The Nazi threat and climate-change denial

Nobody wants to have to deal with the immense challenge of climate change but unless our leaders step up to fight the good fight, the war will come to us.

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] and my related post Thank God for Fox News…).

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 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.

11 thoughts on “The Nazi threat and climate-change denial

  1. I spent today preparing for a meeting next week. The meeting is to develop a major international science conference in March 2012, Planet Under Pressure. I dug out some comments which were sent to us following a similar meeting we (the international global change programmes) held in 2001 in Amsterdam. At the top of the pile was this: “Most people have a vague notion about humans’ effect on the global environment. But, apart from the people at the Amsterdam conference, hardly anyone truly comprehends the enormity and gravity of these changes.” This little bit of feedback echoed the sentiment of your article. Mike, thanks for your input to the conference so far. I hope we reach more people in 2012.

  2. I am finding much the same phenomenon with regard to the looming global food crisis, engendered by increasing demand and the combination of growing scarcity of water, land, oil, nutrients, R&D, fish and stable climates. Many people just don’t want to even examine the evidence before dismissing it, or are afraid to do so.
    Commonly they chant ‘Malthus’ or ‘Ehrlich’ as if these two names alone will prevent hunger by being ‘wrong’. They never chant ‘agricultural revolution’ or ‘green revolution’, the universal human effort to forestall the catastrophes foreshadowed by those two authors.
    Certainly some people deny phenomena like climate change and resource scarcity because they are irrational, ill-educated or else paid to do so, but the vast majority of denialists are those who simply have not the fortitude to face up to the facts – as applied to many in the ‘Indian Summer’ of the 1930s. History will confound them. Hopefully before it is not too late for the rest of us.

  3. This is why you True Believers never accomplish anything. You spend too much time engaging in fantasies, this one imagining that you are some kind of warrior hero. Gee, I guess that makes us skeptics Nazi sympathizers.

    I’m confused. Is that better or worse than Ellen Goodman equating us with Holocaust deniers? Can we expect some type of promotional video for this concept? Will we have a version of “Inglorious Bastards” where Joe Romm and Michael Mann run rampant, slaughtering skeptics in spectacular style?

    It’s telling that people like you never call for people to take action at the ballot box. That’s what grownups in democracies do. For the first time in my life this year I gave my time and money to a candidate for Congress. My family and I wore the t-shirts, knocked on doors, put up signs, walked in a parade. I did so specifically because he promised to say no to any and all climate change legislation.

    Your action plan? Control the media and demonize the opposition. Yeah, that’ll work.

    I look at you people and I see a different danger. I see the students who supported Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write Mike M. I think you have misread my blog post.

      I do not compare climate-change deniers to the Nazis… I compare people’s observable reactions to climate change itself to people’s recorded reactions the Nazis.

      The point is that societies can react to big threats (whether the Nazi party or climate change) in a similar way, even when there is clear evidence of the scale of the threat.

      It is in our nature to prefer that bad things won’t happen.

      I agree that people can take action at the ballot box and I recommend that they do so.

      I disagree about the media. The media is controlled by people like Rupert Murdoch and not people like me.

      Private media depend on polluting industries for their advertising revenue. That’s why in the United States so little information about climate change reaches the general public without first being distorted to suit vested interests.

      • Thanks for posting my comment. Sorry you missed the word “sympathizer.” As far as framing a public debate do you see any difference between someone believing we are nazis or nazi sympathizers? The effect is the same. I can assure you, you bring nothing but harm by bringing it up at all.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan: Thanks for writing again. Let me make something clear. I am not comparing anyone to the Nazis or to Nazi sympathisers. I am talking about how people react to evidential threats – they tend to wish them away rather than confronting them. This has applied to the Nazi threat, the climate threat, the cancer threat from smoking and many others. My blog post did not say that climate change deniers are anything like Nazis or Nazi sympathisers on either a personal or political level. In fact it was you, not me, who brought up nazi sympathisers — in your earlier comment — and I am sorry if you took it that way.]

        The “denier” libel really solidified permanent opposition to the CAGW [Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming] movement. I was reminded of this in reading the reactions of the authors of a paper that has debunked Eric Steig”s (and the Team’s) claim that all of Antarctica was warming. Steve McIntyre, Jeff Condon, Ryan O all were motivated by the sneering contempt Steig and Gavin Scmidt displayed towards them when they first critiqued Steig’s paper on their blogs. They got up off their butts and fired back.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan: The 2009 paper by Eric Steig and colleagues said: “Here we show that significant warming extends well beyond the Antarctic Peninsula to cover most of West Antarctica, an area of warming much larger than previously reported. West Antarctic warming exceeds 0.1 °C per decade over the past 50 years, and is strongest in winter and spring. Although this is partly offset by autumn cooling in East Antarctica, the continent-wide average near-surface temperature trend is positive.”

        Ryan O’Donnell, the lead author of the new paper with Lewis, McIntyre and Condon says: “Overall, we find that the Steig reconstruction overestimated the continental trends and underestimated the Peninsula – though our analysis found that the trend in West Antarctica was, indeed, statistically significant. I would hope that our paper is not seen as a repudiation of Steig’s results, but rather as an improvement. In my opinion, the Steig reconstruction was quite clever, and the general concept was sound.”

        Check out this graphic which compares the two paper’s conclusions. The one on the left labelled “Ours” is the one from O’Donnell’s team. Both papers agree that there is warming in much of Antarctica. The later paper points to more warming in the Antarctic peninsula and less in other parts of Antarctica than what Steig’s team’s paper had said.

        The papers disagree about details and the overall level of warming, but I have seen that members of each team are communicating cordially and publicly on other blogs. This is how science works when scientists publish their research in peer-reviewed journals. We need more scientific research that is strong enough to be published in reputable journals. Some people say that spending money on climate science is wrong but I can’t see a strong argument against investing in such research as it can only advance our understanding.]

        So do the John Doe’s like myself. You people have no idea how badly you communicate with the public. You do the exact opposite of trying to convince us of your cause. You call us stupid. You call us evil. You call us dupes of some shadowy fossil fuel company conspiracy.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan: No. I have not called anyone stupid or evil for having doubts about climate change. I don’t know why you say this when it is not true. In fact, the only time I have used the word stupid on this blog was when I criticised climate-change campaigners — see One act of stupidity and 5500 acts of reason]. I myself have some doubts about climate change, as do my friends and family, but there are many aspects of climate change that I feel fairly convinced about too. Doubt is a doorway to debate and improved knowledge. I don’t think anyone gains from locking that door shut.

        We get it. You hate us AND you want all of our money and you want us to stop consuming and breeding. Oh, and you think we are idiots for believing in god.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan: No. Again, this is simply not true. I don’t want anyone to stop breeding and consuming. I just think we can all consume in a better way, and in a way that does not harm other people’s prospects. Nor do I think anyone is an idiot just because they are religious. All the major religions have much in common with what is today called environmentalism. They are more similar than different, as I have written about in an earlier blog post — Environmental or spiritual pollution – which is easiest to fix?.

        We get it. We think YOU are stupid for not believing we would be angered or fight back. 2010 is the straight jab. 2012 will be the upper cut.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan – I am not sure what you mean by those statements. Also you seem to be directing your feelings about some group you call “You people” towards me. I’m just an individual with a blog, trying to have a civil conservation with strangers about the big topics of the day. As I hinted above, I am more interested in what you and I have in common than where we disagree.]

        BTW, CNN, MsNBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others, have been completely on board the CAGW gravy train for years. They have been total lapdogs for you. Thank God for Fox. (One TV network and no major newspapers for over half of our nation’s voters!) The U.S. has had the CAGW message shoved down their throats for years. They don’t believe you.

        [Response from Mike Shanahan: You’re quite right. Annual polls conducted by Globescan — such as those reported here (PDF) — show that public understanding and awareness of climate change is lower in the United States than most other countries, including many developing nations. While the rest of the world is planning for climate change many people in the US think it is best to do nothing. This makes it tricky for the US to play the role of global leader when nearly 200 other nations are calling for action on climate change.

        For some new information about how Fox News has affected public awareness of climate-change see my related post Thank God for Fox News…]

  4. Okay. Here is reality for all you eco-types: The Earth has been changing for…are you ready?…M I LL I O N S of years. To even compare natural, environmental evolution to the actions of a dictator and his minions is worth a B- on a middle-school assignment about “compare and contrast” at best. How self-absorbed must one be to even think about trying to change a global-cycle, which has repeated who knows times in the last couple-million years? Global climate change, which you are not going to “stop”, will continue to go forward, as it always has, and always will (until the sun runs out of fuel, anyway). The best thing we can do is COPE with the change, instead of running around hollering Doomsday. (How long have people been running around in the environmental scene? A whopping 40 years now?) If you want to actually HELP people, we need you in New Orleans, and in Haiti. But, those that need help now do understand how much more fun it is sipping Patron while watching Powerpoint slides about rising sea-levels and touring native indian villages. Here’s a review of the points touched in this rant:

    A) A certain number of humans make up a self-absorbed bunch who actually believe they are the “stewards” and “masters” of the earth, when in reality they are but a random, natural occurence on an organic rock floating in space, that hold no sway over how the weather and climate act on the rock.

    B) All of this Global Warming alarmism isn’t helping other people cope with the current situtations they face. Things are happening NOW that need help NOW.

    C) I am not saying Global Warming doesn’t exist. I am saying Humans’ ability to change this global occurence doesn’t exist.

    D) There is a simpler equation that explains what is happening:

    (Current Human Population Level x Population Growth) = (Rate of Climate Change) And good luck getting Humans to stop procreating (Have you seen that TV show…)

    E) The Earth always has and always will present problems for Humans to face. Couple thousand years ago it was called “Nature”. Guess what? She will prevail.

    • Hi Brian

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right to remind us that we are just dots on a rock floating in space. I’d like my time as a dot on a rock floating in space to be as peaceful and rewarding time as possible. My guess is that most people around the world want the same but I think we’re a long way from where we could be.

      You’re right too that the Earth has been changing naturally and that it always will. But some aspects of the global climate are changing faster than at any time in human history and that there is very strong evidence that human activities that emit greenhouse gases are to blame.

      For my doctorate I studied a group of species that have been around and evolving for around 70 million years. Their story really does put our short time on Earth in perspective. It is why I have no interest in ‘saving the planet’. The planet is doing just fine. The point is that we need the planet and it doesn’t need us. Climate change is not an ‘eco’ problem or an environmental issue. It is a problem for society.

      If you accept that the greenhouse effect does exist and that human activities emit greenhouse gases — both of which are scientifically clear — then it is not ridiculous to think that a) our past activities have affected the global climate and that b) our future activities will continue to affect the global climate, for better or for worse — depending on what we choose collectively to do.

      You’re right to say that things are happening now and they need help now — but that does not exclude action on climate change. Some our current problems are directly related to the climate and others are not, but the kinds of solutions that people are proposing for climate change will bring benefits in many other areas too.

      Taking your example of Haiti, reforestation there create jobs, protect watersheds, reduce flood risks — and — absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Investments in water and housing would not only improve people’s health and livelihoods but — if done right — help communities to reduce their vulnerability to future climate-related impacts.

      Many people want us to think that we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. But we can tackle climate change and so many of the other problems we face — from unemployment and energy insecurity in urban America to drought and food insecurity in rural India — at the same time, if we want to.

      Nor is it true that there is not enough money to solve these problems. The money that countries spend on climate change is a tiny fraction of what the spend on their military, subsidies or bank bailouts.

      Your point about population is interesting but your equation is far too simple. The environmental impacts of people are not directly proportionate to their numbers. Someone living in rural Africa will consume ten or hundred or even a thousand less energy than a typical American or European.

      I wrote this blog post because I think people in different places are in different forms of denial about different aspects of climate change. I think we need to be prepared to think harder and talk more about climate change. We need to come to terms with it.

      That means we need to overcome our instincts to retreat into our established political positions or dismiss other perspectives simply because we associate them with a group, whether left or right, conservative or liberal, scientific or religious.

      It is not only “eco-types” who are concerned about climate change. Scientists are. Businesses are. Civil Society Organisations are. Governments are. Farmers are. Military Generals are. The basis for their concern is reliable information.

      Sadly, a lot of misinformation about climate change circulates too — from all kinds of sources — so we need to get better at interpreting it and sorting the wheat from the chaff.

  5. I am frightened: from what I can see of both the Executive Branch and the U.S. congress, big money plays the winning hand. Bought and paid for politicians rule the day. When there’s a dangerous cross street that calls for a traffic light, nothing is typically done until there’s a fatal car crash. I fear nothing here will be done until the coasts of Florida and The Carolinas are a memory. Or when there’s a catastrophic earthquake along the California coast. Or a devastating drought seizes the Midwest. Congress will continue to snuggle up with big-money lobbyists, until the money they are paid pales by comparison to the now-unstoppable rebellion of the planet we were nurtured by.

    • Yes, weird indeed. While some areas had record lows, others were well warmer than the average for 1951-1980. Overall, the trend for warming continues. You can see just how much using this tool from NASA.

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