while discouraging the growth of academic majors (such as financial engineering) which channel technical talent away from where it is most needed. 

Similar priorities will also inform a major shift in goverment funding of basic and applied science research, a large fraction of which is presently consumed by weapons reserach undertaken at Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Oak Ridge and other national laboratories  These investments would be shifted to research institutions modelled on the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories which have gave rise to energy efficient technologies now in common use. The funding would underwrite a Manhattan project devoted to basic research in new energy sources and also in energy storage systems as well as atmospheric carbon capture and sequestration technologies. 

We are in a race against time to achieve scientific breakthroughs but also to apply existing technologies which are able to drastically reduce our carbon footprint.

Asking the question whether we can afford these is a waste of time-a distraction from investing ourselves both intellectually and emotionally in what will be required.

The right question is exactly that which Alexandria Ocasio Cortez famously asked a couple of weeks ago. 

“Why is it our pockets are only empty when it comes to education and healthcare for our kids and 100 percent renewable energy that is going to save this planet? We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do, but when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money fairly easily.”

We did not ask “can we afford it” when we invested a full one quarter of our economy into producing the infrastructure which was required to beat back the axis powers.

Adopting a war footing to confront the even more dire spectre of climate catastrophe would seem to be the rhetorical framework which allow us to move forward in doing what needs to be done.

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John Halle

John Halle a former New Haven Alderman, has written extensively on the music, culture and independent politics for many publications including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Truthdig.  He teaches music theory at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and lives with his wife and child in the Hudson Valley.

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