When the Japanese attacked American forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America responded with a historic mobilization of physical and economic resources to overcome the threat of global fascism. In addition to over 400,000 American dead, the United States spent over $4 trillion in today’s dollars and reoriented entire sectors of its economy to the war effort. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the United States once again spent enormous resources in reaction: the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already totaled over $6 trillion and counting, even as the United States government added a whole new cabinet department and put itself on a permanent war footing.
Few questioned the necessity of dealing with Al Qaeda or the Axis Powers, and those who did were rarely taken seriously in the public discourse.
But even now in 2019, decades after most policymakers became aware of the dire threat to all of human civilization and most of the world’s species presented by climate change and thirteen years after the documentary An Inconvenient Truth exploded the issue into the national consciousness, the nation remains at a standstill, paralyzed in inaction. It’s not because the public isn’t aware of the crisis: over 80% of registered voters support dramatic action to deal with climate change. But climate change wasn’t even a major issue in the 2016 presidential election, barely registered as a question in any of the debates, and a bitterly fought election saw the installation by minority vote of a conspiracy-addled president who refuses to acknowledge the reality of the crisis and insists on attempting to exacerbate it by promoting fossil fuel interests.
Other policymakers haven’t been sitting idle. California and other blue states have taken the initiative by attempting to slowly wean themselves off coal, oil and natural gas. But even with eight years of a Democratic presidency and two years of full Democratic control of congress, the country did little more than nibble around the edges of the problem.
All of this is particularly flabbergasting considering the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. This is no mere matter of political oppression or increased risk of stochastic violence. International organizations are releasing “Doomsday” reports openly stating that all of global human civilization is at risk of collapse if nothing dramatic is done to curb carbon emissions within the next decade. The world’s plant and animal life face what some scientists are describing as an “extinction domino event.” And while some will suggest that the difference between prior mobilizations and today’s reaction to the climate crisis is a matter of national security versus the environment, the Pentagon has also repeatedly declared that climate change represents an enormous risk to national security due to worldwide instability from famine, disease, resource wars and forced migration.
In this context, the Green New Deal being promoted by New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and others is less of a fantastical and unrealistic green dream than an overdue remedial effort to undertake the sort of mobilization that should have been engaged well over a decade ago.
Think tanks and opinion writers argue back and forth about the costs of moving to a carbon neutral future. The issue is highly complex, and the fact that the Green New Deal’s framework policies have yet to be fully fleshed out means that assigning specific costs is difficult and speculative.
But compared to the efforts undertaken for the War on Terror and World War II, two major differences must be noted when discussing climate change mobilization. First, money spent on war has no direct positive impacts on society and humanity at large: lives destroyed and bodies mutilated can never be replaced or fully repaired, munitions exploded and bullets fired have no ongoing value, and buildings flattened have no offsetting benefits.
Climate change mitigation is far different, in that money spent up front on carbon elimination has multiple positive effects both on human lives and on GDP. Eliminating carbon from factories and vehicles reduces air and water pollution, which in turn improves human health and productivity. Investment in renewable technologies can spur the creation of new products and industries much as the space race did before it. Transitioning fossil fuel dependent regions to a more sustainable economic model will have overlapping regenerative effects on those communities.
Beyond the direct benefits of immediate climate change mitigation, the cost of doing nothing is exponentially higher than the costs of direct action. Even now the United States is facing enormous costs related to drought, wildfire, hurricane and snowstorm damage increasingly impacted by climate change. Species collapse in the oceans and among insects would be nearly impossible to fix and cost untold trillions to mitigate. And, of course, the cost of coastal cities being swallowed by rising seas is incalculable, likely exceeding global gross domestic product. None of which even touches the unpredictable effects of war, disease, and other human global instability as a secondary result.
All told, the threat to the United States and to humanity itself from climate change is far greater than we faced from Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are treating the issue with the seriousness it deserves, and the public is listening.
Rather than marginalizing them as unserious, it’s time to treat climate change as the global emergency it is, and respond to it just as we would to any other calamity that directly threatens our civilization and the lives of future generations. It’s not the cost of a Green New Deal that should frighten us. It’s the cost of doing nothing.