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Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change
were rationed, including cars, fuel, food, and clothing, and many Americans planted “Victory Gardens” to feed their families during the war. Moreover, the outcome of the war itself was deeply uncertain, and, as it proceeded, Americans endured and surmounted a number of major military setbacks and losses. Nonetheless, the country and its leaders were willing to act despite these enormous uncertainties and large costs in both human lives and national treasure. Moreover, the United States partnered with the other Allies, including ideological foes like the Soviet Union, to defeat their common enemy. Winning WWII thus required an extraordinary level of coordination both within the United States and internationally. And in the process, the United States reinvented itself, emerging from the war as a global military, economic, and cultural superpower.
Preventing dangerous levels of climate change will also require changes in the way American society produces and consumes energy and significant changes across economic and political sectors, both within the United States and internationally. While WWII reminds us what the United States can achieve when it is motivated, it is also important to recognize that climate change presents a different set of challenges. In WWII, the United States faced an existential threat from other human beings—namely the Axis powers, led by Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito—an enemy that was easy to understand, vilify, and mobilize the nation to fight. By contrast, climate change does not have an easily identifiable villain. In the words of the cartoon character Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Most human activities in the modern world result in the release of GHG emissions. While fingers of blame are often pointed at particular leaders, industries, and entire nations, the truth is that almost all human beings are complicit, albeit to widely differing degrees, in the problem. Risk-perception researchers have also found that human beings are generally more sensitive to and concerned about threats from other human beings or human technologies than from natural hazards, which are often viewed more fatalistically as uncontrollable acts of nature or God (Slovic, 2000). Unlike the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, climate change will manifest primarily as more frequent or severe natural hazards (e.g., heat waves, droughts, floods, disease outbreaks, etc.)—harm by a thousand (seemingly natural) cuts rather than a single catastrophic event. Furthermore, while fascism was easily understood as a direct threat to the nation’s security (and one’s own liberty), climate change is currently perceived by many as a threat to unseen others (future generations, people, and species far away), although it is increasingly raised as a new threat to national security (Fingar, 2009; Leiserowitz et al., 2009). Finally, Americans’ response to WWII was deeply rooted in the values of self-defense, patriotism, and national pride. The fight against climate change, however, has not yet tapped into these core values. Nonetheless, WWII stands as a powerful reminder that