Today, three Iowa politicians signed a pledge calling for “a World War II-scale mobilization” to fight climate change. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, State Rep. Dan Kelley, and State Senator Rob Hogg, a leading candidate for US Senate, all Democrats, signed a document calling on the US government to reduce emissions 100 percent by 2025 by “enlisting” tens of millions of Americans to work on clean energy projects—creating full employment in the process.
It’s likely the most ambitious pledge to fight climate change put forward this election cycle, even if right now, it's a symbolic gesture aimed at drawing attention to climate policy during the high season of presidential campaigning.
“It is our unique opportunity as Iowans and our unique obligation as Iowans to talk to the candidates about climate change,” Hogg said in a statement. “Every presidential candidate in the 21st century needs a plan to address climate change… if we led an urgent, all-out effort globally on this issue, we could slow down, stop and reverse the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and safeguard our people and our property from the real dangers of climate change.”
The “WWII-scale mobilization” framing has been around for years now, at least since the environmentalist Lester Brown argued that the world needs to see “climate action on the scope of WWII mobilization” back in 2008.
The argument is, essentially, that the scope of the climate change crisis is so great that the only way humanity might hope to stave off dangerous levels of warning is to “mobilize” an industrial-scale effort of the likes last seen in the WWII era, to mass manufacture and deploy solar panels, wind turbines, and other clean energy implements. Not only would such a major effort hasten the decline of greenhouse gas emissions and boost the rise of clean power, but it would create millions of jobs in the process. Of course, like the WWII war effort, it would require massive government investment.
A grassroots campaign called Climate Mobilization has taken the framework to heart, and has been organizing around the concept. Their pledge had previously attracted a handful of state-level politicians and a much longer list of scientists, celebrities, and authors. Organizers with the group helped draft the pledge that the Iowa Democrats signed.
“Top environmental analysts have known for decades that our best hope to save civilization from runaway global warming is a massive, WWII-scale mobilization of the economy delivered at emergency speed,” Ezra Silk, the Deputy Director of the Climate Mobilization told me in an email. “The problem is that many within the environmental movement think a Climate Mobilization is politically unrealistic and have instead advocated market-based reforms that simply cannot decarbonize the economy quickly enough."
"Today’s event demonstrates that mainstream politicians can and will embrace a realistic approach to saving the climate if we demand it,” he added.
As ambitious and far-reaching as the agenda sounds, it’s goals are in line with the carbon reduction levels that scientists say we need to achieve to avoid catastrophic warming scenarios.
To prevent temperatures from rising to a degree that scientists say could destabilize human civilization—a threshold usually pegged at 2˚ Celsius—the whole of humanity would have to limit carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million. Currently, we’re at just over 400 ppm, and gaining about 2 ppm per year.
To avoid 450 levels, large-scale effort to drawn down fossil fuel use and build up renewable sources would indeed be necessary, WWII mobilization or no. It’s an interesting metaphor, and one that may draw on the hawkish inclinations of Americans, even if the prospect of significant government funding for climate programs is light years away.
The signees and organizers are, naturally, hoping that the urgent climate message will be amplified under the glare of the Iowa primary circus. So far, the only candidate to articulate a climate plan that approaches the ambition laid in the pledge is Martin O’Malley, who aims to run the US on 100 percent clean energy by 2050—organizers say that neither Republicans nor Democrats have articulated plans that would reduce pollution enough to avoid catastrophe.
“The science is clear—we must urgently act to safeguard our people and our property from the dangers of climate change,” Hogg said in a statement. “The good news is we have many solutions that work for our businesses, our workers, our farmers, and our health. Every Presidential candidate should put forward plans that address climate change and explain how effective they will be in limiting future damage from climate change.”