Let me just start by saying that I strongly believe that human-caused climate change is the single most important challenge facing the world today. The greenhouse gases we have been releasing into the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have created a blanket that lets the sun’s energy in, but allows less and less of it to escape. Earth is rapidly heating up.
America and the rest of the world are trying to deal with many problems — wars, poverty, inequities, extreme weather events, disease — just to name a few. But the effects that climate change is having on our planet will exacerbate all of these problems, and more. Throw in rising sea levels from the melting ice sheets at both poles, the acidification of the oceans as they absorb the excess carbon dioxide, an increasing number of animal extinctions, and things can look pretty bleak.
I have read a great deal about global warming and climate change. Create a Google Alert with the phrase “climate change” and you’ll begin to get links to dozens of articles in your email inbox each day. One such article that I recently came across was written by Bill McKibben. I met Bill several years ago at a conference in Madison, saw him present again in the Twin Cities, and have exchanged emails with him several times. Bill is the co-founder of 350.org, an organization that addresses climate change. He’s a very talented journalist, passionate climate change activist, and an all-around nice guy.
So when I find an article he has written, I sit up and take notice. His recent New Republic essay is titled “A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change — and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in World War II.” If you are at all close to the issue of climate change/global warming, it’s hard to see how this runaway climate freight train can be slowed, much less stopped. So I was eager to read what Bill had to say.
He starts by saying the world is under attack. Not by inhabitants of our own planet or aliens, but by the mounting effects of greenhouse gases continually generated by burning fossil fuels. Just this summer vast areas of Arctic ice have melted, extensive areas of coral in the Great Barrier Reef have died, turning bleached white, and unprecedented forest fires and floods have wreaked havoc around the globe. It’s time to start treating this like World War III and respond as Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” did during WWII.
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“The question is not, are we in a world war?” McKibben writes. “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?”
The essay examines how our country responded during WWII. “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.” England blundered at the start of the war when it conceded too much to Hitler who quickly conquered most of Europe. We cannot make the same mistake with climate change by believing that recent climate agreements in Paris will save us. McKibben states, “Even if every nation in the world complies with the Paris Agreement, the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 — not the 1.5 to 2 degrees promised in the pact’s preamble.”
While politicians have done little to address climate change, scientists have been concentrating on what it would take to turn things around using existing technologies. Their recommendations are available for all 50 states and for 139 nations around the globe. For Americans, the calculations show we would need to produce 6,448 gigawatts of clean energy in the next 35 years to completely replace fossil fuels. To do this, we would need hundreds of very large factories producing solar panels and wind turbines spread around the country. The technology is available today, but we need the determination, resolve and conviction to start now.
This election year we hear a lot about needing good, well-paying jobs for Americans. Hundreds of clean energy factories will create thousands and thousands of new jobs. Coal miners can become solar panel installers. Petroleum workers can erect and service wind turbines.
McKibben’s article covers much more than I can here, so I urge you to find it on the web. When I finished reading it, I felt more optimistic that we can turn things around. It’s our World War III to win or lose. And we can’t afford to lose.