You know the facts. The planet is getting hotter. In Texas, the years between 1980 and 2019 saw a record 113 weather and climate disasters. And these are only the disasters that caused damages over a billion dollars. In 2011 we had our hottest summer on record. That triggered the Texas Drought that was finally interrupted in May 2015—when it gave way to a stormy deluge of biblical proportions, giving us the wettest month in our history. Then the wettest year washed away $8.7 billion in agricultural value. Cities along our gulf bore the brunt. Port Isabel experienced 121 days of coastal flooding from 2005 to 2015—eight times the rate in the decade starting in 1955. That’s just in the American southwest.
Globally, temperatures have risen a little more than 2°F since 1880, with two-thirds of the rise since 1975. The assault on the planet is nothing less than a war, our friend Bill McKibben tells us. “We’re under attack from climate change … With each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears. In the Pacific … the enemy (is) waging a full-scale assault on the region’s coral reefs (reducing) the Great Barrier Reef … to white bone-yards.” And “millions of refugees are fleeing the horrors of war, their numbers swelling daily as they’re forced to abandon their homes to escape famine and desolation and disease.”
This wholesale assault on climate stability is now triggering a series of ecological disasters. The first system to fail appears to be the world’s tropical reefs, the source of most of the ocean’s ecological diversity and productivity. Soon, if we don’t act, sea-level rise will flood the Persian Gulf, Polynesia, and one after another, most of the world’s coastal cities. Europe will be claimed by permanent drought; and vast areas of China, India, and Bangladesh by desert. The end of human civilization is a very real possibility.
In the face of this mortal threat, many of our friends say the next step is clear:
“Declare war on climate change,” naturalist Bill McKibben tells us. “Our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.”
If ever any war were justified, it would be to save the planet. But is war the answer? Where do we enlist? And who should we fight
Clearly, Americans have a fondness for war. We are revolutionaries. Our nation was born in a war for independence, consecrated in a bloody civil war to end slavery, and superpowered when we annihilated fascism in the Second World War, quite possibly saving western civilization and liberal democracy in the process.
War is, politicians often say, our “last resort,” yet we seem to reach for it first. No problem is truly deemed worthy of our focus until we’ve declared war on it. The War on Poverty, War on Cancer, War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Hunger, and now War on Climate Change have all been declared to help us sort through various competing challenges and choose which to mobilize against. None of these wars have been won, however. Most drag on for decades. Many make matters worse.
We lose nearly all these wars because fighting can’t win what we now seek. The War on Climate Change is no different. It is not a new war. This is just the latest surge. Since the Santa Barbara oil spill led to the first Earth Day in 1970, we and other environmentalists waged war against giant corporations to help save the earth.
The early battles helped generate a decade of major successes, most in the 1970s: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and more.
But over the past 40 years, we’ve outsourced the climate war to entrenched institutions that profit more by perpetuating than ending it. We’re not talking just about the adversaries themselves—big oil, chemical, agricultural, and industrial giants on one side, and environmental activists, clean tech investors, lawyers, organizers, and communicators on the other. The biggest beneficiaries in the war for the earth are the media and political industries.
We have a simple proposition: Declare an end to the war to save the planet. Then collaborate to save it.
We’re not talking surrender. The job we started hasn’t been finished. Conflicts will continue. Much legitimately divides us. But the time for outright war is over. There’s work to do.
There are at least three reasons the war for the planet is now the enemy of the planet. First, the war drives denial—and not just climate denial.
Relentless gloom-and-doom triggers urgency, alarm, and eventually exhaustion. We can’t live without hope for long. Apathy and denial are thick shields against despair.
Second, the war builds more opposition than support. It raises armies on both sides. Environmentalists see their budgets grow and think they’re making progress. But those we attack build fortresses against us. They institutionalize the conflict. Build it into their plans. Retain political and media strategists to manage it endlessly. Grow comfortable with our enmity. Once that happens, collaboration becomes a threat to both sides—the war is a profit center too lucrative to end.
For example, in 2016 when naturalist Bill McKibben declared war on climate change in The New Republic, 29 foundations soon committed $4 billion in grants to climate change. Starting in election year 2020, Republican strategists declared a political emergency. The left was launching an attack on capitalism, they warned us and a dozen top-tier donors. It’s time to step up and match that $4 billion, dollar-for-dollar, the strategists insisted.
We might wonder what they were smoking, but there’s more than a whiff of truth in it. To separate conservative donors from their money, GOP fundraisers gleefully quote progressives when they blame capitalism for all our challenges and declare climate change as a vehicle for advancing a progressive big government agenda.
That leads to the third reason to move beyond war as our first resort: to the media and political strategists, Planet Earth is now more valuable dying than living—so long as the final end happens after the next election.
We first came to understand this during the Obama administration, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made the decision not to press hard for Senate approval of a cap-and-trade climate bill in 2009. The political costs—including the possible loss of Democratic House and Senate—were too great.
Two years after, we saw the scenario play out in even starker form on the Republican side of the aisle when the CEO of one of the largest electric utilities reported on his meeting with a powerful Republican Senator. He told The Senator that his company could accept the Clean Power Plan proposed by President Obama. The Senator thanked him for his input. Then a top party fundraiser and strategist sat down with him in another room, and explained political reality to the CEO. As he paraphrased it, the conversation went like this:
We’ve spent millions turning climate into a wedge issue. We rely on it to keep our base united against Democrats. We need that to keep our majority. So regardless of your opinion, we need you to stick to the party line: “Stop the job-killing EPA.” If you can’t, we may not be able to protect your top tax and regulatory priorities.
Let us say that again. A top energy CEO says his company can accept EPA climate regulations. But the battle against those regulations is too valuable to the political industry to resolve. We’ve now heard parallel stories from a half-dozen other executives. Most are surprised that we are surprised. To many in the political industry, this is how business is done, impure and simple.
It’s not just Republican denial that stops climate action—it’s Democratic denial too. Both agree we face a crisis. What divides us is that we have competing nightmare scenarios.
The left is most frightened by ecological catastrophe. To avert the disastrous consequences that loom ahead, liberals propose what liberals always seem to propose: a massive intervention by government, to impose rules and taxes on corporations, to shift power back to “people”—mostly via “democratic” institutions that can compel a rapid conversion to 100% carbon-free clean energy.
The right is most frightened by economic catastrophe. To avert the disastrous consequences that loom ahead, conservatives propose what conservatives always seem to propose: a massive reduction in government, with tax and regulatory cuts that shift power back to “people”—mostly via corporations that can deliver what we need at a lower cost without the burdens of big government.
Die-hard conservatives absolutely refuse to take climate change seriously. It’s not so much that they deny the science. They just hate the proposed solutions. Their easiest rebuttal is to publicly proclaim the whole issue a hoax, while they privately acknowledge it’s real, but preferable to the loss of freedoms required if we act.
Die-hard liberals absolutely refuse to take fiscal limits seriously. It’s not so much that they deny the limits. They just hate the proposed solutions: cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and abandoning Social Security and Medicare. Their easiest rebuttal is to publicly proclaim the whole fiscal limits issue a hoax, while they privately acknowledge that deficits are preferable to the loss of social protections if we act.
Why do liberals deny economic limits, while conservatives deny ecological ones? More to the point, why do both Democratic and Republican politicians drive us toward both economic and ecological bankruptcy when either is in power?
They ignore those limits because the vested interests that pay their bills make more money by perpetuating the climate war than by resolving it.
So long as the right and left cling to their denials—one of economic and the other of ecological limits—we will solve neither. The status quo interest groups who choreograph the war will keep their power, as the nation and world march toward both economic and ecological catastrophe.
If we look more closely at our economic and ecological crises, we find them connected at the root. They both result from a system that drives non-sustainable growth and mounting debt. The growth takes money from people and resources from the environment. It leaves the people with massive debt and the environment with colossal damage. The money helps prop up big old institutions that are way overdue for creative disruption. Big corporations and big government both “benefit” in the short term from this system. Their managers know how to exploit it for gain. But the protection they receive sets them up for failure in due course. If our economic and ecological foundations collapse, they will perish along with the rest of us. They too need to change. Their leaders know it. But none of them can act until the public compels them to, together.
The key is to build a left-to-right alliance for solutions that combine the best ideas of both conservatives and progressives while pandering to the vested interests of neither.
To save our environment, we also have to save our economy and our democracy. That’s the politically incorrect strategy we propose in our book. It’s a strategy that can work.
It is time for a grand coalition between the grassroots and grasstops left and right, to gently but firmly challenge the tired status quo institutions that drive up both forms of debt, and resolve our fiscal and environmental challenges simultaneously.
It won’t be easy to forge an authentic right-left coalition to protect the environment. But we have an advantage: the same kinds of policies that can save the planet can also save the economy and the middle class, and even contribute to a less divided American democracy.
To understand how progressives and conservatives can work together, however, we need to understand how we’re different, how we fit together, and how a left-right coalition can make our nation whole.