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What are the 20th Century’s lessons for the Climate Crisis? Pragmatism, Unity and Urgency

What are the 20th Century’s lessons for the Climate Crisis? Pragmatism, Unity and Urgency

The 20th Century's Lessons for the Climate Crisis? Pragmatism, Unity, and Urgency

Walter G. Moss is an Eastern Michigan University professor emeritus and a Contributing editor of HNN. He is also the author of An Age of Progress Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). Click here for a list his latest books and online publications. Here.

President Joseph R. Biden speaks at the 2021 Conference of Parties Meeting (COP26).



Our planet is being affected by climate change. Flooding, wildfires and scorching heat, Intense hurricanesRecent signs of the wartime-like horrors to come were evident in the summer 2021. A new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with almost 4,000 pages and 234 authors, was published in August 2021. Please indicateFires, floods and other frightening occurrences will only increase if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Another August 2021 Report. “State of the Climate in 2020,”The situation was equally dire.


A few months later, on November 1, 2021, at the COP26 climate summit held in Glasgow by U.S. President Joe Biden Warned: “To state the obvious, we meet with the eyes of history upon us and the profound questions before us. It’s simple, will we act, will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the huge opportunity we have before us, or will we leave future generations in pain? . . . The world is already suffering from climate change. . . . It’s not a hypothetical threat. It’s destroying people’s lives and livelihoods and doing it every single day.”


At the same summit, UN secretary general António Guterres: “It’s time to say ‘enough’ . . . .  Enough with carbon. . . . We are digging ourselves our own graves. Our planet is changing before our eyes—from the ocean depths to mountain tops; from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events.” 


Yet, “many world leaders Expressions of disappointmentWith the final [Glasgow] agreement,” indicating it was insufficient. Simply put, not enough people are alarmed. Extreme political polarization in the United States is a major hindrance to climate-change action. A U.S. summer 2020 poll showed that most voters, particularly Republicans, consider it to be a problem. There are many other important issues.. One year later, most Republicans, along with the oil, gas and coal companies that support their politicians, opposed measures to seriously reduce emissions. If you’re willing to admit that climate change could be a serious future problem, many thought optimistically that we’ll come up with new technology to fix climate-change concerns.


Another problem is that people who are concerned about climate change can get distracted easily.  The coronavirus, Afghanistan, voting rights, Trump’s latest antics, legislative battles over President Biden’s proposals, the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, who our new Supreme Court justice will be–any one of these, for example, can distract us from lasering in on climate change and then keeping it as our central focus.


Obama was president more than a dozen year ago Submitted, “Few challenges facing America–and the world–are more urgent than combating climate change.” In 2021 he reiterated his concern. When asked on what issue will people judge us most harshly for in 100 years, he replied: “Well, if we don’t get a handle on climate change, then if there’s anybody around to judge us, they’ll judge us pretty harshly on it, because the data is here. It is obvious. And we have the tools to make real progress with it.” 


Thus, at this crucial time we historians may ask ourselves, “Does our knowledge of history provide any help in awakening and uniting people to fight the great danger we face?


Two years ago, I asked the same question on this site. “Are Historians Doing Enough to Address Climate Change?” I quoted Ohio State historian Sam White, who wrote that few historians “examine the historical factors and decisions that led us to fossil-fuel dependence, climate change denial, and political and diplomatic gridlock on climate policy, with an eye to identifying changes that might bring us out of our current impasse.”


The essay that follows attempts to contribute to overcoming our “impasse” by examining a few instances of how and why nations failed to act against earlier great threats and what actions leaders finally took to mobilize their citizens. Two examples immediately spring to mind: the initial failures in dealing with the causes and early effects of the Great Depression in 1929 and the failures of nations to confront the growing dangers posed by Nazism in the 1930s. The leadership of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), and Winston Churchill was crucial when these grave threats were finally faced. (Even though the USSR played a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany, Stalin was the one who first gave Hitler the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939.


Late 1932 saw one of every four U.S. workers go unemployed. In Germany, the ratio was even higher, and helped lead to Adolf Hitler’s coming to power in early 1933.  The Depression also affected most of the rest of world, as historian Niall Ferguson explains. Submitted, it “was an economic catastrophe unmatched before or since.” The human suffering and long-range damage it caused, including making a second world war more probable, are incalculable.


Like today’s climate crisis, the causes of the Depression were multiple and complex. The two crises are also similar in being ineffectively dealt with in their early stages, the Depression from late 1929 to early 1933, and today’s climate crisis, Minimum 1988.


Republican Herbert Hoover was the U.S. president at the beginning of the Depression. Although Kenneth Whyte’s 2017 book HooverAlthough this has helped to correct the negative perception of his subject, it is clear that he did not manage the Depression well. Robert Dallek’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt (also 2017) tells us that by late 1932, Hoover “became the butt of vaudeville comedians.”   In the November 1932 election Roosevelt swept the Electoral College vote, 472 to 59. Hoover’s own words at the end of his term indicate how bad things had gotten: a “steadily degenerating confidence in the future which had reached the height of general alarm. . . . We are in a pitiful position.”


Part of Hoover’s failure stemmed from his overemphasis on “American Individualism,” the title of a book he wrote in 1922, and on his inflexibility. In 1932 he stated that “Federal aid would be a disservice to the unemployed.” In contrast, FDR was more open-minded, more flexible. He was a mid-1932. The belief was shared that our individualism needs to be balanced by more social planning, but also that our “country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”


Hoover was a better leader than he thought, but he still had to overcome deep divisions in our country. Dallek provides more background.

There “was the deep cultural divide between urban and rural Americans, or modernists and fundamentalists.” Moreover, “rural folks who aggressively supported ideas and traditions largely in harmony with their established way of life” felt threatened by the growing dominance of the big cities. Many of these people distrusted all southern and eastern European immigrants who arrived in cities before the 1924 National Origins Act discriminated towards them and Asians. “The belief that these groups could never be turned into citizens who fully accepted Anglo-Saxon economic and political traditions” was widespread.


Dallek’s conclusion? “If Roosevelt was to find the means to overcome the nation’s crisis, it would have to rest on shared support from every region and every ethnic, religious, and racial group.” As with today’s climate crisis, more national unity was needed. Our nation was willing to give FDR another chance in November 1932.


In his 1933-1935, The Coming of the New Deal, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. quotes journalist Walter Lippmann, who described the contrast from Hoover’s last days to FDR’s first hundred days: “At the end of February we were a congeries of disorderly panic-stricken mobs and factions. In the hundred days from March to June we became again an organized nation confident of our power to provide for our own security and to control our own destiny.”


In Introduction to the 2003 edition of his book, Schlesinger wrote that “under the pressure of national crisis, FDR came into his own. . . . He was more interested than consensus in creativity. He did not mind competition and rivalry within his administration; he rather encouraged it.” As Schlesinger explained in his original text, “Competition in government . . . . Ensure that it is properly controlled . . It could also mean extraordinary creativity. One consequence of the New Deal. . . . was a constant infusion of vitality and ideas.” Dallek writes of the “experimental temperament of the New Deal” and refers to FDR as “ever the pragmatist.”

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The person on the left has their face in their elbow, the person on the right is wearing a face mask with a hand on their forehead. Behind them both is smoke and fog.


FDR and other anti Nazi leaders faced similar problems in coping with the Nazi threat in 1933.


The first was a lack of unity between nations and within political groups. There was a fundamental ideological divide between the Soviet Union (especially Great Britain and France) and Western democracies when they were opposing Hitler. Only after Germany invaded the USSR on June 1941, did necessity establish a European anti-Nazi alliance. And, despite FDR’s attempts to help the Churchill-led Great Britain in 1940 and 1941, not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the subsequent German declaration of war against the USA did we enter WWII against Germany–more than two years after Britain and France had declared war.


Political and ideological differences within nations also hindered a united will to oppose Hitler. FDR was prevented by isolationists from doing more to aid European countries that were bullied and then attacked by Germany in the USA. Many European countries opposed Hitler hated and feared the USSR and communism just as much as the German Nazis.


Only mid- and late 1941, following the German attack against the USSR and then subsequent Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, did Japanese and German aggression create the conditions for a Grand Alliance of America, Great Britain and the USSR to emerge, led by Stalin, Churchill, FDR and Churchill. This alliance was maintained for nearly four years by necessity, but it was ended when the common enemies were defeated.


Global forces need to unite again against a deadly threat, in order to combat a climate crisis that is nearly as grave and threatening as the Great Depression. It is far more complex and multidimensional that either Nazism nor the Depression. 


The complexity of it is strongly suggested in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future: An Original (2020). About the author: Bill McKibben is a prominent environmentalist Submitted that he “is an essential authority for our time and place.” New York TimesColumnist Ezra Klein labelled the novel “The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year.”And former President Obama It is listedHe cited it as one of his top books for 2020.


Among the many problems, issues, and complexities Robinson deals with in are direct effects of climate change, like a deadly heat wave that kills 20 million people in India; various means of dealing with the effects, like “staining the open Arctic Ocean yellow, to keep sunlight from penetrating deep into the water and cooking them all,” and creating new monetary instruments like “carbon coins”; people’s social and political reactions to climate-change consequences, e.g., strikes and terrorism; and capitalist resistance and various biases and non-rational mindsets to many climate-change solutions.


We (people and nations) must not only unify, but also show the same openness and pragmatism as FDR in dealing with the Depression of the 1930s.


It is still unclear if we will, or if we will squabble, bicker and attack each other.

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