"What, this Death Star? It's for climate change."
“What, this Death Star? It’s for climate change.”
Deadliestfiction

The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should “hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity.” For there to be a chance — even just a 50/50 chance — of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.

Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.

That metaphor gets used a lot. I’ve used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There’s been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?

An interesting pair of papers from Laurence L. Delina and his colleague Mark Diesendorf at the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales helps to frame the discussion. “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?” will be published in Energy Policy, and “Governing Rapid Climate Mitigation” [PDF] was delivered at the Earth System Governance Conference this year in Tokyo.

The papers, which are focused mostly on the U.S. but meant to draw lessons applicable to other countries as well, “commence the process of developing contingency plans for a scenario in which a sudden major global climate impact galvanises governments to implement emergency climate mitigation targets and programs.”

Let’s pause right here for a second. This entire project is premised on the notion that harsh climate impacts will eventually spur the public to demand emergency action from governments. That is, to put it mildly, a debatable premise. I’ve always thought people put way too much faith in it. It’s really, really difficult to know what kind of impact would be big or frequent enough to spur that kind of public unity, especially directed at climate change mitigation (as opposed to adaptation). After all, no one will be able to prevent climate disasters within their lifetime through mitigation — the next 50 years of climate change are already “baked in.” So we’re talking about the peoples of the U.S. and the world rallying around emergency measures, wartime sacrifices, on behalf of future generations. I can easily imagine that never happening. And if it does, it’s going to take some kind of shock that I can’t even really imagine.

Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that politicians will resist adopting a true emergency posture:

Since rapid climate mitigation responses on the scale and scope of warlike mobilisation mean that governments may have to turn away from business-as-usual and predominantly market solutions to place more emphasis on centrally organised and publicly funded activities, politicians are less likely to support emergency climate actions for the fear of losing corporate support and, in countries with large fossil fuel reserves, tax revenues.

Uh, ya think?

Because of political resistance, moving to a wartime-mobilization footing will require serious grassroots pressure:

Unless the climate action movement can exert strong, growing pressure on governments, by means of lobbying backed up with media, public education, legal actions, building alternatives and nonviolent direct action, it seems unlikely that governments will undertake emergency mitigation, even when life-threatening climate disasters occur.

Yup.

But anyway. For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine such disasters did unfold and there was enough grassroots pressure to force politicians into wartime posture. What would that look like? How would it work?

Delina and Diesendorf take a close look at America’s experience during WWII. (It’s worth digging into the first paper’s section on that topic — there’s lots I didn’t know about the government’s domestic policy during that period.) During that time, the country went from manufacturing almost no war material to manufacturing enough of it to run the world’s biggest military. It was an industrial turnaround of astonishing speed and scale.

The lessons that emerge from that period aren’t ones I’m particularly comfortable with, and it sounds like the authors aren’t totally thrilled with them either. Long story short, what’s required in wartime mobilization is an enormous amount of centralized federal executive authority, an enormous amount of borrowing and taxing, and an enormous amount of labor displacement and retraining. At least temporarily, the economy will be more government-directed than market-based.

Among other things, pulling that off will require some sort of large-scale strategy, a set of goals and programs, that is durable enough to be insulated from the ebb and flow of passing administrations and changes in public opinion. It must be focused on long-term mitigation rather than merely immediate adaptation (which is what all the short-term political pressure will favor). At the same time, however, the mitigation strategy can’t be so rigid that it is immune to public oversight and control. Some measure of democratic control must be preserved.

Delina and Diesendorf recommend the statutory creation of two new institutions in particular:

• A special Ministry for Transition to a Low-Carbon Future as the principal agency of rapid mitigation activities to conduct technical requirement studies, set and enforce production goals [for renewable energy technologies], institute efficient contracting procedures, cut through the inertia and ‘red tape’ inhibiting institutional changes, and serve as the coordinating agency for all transition activities.

• A separate institution, independent of the Executive and the above Ministry, reporting directly to Parliament/Congress and the community at large, to prepare a transition timeline specifying the period when executive control starts and ends; to conduct appropriate checks and balances; to scrutinise government/executive actions, especially those of the Ministry for Transition; and, through legal powers, to ensure that the government/executive sticks to its transition mandate.

So it’s your basic balance-of-powers set-up: a single coordinating agency and a watchdog to keep it honest. The delicate dance here is to hand over extraordinary power to the executive branch on the premise that it can and will be handed back after a set period of time.

Among the many dangers in this approach is that executives are not generally inclined to give up power once it’s been granted them. And it’s not like the climate situation will be any less dire in 10 years, or 20. Once you switch over to wartime government in the face of a foe that cannot surrender and never stops, how do you ever switch back? (The parallels to the “war on terrorism” should be obvious here.)

Delina and Diesendorf acknowledge that the WWII mobilization comparison is not perfect, because climate mobilization will be even more difficult and more complicated. (Whee!) It will also involve state and provincial governments, along with civic and private institutions. It will also, crucially, involve international coordination and enforcement. It will eventually have to go beyond particular economic sectors and address the larger issues of population and consumption. “Getting all these acts done in a coordinated and democratic/participatory manner,” Delina and Diesendorf write, “is definitely a huge challenge.”

You could say that.

So. Assuming that the climate movement can tie climate impacts together enough to galvanize the public against climate change; assuming politicians can actually be swayed by public pressure into radical, immediate action; assuming that executive power can be expanded and the economy transformed as though it were 1942; assuming that, at the end of the sprint to zero carbon, the federal government cedes back the extraordinary and democratically suspect powers it adopted … well, assuming all that, we’ve got this climate governance thing nailed! Yeeesh.

One final note about this. A political conservative will see this post and think, “Aha! I knew it all along! Liberals are using climate change as a pretense to grow government and increase its power over our lives!”

As an assessment of the motivations and ideology of those fighting against climate change, this is absurd, of course. But as an assessment of what must be done to secure real climate safety, it is accurate. In any scenario where mitigation is big enough and fast enough, government really will need to be bigger and more intrusive. That is very much worth worrying about; getting through this ordeal while retaining the open, democratic character of U.S. government (such as it is, anyway) will be a tough needle to thread.

However, it’s worth noting that eschewing mitigation and instead trying to adapt to a 4°C world will create widespread suffering, migration, and desperation. Those, in turn, will lead to civil unrest and resource conflicts. Guess what governments do in the face of massive disruptions and unrest? They get bigger and more authoritarian!

There’s no libertarian choice here. A huge, global challenge like climate change is inevitably going to mean more government action and intrusion. The choice is, do you want managed big government, with a bounded set of plans and some amount of oversight built in, or do you want panicked big government, responding to migrations, famines, and conflict? I’m not exactly excited about either choice, but the former definitely strikes me as the lesser of two evils.