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Friday, September 01, 2017

Our Fall of France moment?

For several years now I have corresponded and spoken with my young cousin once removed Ezra Silk, who works for a non-profit called the Climate Mobilization.  They believe that coping with climate change and putting the whole world on a new energy footing will require a mobilization on the scale of the Second World War, when an extraordinary percentage of our GDP was devoted to the war effort.  My last book, No End Save Victory, described how the country became committed to that course, under President Roosevelt, in 1940-1.  Such a mobilization, I have no doubt, would do enormous good for the United States (and the rest of the world) for reasons not directly related to global warming.  Because it would cost so much, it, like the Second World War, would force us to impose confiscatory marginal tax rates on high incomes.  The amount of GDP devoted to public goods would increase.  So, presumably, would employment.  All over the world, private gain would become less important while societies put huge resources into a truly common objective.  This would renew that precious resource, civic virtue.  It is the kind of mobilization Strauss and Howe predicted 20 years ago when they wrote The Fourth Turning--but nothing like it has happened yet.

To understand how it might, I return to my book and to the moment in the late spring of 1940 when the American war effort really began.  I found in my research that Franklin Roosevelt had anticipated a new world war at least since 1937, and that he would have been willing even late in that year to undertake joint naval action with the British to persuade the Japanese to halt their aggression in China.  He also anticipated American participation in a European war, he told the British Ambassador, should one break out as a result of the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938.  But when the war did break out in 1939, the most he could do was to persuade a reluctant Congress to allow France and Britain to buy arms from the United States for cash.  The vast majority of Americans did not yet regard the European war as a threat to the United States, and a significant minority opposed US involvement in an overseas war in any case. 

It took an earth-shattering catastrophe to change their minds.  In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and Norway, using surprise, speed and air power to counter British sea power, one of the cornerstones of American security. Then, on May 10, while the battle in Norway was still raging, the Germans attacked in Holland, Belgium, and France.  Within two weeks they had broken through the allied lines and reached the English channel, trapping the British Army.  France was clearly collapsing, and a great deal of informed opinion expected that Britain would be invaded if it did not agree to make peace.  Although Dunkirk saved most of the personnel of the British Army, all its heavy equipment had been lost, and the Germans briefly appeared invincible in the air.  I discovered in the archives that Roosevelt had asked an Army and a Navy planner to estimate what happen if the British Navy and the British Empire, assisted by the US, tried to carry on the war from the western hemisphere after Britain had been invaded.

The German blitzkrieg convinced the Congress and the American people that the United States itself was in peril.  Even if Britain did not fall--but especially if it did--the Germans could use their air power to leapfrog across the Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, thence to Greenland, and thence to Labrador and Newfoundland.  They might also send forces through the Pyrenees and Spain and Portugal (both ruled by Fascist dictators), into North Africa, and all the way to Dakar, in Senegal, only 1500 miles from Brazil.  The Japanese might simultaneously strike in the Far East.  The new situation called for a drastic response.  From June through September, Roosevelt called for 50,000 new aircraft, for a new naval bill that would nearly double the size of the Navy within five years, and for the first peacetime draft in US history.  The Congress passed them all. 

For some time now--and especially since the election of Donald Trump--I have been telling my cousin Ezra that only a "fall of France moment"--one or more environmental catastrophes that persuaded a critical mass of Americans that we needed drastic action to preserve our way of life--would allow us to begin the huge effort it wold take to stop global warming.  The question now is whether Hurricane Harvey might do the trick.

In many ways, a more inspiring weather event could hardly have been designed by Bill McKibben himself.  Like Hurricane Sandy, Harvey is in  many ways completely unprecedented.  It has broken many records for rainfall and may well create the largest floods of any storm in history.  And while Sandy struck the true blue northeast, Harvey has devastated the largest city in red America, inundating rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Indeed, it seems certain to get a small-scale mobilization effort going on its own, simply to repair the damage and allow Houston to return to something approaching normal life.  That will take years, during which it will be impossible to forget what it did.  Meanwhile, a scientific consensus holds that global warming has indeed contributed to the unprecedented severity of the storm.

Unfortunately, as Jane Mayer showed in Dark Money, the Koch brothers and their allies have built up an impressive climate denial industry--parallel to the isolationist lobby in 1940-1--over the last two decades.  They are committed to further reliance on fossil fuels and to climate change denial, and I do not think this is going to make them give up.  Given that the Kochs and their allies dominate our Energy Department and the EPA under Trump, it seems very unlikely that this Administration will turn tail and propose action on climate change.  In 1940 we had the leader--Roosevelt--who knew how to take advantage of the situation we faced to make things happen. Today, we do not.

Thus I do not believe that even this will provide an adequate Fall of France moment, much less that within two years we will have embarked on an all-out effort against climate change.  This is a good opportunity, however, for the Democratic Party to unite behind an unambiguous call for action based on the idea that Harvey is only the last of a whole series of devastating weather events.  The natural enemies our civilization faces today are at least as relentless as the Germans and Japanese in 1940-1.  They will strike again.  I shoed in No End Save Victory that Roosevelt's administration had figured out what had to be done to defeat our enemies months before we entered the war. That is what we must do now.  The logic of events may well do the rest.


Energyflow said...

The vision thing. Conservatives per definition are skeptical about change. Darwin's theory, ending slavery, women voting, unionizing, welfare state, foreign involvement, civil rights all needed either a long transition or an extreme social shock to be enacted or accepted against natural inertia. The energy transition and climate change are no different. This will be the case regardless of politics. The USA could disappear tomorrow but enough CO2 is in the air to force a change in our behaviour and fracking is squeezing the last drops out of the barrel. However alt energy is unreliable, less intensive so that this will be supplementary and then only support a much reduced standard of living. Obviously conservatives live more in rural or growth areas where energy use is more intensive so there is more resistance to that, similar to chinese who need to catch up to European/American living standards. Shock is coming from reality. We are on a roller oaster of high, then low enegy prices depending on the oil majors investment cycle, debt, etc. disrupting our economic life since 1973. Secondly increasing numbers of extreme weather phenomenon are forcing even conservative skeptics to rethink(1 in 1000 year floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, multi year droughts, polar vortex, melting arctic). These two basic factors are the fundamental basis of our society, i.e. nature and its response to us and our use of energy to run our daily lives. If we as a society deal apppropriately to these changes, meaning in our sense peacefully, rationally, redistributing less to everyone evenly as the pie shrinks and freak weather gets worse is doubtful. One often points to small countries like Denmark as a positive example. If Maine were independent it could do the same. Since the revolution greater centralization of power and ideals based on concepts originating in Washington and north in general has been the rule. Homeland security and police state like control via facebook and google are just the latest steps. What in the 60s was the end of 'jim crow' by state militias has become a subtle PC thought control online. How much centralization can we accept when the system starts to crumble that we have built up? If states like Illinois and Calpers fuunds start going bankrupt, infrastructure is left to rot at 3rd world level for decades(D grade from civil engineers nationally) while we pour a trillion dollars into Afghanistan, nowhere in fact, while opioid epidemic due to zero future hopes of middle class bliss with family, house spreads, then what are we talking about adding an extra layer of alt energy infrastructure. Triage on America will likely be involuntary as noone will agree but the money will have run out. Security state will try to control crime due to increased poverty. Military adventures may be gradually cut short as resistance in the world to big brother USA grows and impatience with decay at home worsens.

Essentially what you are suggesting is what we have always done up until now for a crisis, pull together, centralize, invest massively. Maybe we need to save, downgrade, decentralize. If our standard of living is way beyond our means then we have to pull in our belts not double down with alt tech to try to maintain the illusion. America is big and in several generations when fossil fuels are certainly depleted climate will determine if Texas, Arizona, L.A. are comfortable to live in. Alaska could also depopulate without cheap heating oil. A wind mill is not good for transport. Electric cars will never be what petrleum engines are. Local, denser living will be more important. Suburbs will be inefficient.

Energyflow said...

(Cont.)American suburbia, skyscrapers, military dominance is based on oil. With its demise America will fall back on itself and internally will fracture, localize. The key now is to avoid the pitfalls of war, civil conflict which could greatly accelerate the process of decline from greatness. Old ppeople can age gracefully or foolishly run around pretending to be young. Let's not do that. Such projects just waste precious resources best used elsewhere.

Bozon said...


Interesting post.

You bring up environmental problems...call them natural enemies,...good point; yet problems themselves caused in part by unregulated and underregulated liberal global developments, in large part. (Here we are not talking about an asteroid strike of course.) I agree the current leadership wiil do nothing about them.

We have armed most of these natural enemies to the teeth with our policies, policies which the West (which was in control) need not have ever put in place.

It was, after all, the dream of liberal globalist progressives, in the later 18th and 19th and into the 20th Centuries, which got us all, finally to this point, blithely booming large undeveloped areas and enormous populations, booming to fight Communism after WWII, helter skelter off shored industrialization, to a point of environmental degradation, global warming, resource scarcity, widespread poverty, gross overpopulation, vast income inequality on the one hand, and even more horrifying income convergence for all erstwhile well off Westerners on the other, rather than universal and peaceful multicultural prosperity, and other good idealistic things.

There will be no Marshall Plan for the global environment. Had the West been more united, around 1800, and had maintained control of the globe, that would have been feasible, but that dream rapidly faded through the 19th Century.

We here have shown that we cannot even manage hurricane relief effectively. Why would anyone think we had useful ideas for transnational initiatives?

All the best

Bozon said...

Just another note or two.
It was a sign of deep developmental problems here that new Orleans was allowed to continue in its dilapidated infrastructure state.

It was a terrible sign that a place like Houston was ever even allowed to flourish shere it was sited.

Reminds me of how my father contracted rheumatic fever, and sat out WWII typing: his training center had been sited in a mosquito swamp on the Gulf Coast by the federal government!

All the best

Unknown said...

Uh...just one point regarding Hurricane Harvey: the only reason it caused so much flooding is that there were 2 blocking high pressure areas that refused to allow the storm to take its normal northerly course into the interior. Harvey stalled...and just dumped rain on the same area fro a prolonged period. The existence of the two high pressure areas have nothing to do with climate change. It was simply a random atmospheric condition. Attributing climate change to Harvey seems a huge stretch by anyone's imagination. And how many years has it been since the contnental United States has been struck by a major hurricane. It has been pretty quiet for a number of years. There have always been hurricanes in the past. David, I don't see Harvey, or Irma for that matter, convincing people in large numbers that climate change must be addressed as you suggest. Storms come and go...and are foirgotten quickly. Now war...that gets people's attention...

Bozon said...

Sorry to post another comment here. I especially wanted to agree with Steven Winsor. You could even ignore my last remarks, and his would be enough.

Just went through the Irma debacle down here. The hype far outpaced the reality,in most places, sad to say.

Thousands and thousands of people needlessly took it deadly serious, in my judgment. Probably a good number died or had their lives shortened in the sad panic process. One could discuss this issue of the media coverage, and gross hype, at great length, nothing will change.

Old Florida hands like me could see long ago that it was likely to hug the peninsula while travelling north and weaken like a kitten.

Last night, I hardly knew there was a storm out there. People a block away had been ordered to evacuate, very late in the game, a desperate measure for very many people here.

All the best

Ed Boyle said...

This shows difficulties of alt energy

Bob H said...

Professor thank you for this post. It seems that you have been mentioning climate change more often in the last year than previously This is a refreshing change, because climate change belongs at the top of all our discussions. It will present challenges to our civilization unlike those we have ever seen before, similar to the Nazi threat but much worse. It will will be "grinding and inexorable, and effect all nations simultaneously," as Vice Admiral Truly noted in the Center for Naval Analysis' Military Advisory Board report, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," 2007.

We truly will need a Manhattan Project level of effort to address it, and the fact that we are only very slowly getting around to doing so will compound the difficulties for the next generation as it surely will realize the need.

Bob H said...

I should note that Steven Winsor's comment above, that Harvey's flooding had nothing to do with climate change, is badly incorrect.

It's true that the Houston's record rainfall was related to the lack of a jet stream sending Harvey somewhere else, but there are a significant number of atmospheric scientists beginning to attribute recent changes in jet stream patterns, such as we saw with Harvey, to climate change-related reduction in temperature gradient between the tropics and the poles. Admittedly the science is young on this point so it is too early to conclude this definitively. But it is not too early to conclude that Harvey created that tremendous amount of rain water because the Gulf of Mexico had warmed significantly due to our changed climate.

In fact, it is no longer an overstatement to assert that *every* water-related weather event in the world today has been made more intense due to our carbon dioxide pollution. The frequent stirring of the atmosphere has ensured that the extra heat energy kept in the atmosphere (and from there, put into the oceans), has made today's weather more powerful than what we grew up with as kids. While we cannot directly attribute a cheating baseball player's single home run to his steroid use, we also cannot deny that the drugs made every one of his at-bats more likely to hit long distances.

I do agree with Mr. Winsor that Harvey and Irma, even had it hit the US strongly, are insufficient to move the ball dramatically on Americans' willingness to act. Those of us who know the facts on climate change must fight the indifference and misinformation everywhere we can for as long as it takes.

Unknown said...

Bob, are you a climate scientist?

My favorite one is Dr. Judith Curry, until recently the chair of the Gergia Tech Atmospheric Sciences department. I follow her commentary on her blog and when she confirms that 'climate change' (oh heck, let's call it by its proper apocalyptic name 'global warning'), then I'll take note and get properly terrified of climate change.

And when eminent physicist Freeman Dyson gets excited about climate change, I'll get the same way. He actually thinks there could be a greening of the earth that would be beneficial. How about that, Bob?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.