We Need a World War II Effort to Tackle Global Warming and the Great Recession

By Roosevelt Institute |

earth-150If the government doesn’t go bold on the environment, the economy and the earth will continue to suffer.

The news from the world of global warming science is grim. We need to keep the planet from warming by more than 2 degrees centigrade or the climate could become extremely dangerous. To stay below that level would require a drastic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the next several years. Many commentators, from Al Gore to Thomas Friedman to Lester Brown, have argued that we need a World War II type effort to prevent the worst of global warming. Such an effort would have the bonus effect of reviving the economy. When FDR was confronted with a world war, he converted as much as one third of the economy to that effort, with the federal government in the lead. The result: fascism was defeated along with what was left of the Great Depression. Can we do something similar today?

When World War II started, the federal government converted several industries, including the automobile industry, to make tanks, planes, and other military goods. A planning department was set up, and all resources that were necessary for the war effort were carefully counted and controlled. At the peak of the war, about one third of all output (GDP) in the United States went into the military. One third of today’s economy would be about $5 trillion dollars.

While there is a debate about whether the war actually ended the Great Depression, it certainly finished off the scourge of high unemployment. The construction of new machinery for the factories laid the groundwork for the post-war boom, as well as enlightened policies like the G.I. Bill, which paid for college for returning soldiers and made housing loans available through the government.

Today we have a different problem, but it could become just as deadly as a world war. Modern global civilization will become difficult if not impossible to maintain if the planet overheats, according to a new report. Our society is not designed to deal with increasing sea levels, indefinite droughts in some areas and unpredictable deluges in others, forests destroyed by warm weather pests, dead oceans, and disappearing glaciers that lead to the destruction of many of the world’s most important rivers.

So what would a World War II-type program to prevent global warming and end the Great Recession look like? As I argued in my book, Manufacturing Green Prosperity, we would need to spend on the order of one trillion dollars per year, for 20 years, in order to build the necessary transportation, energy, urban, and agricultural infrastructure. And by “we” I mean “we the people” — that is, the federal government.

I recently completed a chapter for a book about a green energy economy that should come out in 2012, and I proposed that with a budget of $1.2 trillion dollars per year we could employ about 24 million people, of which over 5 million would be manufacturing jobs. A revival of manufacturing sparked by this program is vital to ending the Great Recession.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Here are the federal programs needed to create a full-employment green economy, along with the annual budget required:

1. An Interstate Wind System that would generate all of our electricity, which is currently provided mostly by coal and natural gas plants at $150 billion

2. An Interstate Electricity Grid that would be able to carry all of this electricity throughout the continent at $85 billion

3. Solar photovoltaic panels that would generate a quarter of our current electricity needs, which would make up for the electricity that the wind system would require at $150 billion

4. Geothermal heat pumps under all residential buildings that would provide all heating and cooling needs at $50 billion

5. Weatherizing half of the homes in the country at $25 billion

6. A 17,000 mile Interstate High-Speed Rail System at $30 billion

7. An expanded freight, medium-speed, and commuter rail system at $25 billion

8. A vastly larger transit system at $60 billion

9. A 100 percent organic agricultural system at $10 billion

10. Recycling/reusing almost everything at $100 billion

11. Last but not least, housing half of the population in dense, walkable neighborhoods, which would cost $500 billion per year if 100,000 250 unit apartment buildings were constructed

At the end of this 20-year program of economic reconstruction, the United States would emit virtually no greenhouse gases. As added benefits, it would not use petroleum, whose supply is shrinking and on which the U.S. is very dependent, nor would it destroy the water, soil, and forests of its ecosystems. We could also implement a “government as employer of last resort” system so that everyone who wanted a job could have one.

Even this program would not actually be at the level of a World War II-type effort, since $1.2 trillion constitutes less than one tenth of the economy, whereas the real WWII effort required one third. We could double the rate by doubling the budget to $2.4 trillion, which might be required to avoid out-of-control global warming — particularly if, as I suspect, it took 10 years to accumulate the “political will” to implement such a program (assuming it could happen at all).

The good news: it is technologically feasible to create a thriving civilization without emitting greenhouse gases. The bad news: there will have to be major shifts in economic, and therefore political, power in order to build a sustainable civilization.  We have a much different political constellation than in FDR’s era. In 1941, the top 1 percent constituted a much smaller portion of national income and thus had less power. There was an 81 percent top tax rate in place, which peaked at 94 percent in 1944-5 (and was still 91% in 1963).The Democrats, a significant percentage of whom were truly progressive, were dominant in Congress, and FDR sat in the White House. This was all accompanied by a very strong set of left-wing movements and institutions, including strong trade unions.

And how would all of this be paid for? There are several ways to come up with $1.2 trillion. First, we can do it the same way that the government did for the Iraq war or the financial bailout: we could simply go into debt (preferably through a public infrastructure bank). World War II was paid for with debt — which was brought down very quickly because of the post-war boom. Second, the top 1 percent makes about 24 percent of national income, which in 2009 was about $12 trillion. So we could obtain, say, half of the needed $1.2 trillion by imposing a 25 percent tax on that income bracket. We could pay for the whole thing with a 50 percent tax. Third, we currently spend almost $1 trillion on the military. The Defense Department keeps its budget high not because we need such a large military, but because it has created a “military-industry-congressional complex” that doles out money to almost every congressional district in the country — and creates good factory jobs. Most of the 6 million people either employed directly by the Department of Defense or indirectly through the industrial complex could be converted to working on our number one national security issue: creating an economy that will not implode.

Ultimately, an economy cannot thrive if the ecological foundations on which it rests are collapsing. That is where we are heading, and unless the government steps in directly, and in a big way, there will be no nation to secure.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

The Roosevelt Institute brings together thousands of thinkers and doers—from emerging leaders in every state to Nobel laureate economists. We reimagine the rules that guide our social and economic realities. Follow us on Twitter @rooseveltinst and like us on Facebook.