I despise war, but I nevertheless admire the cooperative spirit and willingness to sacrifice (even to the point of sacrificing one’s own life) that warfare sometimes induces among participants. Why are ordinary people often willing to make extreme sacrifices during war but rarely willing to do anything like this when faced with the looming peril of climate change? For example, even mild carbon taxing initiatives have been rejected by voters or legislators in Australia, France, the U.S. Congress and the liberal state of Washington, among other places.
Differences between public responses to war and climate change exist for many reasons, but one important factor is fear. Fear is a powerful motivator. War can induce intense fear among large numbers of people, and this fear motivates them to do things unthinkable in times of peace. Climate change threatens greater harm to human societies all over the world than even the worst wars. Yet the specter of climate change fails to provoke deep fear in any large number of people. Thus, this specter has (so far) failed to generate the collective determination required to protect human life on planet Earth.
What must be done to address the peril of climate change? It is estimated that 76% of United States greenhouse gas emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). At a bare minimum, the global fossil fuel industry must be closed down within two decades and replaced by comprehensive power generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar. To make such a drastic transformation even faintly equitable, workers in declining industries must be compensated for their loss and poorer parts of the world must receive massive transfers of wealth. Bear in mind that such economic largesse is not at all unthinkable in times of war. The economic value of U.S. aid to the Soviet Union during World War II, for example, is estimated at $150 billion at current prices.
Michael Mann, the eminent historian of social power, identifies three principal agents blocking significant climate change action: capitalism, nation-states and individual consumers. Mann argues that the power of all three agents must be substantially weakened in order to safeguard human existence on planet Earth. The critical force for making these enormous power transformations can only be a massive global environmental movement, and an abiding fear of climate change must surely be a central component of any such movement.
Of course, fear — although a formidable motivator — is also a two-edged sword. Extreme fear can generate panic and irrational behavior. Climate change, by contrast, requires rational fear — that is energizing, problem-solving fear commensurate with the actual danger at hand. Such rational fear must also be tempered by hope. Without hope, fear readily morphs into despair and political passivity. The Green New Deal concept could provide the long-range optimism needed to build a politically potent environmental movement.
Such a movement will have a dual nature: It will exercise political force upon government as well as social pressure upon individuals. And steady social pressure generally regulates personal behavior more effectively than often-ephemeral individual motivations. This is largely because social pressure controls social status. A person is much more likely to curtail environmentally destructive activities such as flying, driving, eating meat, using plastics and consuming excessively if he or she loses social status by doing them.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.