What if climate change were a foreign enemy that had declared it would destroy civilization as we know it and we had only five to fifteen years to defeat it? Would our president be taking his political cues from opinion polls geared to the next electoral cycle? Would our legislators be whining about deficits and debt or overweening government regulation, or seeking to stall any legislation? Would Wall Street financiers spend all their time figuring out how to amass more and more wealth? Would our ad agencies spend all their time re-branding household cleaners or selling us products we don't need? Would our cable channels be churning out fantasies like Game of Thrones, cynical soap operas like House of Cards that convey the futility of politics, or vacuous reality shows like the Real Housewives? Would our teenagers be getting their thrills from watching vampire movies or spending endless hours engaged in simulated combat on an electronic box, or taking selfies, or texting their friends about their favorite pop star or what they did a minute ago? Would right wing preachers still be thundering against gays and feminists and birth control? Would we continue with business as usual?
A look back at our last world war may provide some clues about what a nation faced with such foreboding circumstances might be doing. On December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and the Nation via radio with these words:
As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense...I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.
That speech served to galvanize the Congress into action (it declared war on Japan within an hour of the speech) and to unite the American people and prepare them for the sacrifices that would be necessary to combat the foe. Within months, the resources of the nation were called into action. Money for defense was no problem. The Revenue Act of 1942 nearly doubled the federal income tax burden. With carrots (tax incentives and government loans) and, in some cases, temporary sticks (setting raw materials allocations and transportation priorities) business was mobilized to produce the war material. The Selective Service, which had already instituted the draft in anticipation of the war moved into high gear. The communications machine that had served the New Deal so well began churning out posters, movies and newsreels aimed at inculcating a sense of patriotism and loyalty in the American public. A rationing system went into effect; and families were encouraged to start "victory gardens."
To be sure, the analogy between mobilizing for World War II and climate change is not a perfect one. Climate change is not a foreign enemy, but rather a homegrown one, deeply embedded in our economy, our lifestyles and the mental metaphors by which we interpret the world. It requires a much more wrenching reorganization of everything we have been accustomed to. And the measures we would use to tackle it are very different from those used to build up a war machine. In fact, they are more like what is needed to convert from a war to a peace time economy. But the urgency and gravity of the threat and the need to focus all our energies and resources on it still make the analogy useful. The IPCC has told us we may have five to 15 years to stop the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. This is the wake up call!
What would we be doing if we were to treat tackling climate change as if it were a war? Let me offer a few suggestions. First, we would need a president who is not swayed by the political winds, but someone who can focus a laser beam on the need for swift and dramatic action. Using the bully pulpit, he or she could announce a comprehensive program to redirect the country's resources toward bringing greenhouse gas emissions down as quickly as possible. I know, President Obama has already issued a Climate Action Plan, but that plan is a cruel joke. Its call for an "all of the above" energy policy -- continued gas fracking, oil drilling and so-called "clean coal," not to mention nuclear power, which after Fukushima should be outlawed -- will only hasten the problem it pretends to solve. The President should accompany his/her announcement of the Plan with a call to shared sacrifice and by painting an inspiring vision of the kinds of benefits that would follow: healthier people, a more stress-free environment, less unemployment and poverty, better tasting food, less violence, crime and family dysfunction, more green spaces for people to enjoy, etc.
Such a program should be as bold as the reality we are called to face -- namely the end of a livable planet. Suggestions for what we should be doing abound in the literature. Such a program should include a tax on carbon with a public dividend. Since that tax would be revenue neutral, other forms of revenue would have to finance the transition to a livable world: a tax on all international financial transactions, for one; a boldly progressive reform of the income and corporate tax structure like that which existed in the 1950s; the redirection of all tax subsidies for fossil fuel to renewable energy sources in a "race to the top;" a phased reduction of the military budget to facilitate a conversion to peace time service as national disaster first-responders (these disasters will be happening with more frequency as we try to slow the growth of greenhouse gases in the face of a millennium-long lag time); an industrial conversion program (a kind of updated "G.I. Bill") for workers in the fossil fuel industry whose livelihoods will be jeopardized; the establishment of a new Reconstruction Finance Corporation( like that which funded many New Deal programs) to fund innovative projects through grants and government guaranteed loans to retrofit buildings and cityscapes, rebuild and green our failing infrastructure, and support the building of mass transit systems, a smart energy grid and low-income housing; the redirecting of farm subsidies from agribusinesses to small-scale organic farmers who produce for local consumption, accompanied by a call to a "back to the land" movement with funding for start-ups.
The president should announce that jobs will be available for all unemployed 18 to 26 year olds in a new and updated Civilian Conservation Corps that would engage in planting trees, restoring wetlands and devastated soils, creating climate resilient coastlines, retrofitting houses, and educating the public about sustainable living practices. Recruits would also be given training and education. The EPA would be expanded and elevated to Cabinet status and would have the authority to test policies emanating from other departments for their climate change implications both current and those projected for the future. Only those most conducive to reducing emissions would be allowed. A decentralized climate mapping authority would be established to keep statistics on all kinds of data related to land use, air quality, pollution levels, flora and fauna in order to support and guide states, counties and cities in their redevelopment planning.
The president would also take the lead in calling the world's nations to collaborate on a new, binding international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, offering to reduce our own emissions by that amount and committing $25 billion a year for the next twenty years to a global fund to enable developing countries to adapt to climate change. All international trade treaties would have to be assessed for their carbon transference implications and only those that meet strict carbon neutral or carbon reducing criteria would be allowed.
A presidential action plan, of course, is highly dependent on support and funding from Congress. Congress seems to have no trouble authorizing unlimited amounts of money when war is imminent, so if it were to treat this as a war emergency the funds for all of the above would be authorized, knowing that failure to take these measures will incur far greater costs in the future and that initial deficit spending will eventually result in greater returns to the federal treasury. Congress would also have to authorize the taxes that would be required, the phase out of the subsidies to polluting industries, the establishment of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (or Green Development Bank), the reduction and redirection of the military budget and farm subsidy programs and the increase in foreign assistance.
Sound utopian? Indeed, but so was ending slavery, putting a man on the moon, sending the Rover to Mars, discovering light from the Big Bang, or engaging in the search for a cure to cancer. Too much "big government," too coercive? What is more coercive than drafting young men and women to go off to war to kill or be killed? What is more coercive than a hurricane, a tsunami, a tornado, a flood, drought or a mud slide or oil explosion that flattens your community, deprives you of your livelihood or even your life?
Sheila D. Collins is Professor Emerita of Political Science at William Paterson University author/co-editor with Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg of When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford 2013). She has written and spoken widely on politics and the environment.