World War 2

Climate War: Bill McKibben's Really Bad Metaphor for Solving Man-Made Global Warming

Centralized top down planning of the climate would work as well as it does for economies.


Yann Poirier/Dreamstime

"We are used to war as a metaphor," writes Bill McKibben in his new article on climate change at The New Republic. In "A World at War," McKibben insists, "But this in no metaphor. By most ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal." The trend toward higher average global temperatures is seizing territory, sowing panic, killing people, and even destabilizing governments. "It's not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing," he declares. McKibben then suggests we must look to the vast mobilization that took place during the last world war in order "to assess, honestly and objectively, our odds of victory."

Honesty and objectivity are certainly important when trying to devise policies aimed at addressing problems, especially wicked problems like man-made climate change. It is therefore disappointing to find that McKibben cites some context-less weather disaster data to press his case for a WWII-scale economic onslaught against man-made.

For example, with regard to Arctic sea ice trends, he quotes an unnamed climate scientist as saying, "In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half." The quotation evidently comes from Christian Haas, an Arctic sea ice geophysicist at York University, Toronto, talking about June 2016 Arctic sea trends cited in an article in Arctic Deeply. As it happens Arctic sea ice currently is melting at the third fastest rate in the satellite records starting in 1979. But what does Haas mean by "half?" The average extent of Arctic sea ice in the 37-year record in June is 11.9 square kilometers and the June 2016 extent was 10.6 million square kilometers—about 10 percent less.

Looking further in the article finds that Haas measures the average thickness of arctic sea ice of first year sea ice, which is apparently "more than 50 percent thinner than usual." While that's important data—thinner ice melts faster enabling the darker sea to absorb more warmth—it's not the same thing as the extent of sea ice. Nevertheless, the extent of Arctic sea ice is falling at a rate of 7.4 percent per decade. Or perhaps Haas meant to reference calculated Arctic sea ice volume where May 2016 sea volume was 45 percent below the highest level in May 1979. If you're trying to persuade people that there is a problem, accuracy matters.

McKibben cites the vast fire this past June in northern Alberta that forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray as evidence of climate change. Drought conditions enabled that fire to burn nearly 600,000 hectares (2,300 square miles) of boreal forest. While certainly of unusual size, the Fort McMurray fire is not the biggest in the region. Also following drought conditions, the Chinchaga fire in 1950 burned 1,700,000 hectares (6,500 square miles) of boreal forest in northern British Columbia and Alberta.

McKibben points to the flooding of the Seine River earlier this year that threatened the storage basement of the Louvre Museum in Paris as further evidence for climate change. However, the Seine at flood was higher in 1982 (6.2 meters) and 1955 (7.1 meters), and its highest ever-recorded flood was in 1910, reaching 8.62 meters. But what about overall flood trends? The Dartmouth Flood Archive has been keeping track of floods only since 1985 reports that the numbers of large and extreme floods have trended upward, although they have dropped since peaking in 2007. The good news is that a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found with respect to river floods that "rising per-capita income coincided with a global decline in vulnerability between 1980 and 2010, which is reflected in decreasing mortality and losses as a share of the people and gross domestic product exposed to inundation."

As evidence that climate change is destabilizing governments, McKibben states that record-setting droughts fueled the rise of Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria and the ongoing civil war in Syria. With regard to Boko Haram, McKibben may be referencing a 2014 Mother Jones article that suggested that environmental disaster is making Boko Haram violence worse. Nigeria, like much of the rest of the world, has been warming. Interestingly, satellite data finds that the Sahel region of West Africa has been greening since the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. Rainfall seems to have been increasing over the past 30 years as well. Perusing Nigerian Meteorological Agency reports does show that some years have been drier than others but does not turn up instances of recent record-setting droughts. In his chapter, "Does Climate Change Lead to Conflicts in the Sahel?," in The End of Desertification (2016), Norwegian University of Life Sciences researcher Tor Benjaminsen concludes that the conflicts between pastoralists and farmers "are primarily caused by politics, not climate change."

Concerning Syria, McKibben is thinking of a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that argued that climate change is "implicated in the current Syrian conflict." University of East Anglia climatologist Mike Hulme and University of Sussex international relations scholar Jan Selby in their op-ed over at The Guardian point out the numerous flaws in the study including the vast overestimate of the number of "climate migrants" in Syria who supposedly sparked the unrest that led to the conflicts in Syria. "The case for international action on climate change is strong enough without relying on dubious evidence of its impacts on civil wars," assert Hulme and Selby. "Claims such as these are mostly rhetorical moves to appeal to security interests or achieve sensational headlines, and should be recognised as such."

Setting aside McKibben's evidentiary problems, let's look at what his prescription for World War II-sized climate mobilization would involve. "You would need to build a hell of a lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields, and millions and millions of electric cars and buses," writes McKibben. He further notes, "American scientists have been engaged in a quiet but concentrated effort to figure out how quickly existing technology can be deployed to defeat global warming."

The World War II models McKibben cites as examples of the kind of vast climate change manufacturing mobilization he advocates are the B-24 Liberator factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan and the tank factory in Warren, Michigan, so forth. It is certainly true that the United States was the arsenal of democracy that enabled the defeat of the Axis powers.

McKibben fails, however, to consider what happened to the "existing technology" in the aftermath of the war's manufacturing frenzy. During the war, the United States built very nearly 300,000 warplanes, of which the majority survived and were scrapped as obsolete, including the 18,500 B-24 Liberators that were built. Tanks, armored vehicles, warships and more war materiel were similarly scrapped or abandoned as useless. Why? Of course, because the war was over, but also because more effective technologies, e.g., jets and nuclear bombs, were available. Mobilizing now to build current versions of existing solar and wind power could similarly lock us into outmoded, expensive and less effective technologies.

To give readers some idea of the scale of mobilization required, McKibben cites a study by researchers from Stanford University that outlines a pathway toward producing all U.S. energy using renewable technologies by 2050. They estimate the total cost of that transformation at $13.4 trillion, or about $400 billion annually for the next 35 years. For comparison, World War II cost the U.S. just over $4.1 trillion, or about $1 trillion per year.

One final observation: McKibben cites in passing the "mighty Manhattan Project" as an example of the kind concentrated technological effort toward solving urgent problems that he favors. But his only mention of the word "nuclear" comes in the context in which he suggests that climate change is more menacing than the prospects for nuclear war. Since McKibben believes that climate change is such an urgent problem, keeping the deployment of no-carbon nuclear power off the table is more than a little perverse. After all, he should take heart from a 2015 study in PLoS One that calculated that it would be possible to replace all fossil fuel energy with nuclear power in 25 to 34 years. If nuclear weapons helped win World War II, then surely nuclear power has a role to play in "winning" McKibben's metaphorical war against climate change.

Instead of putting the country on top-down centralized control war-footing to address climate change, the better strategy is to free up entrepreneurs to encourage rapid economic growth and technological progress.

Disclosure: Bill McKibben very generously blurbed my book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (2005).