Cli­mate change could be a tougher test than war

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - MARK BUCHANAN news­room@mm­

IMAG­INE an en­tirely plau­si­ble sce­nario for the ef­fects of cli­mate change in 2045. The Green­land ice sheet has melted en­tirely, adding 20 feet to the oceans. Un­prece­dented out­breaks of pests have ru­ined crops of corn, wheat and rice around the world, caus­ing food short­ages and ri­ots. In the US, the army pa­trols ma­jor cities.

In such a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion, could the US turn things around by ral­ly­ing to the cause the way it did dur­ing World War II? A new analysis sug­gests the odds aren’t good.

As global car­bon emis­sions keep in­creas­ing, the con­se­quences of cli­mate change are get­ting very real – in tem­per­a­ture ex­tremes, droughts, floods and ris­ing sea lev­els. The scale of the prob­lem could grow quite sud­denly if the Earth’s cli­mate moves past a key tip­ping point – trig­ger­ing a shift in ocean cur­rents, for ex­am­ple. The worst is­sues may in­volve epi­demics linked to emer­gent pathogens, or wars caused by large cli­mate-as­so­ci­ated hu­man mi­gra­tions.

It’s thus im­por­tant to know whether, if the dan­ger were sud­denly ob­vi­ous to all, peo­ple could mo­bilise the re­sources needed to ad­dress it. That’s what Hugh Rock­off, an economist at Rut­gers Univer­sity, sought to do by ex­plor­ing how the US man­aged the chal­lenge of World War II. His find­ings aren’t en­cour­ag­ing.

The suc­cess­ful wartime eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion, he notes, re­quired a clear gov­ern­ment plan backed by am­ple fi­nan­cial re­sources. Af­ter the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, the US Army of­fered to buy ar­ma­ments, rub­ber and all man­ner of other goods at gen­er­ous prices. Many in­di­vid­u­als and firms jumped in to sup­ply them, reap­ing hand­some prof­its.

Sim­i­larly, a truly fright­en­ing cli­mate cri­sis could be enough to over­come con­gres­sional dys­func­tion and prompt an ac­cel­er­ated shift to re­new­able en­ergy, or to be­gin re­mov­ing bil­lions of tons of car­bon from the at­mos­phere – an ef­fort that re­search sug­gests will be needed to avoid large dis­rup­tions by the end of this cen­tury.

One big obstacle, how­ever, is tech­nol­ogy. Back in the 1940s, the US had all the know-how it needed for the war re­sponse, with the no­table ex­cep­tion of the atomic bomb. All it had to do was scale up. By con­trast, the tech­nol­ogy for mas­sive car­bon re­moval doesn’t yet ex­ist, and there’s no way to know if it could be in­vented and ex­panded quickly enough to make a dif­fer­ence.

A big­ger prob­lem could be stay­ing power. In a cli­mate cri­sis, we might not have the help­ful emo­tions of pa­tri­o­tism to har­ness for the pub­lic good. Dur­ing the war, peo­ple made sac­ri­fices, ac­cept­ing the ra­tioning of food and fuel and the re­di­rect­ion of in­dus­try away from con­sumer goods to­ward war ma­te­ri­als. A cli­mate change emer­gency might not stim­u­late the nec­es­sary uni­fy­ing feel­ings. Rather, it could be di­vi­sive, with var­i­ous groups blam­ing one an­other for the predica­ment.

Global com­pe­ti­tion for re­sources, too, would prob­a­bly in­ten­sify, es­pe­cially if cli­mate change un­der­mined ecosys­tems and agri­cul­ture. The re­sult­ing con­flicts could make re­me­dial ef­forts – de­spite their im­por­tance – seem se­condary to the im­me­di­ate need to se­cure the re­sources re­quired for sur­vival, in a sort of global tragedy of the com­mons.

In short, the mo­bil­i­sa­tion anal­ogy doesn’t pro­vide much hope. Rock­off con­cludes, “The unique po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus that pre­vailed dur­ing the war lim­its the prac­ti­cal use­ful­ness of the wartime model.” We may yet find a way to mount an ef­fec­tive re­sponse to cli­mate change, but it prob­a­bly won’t be a heroic last-ditch ef­fort.

– Bloomberg Mark Buchanan is a physi­cist, science writer and the au­thor of the book

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