Of the previous six energy revolutions of comparable magnitude—wind, water, coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear—only nuclear power had anywhere near the same level of early-stage technocratic shaping that we are contemplating. Among technological revolutions outside the energy sector, only space exploration, nuclear-weapons technology, and computing technology have had similar levels of bureaucratic direction.
None of these are true comparables, however, for one critical reason. In each historical case, the revolution was highly focused on a single core technology rather than a broad portfolio of technologies, and a managed transition of infrastructure at civilization scale. In the case of aerospace and computing technologies, the comparison is even weaker: Those sectors enjoyed several decades of organic evolution driven primarily by inventors, private investors, and market forces before technocrats got involved.
Even in the most relevant precedent, the response to ozone depletion, the technical challenge was to develop substitutes for one specific class of chemicals (CFCs) with a relatively narrow range of applications in refrigeration and aerosols.
Precedents in public health, civil engineering, epidemiology, and public safety offer clearer examples of technocrat-led revolutions. But those transitions were far simpler, technologically, than a retooling of global energy infrastructure.
Properly qualified, there is only one successful precedent for the kind of technological mobilization we are contemplating: the mobilization of American industry during World War II.
The proposed climate change war—and no other term is suitable given the scale, complexity, and speed of the task—requires a level of trust in academic and energy-sector public institutions (including international ones) comparable to the trust placed in military institutions during times of war.
The significant political difference is that climate change offers up no conveniently terrifying dictator, against whom to rally the troops and general population. Without a sufficiently charismatic narrative, casualties will go largely unacknowledged, like the victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (which caused about twice as many deaths as World War I, but is barely remembered today outside of public-health circles).
What climate change does offer in place of an evil dictator though, is a powerful appeal to parental instincts. The degree to which we are able to prevent future pain will depend strongly on the ability of politicians to establish the narrative that we must allocate high costs today, while we can still afford them, in order to save unborn generations from avertable disasters.
In a time of war, the alternative to trusting the military and defense establishments is leaving all action to guerilla militias in occupied territories. In the war against climate change, the alternative to trusting technocrats, regulatory machinery, and public institutions is to trust small-scale libertarian ingenuity to bail out Bangladesh in the event of large-scale climate-change. That’s not likely to happen.