By Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, kicked off the Revolutionary War in earnest, which the Continental Army only finally won seven years later, in 1882. The Revolutionary War was a rare conflict for the United States, in that it was fought on our own soil, such that every city and locality was under siege and the enemy could strip them away. Boston was besieged. Philadelphia fell for a while. New York City was a bastion of refugee loyalists for much of the war, under British martial law. Saratoga, New York, was in British hands until General Horatio Gates took it in 1777. Then Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina fell to the Red Coats and had to be taken.
Only in the Civil War did Americans again see their country fragment and fall into hostile hands from which the pieces had to be rescued.
On this Fourth of July, we are again embroiled in a conflict on American soil, such that no municipality or region is assured of protection from an insidious enemy. Our country does not now face a human foe, not imperial Red Coats or seditious Confederates, but rather a much more powerful adversary capable of wreaking catastrophic destruction on those same cities that had been at stake in the Revolutionary War, on New York and Charleston, on Boston and Savannah. This time it is not clear that we have American generals with the foresight, skill, insight and energy to win the war. This time we could be sunk, unless the people themselves take up arms.
The enemy in this century is human-caused climate change. The menace was of our own creating, perhaps more like the slave-holding South in the Civil War than like the haughty British Empire.
The steam engine was invented in 1712, and by 1755 a copper mine in Belleville, New Jersey became the first place a steam engine began to operate in the American colonies. The current war has its seeds in the industrial practices that burgeoned during the Revolutionary War. The colonists suffered from a lack of arms, which they mostly had to liberate from British depots. Under blockade, they could only import small quantities. The few hundred artisans who could produce firearms could not make enough fast enough.
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Hence, Congress established the Department of the Commissary General of Military Stores (DCGMS), which encouraged larger-scale manufacturing of arms and their repair and upkeep. This body is thought by historians to have begun the industrialization of the largely agrarian Thirteen Colonies.
Eric Sterner wrote in his review of a book on the DCGMS by Robert F. Smith, “In performing its wartime tasks, Smith also argues that the DCGMS laid the groundwork for transitioning the American manufacturing economy from small artisans and craftwork to modern eighteenth century manufacturing practices. It introduced mass production and integrated supply chains, spread innovative practices among manufacturing centers, demonstrated new ways of organizing manufacturing facilities, and created new labor practices. Bluntly, it helped usher in the American industrial revolution. Most important, perhaps, it linked a strong manufacturing economy to American ideas about securing the new country.”
Industrialization meant steam engines and iron smelting, driven by burning wood and coal, which began putting extra carbon dioxide, a heat trapping gas, into the atmosphere. The US would go on to put out 420 billion metric tons of CO2, dwarfing any other country in the world.
The global heating caused by all these extra greenhouse gases spewed out by industrial processes in turn has melted land ice and raised sea level, and has heated up oceans, making them cauldrons for mega-storms, monstrous hurricanes and gargantuan typhoons that uproot everything in their path and dump titanic reservoirs of water on coastal cities, flooding them. Hurricane Katrina a category 5, razed much of the 9th Ward in New Orleans. I saw the foundations with no houses over them anymore, since they were swept away. Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Hurricane Harvey flooded out Houston. Hurricane Maria, at some points a Category 6 (the scale only goes up to 5), flattened Puerto Rico. There have always been hurricanes and cyclones. Global heating has made them more intense, and the air more full of moisture, so that they raze where once they damaged and they flood where once they drenched.
Sea level rise threatens Savannah now just as Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell menaced it in 1778. Some 76% of buildings in Savannah are at high risk of flooding. A quarter of the buildings are close to forests that are at risk of wildfires because of extreme heat. The number of days over 96.4ºF will rise from 7 to 38 by 2050. At the moment, in August humidity reaches 73%. That plus very high temperatures could be fatal. Human beings cool off by sweating, but that doesn’t work in high heat and humidity, producing heat stroke.
Having faced reversals in the north, General Sir Henry Clinton, Lt. Col. Mark Prevost and General Charles Lord Cornwallis relocated to Charleston in 1780, which they besieged. The stubborn American defenders refused to surrender in the face of superior numbers and firepower, but when the British subjected the city to bombardment with heated balls that caused fires, they finally gave in and the nascent US lost a fighting force of 5,000 men.
Sea level rise and the risk of storm surges and flooding now threaten Charleston even more direly than did General Clinton’s inexorable advance.
The armaments in our struggle against the red coating of the earth by global heating are green energy, energy conservation, and green agriculture. We must deploy solar panels in the place of muskets, wind turbines in the place of cannons, battery storage in the place of bayonet charges. The enemy is all around us and our key cities are besieged.
For this reason, we need to make the Fourth of July a symbol of our independence from the ravages of human-caused climate change. We need laser light shows, powered by solar panels, instead of Chinese gunpowder fireworks, which produce long-lasting toxins and CO2. We need barbecued vegetables, fish and fowl rather than high-carbon beef. We need to avoid plastics. We need to cook with clean electricity produced by solar panels. We need EVs for transportation to parks and parades. A high-carbon Fourth is like a Benedict Arnold who went over to the enemy.
We must keep our morale high. This is a war that can be won. It is not too late, and will never be too late, to ameliorate the situation and avoid the worst effects of climate change. We can look forward by 2050 to a magnificent triumph for humanity. The General Cornwallis of fossil fuels will be surrounded, cut off, and made to surrender.
God bless America.
Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).