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‘Moral Equivalent of War’: Mass Retrofits Drive Deep Emission Cuts, Torrie Says

In 1906, American philosopher William James coined the phrase “the moral equivalent of war” in referring to the problem of sustaining political unity and resolve in the absence of war. U.S. President Jimmy Carter used the phrase in his famous energy crisis speech of 1977 to describe what it was going to take to respond to the security threat posed by the OPEC oil embargo. 

Now, another half-century later, there are increasing calls for wartime levels of mobilization to respond to the climate crisis, writes Corporate Knights research director Ralph Torrie, in a post for the Sustainability Solutions Group.

The war against climate change is a global war. It has many fronts, and we must succeed on all of them before we can claim victory. Retrofitting our buildings to be zero-emission and climate resilient is one of those fronts.

We cannot win the war on climate change without transforming our homes and workplaces to be zero-emission buildings, and we will not get that done the way we are doing it now. We need a national mission to stop burning oil and gas in buildings while simultaneously doubling their efficiency, improving the comfort and air quality they provide, and reducing their aggregate electricity consumption. And it must be done quickly, within a generation.

Progress in building technologies and innovations in the highly efficient application of electricity to provide heat and other energy services offer a pathway to a decarbonized, electrified building sector in which fossil fuels are phased out and total electricity consumption is significantly reduced. It is a capital-intensive path, but well within the range of routine expenditures on building renovations, repairs, and energy. It requires the type of innovative financing that has allowed other capital-intensive initiatives, such as the fuel and electricity supply system itself, to proceed in ways that minimize the up-front investment, inconvenience, and risk to building owners and occupants.

Brendan Haley of Efficiency Canada and I have written a report that can be read as a battle plan for winning on the retrofit front. The relation between the way we are doing retrofits now and what Haley and I are proposing is a bit like the relation between the French Resistance and the Allied invasion of Normandy in the Second World War. Seeing and realizing the opportunity requires thinking “outside the box” and taking an integrated, whole-system approach to design, policy, business strategies, and management systems that result in high-quality retrofits carried out thousands at a time, and starting soon. This is the front in the war against climate change that will quite literally engage every household, every business, and every institution in the nation.

It has been two years since the Government of Canada declared climate change an emergency. The response to the pandemic has shown us what an emergency response looks like and what we are capable of when we work together to face down a crisis. A national mission to transform our buildings is what we need now to mount a truly effective response to the climate emergency.

There are of course limits to the war analogy when it comes to climate change. Nature is not our enemy but an independent power with which there can be no negotiation. It is not war we need, but the moral equivalent, not conflict but reconciliation. We need to wage peace as if there was no tomorrow.