Thursday, December 13, 2018

Deniers, Pearl Harbor and Climate Change

Pearl Harbor in the 1880s My father was a young high school teacher in Florida on December 7, 1941. Following Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army and made it his career, including in Army intelligence assessing future security threats.

I once asked him what he thought, on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, were our chances of winning the war. His answer was “not good”. He was confident in 1941 that America would fight courageously, and could build a massive military force, and that our role as the arsenal of democracy could prove decisive. But the key question was whether there was enough time left?

For people of my generation and those younger, World War II looks like a familiar movie about a football team that storms back from a terrible first half to win the big game. The problem is that since we already know that the story has a good ending, we have become dangerously oblivious to the reality that we very nearly lost that war. And there’s an important lesson in that for us today as we face another profound threat to our world – that of climate change.

President Franklin Roosevelt had been trying desperately to get recognition of the tremendous scale of the threats to America, and of the need to join directly into the war against Adolph Hitler even as he tried to buy time to build up our forces facing a possible war with Japan. But isolationists kept hindering such actions, claiming that the threats of Hitler or the Japanese were not clear enough, and denying the seriousness of these threats to the U.S. By the time Pearl Harbor forced us into war, we were at a high risk of losing that war, and without some luck, we probably would have.

The most decisive piece of luck was Hitler’s underestimation of the Russians. Hitler was sure his surprise attack in June 1941 would defeat Russia before the snows came, and allow Germany to turn its full might to the western front. He misread Russia’s staying capacity. Estimates are that well over 16 million Russians died, meaning more than 40 Russian deaths for every American one. Over two-thirds of the German military deaths in World War II were on the eastern front.

By the time of the bold invasion of Allied forces at Normandy, we were facing a weakened enemy that still had over half of its forces fighting the Russians. Indeed, if Russia had collapsed in 1941-42, the delayed U.S. entry into the war until after Pearl Harbor would probably have been too late to be decisive.

This lesson in the danger of failing to confront a grave threat by denying its importance, or even its existence, resonates strongly for us today. Most Americans recognize the reality of climate change. However, they don’t fully understand the truly catastrophic impacts it will have unless we make major changes quickly to curb greenhouse gases. There is increasing evidence that the rate of many types of climate change impacts, such as melting polar ices caps and rising sea waters, is accelerating even faster than predicted earlier. And the onset of catastrophic climate change will not be a sudden single event like a Pearl Harbor. If we continue to wait for the catastrophes to be fully upon us, we will likely have waited too long to be able to reverse many of the worst changes, which may already have gone over key “tipping points”.

We need to join all the other countries of the world now, and to bring the full power of the world’s largest economy and its strongest technology development machine to bear on these threats. We need to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and to lead on the additional actions that are needed to win against climate change.

Those who denied the threats from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan came very close to losing our country and world as we know it. We cannot afford to let the denial of science and of the overwhelming evidence of climate change destroy our world in the 21st century. We are running out of time.

Photo of Pearl Harbor in the 1880s courtesy Hawaii State Archives.

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Lance Clark is a former United Nations Ambassador with 35 years of experience in international work, focusing on emergency relief in conflicts, forcible displacements, early warning of conflicts, and peace operations and peacebuilding. This includes working in places such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Iraq, Chechnya, Georgia (former USSR), Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and other countries. He has served in the United Nations, the Refugee Policy Group, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, and the Peace Corps. He has a BA degree in History from Johns Hopkins University and a Masters in Social Psychology from Cornell University. He and his wife Nancy now live in Hague, New York.




18 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    This analogy is right on in terms of seriousness.

  2. tom prevost says:

    The unspoken analogy here is there are two fronts. We have a long term war to win. This will take hundreds of yeas before we see a meaningful return. We also have the current battles to win. With changing global warming, we are seeing our lakes and warming to the point they are no longer supporting our native species of trout. We are seeing rivers that 50 years ago held an unlimited supply of trout. They now contain stunted small mouth bass that can survive in waters with lower oxygen content. We are seeing our boreal forest decrease as with the shorter winters invasive insects decimating them to be replaced by oaks and hickories. We are seeing species like zebra mussels entering our lakes as they become warm enough to support them. We have to concerned that recent federal legislation will return our water ways back to the acid lifeless water of the 50-60s. Along with fighting the war, we must put substantial effort into fighting the immediate battles. That entails researching ways to deal with these immediate problems.

  3. Larry Roth says:

    The biggest obstacle to acting on Climate Change is the vast inertia from people who will resist doing anything until something hits them personally – and maybe not even then. Consider how many people know that being overweight leads to all kinds of problems, how many are inconvenienced or worse by being overweight – and yet they do nothing. It takes something like a heart attack or the onset of diabetes before they begin to make the changes they must – if they want to live.

    Now consider the larger problem of all the things that depend on ignoring the consequences of putting carbon into the atmosphere; specifically the billions of dollars worth of fossil fuels that would become worthless if we added the cost of the damage they do. Think of all the businesses that depend on people doing what they’ve always done. Think of the government programs that support the status quo.

    If the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, one wonders how much longer they would have had to consolidate their gains before the US responded. As it is, we are way behind the times when it comes to taking action. Even if we went to zero carbon this instant – a physical impossibility – the effect of all the carbon already in the air and the heat that has already been absorbed by the planet will continue to be felt for centuries.

    Think of it like a pot of water boiling on the stove. If you turn off the heat, it doesn’t instantly become cold. If you have something in the oven baking, it will continue to cook even with the heat off – unless you take it out to cool. Not an option for an entire planet.

    Denial is strong. New York State continues to make plans for the Adirondacks and pursue policies that completely ignore climate change, where acknowledging it would force those policies to either be modified or abandoned – and upset particular constituencies.

    If you look at the paperwork the state is putting out to justify removing rail lines from the Adirondacks, you find little or no mention of the role of transportation in putting carbon in the air – yet around 25% of US carbon emissions come from transportation. Rail is one of the most energy efficient means to move goods and people; the Netherlands runs their electrified rail system on wind power – zero carbon emissions. Every mile of rail line turned to trail is a commitment to highways as the only means of getting around – and the carbon emissions that will create.

    The APA is about to decide on a redefinition of travel corridors to include roads, rails – and rail trails, as though they were all the same thing. Roads and rails do transportation; trails only do recreation. What comes out of the decision on that will be a strong indication of how seriously the state views the problem of climate change.

    • Boreas says:

      You are correct, they are not the same uses. But not all rails provide transportation, as it takes more than rails to move people. It requires an effective carrier, demand, and customers. And bike trails can obviously allow bike and foot transportation – just not mass-transit.

      But the likely decision this week that you refer to is that the definition will be changed to “allow” both rail and trail on existing corridors. That change alone will not change much of anything. But it would allow for changes in the future, allowing rail alone, rail+trail, and trail alone, which currently is not possible.

      • Larry Roth says:

        Nice spin on what is an end run around the court decision, to allow them to rip out the rails in the Tri-Lakes while claiming it’s now going to be legal because they are redefining travel corridor.

        You want an effective carrier, demand, and customers, invest in the line. It’s that simple – and more important than ever in the face of what’s coming. Trails will not do anything to mitigate climate change or create more resiliency in the region. They will not diversify the area’s economy. Restoring the rail line to full function will.

        In the EIS for the 2016 ‘compromise’ plan, there was not one mention of climate change. Even now DEC seems reluctant to use the words as it keeps building snowmobile trails, and the state works to make the Olympic sites year-round attractions, because their days as winter recreation facilities are numbered. But nobody wants to talk about that.

      • Larry Roth says:

        Nice spin on what is an end run around the court decision, to allow them to rip out the rails in the Tri-Lakes while claiming it’s now going to be legal because they are redefining travel corridor. That still doesn’t address historic preservation laws or the easement questions – the state still maintains those are not problems. Wrong.

        You want an effective carrier, want demand, and customers, invest in the line. It’s that simple – and more important than ever in the face of what’s coming. Trails will not do anything to mitigate climate change or create more resiliency in the region. They will not diversify the area’s economy. Restoring the rail line to full function will.

        In the EIS for the 2016 ‘compromise’ plan, there was not one mention of climate change. Even now DEC seems reluctant to use the words as it keeps building snowmobile trails, and the state works to make the Olympic sites year-round attractions, because their days as winter recreation facilities are numbered. But nobody wants to talk about that, not where it would upset the status quo.

        • Boreas says:

          As you stated, “What comes out of the decision on that will be a strong indication of how seriously the state views the problem of climate change.”

          As I stated, the vote today itself isn’t going to change much regardless of the vote outcome. All it does is “allow” additional uses, at least what I have read about it – including side-by-side rail+trail options. And as you stated, any usage changes will have to address the historic and easement issues.

          But I believe we both agree in general terms that what the state does in the future is critical. How they evaluate the potential carbon footprint of ANY corridor usage will hopefully be a strong consideration.

  4. Bill D. says:

    Excellently expressed and very timely on December 7th. Because news is transitory and theme-driven I’d urge that this piece be re-released next Dec.1 to national news services. It deserves to be read nationally; internationally. And unfortunately there’s no risk that this subject will become “old news.”

  5. David Thomas-Train says:

    The gravity of the threat is such that need a national mobilization on climate change, akin to that we carried out during World War II.

  6. Balian the Cat says:

    Nice piece. I only hope that, looking back generations later, scholars will tell of a “miraculous five minutes over Midway” as it played out in environmental terms. A seemingly impossible pivot point that turned the tide and saved the day…and all of the days after it.

  7. Naj Wikoff says:

    We can start by working with our elected leaders to set goals for radically reducing carbon emissions within our state, counties, cities, towns and villages, and launch intergenerational initiatives in every Adirondack community to reduce our use of carbon-based products, maximize recycling, weatherize homes, and so on and so forth. We need to be mindful that many people of modest means are getting hit the hardest by climate change. We need to break down the silos between us if are to succeed.

  8. Gerry Rising says:

    To the deniers: This is like a bet. If you are right we will still replace fossil fuels with solar; if you are wrong we lose the planet. Easy choice.

  9. Aaron says:

    10000 years ago we were under a mile of ice. We would still be there if the cave man had fewer campfires. We are Kidding ourselves if we think we can control the climate. How do you fly a 747 without fossil fuel. Get real people. Chicken livers was wrong. The sky is not falls.

    • Smitty says:

      That was an excellent article and the threat of WWII is a good analogy. This is not chicken little. It doesn’t mean that air travel needs to be eliminated. But the more we reduce carbon emissions the slower and lesser the impacts of climate change, giving us time to adjust. I’m a firm believer in revenue neutral carbon tax. It’s the most effective way to affect behavior change that still allows individual choice and an orderly transition to reduce carbon output. The social cost of carbon emission should be reflected in the cost of burning carbon-based fuel. And as a benefit to everyone, taxes can be reduced accordingly.

    • Larry Roth says:

      10,000 years ago, there were a few billion less humans. If you think humans don’t affect the climate, you’re kidding yourself.

      Ask the Buffalo what the Great Plains are like now that the prairie grass ecosystem is gone and the streams are drying up because all the ground water is being pumped away to grow corn and hamburgers. Go walk through the lush forests that used to surround the Mediterranean, and see how the Cedars of Lebanon are doing. Go visit the dustbowl that used to be Lake Baikal. Travel to Africa and see if there’s still snow on Kilamanjaro. Ask the people of India if the spring snow melt in the Himalayas is still filling rivers. Go rafting down the Colorado River while you still can, before they have to shut it down to keep Lake Mead from going dry – and don’t even try to follow the river to the sea. It doesn’t go there any more, except by special arrangement.

      Chicken Little was right. (You didn’t even get his name right.) It is happening now, it is happening here, and everywhere.

  10. Paul says:

    This one is easy. We already have a zero emission type of power called nuclear that is totally compatible with the current power grid that we already have. This is why some countries like France and Norway have already far exceeded the goals of the Paris accord. Problem solved, next!

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