Global Climate Change: Preparing for World War III

By Bob Burnett

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, 68% of Americans acknowledge, “Global warming is at least a somewhat serious problem.” Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that Washington has the political will to mobilize America to combat global warming. This grim reality is reminiscent of the beginning of World War II, when the US dithered for 21 months until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced us to act.

World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. On May 10, 1940, German troops swept into France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. By mid-June, France and its neighbors had surrendered and the Battle of Britain commenced. Throughout this period the US did nothing. Although President Roosevelt wanted to help our European allies, Congress rebuffed him. It wasn’t until after the sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that America declared war.

Just as Germany’s military intentions were clear 75 years ago, the consequences of Global Climate Change seem obvious today. In 2009, planetary scientists agreed that an increase in global temperature beyond 2 degrees Celsius would cause horrific damage. Since 2009, we’ve moved three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target and unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, sharp sea level rises, dissolving coral reefs, and catastrophic weather events like Sandy.

In President Obama’s victory speech he noted four immediate challenges facing his Administration, “reducing our deficit, reforming out tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But he also mentioned Global Climate Change, “We want our children to live in an America … that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” That’s an indication he might launch an initiative. Eventually.

But like the Nazi’s march through Europe, the onslaught of Global Climate Change is relentless. It’s unclear how long we can postpone action.

In the 21 months between Sept. 1, 1939, and Dec. 7, 1941, US indifference to the war in Europe and Asia was justified by public sentiment, “It can’t happen here.” Recovering from a severe depression, Americans turned inward, seemingly secure in the knowledge that thousands of miles of ocean separated them from foreign battlefields. And after a decade of economic hardship, citizens were not emotionally prepared for the austerity that war would bring. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor left us no choice.

Hurricane Sandy was an impressive event but probably not sufficient to move Americans to make the sacrifices necessary to curtail Global Climate Change. It’s likely that 113th Congress will provide the funds necessary to repair the damage from Sandy, but not call for a national mobilization on the scale last seen when the US entered World War II. After all, it’s been 71 years since Americans were last called upon to sacrifice and we’re not used to to taking extreme steps to protect our selves and our families.

1. Abandon use of fossil fuel. Writing in Rolling Stone, environmentalist Bill McKibben observed that we can only emit 564 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and still have a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. Last year we pumped in 31.6 gigatons; at this rate we’ll exude 564 gigs by 2028. McKibben pointed out that the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies are 2975 gigatons, “the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” Individuals must stop using fossil fuel and the public has to shut down fossil-fuel companies.

2. Make dwellings energy efficient. Approximately 78 percent of America’s energy use is provided by fossil-fuel. As we stop using coal, oil, and gas, Americans will need renewables that, at the moment, are not available in sufficient quantities. A good first step is to make our homes more energy efficient by thorough insulation, use of a non-fossil-fuel heating system, and conversion to electricity supplied by a renewable source.

3. Move to secure locations. In June 2009, a White House task force produced “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” Among its 10 key findings, two relate to where we should live: “Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.” “Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems;” for example, the “Dust Bowl” region will become more vulnerable to drought and wind. Three findings relate to food and safety: “Climate change will stress water resources.” “Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.” “Risks to human health will increase. Harmful health impacts of climate change are related to increasing heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents.” Many Americans will have to move away from coasts and storm areas to locations where food and water are available and safe.

These are extreme steps but America has gone through something like this before, after we entered World War II. There were extreme hardships but our people adapted and the American economy thrived. We can do this again if we view Global Climate Change as World War III and mobilize now.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley, Calif., writer. Before starting a second career as a journalist, he was one of the founding executives at Cisco Systems. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2013

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