Fighting climate change like World War II

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Wikimedia Commons/Lesserland

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew a lot of snickers a couple weeks ago when she said Millennials and Gen Z “thought the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change” and that the fight against it is “our World War II.”

Most of the merriment focused on “the end is nigh” part, of course, but the “our World War II” reference is actually worth some critical thought.

Fighting global warming like World War II, huh?

Well let’s review what fighting World War II like World War II was like before signing up for a similar sort of rendezvous with destiny.

World War II broke out on Sep. 1, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. While the U.S. didn’t actually declare war on anybody until after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. started preparing for war within weeks.

It didn’t take us long to get up to speed.

By the end of 1944, 36 percent of the country’s economy was being devoted to the military, about $63 billion out of a $175 billion GDP (measured in 1940 dollars). A similar effort today to fight climate change like World War II would mean diverting about $7.5 trillion a year of a $21 trillion GDP to the fight.

Food and gasoline were rationed. Car production for the civilian market was suspended for nearly four years. Auto plants were making planes, tanks and military vehicles.

When the government needed land for hundreds of new military bases and factories, it appropriated it, compensated the owners, and gave them 30 to 60 days to get out. The concept of environmental impact statements didn’t exist. If they had, they wouldn’t have been allowed to interfere with the war effort.

In six years the United States built 27 state-of-the-art fleet aircraft carriers, probably the single most expensive conventional weapons of the war on a per unit basis. An equivalent in the war on global warming would be the construction of 27 state-of-the-art 1,400-megawatt nuclear reactors in six years. (Interestingly, the current cost of a state-of-the-art 1,400-megawatt nuclear reactor in the U.S. and a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Gerald Ford, are roughly comparable, about $13 billion a unit.)

The U.S. also built about 120 smaller escort carriers during the war. Think of them as the equivalent of large solar power plants. (The current cost of a 500 megawatt solar power plant is about $500 million.)

The U.S. built about 45,000 medium and heavy bombers (B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-29s) during World War II. Think of these as the equivalent of producing 45,000 3-megawatt wind turbines. (A state-of-the-art 3-megawatt wind turbine costs $4 to $6 million.)

But this amount of World War II weapons output translated into electric generating capacity wouldn’t come close to providing the electric power the U.S. would need to displace its use of fossil fuels. We’re not just talking about getting rid of coal-fired power plants. We’re also talking about getting rid of natural-gas-fired power plants, home and business heating by natural gas, gasoline- and diesel-powered cars and trucks (all 200 million of them, and expanding electric generating capacity to provide the juice for their replacements), etc., etc.

In 2015, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson calculated what it would take for the U.S. to get 100 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel and non-nuclear sources. He estimated the U.S. could get half the electricity it needed if it built 484,000 5-megawatt wind turbines and an additional 30 percent from 46,000 50-megawatt solar power plants. Installing 5-kilowatt home solar power systems on 75 million roof-tops would produce an additional 4 percent of national needs.

And that is just part of what it would take to win the war against climate change in the U.S.

But World War II was a world war and so is the war against global warming. Ending fossil fuel use in the U.S. is only about 20 percent of the global battle if that. Jacobson has also calculated that if the entire planet were to go to 100 percent renewable energy, it would need 3.8 million 5-megawatt wind turbines to supply half its energy needs.

Jacobson’s calculations have been brutally criticized for being overly optimistic.

There’s more.

On June 30, 1939, two months before Hitler invaded Poland, the total manpower of the U.S. armed forces stood at 334,473. By the end of the war in 1945, about 16 million men and women had served in the U.S. military. More than 416,000 were dead. Compared to other belligerents, U.S. casualties were light.

America’s population at the time was about 135 million; at the height of the war about 12 percent of the population was in the military. Today’s population is about 330 million, so a similar mobilization today to fight global warming would call up about 40 million.

The U.S. probably wouldn’t need to call 40 million men and women to the colors to fight global warming like World War II. And it probably wouldn’t take hundreds of thousands of casualties. Still…

If the U.S. is going to fight climate change like World War II, it has to recognize that countries like China and India are also in the fight — like the Axis was in the fight during World War II, that is. They’re building coal-fired power plants like there was no tomorrow, or at least no 2030.

If the U.S. wants to win the war on global warming like it won World War II, it will have to challenge them on this — maybe starting with economic sanctions. Like when FDR sanctioned Japan in 1941 by embargoing oil and steel sales to it. Of course the embargo is what led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

If the war on global warming turned into a shooting war with China… uh, maybe Congresswoman Osario-Cortez should give some thought to finding another metaphor.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.