How a War on Climate Change Could Restore Economic Growth in America

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could afford. Such a partnership worked well enough during World War II, and McKibben uses a long section of his article to recount how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Department strong-armed private industry into building the tanks, guns, aircraft, rubber, and other materiel needed by Allied armies in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.

But Roosevelt had public opinion behind him, especially after Pearl Harbor. He had enormous clout as the instigator of the New Deal, which was seen as reining in the business-class recklessness that had given the country the Great Depression. He had guile, adeptness, and foresight—one of his most important phone calls in May 1940, as British, French, and Belgian troops fled Dunkirk, was to William Knudsen, president of General Motors, asking him to take over the management of war production. And because Roosevelt’s military was paying the bills for the defense buildup, the military could call the shots.

Today, in the absence of an actual military emergency or a presiding political genius like Roosevelt, it’s not clear how an even larger mobilization could be accomplished, let alone sustained for decades. And in the days since McKibben’s piece appeared, writers such as David Roberts have questioned whether wartime mobilization is even the right way to think about the climate struggle.

Regardless, McKibben is on to something important when he says this: “A truly global mobilization to defeat climate change wouldn’t wreck our economy or throw coal miners out of work. Quite the contrary: Gearing up to stop global warming would provide a host of social and economic benefits, just as World War II did.”

Building and operating the new solar and wind factories would create two million new jobs in the U.S., McKibben says. Employment in the new “climate engineering” sector could easily go much higher if we also made new investments in nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration technology—areas that McKibben and Jacobson discount. And then there’s the weighty business of adapting to global warming’s inevitable side effects: sea level rise, torrential flooding, melting permafrost, searing droughts, forest fires, and all the rest. By 2100, nations are projected to spend $12 billion to $71 billion per year on dikes and seawalls alone, according to a group of European climate scientists. Somebody has to build all those walls, put out those fires, and relocate all those coastal villages.

So here, finally, is my own argument. The twin lessons of Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth are that a) rapid growth has historically occurred only when innovation has been broad-based, involving technologies that touch all aspects of our lives, not just the screens in our offices and living rooms, and b) exogenous forces such as massive federal spending in wartime can boost productivity growth to even greater heights.

Grappling with the climate emergency—and it is an emergency, though it may take a Pearl Harbor-like shock to wake people up to that fact—will require a broad-based reinvention of our technological infrastructure. The build-out of the large systems that were the hallmark of the Second Industrial Revolution may have been a one-time event, but now each of these systems must be redesigned to be fossil-fuel-free. Household appliances, cars and buses, railroad engines, freight trucks, and even aircraft must be completely electrified to make this work. Electrical grids will have to be rebuilt to accommodate distributed generation and storage. And we really do have to finance and build hundreds of solar and wind factories. Put it all together, and it adds up to a kind of Fourth Industrial Revolution, defined this time by zero-carbon energy production.

How do you deliberately jumpstart such a revolution? Who knows. Like the planners and engineers who managed the World War II effort, we’ll just have to figure it out as we go. (Step one: extinguish the climate-change denialism still rampant in the party that controls Congress.) But in every significant respect, this feels like the same sort of broad technological shift that, as Gordon shows, spurred rapid productivity growth from 1920 to 1970.

Gordon himself might say that fighting climate change is about protecting our existing standard of living in the face of looming catastrophe, rather than reaching for a new level of prosperity. He writes: “Regulations that require the replacement of machinery or consumer appliances with new versions that are more energy-efficient but operationally equivalent impose a capital cost burden. Such investments do not contribute to economic growth in the same sense as such early twentieth-century innovations as the replacement of the icebox by the electric refrigerator or the replacement of the horse by the automobile.”

But innovation is not dead. If Gordon’s book has a blind spot, it’s that it doesn’t account for the possibility of a Fourth Industrial Revolution with much wider impacts than the Third. In the process of rebuilding our energy and transportation infrastructure, we might come up with machines that are not just more efficient but qualitatively better than their predecessors, in the same way the French TGV and Japanese shinkansen are better than Amtrak. And on top of that, we might figure out more efficient ways to build these more efficient machines, and end up equipping a new generation of workers with the skills, experience, and spirit of improvisation needed to keep the whole cycle going.

Proclamations like Gordon’s that living standards have peaked, or that humanity can progress no further, pop up every so often in intellectual circles. So far, they’ve always been wrong, and I see no reason to abandon optimism, especially now. (“In wartime, defeatism is a great sin,” as McKibben notes.)

Gordon himself acknowledges that technological change does not regress—it only goes forward. The question is whether we’re smart and level-headed enough to tackle both of our scariest threats at once, since we can’t seem to solve either one on its own.

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Juwi Renewable Energies Ltd. Thanks to Victor McElheny for reviewing a draft of this essay.

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