by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
May 30, 2013
AS THE PLANET HEATS UP, IT'S TIME TO ASK AMERICANS TO SACRIFICE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- According to all the climatologists, the Earth recently passed a significant signpost - the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million (ppm).
That's a level Earth has not seen in the 800,000 years of available scientific data on the planet's climate.
What does this mean? It means our chances of avoiding a long-term ecological catastrophe are fading fast.
Climate science suggests that if we want to limit global warming to an average temperature increase of 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 and be reduced to close to zero by 2040.
The only way to reduce atmospheric concentrations to about 350 ppm is if we leave nearly all the known fossil fuel reserves left on Earth in the ground.
That looks like an impossibility. The power of the fossil fuel companies is so great, and the amount of lobbying and influence-peddling so pervasive in our liocal, state and national governments, that there is virtually no chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
However, we're not that far away from 450 ppm, a level at which most climate scientists believe would only give us just a 50-50 chance at avoiding disaster, and the current trend is heading towards at least 4°C by 2100.
Reducing carbon emissions by the levels that are needed to ensure the planet's survival has never happened before. What would it take?
Consider the experience of the United States during World War II. Our nation's economy quickly converted from making cars and washing machines to making tanks and ships and planes. In under two years, we mobilized and equipped the largest military force ever assembled.
It was a logistical miracle that was accomplished through the combination of centralized federal authority, an enormous amount of borrowing and taxing, and an unprecedented amount of displacement and retraining to the nation's labor force. It required a great deal of sacrifice on the part of ordinary Americans.
Creating a response to climate change would be infinitely more difficult than what it took to defeat the Axis seven decades ago. But it will take that kind of effort.
This assumes, of course, that public support is totally behind an all-out fight against climate change, that politicians will be convinced of the need to support such an effort, that executive power can be expanded to the extent it was in World War II - when the federal government had complete control over production, pricing, and distribution of many goods - and most of all, that once this power is granted, it will be relinquished once the crisis is over.
It's a lot to assume, especially in the current social and political climate, that today's Americans would ever willingly sacrifice for the greater good as they did during World War II.
It's worth revisiting those sacrifices.
A few years ago, author Mike Davis wrote "Home-Front Ecology: What Our Grandparents Can Teach Us About Saving The World," which detailed how Americans "simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home" during World War II. It offers a good taste of what kind of effort will needed to combat climate change.
The government encouraged frugality and encouraged Americans to reject mass consumption and to "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" to free up resources to fight the war.
From the lawn of the White House to vacant lots in New York City to the backyards of more than 20 million gardeners, "victory gardens" were planted and produced about a third of the nation's vegetables during the war.
With gasoline and rubber rationed, carpooling was encouraged and hitchhiking turned into an officially-sanctioned form of ride-sharing. The bicycle made a big comeback as a primary form of transportation, and even horses and buggies started to reappear.
From government-mandated clothing designs that used less fabric, to restrictions on home building and the production of luxury items, what happened during the war was nothing less than a total mobilization of American society. Growing vegetables, mending clothing, recycling scrap metal, volunteering in the community - all these things were seen as ways for Americans to help the war effort.
Davis called all this "the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history."
Of course, the conditions that created this burst of patriotic sacrifice - a world crisis, full employment and a shortage of consumer goods - were unique to the era, and those ideals were swept away once the war ended and pent-up demand for consumer goods was unleashed. Without a crisis, few of the core values or innovative programs of the war years survived into the post-war era.
But these are the type of sacrifices that will be needed in the future. Our grandparents willingly did them to win a global war. Now the stakes are even higher: the future survival of humanity and our planet.
Can we change? And will it be enough?
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an Master in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.