For several years now I have corresponded and spoken with my young cousin once removed Ezra Silk, who works for a non-profit called the Climate Mobilization. They believe that coping with climate change and putting the whole world on a new energy footing will require a mobilization on the scale of the Second World War, when an extraordinary percentage of our GDP was devoted to the war effort. My last book, No End Save Victory, described how the country became committed to that course, under President Roosevelt, in 1940-1. Such a mobilization, I have no doubt, would do enormous good for the United States (and the rest of the world) for reasons not directly related to global warming. Because it would cost so much, it, like the Second World War, would force us to impose confiscatory marginal tax rates on high incomes. The amount of GDP devoted to public goods would increase. So, presumably, would employment. All over the world, private gain would become less important while societies put huge resources into a truly common objective. This would renew that precious resource, civic virtue. It is the kind of mobilization Strauss and Howe predicted 20 years ago when they wrote The Fourth Turning--but nothing like it has happened yet.
To understand how it might, I return to my book and to the moment in the late spring of 1940 when the American war effort really began. I found in my research that Franklin Roosevelt had anticipated a new world war at least since 1937, and that he would have been willing even late in that year to undertake joint naval action with the British to persuade the Japanese to halt their aggression in China. He also anticipated American participation in a European war, he told the British Ambassador, should one break out as a result of the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938. But when the war did break out in 1939, the most he could do was to persuade a reluctant Congress to allow France and Britain to buy arms from the United States for cash. The vast majority of Americans did not yet regard the European war as a threat to the United States, and a significant minority opposed US involvement in an overseas war in any case.
It took an earth-shattering catastrophe to change their minds. In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and Norway, using surprise, speed and air power to counter British sea power, one of the cornerstones of American security. Then, on May 10, while the battle in Norway was still raging, the Germans attacked in Holland, Belgium, and France. Within two weeks they had broken through the allied lines and reached the English channel, trapping the British Army. France was clearly collapsing, and a great deal of informed opinion expected that Britain would be invaded if it did not agree to make peace. Although Dunkirk saved most of the personnel of the British Army, all its heavy equipment had been lost, and the Germans briefly appeared invincible in the air. I discovered in the archives that Roosevelt had asked an Army and a Navy planner to estimate what happen if the British Navy and the British Empire, assisted by the US, tried to carry on the war from the western hemisphere after Britain had been invaded.
The German blitzkrieg convinced the Congress and the American people that the United States itself was in peril. Even if Britain did not fall--but especially if it did--the Germans could use their air power to leapfrog across the Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, thence to Greenland, and thence to Labrador and Newfoundland. They might also send forces through the Pyrenees and Spain and Portugal (both ruled by Fascist dictators), into North Africa, and all the way to Dakar, in Senegal, only 1500 miles from Brazil. The Japanese might simultaneously strike in the Far East. The new situation called for a drastic response. From June through September, Roosevelt called for 50,000 new aircraft, for a new naval bill that would nearly double the size of the Navy within five years, and for the first peacetime draft in US history. The Congress passed them all.
For some time now--and especially since the election of Donald Trump--I have been telling my cousin Ezra that only a "fall of France moment"--one or more environmental catastrophes that persuaded a critical mass of Americans that we needed drastic action to preserve our way of life--would allow us to begin the huge effort it wold take to stop global warming. The question now is whether Hurricane Harvey might do the trick.
In many ways, a more inspiring weather event could hardly have been designed by Bill McKibben himself. Like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey is in many ways completely unprecedented. It has broken many records for rainfall and may well create the largest floods of any storm in history. And while Sandy struck the true blue northeast, Harvey has devastated the largest city in red America, inundating rich and poor neighborhoods alike. Indeed, it seems certain to get a small-scale mobilization effort going on its own, simply to repair the damage and allow Houston to return to something approaching normal life. That will take years, during which it will be impossible to forget what it did. Meanwhile, a scientific consensus holds that global warming has indeed contributed to the unprecedented severity of the storm.
Unfortunately, as Jane Mayer showed in Dark Money, the Koch brothers and their allies have built up an impressive climate denial industry--parallel to the isolationist lobby in 1940-1--over the last two decades. They are committed to further reliance on fossil fuels and to climate change denial, and I do not think this is going to make them give up. Given that the Kochs and their allies dominate our Energy Department and the EPA under Trump, it seems very unlikely that this Administration will turn tail and propose action on climate change. In 1940 we had the leader--Roosevelt--who knew how to take advantage of the situation we faced to make things happen. Today, we do not.
Thus I do not believe that even this will provide an adequate Fall of France moment, much less that within two years we will have embarked on an all-out effort against climate change. This is a good opportunity, however, for the Democratic Party to unite behind an unambiguous call for action based on the idea that Harvey is only the last of a whole series of devastating weather events. The natural enemies our civilization faces today are at least as relentless as the Germans and Japanese in 1940-1. They will strike again. I shoed in No End Save Victory that Roosevelt's administration had figured out what had to be done to defeat our enemies months before we entered the war. That is what we must do now. The logic of events may well do the rest.