Monday, January 7, 2013

Climate inaction = appeasement?

Wikipedia photo of the appeasers and their nemeses. 
Left to right, Chamberlan, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano.

Bill McKibbon has a new editorial in the Guardian in which he likens the Obama administration's current climate policy, or lack thereof, to the shameful political stance in the 1930s which the British generally call "appeasement" and the Americans "isolationism."

I've been thinking about this period too, lately. This because, as I promised myself before the holiday, I'm reading Manchester's three-volume biography of Churchill, The Last Lion.

The primary topic in the second volume, Alone, 1932-1940, is appeasement.

McKibbon goes the whole Churchillian "fight them on the beaches" hog. He even parodies the famous "blood, sweat and tears" speech.

Actually, the proper quote is "blood, toil, tears and sweat." But the British always remembered it in their folklore as the simpler "blood, sweat and tears." That's the way I always heard it, growing up,

McKibbon, by the way, gets it right. He's obviously done some of the same research.

This is, I agree, an interesting period to study for those worried about climate denial and inaction.

And of course, any self-respecting Brit must be pleased when Americans decide to study Churchill.

There are interesting parallels between the two periods, particularly in the way that ordinary people in both countries, led by the fashionable opinion leaders of the time such as the Astors and the "Cliveden set" in the UK or the Lindberghs and Henry Ford in the US, were misled into believing their nations could successfully negotiate with Adolf Hitler.

The greatest opprobrium of the era is reserved for the arch-appeasers then actually leading the British and French governments, particularly British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier. Of these Daladier gets at least some credit for recognizing the inherent evil of Hitler's ideology, and for attempting to prepare the French military for war. Chamberlain was able to deceive himself into believing negotiation might work better than confrontation right up until the fall of France in May, 1940.

Even if they had been willing to confront Hitler earlier, public opinion ran against them.  The French and British, traumatized by World War I, were particularly terrified of another war. As Manchester makes abundantly clear, not even Churchill's rhetoric nor Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" could stir the democracies to action in the 1930s.

I didn't need to read books to learn all this. I learned much of it first hand from my relatives, old family stories. As a young boy I was looked after by my maternal grandparents during the short British summer vacations. My grandfather Arthur Watson had been a soldier during World War I, serving in the trenches. Between the wars, he'd followed the then-pacifist Labour party, despite being forced by poverty to enlist again, just to survive the Great Depression. And then in August 1939 he was called up again, still in the reserves at the age of 39. He served another six years, and was for a time assigned to heavy rescue in London during the Blitz, but luckily was never sent overseas. He served a total of twelve years in the British military, but remained deeply skeptical of war until he died. When I decided to join the RAF during the late 1970s, attempting to avoid another depression, he expressed qualified approval, saying that under the circumstances it was probably the best I could do. I don't think you could have called him an appeaser. But his militant pacifism and deep skepticism of war was, I think typical of the other working class older men I grew up with, my great uncles, all of whom had served in World War I. It certainly affected me as I reflected on my own service and began the process of becoming an environmentalist during the mid-1980s.

So I often wonder, as apparently does McKibbon, what will it take to convince the people of the great democracies that climate change is just such an emergency as World War II was? Democracy seems to have a very great inherent capacity for self deception.

And Americans and Britons no longer have the excuse that we're traumatized by experience. Compared to my grandfather's generation, we've had it easy.

But there are still, it appears, arch-appeasers and isolationists.

Are the Koch brothers and Senator Inhofe the new Lindberghs and Clivedens?

Is Obama going to be a climate Chamberlain or a climate Churchill?

A very good question.

This would be a great topic for a graduate seminar: EVST 501: Appeasement and Climate Policy: An investigation into parallel periods and parallel sentiments of public denialism.

Back to Manchester. It might be time to re-watch The Remains of the Day too.


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