Wartime rhetoric, especially harking back to World War II, pervades public discourse in many fields. In the UK, this is currently a device associated particularly with the Brexit ‘debate’. But here and around the world such emotive framing now extends to the climate emergency. Esteemed economist Joseph Stiglitz has referred to the climate crisis as humanity’s Third World War, and during a recent evidence session to the UK government about the country’s new net-zero target, campaigners Extinction Rebellion made frequent reference to how individuals ‘have stepped up in times of war’. But is this framing useful? And if we dig deeper, can the war years provide any lessons on how to deal with environmental challenges?

Target states and society, not individuals

That individuals should not shoulder the burden of responsibility for solving the gravest societal problems is as true for climate change as it is for socioeconomic inequality. Yet in the case of the climate, greater emphasis is placed on individual action, and often with the use of wartime analogies. While these comparisons are not inherently misguided, failure to distinguish the nuance may dampen the salience of the message. This is especially the case when it falls to the individual to adopt the spirit of a ‘war effort’, when it is the state, institutions and private sector that must take the greater actions.

This is not to absolve you or me from our collective responsibility. There is no doubt that achieving net-zero requires changes to individual lifestyles. Britain’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) made this clear in its recent landmark report, stating that 9 per cent of emissions abatement towards achieving net-zero in the UK will have to come from societal and behavioural changes. As individuals and as a society we will need to eat less red meat, fly less and get used to cooking and heating our homes without natural gas.

Balancing the language of hope and fear

Achieving these behavioural shifts is contingent on engaging the public in a positive and articulate fashion, explaining the need for urgency while being clear that the impacts will be spread equitably across society.

However, if this communication relies too much on wartime metaphor, garnering public support is surely doomed to fail, especially when it comes to encouraging reduction or changes in consumption. Reminding people of the almost 15 years of rationing endured by British citizens until 1954 promotes images of forbidden luxuries and deprivations that are hardly enticing for today’s consumers. At the same time, ‘green’ products – from organic food to electric cars – tend to remain niche or luxury and command a premium.

Focusing on consumer choices therefore poses a moral quandary: is it right to ask low-income households to substitute inexpensive goods with more sustainable but more expensive products when their priorities likely lie elsewhere?

The solution to the climate crisis will not be found by asking people to ‘do without’ – and it should not have to. Research by Hugh Rockoff (2016), for example, concluded that the success of the United States in overcoming scarcities during World War II, through economic transformation and without a major deterioration in living standards, provides some basis for optimism that environmental challenges can be met. (Although Rockoff does acknowledge that the “unique political consensus” of the time could limit the applicability of the wartime model.)

There is no doubt that the cost of inaction would dwarf the cost of reducing emissions now. But we must move away from the language of cost, hardship and sacrifice and towards innovation, growth and investment opportunities, a much more positive and attractive narrative. This includes painting a picture of the myriad co-benefits that deep decarbonisation will bring. For example, reducing the combustion of fossil fuels will reduce emissions of air pollutants besides greenhouse gases, with significant health benefits. Reducing over-consumption of red meat will create healthier diets. Health may be improved further if reduced vehicle use in urban areas leads to more walking and cycling, better public transport and more green space in cities. Emphasising these benefits is crucial if we are to build a broad consensus that moving to a green economy is positive for everyone.

Where war is a useful analogy

Only structural change to institutions and economies will deliver a low-carbon world. Viewed through this lens, tackling climate change is more analogous with the ‘war effort’. WWII is the only historical event that conveys the need for rapid reallocation of capital and raw materials, new supply chains and innovative technologies. As such it may provide lessons for how economies can be transformed to meet the challenges of climate change, and for the role governments should play.

Research by Mariana Mazzucato into the entrepreneurial state has shown that large infrastructure projects are often too big for the private sector to finance alone. In each industrial revolution, successive governments played a huge role in marshalling resources and diffusing these revolutions. Considering demand as an exogenous factor is one way to illustrate this. For example, fixed demand from government for aeroplanes during WWII provided the demand pull to drive these technologies through markets at scale, leading to replicability, scalability – and, subsequently, cost reductions in their production.

The synthetic rubber industry is another useful example here, illustrating a way to resolve wartime scarcity, and how patents can impede innovation by focussing on intellectual property. America’s rubber came from plantations in the Far East until that supply was cut off during WWII. While reclaiming and salvaging old rubber were used as interim measures, the more permanent solution was found in the birth of a new, synthetic, rubber industry. Attempts to scale up this industry prior to the War had been hampered by the low price of natural rubber and recognition of patents rights associated with new chemical compounds. To overcome these barriers, President Roosevelt established new structures of governance. Similar moves will be required in the drive to decarbonisation.

New structures of governance

In most countries, any large-scale infrastructure spending programme undertaken today commensurate with those from the WWII era would be subject to intense public scrutiny, and, in likelihood, political and legal controversy. This is true even in the UK where there is unique and enduring political consensus on the need to act on climate change. In this context, one of the more striking announcements on 10 July from the CCC as it made its progress report to Parliament was the call for new structures of governance to facilitate the transition to a net-zero economy. Similarly to those created during the war years, these would be needed to overcome obstructive deficits in cross-departmental coordination and collaboration.

The CCC’s progress report is clear that in the UK, reaching net-zero will require changes to the government’s overall approach to deep decarbonisation. It suggests, for example, a ‘Climate Cabinet’, chaired by the Prime Minister and including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and relevant Secretaries of State, with “transparent public reporting of progress and plans”. Whether such a cabinet would have representation from all the major political parties – as Churchill’s War Cabinet did – remains to be seen.

In the end, climate change is too complex an issue to be summarised by a single metaphor. Aspects of the war analogy may be useful but the precise nature of messaging is crucial: finding the right balance between fear and hope will be key in communicating and motivating behaviour change. Where the analogy has most utility is providing a sense of what mobilising human and economic capital would look like.