This month, the American Meteorological Society released its 240+ page State of the Climate in 2015 report. The information is not pretty. The report’s introduction notes that,
“In 2015, the dominant greenhouse gases released into Earth’s atmosphere—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all continued to reach new high levels. At Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the annual CO2 concentration increased by a record 3.1ppm, exceeding 400 ppm for the first time on record. The 2015 global CO2 average neared this threshold, at 399.4 ppm…Owing to the combination of El Nino and a long-term up-ward trend, Earth observed record warmth for the second consecutive year…Above Earth’s surface, lower troposphere temperatures were near-record high.”
Perhaps a prudent and rational response to that information would not be business as usual, or labeling it a hoax, but instead to develop a radical re-think of the way we produce and consume energy.
Author and activist Bill McKibben suggests that what we really need to do is to start conceptualizing climate change as a new world war, and mobilize our response accordingly. McKibben wrote a piece in the New Republic this month that starts off “In the North this summer, a devastating offensive is under way. Enemy forces have seized huge swathes of territory: with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears.” He then shifts his gaze southward to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where “a full scale assault on the regions coral reefs” is being waged.
McKibben argues forcefully for a “World War III” type of societal and economic mobilization that would involve a massive transformation of our energy economy, with clear winners and losers (especially the fossil fuel industry). It’s provocative stuff.
I had a chance to briefly interview McKibben – who wrote The End of Nature almost thirty years ago in 1989 – to further discuss the piece and get his thoughts on the matter. The main thing that came through in the conversation is his growing sense of urgency, as he watches the scientific data coming back from the field, and sees increasingly more evidence to supports his general thesis,
“I have had a long time to think about this, having written the first book about climate change in 1989. What’s happened, in the three decades since, is that what the scientists told us was going to happen has happened, just more quickly and on larger scale…Today we have fires in California. And 1,000 miles to the east, Louisiana has had a hurricane without having a hurricane…The point is, we are taking hits that one takes in a war. We are losing people and cities and territory, and we are doing it on a daily basis someplace around the world.”
To address this dynamic, McKibben proposes a massive societal shift of resources into renewables, energy efficiency technologies, and energy storage. It would involve an economic transition similar to that of the 1940’s where we moved into a wartime economy.
As one example of how big that shift would have to be, McKibben writes that in order to de-carbonize the economy, Solar City’s new solar panel giga-factory in Buffalo would have to be replicated 295 times. A similar-sized effort would be required in the wind industry. Not surprisingly, the concept of this transformation has its fervent opponents, including those who oppose the notion of government taking a central role in much of anything besides defense, as well as those who gain from perpetuating the status quo. McKibben argues, however, that we no longer have time to afford the luxury of doubt, nor to equivocate in taking actions that will cause a disruption to the status quo.
McKibben is not the only entity to see the climate issue in terms of warfare and national security. No less an entity than the Department of Defense recognizes climate change to be a serious issue. In a 2015 response to a congressional inquiry, the Department stated,
“DoD recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to U.S. interests globally. The National Security Strategy, issued in February 2015, is clear that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”
Another huge global player, the $600 billion reinsurance industry (the companies that insure the insurance companies) largely agrees with McKibben in terms of the need for massive transformation. The industry has formed a 30-company Climate-Wise collaborative aimed at addressing this issue. In a recent piece looking back at 2015, ClimateWise’s Program Manager notes that these companies are “collectively concerned that the traditional insurance business model is under threat from climate change.” Its 2015 annual review, A Climate of Change, noted that,
“In order to manage their exposure to climate risk, members are integrating climate change into risk analysis and underwriting decisions. They are increasingly considering their exposure to climate risk in investment portfolios and the need to move capital away from sectors inherently at risk from the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient economy, as well as companies or regions not taking adequate steps to manage their exposure.”
The report also cited the governor of the Bank of England’s warning to a Lloyd’s forum that the current challenges ‘pale in significance compared with what might come.’
The ClimateWise review also lays out a plan for “rewiring the economy” over the next decade, but it also observes that addressing this issue will require walking away from untold billions of fossil fuel assets,
“The need to limit emissions…poses the threat of stranded assets on a global scale. It has been estimated that the 2°C limit will only be achieved if 82% of global coal reserves, 49% of gas 49% of gas reserves, and 33% of oil reserves are left in the ground.”
McKibben takes that issue on squarely, noting that we must address this issue of vested interests in the status quo,
“It’s time to start talking about this as what it really is, the gravest physical threat our civilization has ever faced…The problem is we have a huge pool of money that either exists in the form of expected returns from reserves in the ground or exists in terms of outlays for pipelines and filing stations and all the other infrastructure that we have in trillions of dollars. That’s difficult to get around, but it requires a rational appraisal of the case that even in monetary terms it will be even more expensive of letting global climate change get out of control. Some economists have reached that point. The problem is that the owners of existing fossil have insane amounts of political power.”
At the same time, he’s optimistic that certain sections of society have begun to recognize the gravity of the issue, noting that the 400,000-person march on climate in New York was “the biggest demonstration about anything in a long time.” Now, he says, corporations also need to throw their weight around in the ring, and take a step beyond greening up their energy portfolios,
“The key for corporate American and around the world is, yes, it’s good that you are making your corporation cleaner and greener, but we need you to bring your muscle into the climate change fight…we need them pushing for legislation. We need the US Chamber of Commerce doing the right thing, not the wrong thing.”
In sum, McKibben sees the demand for societal change finally beginning to pick up speed.
“That movement is probably the fastest growing and largest the world has ever seen, and we are beginning to win some victories, but the question is did we get started in time? Can we catch up to the momentum of physics? I don’t know. The good news about this nonviolent war we need to fight is that it will save lives, not cost them, and it will produce jobs by the millions if we do it correctly.”