When I first drafted this essay, almost two years ago, California was on fire. A few months later, Australia ignited. Then the coronavirus hit. By the time I sat down to rewrite the essay last fall, California was on fire again, with three of the four largest wildfires in state history raging simultaneously. The sky above San Francisco turned an unearthly, apocalyptic orange. Sunlight could no longer penetrate the ash, photovoltaic panels stopped working, and the air-quality index in many places exceeded the most polluted cities in Asia, where millions of children have irreversible lung damage. People living in California, Oregon, and Washington State found themselves trapped in their homes. Houses, subdivisions, and entire towns lay in charred ruins. Those who could do so moved their families to safer areas, much as people had done in the early days of the pandemic. As far away as the East Coast, smoke from the fires marred the air, and from where I watched, north of New York City, the evening sun vanished in the haze before it touched the horizon.
Like a spinning wheel that becomes a uniform blur, the relentless pace of unfolding catastrophe is turning into a fixed calendar of disaster that in many places will soon become as regular as the seasons. “Day turns to night as smoke extinguishes all light in the horrifying minutes before the red glow announces the imminence of the inferno,” wrote the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan during the 2019–20 bushfire season. In California, too, the images and stories seemed to belong less to peacetime than to war, and indeed this metaphor has become commonplace in our rhetoric about the climate threat. Al Gore, writing in the New York Times, put it starkly:
This is our generation’s life-or-death challenge. It is Thermopylae, Agincourt, Trafalgar, Lexington and Concord, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, Midway and Sept. 11.
Similar martial rhetoric weaves through many of today’s decarbonization narratives, from David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth to Saul Griffith’s Rewiring America, and it gives John Kerry’s climate-crisis coalition, World War Zero, its name.
But for all the rhetoric of war, the shape of the metaphor remains fuzzy. If it is simply meant to justify a certain scale of government response—a warlike reallocation of industry, logistical capacity, and spending—it mistakes the true implication of the metaphor and the source of its power. For as the coronavirus has taught us, the credibility of a threat and our sense of responsibility to protect ourselves and others against it can change our behavior in ways we might have thought impossible. What distinguishes a “just” war—that is, a necessary and nonelective war, fought for survival or defense—is that it involves everyone; it is fought by the country, not only the government and not only those who bear arms in combat. It is a source of meaning in addition to anguish.