The180·The 180

The case for treating climate change like a war

Venkatesh Rao says wartime is the only precedent we have for tackling a problem as large and complex as climate change.
May 19, 1941 - Montreal, Quebec -Woman working in the cabin of a bomber being manufactured at the Fairchild plant in Montreal. (Associated Press)

They are still crunching the numbers, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded.

Venkatesh Rao says we need to look at historical examples if we want a fighting chance against global warming. He argues piecemeal strategies won't work on climate -- we need to emulate the government-led effort that won World War II.

Rao is the founder of the blog and an independent researcher, author, and management consultant based in Seattle. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

Why should we look back to World War II to figure out how to tackle climate change?

The thing about climate change is it's a problem of such unprecedented magnitude that our everyday institutions of peacetime -- democratic institutions -- there's a good chance they won't be up to the task. So you have to look back in history and look for similarly large-scale efforts of coordinating across the globe. And if you look at all the precedents of technological change and social coordination, World War II and the mobilization effort stands out as pretty much the most appropriate precedent for thinking about what we're trying to do with climate change here now. 

You say in your piece in The Atlantic that we need a technocratic revolution to fight climate change. Why do you think a successful fight against climate change should be led by public institutions rather than the free market or even local communities? 

So, this is...probably the most contentious part of the climate change debates. My fundamental bias is towards trying to solve problems with free market institutions and the private sector as much as possible. But there's an issue of how much those mechanisms can do and how much they're appropriate for... Climate change requires a whole suite of energy technologies, a whole suite of chemistry-related technologies for carbon-reclamation, lots of things. And this means you're talking a portfolio approach, and whenever you're talking portfolios, somebody has to manage the portfolio. 

What's wrong with treating climate change as a local problem with local solutions?

If you talk to libertarians, who tend to be the most strident skeptics on the economic level - to them, the best solutions are always small and local with a lot of individual autonomy. On one hand, they're right about a lot of things, that institutions that are larger than local tend to be prone to corruption and so forth. But on the other hand, you have to deal with the physics of the situation. This is fundamentally not a local problem. You've got the atmosphere, which is a completely connected body of gas that envelops the planet. You've got the oceans...that are all completely connected, so acidification in one part of the ocean will get carried by currents and mixing to the rest of the planet. So all those are global problems, and without a certain amount of global coordination, you're going to have a tragedy of the commons.

It's easy to see how people can unite behind a government when the enemy is a force of evil, like Nazi Germany. But how do you convince people to place that same level of trust in government when the enemy is so diffuse, like it would be if we were dealing with environmental problems?

The simple answer there is we don't know...But if you look around, alright, what's a similarly powerful narrative that can motivate people to work on large-scale social problems, as opposed to large-scale military of them is just a simple appeal to the parental instinct. And to the extent that you recognize future generations are going to be living and facing the consequences of these problems, the narrative can be a powerful one. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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