It's time to declare war on climate change — literally

Mobilizing all the U.S.'s resources will not only stave off catastrophic global warming, but also encourage innovation and economic progress

Uncle Sam
(Image credit: (Found Image Press/Corbis))

In America, our use of war as a metaphor for a public policy initiative — whether it's on drugs, crime, poverty, litter, or cancer — is matched only by our lack of actual declarations of war when it comes to fighting people around the world. But it is time to dust off this tired concept and infuse it with its original meaning for an issue that actually necessitates all-out war: climate change.

Constant overuse has eroded declaring war on a domestic problem to mean a milquetoast, halfhearted policy doled out to some Cabinet secretary or the other. But real war is something else entirely. It means mobilization, historically perhaps the most significant action that any government undertakes.

As Tyler Cowen points out, war can have a huge, positive impact on the economy:

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Fundamental innovations such as nuclear power, the computer, and the modern aircraft were all pushed along by an American government eager to defeat the Axis powers or, later, to win the Cold War. The internet was initially designed to help this country withstand a nuclear exchange, and Silicon Valley had its origins with military contracting, not today's entrepreneurial social media startups. The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite spurred American interest in science and technology, to the benefit of later economic growth.

War brings an urgency that governments otherwise fail to summon. For instance, the Manhattan Project took six years to produce a working atomic bomb, starting from virtually nothing, and at its peak consumed 0.4 percent of American economic output. It is hard to imagine a comparably speedy and decisive achievement these days. [The New York Times]

This piece has gotten a lot of flak for its trolly headline ("The lack of major wars may be hurting economic growth"), but it's a fair point. As I've argued before on the topic of infrastructure, an emergency knocks some urgency into our decrepit and dysfunctional institutions, and all of a sudden America is capable of great things.

So I don't mean declaring war on climate change in a Race for the Cure kind of way. I mean literally putting the United States on something like a war footing. Back in WWII, this meant stoking the economy to a fever pitch with deficit spending to wring out every last scrap of materiel, while controlling inflation with price controls, rationing, and forced saving.

A war on climate change wouldn't be quite like that, since we're not trying to maximize industrial output. But it would mean similarly aggressive government action to implement a crash transition from a carbon-based economy to one anchored in renewables and nuclear. (See here for more on what such a mobilization would look like.)

There has long been a debate about whether planning-based or market-based policies would be more effective in reducing emissions. The market-based approach — which would include a stiff carbon tax that ratchets up — does have much to recommend it. But people hate taxes. Especially in this country, we like our policy hidden in the tax code and inside Byzantine regulations, so we can pretend like we're not spending money when we really are.

Conservatives, needless to say, will hate the war plan. But take note that this scenario assumes a pileup of climate disasters that will eventually force the government to leap into action. If conservatives want to avoid the mobilization option, they should start demanding market-based policy tomorrow. For if climate change worsens, nations may not have a choice.

But in the end, I suspect an emergency is what it will take for the country to deal with this crisis. Historically, the American way of tackling serious problems is to dither and bicker and procrastinate until we are so far down the maw of the crisis that we're grazing its tonsils, then suddenly snap into action with incredible speed and vigor. We're not there yet, and we may not be capable of that anymore, but if we're going to deal with climate change, that may be the only realistic way out.

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