Why Not Climate War?

Terry H. Schwadron

March 24, 2020

Regardless of orientation, the politicians have moved to war language about coronavirus.

It’s a war. We’re fighting on all fronts. We need to arm our hospitals and health care professionals. We’re hearing the weaponized language throughout the daily updates, complete with fear of “surrender” to a tiny, invisible microbe enemy that can cross borders, leap oceans and stick to subway handles.

Americans are both idealistic enough and egocentric as to believe that when we declare “war” on a topic, whether going to the Moon or curing cancer, that we can actually use ingenuity and hard work to do it.

In Donald Trump’s world, we can “win” against a virus, although now he may insist that we do so in the next weeks, he said yesterday. He has declared himself “a wartime president,” as if something has changed now that he has made this declaration.

Still, there has been a huge gulf between what we believe we can do and the practicalities involved. We’ve seen that, as a society, we have trouble coming to agreement about whether a danger is real, about whether we need to set divides aside for a larger cause, about whether we have the spine to actually tackle a real problem.

So, perhaps we’ve learned something already, or should have done so, though the learning seems tied to whether there is a perception of individual self-concern, like a disease with above-average death rates.

Here’s my question of the day: What’s the difference between seeing coronavirus as a target of war and recognizing Climate Disruption/Change as an existential question? Why, when we already are totally opening ourselves to providing government-paid Emergency health care, can’t we be talking Medicare for all? Why is a virus a suitable problem and not gun deaths, or seasonal flu or driving under the influence deaths? Can you imagine what we might do if one of those sci-fi plots came about with the arrival of extraterrestrials?


Lesson number one about the virus was that ignoring it while it festered halfway around the world was dumb. Awareness of a building problem as it is still becoming a problem seems a lot smarter than waiting until it arrives, invisibly. Lesson 1-A is to listen to the scientists and experts rather than deciding that an otherwise very real problem is politically uncomfortable and better called a “foreign hoax.”

A bunch of other lessons follow about working with allies and other governments in an intelligent international information cooperative, about remembering that empathy is not a television image projection, that real cooperation among all-of-government should be an everyday goal, not just a wartime initiative.

Also, maybe we should ban the word “unprecedented” problem. It’s all been precedented, as are many of the responses.

Prepare. Plan ahead. Think through the worst cases. Know what your resources are. Make friends rather than turning them into enemies or competitors.

The obvious case here is for revisiting exactly those Medicare for all proposals that two weeks ago were considered too radical and expensive for the United States. Indeed, isn’t that exactly what we are trying to provide now under uncontracted, more expensive, pay-as-you-go methods to deliver health care to Congress and government, to veterans, and to Americans at all levels, regardless of insurance? Do we need an emergency of this magnitude to see the inequities and the holes in our health insurance-based health care delivery systems? Indeed, as public systems are trying to open as much testing and treatment as possible, what possible logical explanation can there be for tearing down Medicare and Medicaid?

What happens if the emergency continues, and Republicans are successful at persuading the Supreme Court into declaring Obamacare legally dead?

Now, let’s talk Climate.

From where I sit, this same White House that allowed for unfortunate delays in bumbling the early days of coronavirus — other than closing borders to travelers, in as disruptive a fashion as possible — is once again ignoring Science and experts, has eliminated White House coordinating councils to plan, ripped up international agreements and alliances, and, in fact, has introduced policies that worsen the environmental problems rather than walk towards solutions in an intended, incremental way. In fact, in this White House, Climate Change also is a “hoax.”


John Schwartz in The New York Times outlined ways in which the coronavirus reactions also happen to work towards the goals of climate change advocates. Restrictions on airplane and automobile travel have cut emissions, for example, and more home stays have moved more shopping to electronic transactions, and have reduced restaurant cooking. Without pursuing all the economics, he sketches how decisions to avoid exposure to disease happen to align with behavioral changes sought by environmentalists.

Yet the goals of the Green New Deal, under whatever bill actually moves ahead, seem beyond the grasp of this government, particularly under the various principles held by congressional Republicans. Environmental concerns somehow are not worth “war” yet.

Perhaps we have to wait until it’s too late, with mass migrations of environmental refugees and actual wars breaking out over availability of water and arable land.

When Mar-a-Lago is under water, will we have the attention of Donald Trump?





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