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World War II Lessons for the Climate Emergency

“The bad news is that if history teaches us one thing, it is that there never has been an energy transition….The history of energy is not one of transitions, but rather of successive additions . . .” Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene

The New Deal and World War II are reminders of past transformative times, reverberating in many current hardships and extreme dangers. Emergencies can bring clarity and reason about what to do, though at the opposite end, crises can elicit the worst outcomes, such as outlined by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. A rational and responsible response to the intersecting climate and political disasters is the rationing of energy. There are historical precedents. Yet rationing, moratoriums, and a range of measures that could immediately cut emissions and address intersecting emergencies are largely ignored in climate policy.

As detailed in examples below, solutions to climate change proffered since the 1960s have not worked. Increasing greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions from multiple economic sectors and from amplifying feedbacks are rapidly driving the climate to a runaway state in which human interventions will not alter the physics, biology, and biochemistry of the climate system. An implicit illogic allows for the constant expansion of destructive high greenhouse gas emitting sectors until they can shift to renewables: the Kyoto-exempt military and international shipping and aviation, the agro-industrial complex, wide-ranging extraction, deforestation for biofuels, ever-increasing production of plastic and large vehicles, building codes favoring massive production of steel and cement. Logically, these sectors need to be stringently curtailed or eliminated until the basic needs of the world population are prioritized and met without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, until GHG concentration is drawn down to a safe level, and until these sectors are actually fueled by renewables.

The rationality of rationing is readily apparent in times of extreme life threats, when distribution of basic necessities involves demonetizing life’s necessities and making them part of the commons. Venezuela, Cuba, and Ethiopia now ration in response to severe hardship. Rationing in the face of the climate crisis would also be a preventative measure to avert a spiralling human emergency by immediately cutting GHG emissions through restricting energy use to essential needs. Current and potential human fatalities linked to climate change include extreme weather events, high temperatures that are not survivable, impacts on food and water availability, the militarization of climate “security” and of borders, and eventually insufficient oxygen due to die-offs of forests and phytoplankton. The 2003 Pentagon Report projects Thomas Hobbes-scale violence requiring “‘no-regret (military) strategies’ for worst case, global warming-induced eventualities”. [1] In 2009 the Global Humanitarian Forum was already reporting the loss of 300,000 people/year due to climate change. It is only recently that the IPCC formed a working group on the human situation.

There are innumerable everyday examples of distracting from the devastating human situation, resulting in further delay and obstruction of any effective action. While people are starving due to the confluence of drought and Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi, and survivors wait for four hours for a bag of maize meal, the New York Times climate report featured the food editor: “The climate is changing. And a lot of home cooks have been left paralyzed at the stove or in the marketplace as a result, choosing between the farmed salmon and the pasture-raised chicken, the organic tofu, the fair-trade coffee, the heritage carrots.” These tragedies in Africa should not be a surprise and were anticipated. In 2009 lead G77 negotiator Lumumba Di-aping, with tears rolling down his face, declared that delegates “have been asked to sign a suicide pact that would cause certain death for Africa, …a type of ‘climate fascism’ imposed on Africa by high carbon emitters.” In 2011 Nigerian climate delegate Nnimmo Bassey said that official climate inaction was a death sentence for Africa and he linked the extraction of slave energy with the extraction of oil: “we thought it was oil/But it was blood”. [2]

There is relative silence about human fatalities. We hear about the loss of the “planet” and of “organized civilization”, of polar bears (in early childhood, attachment to soft furry animals precedes the capacity to have a constant sense of another person). Green plans are framed within assumptions about sustainable economy put forward by international environment meetings of the late 20th century, of balancing green jobs and “living well” with environmental measures rather than on threats to life itself. Appallingly, influential economists Sir Nicholas Stern and Larry Summers commodify human life to justify shortening the lives of poor people solely in pursuit of profit through expanding high emitting aviation or by “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage countries.” [3] Military budgets price what is priceless – the cost of killing a human being.

It is hard to find words for the failure to act on climate change, given that historically there are many proven ways to substantially cut emissions while providing for people. Even before the U.S. entered WWII to fight against the threat of fascism, the public was prepared for possible rationing. First rationed were rubber tires. Soon after, a moratorium was imposed on car manufacturing. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour (56 km/h) was imposed to save fuel, and gas was distributed on the basis of need, prioritizing essential services. “As of 1 March 1942, dog food could no longer be sold in tin cans, and manufacturers switched to dehydrated versions. As of 1 April 1942, anyone wishing to purchase a new toothpaste tube, then made from metal, had to turn in an empty one. By June 1942 companies also stopped manufacturing metal office furniture, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and sewing machines for civilians.” “Dessert food and coffee was rationed by November 1942. Typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortening and food oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled, and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter were rationed by November 1943.” Rationing reputedly brought relief and security and people proudly cultivated food in “victory gardens.”

Mike Davis writes of another helpful precedent in his excellent historical work Late Victorian Holocausts. During the 1743-44 famine in the north China plain which devastated winter wheat, when farmers died in their fields due to heat stroke, there was still no mass mortality because of the skilled Confucian administration of Fang Guacheng, the agriculture and hydraulic expert who directed relief operations. The renowned ‘ever-normal granaries’ in each county immediately began to issue rations (without any labor test) to peasants in the officially designated disaster counties. Local gentry had already organized soup kitchens to ensure the survival of the poorest residents until state distributions began. When local supplies proved insufficient, Guancheng shifted millet and rice from the great store of tribute grain and moved vast quantities from the south. 2 million peasants were maintained for 8 months until return of the monsoon made farming again possible. No contemporary European society guaranteed subsistence as a human right to its peasantry nor could any emulate ‘the perfect timing of [Guancheng’s] operations”. Guancheng “tended to give top priority to investments in infrastructure and to “principles of disaster planning and relief management.”[4] Contemporary Europeans were dying in the millions from famine and hunger-related diseases following Arctic winters and summer droughts. This contrasts with a conservative estimate of 50 million deaths in China under British control during the droughts of 1876-79 and 1896-1900, and in 1958-61 under Mao’s “monstrous mishandling” of agriculture during the Great Leap Forward [an unfortunate historical amnesia is the naming of Canada’s progressive climate movement “The Leap”).

Rationing, mandatory conservation, and limits emerged again during the 1970s oil embargo and received widespread support. Frameworks about rationing include Contraction and Convergence and non-price quantifying systems.[5] The advisability of non-tradable rations makes sense in highly inequitable societies when what is necessary are steep cuts in energy use. Rationing systems are most often geared to individuals, but entire areas of high-emitting production now need to be significantly curtailed or suspended as occurred in WWII.

Eco-socialist Ian Angus provides a brilliant example: Ian Rennert, a high-emitting criminally neglectful magnate from the extraction sector, is obscene in his consumer life style, but as a capitalist his mines cause 85 times more arsenic, 41 times more cadmium and 13 times more lead than is safe; 99% of children tested in proximity to his Peruvian mine had blood-lead levels that vastly exceeded WHO limits [6]. Mining destroys the soil and forest carbon sinks. Real climate action would entail rationing his personal energy use and shutting down his mines. Non-tradable rationing would allow him to heat or cool one bedroom and one bathroom out of 25 of each in his primary estate, and his other properties could be re-distributed to the homeless and to immigrants for housing under the humane application of eminent domain [7].

What is significant in WWII was the rapidity of radical transformation of the use of energy and the distribution of basic goods. The WWII economy shifted manufacturing to the war industries. The task is obviously opposite at this point as the military and manufacturing life cycle are destroying the habitable environment. The public needs to engage with how to deal with eliminating the military and inessential manufacturing.

The following selection of facts about the climate and about the destructive global political/economy gives a broad picture of a much more grievous danger than even the WWII fight against fascism.

The October 2018 IPCC report warns of 12 remaining years to cap temperature rise at 1.5C. Many scientists point out the very conservative nature of IPCC projections, partly due to data omissions in climate models (e.g. omitting extent of Arctic sea ice melt). Paleoclimate research, based on analysis of ice cores and ocean sediments, shows correlations between global surface temperature, sea level rise, and concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. Research correlates CO2 levels and temperature with past mass extinction events, and it shows that in the past, climate at times shifted precipitously and suddenly. In the paleoclimate record, levels of GHG equal to current values led to the disappearance of all Earth’s ice.

Is 1.5C a safe level? By the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate meetings, eminent climate scientist James Hansen warned that 1C and 350 ppm represented the uppermost level to avert catastrophic changes. In 2009, the UN Environment Program predicted a 3.5C increase by 2100 at the current rate of emissions, warning that such an increase would “remove habitat for human beings on this planet as nearly all the plankton in the oceans would disappear.” In October 2009 the Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research suggested a 4C temperature increase by 2060. In November 2013 the International Energy Agency predicted a 3.5C increase by 2035.

The following paragraph may seem confusing, because it is. in December 2018, with reference to the carbon budget consistent with a 2C rise in temperature, the IPCC increased the allowable amount of CO2 emissions to 1170 Gt CO2 from the earlier budget of 1070 Gt CO2. In February 2019, the IPCC reported that “… increased action would need to achieve net zero CO2 emissions in less than 15 years to keep temperature to 1.5C.

The idea of a carbon “budget” ignores the climate system dynamics of amplifying feedbacks and deteriorating carbon sinks. This means that each added amount generates an additional heat-trapping climate response, and this addition is deceptively not counted in the budget. In reality, the current climate trajectory is one of acceleration, reflecting changes that exceed IPCC worst case predictions. What we see now are responses to temperature increase less than 1C, and to CO2 concentrations much lower than the current high reading of 415ppm. The magnitude of these changes is also misrepresented and minimized by shifting the baseline of temperature measurement from the beginnings of the industrial revolution (1780) to 1950 or 1990. Numbers often conceal and deceive: the heat-trapping effect of methane is reported as 25 times that of CO2 when averaged over a 100 year period, but methane is 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short term which is what counts in this emergency situation.

Recent reports about worsening climate disruption and acceleration along many parameters are awakening a more urgent climate movement. The following examples correspond to a temperature rise of less than 1C. Around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades and more than ever before in human history. It is now known that the loss of one species can make other species disappear in a process known as co-extinction, and possibly bring entire systems to an unexpected, sudden shift or total collapse.

The decreasing temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator has altered the jet stream, changing rainfall and contributing to the melting of Arctic and Greenland ice.

High temperatures impair the three major carbon sinks – forests, soil, and ocean. These shift from absorbing to emitting CO2.

Forest fires are more frequent and increasingly intense and long lasting, and the forecast is that warming soils will emit immense stores of carbon dioxide. High temperatures impair forests’ absorption of CO2 and production of oxygen. The Canadian tar sands are another example of ignored warnings. James Hansen said that the tar sands meant “game over for the planet”, and it was just reported that tar sands GHG emissions contribute 64% more than previous estimates. This does not even include the permanent destruction of the large areas of North American boreal forest, a major terrestrial forest sink.

The oceans are warming about 40% faster than previous estimates and fuel ever more powerful storms and more rapid sea level rise. One effect is change in ocean stratification which has many consequences, including decreased circulation between salt and fresh water layers. An international team of scientists has found that the world’s largest ice shelf in Antarctica is melting 10 times faster than the overall ice shelf average due to warming layers of the ocean. Oceans Melting Greenland reports that warmer Arctic air and ocean temperatures are increasing the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, which will lead to a sea level rise of between two and three meters this century. Rising sea level already causes salt water incursion into the major food-producing Nile and Mekong deltas, threatening food production and the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and fishermen. The oceans absorb both heat and CO2 and both cause a decline in phytoplankton, a major source of Earth’s oxygen.

From WWII comes the mentality of “It can’t happen here”. Green movements have largely sidestepped confronting the disastrous world order and the extent of human suffering and death. Rapid climate system changes affect food, water, and oxygen, and neoliberal militarized power targets the “wretched of the earth” as a greater threat than climate change itself. The military is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases and its emissions are exempt, not counted, and still not addressed in Green plans. Walled militarized borders entrap climate refugees who are still unprotected under refugee law. In refugee camps and in urban slums, they are under a “matrix of control” modelled on Israel’s battle-tested strategies, weaponry, and surveillance technology. The U.S./NATO leads the race for full spectrum dominance over the entire global population. Nuclear war now believed to be legitimate and winnable.

The military bootprint also includes the carpet-bombed deforestation of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, and the current competition for Arctic sea lanes and offshore oil drilling. The Chinese Belt and Road project, together with emerging Middle East alignments, crisscross Eurasia and parts of Africa with military installations along the enormous coal/oil/gas infrastructure.

Proposed solutions are often dangerously myopic in taking a part for the whole and ignoring divergent facts. The electric vehicle solution omits innumerable externalitiesIt takes about 120,000 gallons of water and enormous amounts of energy to produce a small car and vehicle infrastructure. In addition, rebates go to the affluent and public transportation suffers. The reforestation solution omits the current heat threshold in which burning forests turn into GHG emitters, and it fails to address the option of banning deforestation for biofuel plantations. The hydro dam solution increases GHG emissions and causes largescale displacement of people. Cow methane is only one source of methane and only one part of the high-emitting agro-industrial complex which requires conversion to regional no-till agroecology. International shipping and aviation are also Kyoto-exempt and will continue to be dependent on high-emitting bunker and jet fuel. Plans have long been afoot to vastly expand aviation by hundreds of thousands of flights/year.

The Nation (04/01/19) and Guardian Weekly recently reported an extensive study by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) about petroleum companies’ $65b investment in plastics production, and more than 333 petrochemical projects are underway or newly completed in the U.S. Among the deals is ExxonMobil and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation joint venture signed with Trump, Saudi King Salman, and Rex Tillerson (former Exxon CEO) looking on. The CIEL report indicates that the entrenchment of fossil fuels in the plastic production process will be hard to overcome by renewables. The waste will be sent to developing countries, and small U.S. communities were not informed about takeovers and have no say about the new industrial zones polluting water and air with a range of toxic compounds. Plastic at the ocean’s surface releases methane and other greenhouse gases, and these emissions increase as the plastic breaks down further. Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with plankton’s capacity to absorb and sequester CO2. Externalities include 20 to 25 million gallons of water/day required by the “’cracker,’ a facility that uses heat and pressure to crack apart molecules of ethane gas ….”

Greenwash abounds. These same corporations announced the Alliance to End Plastic Waste with an initial commitment of $1b. In England, the environment secretary announced a phase out of plastic straws by 2020 to “ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.” Greenwashers are literally grasping at straws: this is an insult to people, railroading masses of people to extinction. Howard Zinn said “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”.

To paraphrase Yeats, all must change, change utterly. It is hard to see how things can utterly change if people are treated as if they are unable to know. Past and present, people act responsibly and against all odds when they defy desperate and cruel situations: in military mutinies [8], when workers refuse to unload military weapons, in Black Lives Matter, in Haiti, the Gaza Great March of Return, prison strikes, protesting dams, protesting plastics in Cancer Alley, disrupting. There is a long history of communities deciding how to ration the resources of the commons to meet people’s needs. Quoting Filipino delegate Yeb Sano’s plea at the 2013 COP as Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines: “Stop this madness”.

[1] Dave Webb, “Thinking the Worst: The Pentagon Report.” P. 68. in David Cromwell and Mark Levene. Surviving Climate Change: The Struggle to Avert Global Catastrophe. Pluto Press. 2007

[2]Nnimmo Bassey. To Cook a Continent: Destructive extraction and the climate crisis in Africa. Pambazuka Press. 2012.

[3] Eric Toussaint. The World Bank: A critical primer. Pluto Press. 2006. p 183

[4] Mike Davis. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino famines and the making of the third world. Verso. 2002. p. 280- 83

[5] Stan Cox. Any Way You Slice It: The past, present, and future of rationing. The New Press. 2013. p 71-75. Also David Cromwell and Mark Levene, p 29

[6] Ian Angus and Simon Butler. Too Many People? Population, immigration and the environmental crisis. Haymarket 2012. p 166-69.

[7] Loka Ashwood. For-Profit Democracy. Yale University Press. 2018.

[8] Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat. Arms and the People: Popular movements and the military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring. Pluto Press. 2013.


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