What’s Next on Climate Change? Let’s Hope it’s a “Poland Moment”

March 6, 2014

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Nothing unites human beings as quickly as a common threat. But even a common threat can take a long time to do the job.

German invasions took down Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway before “appeasement” was fully discredited.  Britain’s comfortable classes virtually had to see German guns across the water before they heeded Winston Churchill’s repeated calls to arms. In the end, the Allies stopped Adolf Hitler’s march – just barely.

The Second World War was the unifying struggle of the western democracies. But we came late and slow to the fight.

German soldiers remove Polish government insignia, 1939

German soldiers remove Polish government insignia, 1939. Source: German federal archive

Humans are brought together by shared experiences. In the century or two since human society has been an interconnected whole, no single and simultaneous global struggle has cemented our shared humanity. Today, we are united more by shallow popular entertainments, consumer goods, and designer brands than by values.

The last decade’s “global war on terror” came close to being such a common struggle, with its universal moral element. Popular revulsion of terrorist attacks reinforced the human preference for tolerance, social integration, and peace everywhere. But the legitimacy of that struggle got dissipated in places like Iraq and Guantanamo.  Democratic leadership did not rise to that occasion as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had to the totalitarian threat.

What challenges lie on this century’s horizon that might similarly threaten people around the world – threaten us enough to make us articulate, and stand up to defend, common values with the kind of selflessness and integrity they deserve?

Today the clear candidate is the creeping environmental disaster that comes from rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. This is mainly due to our sustained burning of natural gas, oil, and coal.

While the immediacy of this threat can still be debated, we are now as certain as we can be that it will raise sea levels and storm severity. This will inundate coastlines, low islands, and river deltas where our fellow humans live in large numbers. It will also increase drought, desertification, and erosion, while wreaking havoc with ecosystems and crops, and reducing the availability of fresh water. And this will happen in our and our children’s lifetimes.

Global average sea level change

Global average sea level change. Source: IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis

With atmospheric carbon concentrations now around 400 parts per million, this has already well begun. If this were fascism’s march across Europe, we would be in about March of 1939. That is, we might be somewhere just after Franco’s triumph in Spain, but just before Hitler’s sweep into Denmark and Norway.

If so, then the next step, metaphorically, would be the fall of Poland: an impossible-to-ignore moment that tumbles us from mere nagging unease into real, constant fear.

Our response today is still the familiar mix of denial, helplessness, and isolationism. “It might not be that bad.” “It’s beyond anything we can do.” “We’ll take care of ourselves somehow.” While a few of us may get rid of our cars, put solar panels on our roofs, and fly less, this is like watching adventurous individuals go off to fight fascism with the International Brigades in Spain in 1937. While theirs are commendable sacrifices, they are not widely enough shared, and thus will not change the outcome. A fall-of-Poland moment would make this all too clear.

British troops retreating from Dunkirk, France, 1940.

British troops retreating from Dunkirk, France, 1940. Source: U.S. War Department

President Obama’s climate plan, on which this writer has already commented, is much better than the defeatism that Churchill despised. But it is much less than a Churchillian call to make the sacrifices needed to fight the war to victory. Even the un-ignorable fall-of-Poland moment (indeed, even a fall-of France moment – a disaster that brings the wolves to our very doors) will draw further denial, helplessness, and isolationism.

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