The Nazi threat and climate-change denial

In 1933 Winston Churchill looked over the horizon from England and saw a dreadful future forming. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was on the rise and flexing its militaristic muscles. But when Churchill tried to warn his country he was ignored and mocked.

Six long years passed and the threat grew ever larger but still Churchill’s warnings went unheeded, until the reality bit and the world was at war.

The parallels with climate change are curious and chilling, as outlined by Clive Hamilton in a fascinating new article [PDF].

Hamilton explains how Churchill’s fellow politicians sneered at him. Some even tried to have him thrown out of the Conservative party. Conservative newspapers such as The Times accused him of alarmism.

Britain back then was a land in denial. Its people just did not want to belief Churchill when he warned that Germany’s race to re-arm after the First World War was a fact that “throws almost all other issues into the background” — just as climate change is today.

Hamilton goes on to explore a related parallel, the 1947 novel The Plague by Albert Camus. This story is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. In it a deadly disease arrives in a small town. It spreads slowly at first but eventually grips the entire population, killing thousands.

At first the townspeople deny there is a problem and then they deny that it will last. They turn to superstition in the hope of divine salvation and then they turn to the bottle and pursue pleasure where there can see no hope.

Sounds familiar? Some people deny that the climate is changing. Others deny that human activities contribute to climate change. Yet more people accept that climate change is real but — whether they think that humans are to blame or not — they deny that there is any need to do anything about it.

Others think we should do something to adapt to climate change but deny that there is also a need to reduce the emissions that cause the problem. They too are in a form of denial. As Hamilton puts it: “To a greater or lesser extent, we are all climate deniers.”

Psychologists suggest that the problem is not a lack of information or awareness, but the way our brains process and filter information about threats. We tend to downplay threats that are not right here, right now and happening to us or people we know.

For more on this, see Hamilton’s article, this blog post at Climate Central by Dave Ropeik and George Marshall’s video presentations on The Ingenious Ways We Avoid Believing in Climate Change.

Back in 1934, a full five years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the British Parliament in which he warned of what could happen if incendiary bombs fell on London.

He wasn’t just making things up. He had consulted scientists and was quoting their findings, but his audience chose to ignore the warning and six years later those bombs were all too real.

In the climate-change arena too, scientific warnings have been repeatedly ignored. In industrialised countries, the media has played a big role in this as journalists have sought to balance scientific statements with their ideological opposites (see Max Boykoff’s Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press [PDF]).

Alex Kirby, a former BBC environment correspondent and a colleague of mine in the Climate Change Media Partnership, shared a simple remedy at a recent event hosted by the British Council in London.

“Bugger balance — report the facts,” he said. Alex said that journalists sent to report on Second World War concentration camps would not have been expected to report in a balanced way, and that the same applied to climate change.

He went on to quote the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Todd Stern, the top US climate-change official, used the same quotation last month, when asked about the large number of Republican Senators who deny that climate change is a problem.

Here are just a few of those facts… Nearly 200 years have passed since Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect and more than 100 since Svante Arrhenius measured it. The World Meteorological Organization says that concentrations of greenhouse gases are at their highest ever level and that 2010 is almost certain to be in the top three hottest years on record.

There is a massive gap between the scale of the problem and the scale of our collective response to it. But as psychology shows, facts alone are not enough. We need real leadership too.

We need a long-term vision that makes short-term sacrifice easier to swallow. We need leaders who are willing to act first and act hard instead of waiting until a bland coalition of unanimity can form.

Churchill he was no angel and he has many critics — he left my homeland Jersey to be occupied by the Nazis despite promising to “defend our islands whatever the cost may be” — but he was right about Hitler and he was right to never give up.

Back when he was warning about Hitler, Britain had a policy of appeasement towards Germany. In 1938, when the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived back in England after negotiations with Germany, he proudly waved a piece of paper on which he and Hitler had signed an agreement.

Chamberlain said this guaranteed “peace for our time”. But Hitler had other ideas, and promptly invaded Czechoslovakia the very next day.

“Oh, don’t take it so seriously,” Hitler is reported to have told his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. “That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”

Churchill said: “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame and will get war.”

So reflect on that when you see leaders proudly waving negotiated papers — whether a Bali Action Plan or Copenhagen Accord or a Cancun Agreement. Dig deep into the small details but focus on the big picture, and ask whether we are taking the fight to climate change or waiting for it to come and attack us.

Mike Shanahan has worked as the news editor at SciDev.Net, and now is the press officer for the International Institute for Environment and Development.

He has written as a freelancer (for The Economist, Nature, The Ecologist and the BBC and websites) and has illustrated a biology book called Extraordinary Animals.

Editor's Note: This opinion piece was first published in Mike Shanahan's blog Under the Banyan. Permission must be sought from the author to republish it.