Guest essay by Eric Worrall
According to Time Magazine, we are currently in a climate crisis because “As the world came out of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. launched a rapid bid to remake the global economy–running on fossil fuels.”
2020 Is Our Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet
BY JUSTIN WORLAND JULY 9, 2020 6:42 AM EDT
In early April, as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. and doctors urgently warned that New York City might soon run out of ventilators and hospital beds, President Donald Trump gathered CEOs from some of the country’s biggest oil and gas companies for a closed-door meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. The industry faced its biggest disruption in decades, and Trump wanted to help the companies secure their place at the center of the 21st century American economy.
We find ourselves on the brink of climate catastrophe in large part because of the decisions made during a past crisis. As the world came out of the Great Depression and World War II, the U.S. launched a rapid bid to remake the global economy–running on fossil fuels. In the first postwar years, Americans moved to suburbs and began driving gas-guzzling cars to work, while the federal government built a highway system to connect the country for those vehicles. The single biggest line item in the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government program that funded the European recovery, went to support oil, which ensured that the continent’s economy would also run on that fossil fuel. Meanwhile, plastic, an oil derivative, became the go-to building block for consumer goods after the U.S. had developed production capacity for use in World War II.
The underlying philosophy of economic development in this time period was a focus on gross national product, a term developed by U.S. government economists during the Depression, which included consumption as a proxy for prosperity: the more we consume, the better off we are, according to this model, which, in the postwar era, the U.S. assiduously spread abroad. The promise of endless growth also required an endless supply of oil to power factories, automobiles and jet planes. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sealed a deal with Ibn Saud, the first King of Saudi Arabia, trading security for access to the country’s vast oil reserves. Every U.S. President since, implicitly or explicitly, has continued that exchange.
The coronavirus pandemic is the most significant disruption yet to the postwar fossil-fuel order. The global economy is expected to contract more than 5% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is a challenge so big that it has also created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change direction.
This moment comes just in time. In 2018, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate-science body, warned that allowing the planet to warm any more than 2°C above preindustrial levels would drive hundreds of millions of people into poverty, destroy coral reefs and leave some countries unable to adapt. A 2019 analysis in the journal Nature identified nine tipping points–from the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet to the thawing of Arctic permafrost–that the planet appears close to reaching, any one of which might very well be triggered if warming exceeds 1.5°C. “Going beyond 2°C is a very critical step,” says Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “not only in terms of economic and human impact but also in terms of the stability of the earth.”
Anyone who thinks the Marshall Plan was a mistake never talked to anyone who lived through that time, has no idea of the chaos and food shortages Europeans endured.
Someone I was very close to was evacuated as a teenager to Australia from a refugee camp in post war Germany. But he wasn’t German, he was Eastern European.
Stalin blocked US aid from reaching postwar Eastern Europe because he was worried US aid might dilute Soviet authority in his new empire, so thousands of children like my friend became displaced. They left their homes in Eastern Europe, walking hundreds of miles in a desperate search for food their surviving parents if any could no longer provide. Those who made it mostly ended up in US run refugee camps in Western Europe.
Even with US help there was not enough food to take care of everyone. My friend spoke of two food rich countries, Argentina and Australia, who offered to take care of children Europe could no longer afford to support. My friend loved Australia and the USA his entire life, because of what they did for him. He survived long enough to be evacuated only because of the generosity of the USA.
The alternative to post WW2 US aid and the Marshall Plan would likely have been a humanitarian disaster. In the faltering postwar economy many thousands more starving children could have perished from hunger.
When the iron curtain fell and Eastern Europe was liberated, if you have ever wondered why Eastern Europeans are so friendly towards the USA, its not just because the USA helped engineer their freedom. Some of them remember the USA once saved their children, even if many others have forgotten.
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