A unique mobilization.

Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Climate Change Could Be a Tougher Test Than War

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."
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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 U.S., the army patrols major cities.

In such a desperate situation, could the U.S. 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. Even U.S. national security experts are concerned. 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 mobilize the resources needed to address it. That's what Hugh Rockoff, an economist at Rutgers University, sought to do by exploring how the U.S. managed the challenge of the war. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 mobilization analogy doesn't provide much hope. “The unique political consensus that prevailed during the war,” Rockoff concludes, “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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net