Where are the emergency responders?

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By LINDA STARKE

Climate emergency is in. Climate change is out.

In December 2016, Darebin, near Melbourne in Australia, became the first government to declare a “climate emergency. By Aug. 23 2019, according to climateemergencydeclaration.org, 966 jurisdictions in 18 countries had passed declarations on a climate emergency. On June 7, the Parliament in Portugal recognized that the whole country has a climate emergency, and the Canadian Parliament followed suit on June 17.

So if we are in a state of emergency, where are the emergency responders? In addition to the firefighters who battle wildfires and the rescue workers who evacuate flooded cities, we need emergency responders who help the world move rapidly away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. They need to respond to the causes of this global emergency, not its negative impacts.

Given the climate emergency facing us and the next generation, some people — prominently, Elizabeth May — have called for the establishment of war cabinets, which could recognize the key role of the new emergency responders. What could a war cabinet do? The experience in the United States during World War II is instructive. Just one month after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, President Roosevelt announced new arms production goals in his State of the Union address. He called for the production of 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns and several thousand ships.

The president told auto industry leaders that he would rely heavily on them to reach these goals. They pledged to do what they could in addition to making cars. But Roosevelt knew that would not be enough in this emergency situation. So the sale of new cars was soon banned. Indeed, for nearly three years basically no cars came off production lines in the United States. Residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned, something that is hard to fathom today.

Roosevelt’s plan succeeded. From the beginning of 1942 through 1944, factories in the United States produced 229,600 aircraft, for example, far more than the president had called for. In a powerful New Republic article about this massive transformation, Bill McKibben of 350.org notes that instead of producing cars, “Pontiac made anti-aircraft guns; Oldsmobile churned out cannons; Studebaker built engines for Flying Fortresses; Nash-Kelvinator produced propellers for British de Havillands; Hudson Motors fabricated wings for Helldivers and P-38 fighters; Buick manufactured tank destroyers; Fisher Body built thousands of M4 Sherman tanks; Cadillac turned out more than 10,000 light tanks. And that was just Detroit — the same sort of industrial mobilization took place all across America.”

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes these developments in No Ordinary Time. One factory went from making spark plugs to producing machine guns. Others switched from stoves to lifeboats, from corsets to grenade belts, from toys to compasses, from pinball machines to armour-piercing shells.

“By war’s end,” McKibben notes, “the government had a dominant position in everything from aircraft manufacturing to synthetic rubber production.”

Of course, no one expects a war cabinet today to impose changes in a nation’s manufacturing sector as drastic as occurred in the United States during World War II — at least not yet. But governments could and should take the lead in the push for renewable energy and in creating an army of new emergency responders: people who will build and install wind turbines, develop increasingly efficient electric cars, improve mass transit programs, install solar panels, make houses and office buildings more efficient . . . The list of what is needed goes on and on.

This is what the Green New Deal is all about: creating millions of jobs as countries transition to renewable energy. We can call them the new emergency responders, dealing with the sources of the emergency, not its effects.

The writer edited books on environment and development for 35 years. She moved to Salt Spring in April 2016.

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