This summer saw some of the worst wildfires in recorded history. Over 3.7 million acres of land burned in California alone, leading a UCLA climate scientist to declare, “We’ve broken almost every record there is to break.” Twenty-three named storms have formed so far this season, the most ever recorded through the end of summer. The northeast United States has seen extreme drought for four months straight. And ice sheets that could cause catastrophic sea-level rise are disintegrating at an alarming pace. Climate disasters are upon us.
Renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky has devoted his twilight years to thinking about what lies ahead if the world doesn’t address climate change. Now he’s released a book, co-written by political economist Robert Pollin, advocating for a solution.
In Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, Chomsky and Pollin illustrate the catastrophic effects of unchecked climate change and propose a blueprint for a global effort to combat it, based on the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal. In a conversation with The New Republic, Chomsky discussed what World War II could teach us about our capacity to address the climate crisis.
You draw a lot of parallels between World War II and the climate crisis throughout the book. Why focus on this period of history?
Bob Pollin has done careful studies about the amount and level of national commitment in terms of expenses and other actions that would be required to deal with this truly existential crisis, and has compared it to the mobilization during the Second World War. His calculations—also Jeffrey Sachs’s; other economists have worked on it—show pretty convincingly that with a small fraction of the GDP that was devoted to World War II, we could handle the current crisis. We could meet the conditions that the International Panel on Climate Change has specified of reduction of emissions substantially by 2030 and up to net-zero emissions by 2050. Sachs and Pollin have estimated it would take about 2 to 3 percent of GDP, which is much less than the Second World War and much less in terms of human mobilization. I’m old enough to remember the Second World War very well, and the whole society was geared to war production.
What did the “voluntary mass mobilization” around World War II, as you term it in the book, look like?
Practically the whole society was at work. There were wage and price controls. My father had a secondhand car, but we couldn’t drive more than 30 miles an hour and not very far because gas was rationed, food was rationed. I mean, nothing remotely like that is necessary in this case. In fact, the Green New Deal does the opposite: provides better jobs, more jobs, better lifestyle at a fraction of the effort that was required during World War II at a much more severe crisis.
We have a couple of decades—maybe 20, 30 years—to make the decisions that will determine whether organized human life on Earth can survive, literally. That’s way beyond World War II. And with a fraction of the expenditures, we know how to deal with it. In fact, Bob Pollin’s calculations indicate that with a fraction of the money that the Treasury Department has poured into trying to sustain the economy after the Covid-19 crisis, with a fraction of that, we could meet these goals.
Where do you see the potential for a mass movement against climate change in the U.S.?
Young people and their children are the ones that we adults are betraying, to borrow the words of Greta Thunberg. But they’re at the forefront of the fight, through the Extinction Rebellion, Global Strike, and the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which has been very effective at moving the Green New Deal from way out on the periphery to the center of legislative attention. That’s a major achievement. The constant pressure has moved the Biden campaign toward a more progressive, satisfactory climate program. There’s a struggle within the Democratic Party: It’s clear that the DNC is trying to cut back on the proposals of their own nominee. But, nevertheless, the young people have pushed things in the proper direction. It’s time for others, adults, to step up and start playing their part. Currently, it’s a mass movement of the young.
As the climate crisis makes more of the world uninhabitable, how will it affect mass migration?
First of all, there isn’t a refugee crisis. It’s a moral crisis of the West, exactly as Pope Francis said. We call it a “refugee crisis”; it’s our moral crisis. But putting that aside, it’s going to magnify by orders of magnitude as a result of heating up the environment. And we’ve already seen it. One of the effects of global warming is much more severe weather events. There was a huge cyclone, unprecedented, in Bangladesh, in East Bengal recently. A large part of Bangladesh was underwater. And that’s going to keep happening. All of this is overwhelmingly striking the poorest, the most vulnerable, the ones who have no responsibility for what’s happening. And what’s your choice if your country is inundated with water? What do you do? You’re going to flee.
South Asia is facing rapidly increasing temperatures and a huge water crisis. Hundreds of millions of people, hundreds of millions in India, don’t have access to potable water. That’s going to get worse. Same in Pakistan next door. They both have nuclear weapons. What’s going to happen when they have a conflict over diminishing supplies of water? Are they going to just say, “OK, you take it, I don’t want it”? I don’t think so. If they move up to nuclear war, it’s not just South Asia that gets destroyed. All of us suffer bitterly. That’s the world we’re heading into.
What do you believe is needed to inspire a bipartisan effort against climate change?
We need to open minds to the reality of what has happened. We’re living in a very strange time, in a very strange country. The United States is the global criminal on this issue. Just about every other major country is trying to do something to deal with this impending threat—sometimes doing it pretty well, sometimes not enough, but doing something. The United States is not only refusing to do anything—even pulling out of international treaties—but has a president who is pressing his foot on the accelerator to make sure that we get to the cliff and over it as soon as possible.
The Republican Party know exactly what they’re doing—at least, if they read their own publications. About a year or two ago, the Department of Transportation came out with a long, detailed analysis of the environmental crisis, and they concluded that if we continue on our present course, by the end of this century, the temperature will have risen seven degrees Fahrenheit over preindustrial levels. It’s about three times as high as the IPCC and climate scientists recommend for decent survival. It’s what every scientist regards as cataclysmic.
So that’s their conclusion: We’re heading for total catastrophe. And then they recommended we remove emissions controls on cars and trucks. If there’s a document like that in world history, I’d like to see it. The government of the most powerful country in history comes out and says, “We’re heading for total disaster, so let’s go faster.”
You may recall that when John McCain ran for president in 2008, he had a mild climate proposal on his platform. Republicans in Congress were beginning to think of mild programs, like maybe a carbon tax or something. Now we have Trump, an extreme maniac, who says, “Let’s push it to the limit,” and the party’s sitting in his pocket, hardly a shred of integrity, and they’re terrified of the popular forces he’s mobilized, and saying, “Fine, let’s drive to disaster.” And it has an effect on the Republican constituency. We can make a difference on November 3rd, but that’s very chancy.