You almost need an outside interpreter, like what Austrian writer-in-exile Stefan Zweig was when he witnessed what was happening in the British House of Commons on September 28, 1938. “At that moment the Parliament of Britain ran wild—an almost unprecedented event in the country’s history. MPs leapt to their feet, shouting and applauding. The galleries echoed with jubilation. The honourable old House had not been in the grip of such an outburst of elation for years and years as it was at that moment.”
What was the nature of this celebration? Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just been handed a note and interrupted his own speech to announce: “I have now been informed by Herr Hitler that he invites me to meet him at Munich tomorrow morning.” The hope of a possible “peace for our time” was saved at the last moment and Zweig recalls, “In human terms, it was a wonderful sight to see how genuine enthusiasm for the thought that peace could be preserved overcame the reserved, stiff-upper-lip attitude generally displayed by the British with such virtuoso skill.”
Chamberlain subsequently returned from Germany two days later, landing at Croydon airfield, waving the Munich Agreement for the newsreel cameras to see. Later that evening at 10 Downing St., he proclaimed via radio, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
Stefan Zweig wrote his memoirs The World of Yesterday three years later in 1942—that is, after Hitler had consumed Czechoslovakia, captured France, barraged Great Britain, and killed his first American GIs. Writing from this vantage point, Zweig doesn’t look back to the Munich Agreement and vilify Chamberlain nor berate British naiveté. Instead he recognizes himself and our common humanity in the elation surrounding Chamberlain’s famous but tragic pronouncement. Nobody in Britain wanted to relive the deprivations of the Great War. Zweig writes:
Anyone who tries to deny in retrospect that he was bewitched by those magic words is a liar. Who could believe that a man coming home defeated would stage a triumphal procession? That morning, if the vast majority of Londoners had known precisely when Chamberlain would be arriving back from Munich, hundreds of thousands would have been waiting at the airfield in Croydon to welcome and applaud him as the man who, so we all thought at the time, had saved the peace of Europe and the honour of Britain.
Last week, I had read these pages in Zweig’s book on the same day that our new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was interviewed on CNBC, a business network. The question posed to him was, “Do you believe that its been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate? Do you believe that?”
Pruitt responded: "No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” When the interviewer tried to interrupt, Pruitt added the standard Republican qualifier: “but we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the review and the analysis.”
Pruitt was essentially broadcasting to the nation: “I myself have met with the science of carbon dioxide, and am happy to report that we have nothing to worry about yet. We have the leisure to continue to review and analyze. I believe it is climate peace for our time. Go home and have a nice quiet sleep.”
Pruitt’s comments were reported widely, but almost never without extra commentary. Even CNBC returned the next day to editorialize: “Recently, new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said that he does not agree that carbon dioxide emissions are a primary contributor to global warming. This is, of course, simply not true. And he should realize that he is hurting the American people and our economy when he tries to inject doubt into proven science.” CNBC even tried to make the rational business argument to the pro-industry EPA head: “Businesses thrive when they make smart decisions based on the best available information. . . . That's why even oil companies like ConocoPhillips recommend the U.S. stay in the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. It's also one of the reasons dozens of Fortune 500 companies are moving to meet all of their electricity needs with 100 percent renewable energy.”
What Pruitt said about CO2 not being the primary contributor to global warming—“this is, of course, simply not true.” But the first reaction to Pruitt’s comments came from his interviewer, Joe Kernen, and I think an outside observer like Stefan Zweig would have been astute enough to see what was at work in Kernen’s reaction and to know that therein lies the meaning. Kernen appeared visibly relieved. He was almost giddy. His response came in two parts. First, he said, “It’s, it’s, it’s a. . . I agree, when I hear the science is settled, it’s like, I never heard that science had actually gotten to a point where it was. That’s the whole point of science, that you keep asking questions, you keep asking questions.” Then secondly, he added: “But I don’t want to be called a denier. So, you know, it scares me. It’s a terrible thing to be called. Anyway, Administrator Pruitt, I know you don’t want to be called that either.”
Why does Kernen respond with such theatrics? The difference between the two parts of his response is the difference between Europe pre-1939 and Europe post-1945. The term “denier” is so scary and terrible for Kernen because it has its origin in the phrase “Holocaust denier.” There are people today who publicly assert that the Holocaust never happened and that six million Jews were not exterminated by Hitler. Truthfully, the term “denier” is an after-the-fact thing, a denial that something didn’t happen that in fact did. It is therefore premature, and thus mere propaganda, for climate activists to begin labeling Pruitt, Kernen, or anyone else a “climate denier.” What Kernen reveals in the first part of his response, is that he prefers the other popular term, “climate skeptic,” because after all, isn’t skepticism what science is all about, the continual asking of question upon question? Kernen and Pruitt and other climate skeptics can thus appear wise and steady.
There is no comparable word for “Holocaust skeptic.” In 1938, even though reports about concentration camps were trickling in from troubled Jewish sources, there was no one who said, “Actually, I’m a Holocaust skeptic. We need to study the situation in Europe a little more thoroughly.” And yet, there were people who were skeptical. They couldn’t believe that Hitler could be such a monster, that the German people would allow such barbarity, that the Nazis would disregard all treaties and European order, that Hitler would revisit the Great War on his own people. They couldn’t believe that God himself would allow war to sweep the continent after only a twenty year respite. One war per lifetime, please O God. Chamberlain thought, “Just let Hitler satisfy his ambitions in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia and he will leave the rest of us alone.” There was no word for skeptic, but there was the word “appeaser,” and it is a word that has grown to be just as odious. Chamberlain was an appeaser. He abandoned Czechoslovakia in order to purchase some more false hope for his own people.
Perhaps that’s what Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party are: they are not climate skeptics, they are climate appeasers. Skepticism, yes, does have a treasured function within science, but when skepticism is driven by denial instead of honest inquiry it becomes something different. It takes measures and employs delaying tactics, it falsely seeks to hold an encroaching reality at arm’s length, it indulges fantasy. It strikes bargains and makes trade-offs. Chamberlain gave away Czechoslovakia. Pruitt, on behalf of America, is willing to give away the low-lying island nations like the Maldives, or Tuvalu, or Kiribati that are already being eroded by sea-level rise.
But who exactly is Pruitt trying to appease, assuming that carbon dioxide is not analogous to Hitler, that the oil and gas companies who funded Pruitt’s attorney generalship in Oklahoma are not analogous to Hitler? There are two definitions of appeasement: “to pacify or placate (someone) by acceding to their demands,” but also “to relieve or satisfy (a demand or a feeling).” Pruitt is appeasing his and our own sense of dread, his and our own sense of conscience, his and our own demands for uninterrupted economic growth. He is telling us what we want to hear, as ever as much as Chamberlain told his generation, “Go home and have a nice quiet sleep.”
Denial is natural. An outside observer like Stefan Zweig, however, will have none of it. He was Austrian after all. Austria had already been annexed by Germany in the Anschluss of March 1938. Zweig was under no illusions about Hitler.
Regarding climate change, we have our own observers outside the US political scene. One is former Maldivian president Mohammad Nasheed. He recalls his European history and remembers that appeasement is immoral toward a country like Czechoslovakia and ultimately dangerous for a country like Great Britain. The Panzer divisions and the Luftwaffe don’t stop with Poland, and sea-level rise doesn’t stop with the Maldives, as New York City has already experienced with the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy. Nasheed once said, “If it was important for countries to defend Poland in the 1930s because it was a frontline state, it’s very important to take care of the Maldives now, because the Maldives and many other small states are in the frontline of what is happening to the world, to climate today. If you can’t defend the Maldives today, you won’t be able to defend yourself tomorrow.”
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Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, trans. Anthea Bell, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1942, trans. 2009, pub. 2013)
Interview and CNBC editorial: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/10/scott-pruitts-climate-denial-is-dangerous-and-out-of-step-commentary.htm