The Twelve Days (and Months) of Climate Justice Day Four:  What Will It Take to Win?

January 2, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

More than News of the World

End of the Year Special edition

January 2, 2017

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Ever the optimist, I thought it would be good to end the year on a hopeful note, so here’s my best shot at that.

Maybe you’d like to read and meditate on, share and discuss one of these amazing stories every day for twelve days as 2016 winds down and 2017 arrives.

Then let’s start a new year of 365 days of building a more powerful climate justice movement.


One of the most original efforts to craft new ideas for change comes to us from The Climate Mobilization, a kind of strategy incubator founded by Margaret Klein Salamon with the help of Ezra Silk, Nicole Harris, Ashik Siddique, and other friends in 2015. Their foundational documents have inspired me to think in new ways about the potentials of scholar-activism.

The almost simultaneous publication in August 2016 of two influential statements calling on the United States government and public to treat the climate crisis as a “war-time emergency” that will require of us a “climate mobilization” equivalent to the country’s World War 2 effort to defeat fascism in Germany and Japan has sparked intense interest in just what it would take to somehow “win” the war against climate change. The idea even found its way into the Democratic Party Platform via Bernie Sander’s insistence that Bill McKibben be on the drafting committee.

The two statements – Ezra Silk of the Climate Mobilization’s 100-plus page Victory Plan and Bill McKibben’s essay “A World at War” – have led to a healthy and vigorous debate about these ideas and their potential to play a role in the US response to the greatest global challenge of the 21st century.

This is a discussion that has now gone viral (in the small world I inhabit). Presentations about the idea, as well as critical responses and a lively on-line discussion can be found on the website of an innovative “nearly carbon-neutral conference” that I was involved in this fall called The World in 2050: Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures.

Here are snippets from the two key documents, starting with Bill McKibben’s essay “A World at War,” originally published in The New Republic.

A World at War

Bill McKibben

August 15, 2016

We’re under attack from climate change – and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.

It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing…. 

The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?

To answer those questions – to assess, honestly and objectively, our odds of victory in this new world war – we must look to the last one.

For four years, the United States was focused on a single, all-consuming goal, to the exclusion of any other concern: defeating the global threat posed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the last force to pose a planetwide threat to civilization, our enemy today is neither sentient nor evil. But before the outbreak of World War II, the world’s leaders committed precisely the same mistake we are making today—they tried first to ignore their foe, and then to appease him.….

But what would that actually look like? What would it mean to mobilize for World War III on the same scale as we did for the last world war?….

Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale. Defeating the Nazis required more than brave soldiers. It required building big factories, and building them really, really fast….

Today we live in the privatized, siloed, business-dominated world that took root under McNamara and flourished under Reagan. The actual wars we fight are marked by profiteering, and employ as many private contractors as they do soldiers. Our spirit of social solidarity is, to put it mildly, thin. (The modern-day equivalent of Father Coughlin is now the Republican candidate for president.) So it’s reasonable to ask if we can find the collective will to fight back in this war against global warming, as we once fought fascism.

For starters, it’s important to remember that a truly global mobilization to defeat climate change wouldn’t wreck our economy or throw coal miners out of work. Quite the contrary: Gearing up to stop global warming would provide a host of social and economic benefits, just as World War II did. It would save lives….

(Just as World War II sped up the push for racial and gender equality, a climate campaign should focus its first efforts on the frontline communities most poisoned by the fossil fuel era. It would help ease income inequality with higher employment, revive our hollowed-out rural states with wind farms, and transform our decaying suburbs with real investments in public transit.)

There are powerful forces, of course, that stand in the way of a full-scale mobilization. If you add up every last coal mine and filling station in the world, governments and corporations have spent $20 trillion on fossil fuel infrastructure. “No country will walk away from such investments,” writes Vaclav Smil, a Canadian energy expert. As investigative journalists have shown over the past year, the oil giant Exxon knew all about global warming for decades – yet spent millions to spread climate-denial propaganda. The only way to overcome that concerted opposition – from the very same industrial forces that opposed America’s entry into World War II – is to adopt a wartime mentality, rewriting the old mindset that stands in the way of victory. “The first step is we have to win,” says Jonathan Koomey, an energy researcher at Stanford University. “That is, we have to have broad acceptance among the broader political community that we need urgent action, not just nibbling around the edges, which is what the D.C. crowd still thinks.”…

Had he won, it’s possible that Bernie could have combined his focus on jobs and climate and infrastructure into some kind of overarching effort that really mattered – he was, after all, the presidential candidate most comfortable with big government since FDR. Donald Trump, of course, will dodge this war just as he did Vietnam. He thinks (if that’s actually the right verb) that climate change is a hoax manufactured by the Chinese, who apparently in their Oriental slyness convinced the polar ice caps to go along with their conspiracy. Clinton’s advisers originally promised there would be a “climate war room” in her White House, but then corrected the record: It would actually be a “climate map room,” which sounds somewhat less gung ho….

Normally in wartime, defeatism is a great sin. Luckily, though, you can’t give aid and comfort to carbon; it has no morale to boost. So we can be totally honest. We’ve waited so long to fight back in this war that total victory is impossible, and total defeat can’t be ruled out.


McKibben’s essay was followed within a few days by the Climate Mobilization’s more detailed Victory Plan, which you can read in full here.

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Describing itself as “A policy document that tangibly demonstrates how the U.S. could eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, contribute to a global effort to restore a safe climate and reverse ecological overshoot through a massive WWII-scale mobilization,” it goes into considerable detail as to “how a fully mobilized United States government could drive our economy to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, restore a safe climate, end the sixth mass extinction, reverse ecological overshoot  –  and revitalize America.”

As Ezra Silk points out:

This is far beyond anything proposed in today’s polite political debates about climate action. We believe that unless policymakers, advocates, and citizens envision what “victory” might actually look like when facing the complexity of our looming emergency, it’s impossible to determine a horizon for our ambitions that is in line with the increasingly stark realities of climate science….

And here is how The Victory Plan opens:

At a 1943 press conference, a reporter asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to address a rumor that he no longer liked the term “New Deal.” He responded that a physician, Dr. New Deal, had remedied America’s “grave internal disorder” during the ‘30s. But the attack on Pearl Harbor had “broke his hip, broke his leg in two or three places, broke a wrist and an arm, and some ribs; and they didn’t think he would live, for a while.” Dr. Win-the-War had since stepped in to conduct orthopedic surgery and Patient America was now on the road to recovery: “He has given up crutches. He isn’t wholly well yet, and he won’t be until he wins the war.”

Although some have argued that a “Green New Deal” or “Green Marshall Plan” are needed today, this paper and The Climate Mobilization movement assert that the spirit of Dr. Win-the-War should animate America’s response to the climate emergency. Just as FDR shifted his approach to defeat fascism, it is an absolute moral imperative that humanity pivots comprehensively to fight off the existential threat of civilizational collapse and biological holocaust.

We face a series of time-sensitive existential emergencies that can only be overcome successfully with a drastic transformation of the entire economy (or orthopedic surgery, in FDR’s words) accomplished at wartime speed. All available social and economic resources and industrial capacity must be mobilized toward the primary objectives of restoring a safe climate and reversing ecological overshoot as rapidly as possible.

Marshall Plan-like international aid efforts and New Deal-style social programs may also supplement the Climate Mobilization, in order to increase the odds of victory and to preserve our highest ideals during this long emergency….


Unfortunately, there is one not-so-small problem: the Victory Plan was predicated on the anticipated election f Hilary Clinton, which as readers know, didn’t pan out.

For the latest discussion on what to do now, you can go to the Climate Mobilization’s website.

To read the full text of The Victory Plan, go here.


Tags: climate justice movement