The Real Hot War

On our second day at Harvard, we woke up to what most of us had only known as an abstract concept. In the morning hours of Sept. 11, terrorism became real. As we graduate this week, we are faced with a similarly silent threat. If unchecked, our destruction of our climate will deeply and intimately affect all of our lives. Yet many of us think of this menace in the same detached way we used to think of terrorism.

Some of us believe that climate meltdown will just destroy nature. In fact, its destructive power will be levelled primarily at us and our society. For instance, with the increase in winter temperatures throughout North America, tropical diseases will spread northwards from the equator. The Pew Center for Climate Change estimates that, by the time we return for our 50th reunion, dengue hemorrhagic fever, a disease for which there is no known vaccine, will have begun entrenching itself in Texas and surrounding states. Malaria and untold mosquito-born pathogens will appear shortly afterwards.

Some believe that both the climate failure and its human effects will be minimal. But the climate meltdown we are provoking is self-amplifying, like an atomic chain reaction. If we fail to take drastic action by the time our children graduate from college, the United Nations Environmental Program has predicted that the melting of the glaciers and ice sheets, the stabilizers of our current climate, will be nigh unstoppable. The resulting rise in sea level could directly threaten over 100 million people by the end of the century, and the disruption to current weather and flooding patterns all over the world will potentially endanger billions more.

Even our affluent United States will not be spared. When our children reach our age, South Florida and much of Louisiana will have already begun their submersion by the Gulf of Mexico, and hurricanes could have become a regular feature of East Coast living. We trivialize climate meltdown by referring to it as an environmental problem. It is an economic, public health, and human rights catastrophe. And unlike war that ends, and the plague that passes, climate meltdown is irreversible.

But amidst these prophecies of doom there are beacons of hope. We are fortunate enough to currently possess the necessary technology, policy know-how, and democratic institutions to avoid further devastation. We have already developed wind and nuclear power plants that can produce genuinely clean electricity at a competitive price. So-called “alternative” energy is now thoroughly mainstream.

By using existing technology, energy-conscious design both of buildings and of consumer products could save us billions of dollars and almost halve our national electricity use.

Simply switching all of our light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent would reduce total electricity demand by 10 percent, the equivalent of about 120 coal power plants.

If we were to install even rudimentary hybrid technology in all our vehicles, from SUVs to 18-wheelers, current gasoline consumption could be cut by up to a half. If we increased the average fuel economy of our cars by a mere 8 miles per gallon, a far cry from the 50 miles per gallon efficiency increases that hybrids promise, we would no longer need to import any oil from the Persian Gulf.

Faced with such solutions, we as citizens and individuals have too long hidden behind the excuse that their implementation would not be economically feasible. If we used just a fraction of the $100 billion that our government spent on the Star Wars weapons programs, imagine what we could achieve. Casting our gaze across the Atlantic, we can see that it is eminently possible to implement plans for the future without jeopardizing the present. Germany, for instance, has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent before our 20th reunion, and Britain has promised to reduce gas emissions by 60 percent by the time we come back for our 50th. These countries, and many others, have shown us how we can create a stronger economy and save society from climate meltdown.

Just as when we first matriculated, we are now faced with an invisible threat to the stable foundations of our society. During this time of apparent peace, we must now wage a new Hot War. We must fight against our permanent and irreversible subjugation to a dysfunctional climate and the resulting pestilence, food shortages, and global poverty. But this Hot War does not require bloodshed or crippling military budgets. This Hot War requires character. We simply must do what obviously needs to be done.

Nicholas F. Josefowitz ’05 is a history concentrator in Quincy. He was associate editorial chair of The Crimson in 2003.