Climate is our third world war, says Nobel winner

New warning: Civilisation itself could be past the point of no return by 2050. © Getty

Is this a fair comparison? The economist Joseph Stiglitz says, today, that our lives are at stake — just as they were in World War Two. Donald Trump, marking D-Day, thinks it is a hoax.

Joseph Stiglitz is a professor at America’s Columbia University, the 2001 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, a former chief economist of the World Bank and the author, most recently, of People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent.

One of the most distinguished public intellectuals in the world, he is outspoken in his views.

Today, he has published a short but extraordinary article, timed to coincide with global D-Day celebrations, pleading for the climate crisis to be pushed back to the top of the agenda.

As most of the media focuses on commemorating the events of June 1944, or Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK, or the race to become Britain’s new leader, Stiglitz claims that we must face a far more momentous truth.

“The climate emergency is our third world war. Our lives and civilisation as we know it are at stake, just as they were in the second world war,” he says.

“When the US was attacked during the second world war, no one asked, can we afford to fight the war? It was an existential matter. We could not afford not to fight it. The same goes for the climate crisis.”

By coincidence, his plea comes at the same time as a new report from the Australian climate think-tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.

This says that unless humanity takes drastic and immediate action to stop the climate crisis, a combination of food production instability, water shortages, and extreme weather could result in a complete societal breakdown worldwide.

“To reduce this risk and protect human civilisation, a massive global mobilisation of resources is needed in the coming decade to build a zero-emissions industrial system and set in train the restoration of a safe climate,” the report reads.

“This would be akin in scale to the World-War-Two emergency mobilisation.”

Stiglitz makes three key arguments to support his case.

First, that the direct cost of ignoring the climate crisis in floods, hurricanes, fires and disease is already proving high enough to make it economically sensible to spend money on prevention now, not later.

Second, that the war on the climate emergency, if correctly waged, would be good for the economy — just as World War Two set the stage for America’s golden economic era, with the fastest rate of growth in its history amidst shared prosperity.

Third, that there will have to be a massive redeployment of resources — he suggests bringing more retired people back to work — just as with World War Two, when bringing women into the labour force expanded productive capacity.

Hot air?

Unjust, excessive and tasteless, say the critics of Stiglitz, including Trump and most of his supporters. To compare anything to World War Three should immediately trigger disbelief. War is when humans deliberately try to kill each other. Even if you believe in it, the climate crisis is about human consumption and resources.

That’s missing the point, say Stiglitz defenders. World wars are human emergencies. For a few years, normality is suspended. All hands are called to focus on the war effort. The climate emergency is now a situation like this. We better wake up and realise it — fast.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good idea to scare people about the environment?
  2. Are the similarities between a world war and the climate crisis greater than the differences?


  1. List all the differences you can think of between a world war and the climate emergency. Rank them in order of importance.
  2. Using the Expert Links, prepare a five-minute presentation to the class making the case that the climate crisis really is like a third world war.

Some People Say...

“Comparisons are odious.”

Saying recorded from the mid-15th century.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The impact from climate crisis on food and water systems, leading to falling crop yields and rising food prices (from drought, wildfire and harvest failures) has already triggered social breakdown and conflict across the world, and contributed to the European migration crisis.
What do we not know?
Whether it is justifiable to claim, as the new report from Australia does today, that “after nuclear war, human-induced global warming is the greatest threat to human life on the planet”.

Word Watch

Nobel Prize
A set of annual international awards bestowed in several categories by Swedish and Norwegian institutions in recognition of academic, cultural, or scientific advances. Nobels are constantly invoked to signal the importance of other awards: The Turing Award is informally called the “Nobel Prize of Computers”; the Pritzker Prize is the “Nobel Prize of Architecture”.
June 1944
A crucial month in World War Two and the month during which the D-Day landings took place on 6 June.
Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration
An independent think-tank established in 2014, located in Australia. Its stated mission is to develop and promote strategy innovation and analysis that is essential to deliver safe climate restoration.


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