Comment: Climate crisis requires declaration of World War Zero

We’ve done it before with the New Deal, World War II and the space race; and we can do it again.

By Paul Roberts / For The Herald

Last week, three events converged to define the climate crisis.

First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported thtat 2023 was the hottest year on record and that carbon dioxide levels are rapidly rising. Second, a heat dome in the Southwest U.S. was the earliest such event ever recorded. Third, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared a “moment of truth” for climate action, calling on countries to take actions to limit fossil fuel use and further global warming.

“Over the past year, we’ve experienced the hottest year on record, the hottest ocean temperatures on record and a seemingly endless string of heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms,” reported Dr. Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist. “Now we are finding that atmospheric CO2 levels are increasing faster than ever. We must recognize that these are clear signals of the damage carbon dioxide pollution is doing to the climate system, and take rapid action to cut fossil fuel use as quickly as we can.”

Transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to one based on clean energy with zero emissions is a giant task. But not an impossible one. We have been here before, successfully taking on seemingly impossible tasks. There is precedence for the scope and scale of this transition in preparing for World War II, the space program, and rebuilding the nation after the Great Depression. There are significant lessons to be taken from these audacious undertakings that will serve us well responding to the climate crisis.

Former senator, Secretary of State, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry is credited with calling this challenge preparing for World War Zero. The comparisons between WWII and climate change are remarkable. Then as now, the world was threatened, and global mobilization was necessary to save the world from tyranny. Today the threat is greenhouse has emissions from fossil fuels.

In his book “Electrify,” John Griffith points out that emergencies are opportunities for lasting change. The transition to a clean energy zero emission economy is such an opportunity.

WWII: By 1939 the U.S. was beginning to increase defense production in response to Hitler’s advances in Europe. After Dunkirk, the U.S. responded to Winston Churchill’s requests for help by creating an industrial infrastructure that would aid our allies and outproduce the Axis powers — Germany, Japan and Italy — combined. We not only provided supplies — ships, planes, tanks, trucks, guns, bullets, boats and bombs — for America’s war efforts, we armed our allies, the British, Canadians, Australians and Russians.

By 1944 70 percent of America’s manufacturing capacity was focused on wartime production. At the same time, domestic needs were met. The U.S. was producing guns and butter throughout the war.

The U.S. wartime economy was built on the resourcefulness of public, private and academic sectors, drawing upon the remarkable engineering, and research and development capabilities of each. The scope and scale of this effort has not been equaled. Griffith points out: “We are capable of ramping up industrial production at an astonishing rate; fast enough to make the necessary technological changes to meet the [climate] crisis.”

Space program: In October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and with it the space race with the U.S, triggering a technological, military and political revolution in science, engineering and R&D. As Griffith states: “The U.S. created a series of nimble science agencies to avoid future surprises and to chart a path forward.” These included NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

These agencies have gone on to make astounding technical advances including: computer technologies, artificial intelligence, stealth technologies, microelectronics, and communication and development of the worldwide internet. “We can invest massively in science and technology to solve audacious problems,” Griffith said.

Great Depression and The New Deal: After the Great Depression of 1929, between 1933 and 1939, the U.S. expanded programs creating jobs and public works infrastructure, rebuilding America. Innovations included: finance, public works projects, rural electrification and building dams producing hydroelectricity, including the Hoover, Bonneville and Grand Coolee dams.

In addition to advancements in science and technology, these events — WWII, the Space Program and the Great Depression — transformed the U.S. economy resulting in the birth of countless businesses, industries and wealth creation, including today’s tech sector. There is every reason to believe WW-Zero will have the same economic and social benefits while solving the climate crisis.

WW-Zero will affect all economic sectors, but those most affected are energy, transportation, building and construction, and agriculture. The arc of development for each sector includes: R&D to develop and test technologies for zero emissions, manufacturing at scale and affordable delivery to the market.

There are political parallels as well between the 1940s and today. Then as now, the nation was dealing with isolationism. In 1939 the U.S. was rebuilding after the Great Depression and the war in Europe seemed someone else’s problem. Roosevelt and others knew we could not remain isolated. We were providing the United Kingdom with arms and supplies. That all changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the U.S. could no longer ignore the global peril of the Axis powers.

What will be the climate change equivalent of Pearl Harbor? So far we are ignoring nature’s wake-up calls.

We have the technologies to solve the climate crisis, or the ability to develop them, but so far we lack political will. As elections approach, the most important action we can take is to vote in favor of climate actions.

Paul Roberts is retired and lives in Everett. His career spans over five decades in infrastructure, economics and environmental policy including advising Washington cities on climate change and past Chair of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Board of Directors.

Eco-nomics

Eco-nomics is a series of articles exploring issues at the intersection of climate change and economics. Climate change (global warming) is caused by greenhouse gas emissions — carbon dioxide and methane chiefly — generated by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels and agricultural practices. Global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. Successfully responding to this threat requires urgent actions — clear plans and actionable strategies — to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate-influenced events.

The Eco-nomics series, published regularly in The Herald, focuses on mitigation and adaptation strategies viewed through the twin perspectives of science and economics. Find links to the series at tinyurl.com/HeraldEco-nomics.

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