Climate Change and Analogs of the Unprecedented

How do we think about combatting climate change? For years, politicians have argued World War II mobilization “provides lessons about how the economy could be transformed,” and “provides a basis for optimism that environmental changes challenges can be met.”[1] 350.org co-founded Bill McKibben similarly argues, “we’re under attack from climate change – and your only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.”[2] Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez infused the Green New Deal with nostalgic rhetoric harkening back pre-war zeitgeist, calling for  “mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.”[3]

Beyond World War, climate action has been compared with sending a man to the moon, disasters like the sinking of the Titanic, and social dynamics at a dinner party. Yet none of these analogs seem totally satisfying or offer much in the vein of comprehensive action. In what follows, I will argue that mitigating climate change is not a battle to be won, an achievement signifying American superiority, or a social event, but rather must be a revolution. I will first establish the grounds for analogizing to drive policy. Next, I will evaluate the key characteristics of climate change that should be taken into account when constructing useful analogies. Finally, I will discuss the most illustrative lessons from history we can employ in the effort to reduce its deleterious impacts. 

To protect against misuses and fallacious thinking, it is important first to consider what is and is not a valid analogy. Although I’m painfully aware citing dictionary definitions can be functionally nothing more than hackneyed rhetorical device, if we are to faithfully pursue a framework for using analogies, it is critical we can carefully determine exactly what an analogy from both an ontological and functional perspective. What is an analogy, and what is it for? An analogy is, by dictionary definition, “a comparison between two things, for the purpose of explanation or clarification; a correspondence or partial similarity.” Our first problem, then, is to determine what degree of “partial similarity” is adequate to deem two “things” as analogous. How similar two things are and how similar they must to be deemed “analogous” then is a vague predicate. Depending on the situation, scope, geography, politics, or individual personalities may be the most relevant factors. There is no discrete measurement for determining the likeness and applicability of a past event to a current challenge, but rather a spectrum of correspondence that could be defined along countless axes. 

We see several different methods for resolving this fuzziness. Ferguson and Allison suggest a systematic study in which a historian should define the most salient characteristics of a challenges and searching for “precedents and analogues” to guide policy.[4] But how do we determine which characteristics are most salient? Frank Gavin, on the other hand, proposed guidelines of looking at temporal origins, connections over space and depth, determining chronological proportionality, evaluating unintended consequences, and recognizing when policy is insignificant.[5] Similarly, May and Neustadt suggest delineating what is unclear, presumed, and similarities and differences, to apply rigor to analogizing.[6]Although certainly some analogies are “better” than others, because there is no objective calculation to determine or weight the validity of various analogies, these frameworks are critical if we aim to make logical correlations. 

Particularly important in the climate change debate is identifying why an analogy is utilized. It may seem pedantic, but I think it’s important to delineate between the uses of analogues either as an explanatory or prescriptive tool, although these two functions often are conflated and jammed into one sentence. Khong argues policymakers use analogies to justify policies as well as to perform specific cognitive functions for decision-making.[7] This is echoed in Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson’s Applied History Manifesto: “Applied history is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices… to provide perspective, stimulate imagination, find clues about what is likely to happen, and suggest possible policy interventions.”[8] Once the validity of an analogy has been established, we may employ it to better understand the challenge at hand, explore the consequences of various policy options based on historical precedents, or both. 

Using historical analogues to make more salient our current moment and using historical analogues to directly influence policy are two fundamentally disparate notions. In the climate change debate, there are countless analogs that may be used to help policymakers understand what climate change is, which often get confused with those that may offer possible approaches to slowing the deleterious impacts of increasing global temperatures. For example, although they are both analogies for climate change, comparing the atmosphere to an ailing person with a fever offers policy-makers no insight into curbing greenhouse gas emissions and comparing climate action to fighting the Axis powers in World War II does not help us understand why the earth is warming.  

As in any other case of applied history, the objective of analogizing from the past is to drive better policy. “Good policy” should produce the best possible outcome for a designated group of people. Whether policy is servicing an individual, a school, the American populace, or all humans of the world, a policy is chosen based on an expected result. Applied history has a certain scientific sensibility about it. It is essentially a predictive effort in which an applied historian asserts a hypothesis about what will occur as a result of an intervention given certain conditions. The problem with history, though, is that experiments cannot be replicated. Interventions can be altered by the conditions of our reality are constantly in flux. There can be no control group and it would be absurd to assume repeating actions of the past would or should have the same impacts in the present and future. Historical analogizing to policy, then, is more akin to quantum physics than it is to classical mathematics as Ferguson and Allison suggest.[9] Quantum physics is about probability, not deterministic, and even if one possessed exact knowledge of a current physical system, it is impossible to accurately predict future states. If we got caught up in quantum theories, however, we would never build bridges or roads. Similarly, when applying historical analogies, policymakers don’t need perfect predictive abilities to achieve practical and meaningful insights. 

To apply a rigorous framework to the climate debate, we must first determine the most salient characteristics of the challenge. In “The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change,” researchers Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki identify the following attributes of climate change most relevant to informing decisions: climate change is anthropogenic, progressive but at an uncertain rate, hard to reverse, may cause “extreme events of unprecedented severity,” and has linked effects that may be exacerbated or dampened exponentially.[10] The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s America’s Climate Choices adds time lags in the climate system, time lags in the human response system, varying judgements about risks, the myriad levels at which climate change decisions are made, adversity in the political milieu, and the need for global scale efforts.[11]

Climate change is likened to world war because it requires public commitment to fight, impacts every nation, drives technological innovation, and may have cataclysmic results. In article “World at War,” McKibbon asserts, “We’re used to war as a metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs…. Usually this is just a rhetorical device…. But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: carbon and methane are seizing territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties and destabilizing governments.”[12] Defeating the enemy of a warming Earth will require singular global focus on tackling this challenge as well as “the wholesale industrial retooling.” To mobilize for this effort, President Roosevelt used Congressional action to fund agencies like the War Production Board and Defense Plant Corporation, built factories and subsidized private industry while maintaining “robust profit controls” to cut public spending. 

Comparing climate change to war is an effective rhetorical device because it drives an emotional response while conveying a sense of urgency and the need for collective action to “win.” In a 2017 study, researchers surveyed control groups using an article that likens climate change to war and an article that likens climate change to a race to determine which strategy is most effective. They found, “Across three large sample of US participants, those who read the war metaphor consistently reported a greater sense of urgency and a greater perception of risk surrounding the issue of climate change, as well as a greater willingness to increase conservation behavior compared with those who read the race report.”[13] In their discussion, authors hypothesized these results show what framing through a war metaphor accomplishes: “it captures attention, leads people to infer risks, conveys opposition and struggle, and the need to sustain a united front to avoid destruction.”[14] If the goal is to raise awareness about climate change and precipitate action, framing the challenge through the lens of war is a useful tool. 

How much a metaphor or analogy draws attention, however, is doubtlessly important, but does not necessarily reflect the quality or prescriptive utility of a comparison. As I conducted research for this article, I was disturbed to find troves of articles that invoked wartime but contained almost no explanation of why this was a useful frame. A 2019 Washington Post article “Climate change is the next world war” called for greater media attention and public engagement but doesn’t even reference war beyond an attention grabbing title.[15] A Medium story titled “If the Climate Change Crisis were World War II, it’s 1939,” but made no attempt to discuss in what way fighting climate change was like war beyond perhaps necessitating a state of emergency.[16]

Using analogies only for their ability to catch the eye of readers and policymakers, however, can be dangerous and result in misdirected expectations and poor policy outcomes. Sure, anchoring to “war” effectively communicates the need for rapid and broad economic and social mobilization, but it ignores several important aspects of the issue. If climate change is like war, this type of rhetoric is nothing more than nationalist propaganda to sell the war effort to the populace. Fighting climate change will require global cooperation, not zero-sum competition and conflict. The war frame also creates confusion about who or what exactly the war is fighting. Are we fighting those who pollute the earth, the dangerous ramifications of climate change like wildfires, the atmosphere? War is an attractive metaphor because it catalyzes rapid action against a common enemy yet combatting climate change should not be regarded as a blitz, but rather as a fundamental shift in political, social, and economic structures. An analogy for climate change, then, should orient policymakers’ thinking along much longer time horizons. 

Framing through war implies a sense of ephemerality of the struggle, whereas keeping the earth’s temperatures from rising is a commitment that will require new and enduring paradigms. In this way, climate change is more akin to an industrial revolution. Although it may seem strange the compare fighting climate change to the industrial revolution, which sparked an era of mass pollution, I believe economic and social revolution driven by optimism rather than fear is actually more powerful. Transitioning to a low carbon global economy will require long time horizons to make meaningful changes to the economy and concerted efforts to devise technology to support it.[17] Wartime economic programs are reversed once the conflict has ended but framing through the lens of revolution will make the need for lasting change more salient in the minds of policymakers and consumers alike. We cannot afford to be bounded in our thinking by our expectations of war and must instead pursue policy that will incentivize collaboration on community and international levels to fundamentally alter society. 

In Thinking in Time, May and Neustadt warn, “Seeing the past can help one envision alternative futures. But that analysis can also be the enemy of vision. Columbus probably would have never sailed had he been more aware of the flimsiness of his premises.”[18] We may not know exactly what a low carbon future will look like, but we can make a pretty good guess of what Earth will look like if we fail to do so.  Yet, if we apply frameworks carefully and rigorously, history may still “provide a more finely tuned sense of consequences of both events and ensuing policy responses,” and “make for more deliberate, thoughtful, and successful policy.”[19] Looking at previous revolutions, we may anticipate what barriers we may face, the broad implications of reform, and what policies will help us achieve and maintain our objectives. If we use a historical sensibility responsibly, we may not only escape repeating the mistakes of our past, but also draw ever closer to achieving better outcomes in our present and future.


[1] Hugh Rockoff. 2016. “The US Economy in WWII as a Model for Coping with Climate Change.” https://www.nber.org/papers/w22590

[2] Bill McKibben. 2016. “A World at War.” The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/135684/declare-war-climate-change-mobilize-wwii?utm=350org

[3] H. Res. https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/604-green-new-deal-resolution/e0c468643280097e630e/optimized/full.pdf

[4] Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison. 2016. “Applied History Manifesto.” Harvard Kennedy School. 

[5] Frank Gavin. 2007. “History and Policy.” 

[6] Ernest May and Neustadt. 1986. Thinking in Time. 

[7] Yuen Foong Khong. 1992. Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions in 1965. 

[8] Ferguson and Graham. 2016. “Applied History Manifesto.” 

[9] Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson. Applied History Manifesto. 

[10]Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern, Alexander Maki. 2017. “The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change.” PLoS One.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5279784/

[11] https://www.nap.edu/read/12781/chapter/5#36

[12] Bill McKibbon. 2016. “World at War.” The New Republichttps://newrepublic.com/article/135684/declare-war-climate-change-mobilize-wwii

[13] Stephen J Flusberg, Teenie Matlock and Paul Thibodeau. 2017. “Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change.” Environmental Communication. 799-780. https://www-tandfonline-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/pdf/10.1080/17524032.2017.1289111?needAccess=true

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Stephen Nash. 2019. “Climate change is the next world war.” Washington Posthttps://medium.com/age-of-awareness/if-the-climate-change-crisis-were-world-war-ii-its-1939-e33368afb769

[16] David Sag. 2016. “If the Climate Change Crisis were World War II, it’s 1939.” Medium. https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/if-the-climate-change-crisis-were-world-war-ii-its-1939-e33368afb769

[17] Peter Pearson and Timothy Foxon. 2017. “A low carbon industrial revolution? Insights and challenges from past technological and economic transformations.” Energy Policy. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421512006568

[18] Ernest May and Neustadt. 1986. Thinking in Time. Xv. 

[19] Frank Gavin. History and Policy. 177. 

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