I am currently reading Ian Kershaw’s excellent “Making Friends With Hitler” (sub-titled “Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road To War”). Briefly, it offers an analysis of Britain’s response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, considers what options were available to policy-makers, and concentrates on the activities of Lord Londonderry, as a leading aristocrat in the period, who was also for a while Secretary of State for Air and a full cabinet member.
What has this go to do with climate scepticism?
Well, chapter 2 (“Downfall of the Air Minister”), which (as its title suggests, deals with Londonderry’s period in office and his fall from it) dwells at some length on the international Disarmament Conference, which opened in Geneva in 1932. This, as things would turn out, was a triumph of hope over experience, and was a conference in which the British Prime Minister (then Ramsay MacDonald) tried to take the lead and produce a useful and binding international agreement. Needless to say, he failed. And that reminded me of another international conference, this time held in Glasgow, 89 years later.
Although dealing with very different subject matter, there are striking parallels between the two conferences, beyond the fact that in both cases British politicians strutted on the world stage and tried (and failed) to achieve the impossible.
In 2021 the British Government, with Alok Sharma taking the lead, tried to persuade the world’s governments to sign up to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent, as many believe to be likely, runaway and dangerous climate change. In 1932-4 the British Government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, tried to persuade world governments to sign up to specific limitations in armaments, pursuant to a draft convention which, because tabled by MacDonald on 16th March 1933, became known as the MacDonald Plan. The plan was to prevent increases in (and indeed to try to reduce) armaments, with the concomitant reduction rather than increase in the risk of European or even global conflict.
One key difference between then and now is that then Lord Londonderry:
…had forcefully reiterated on a number of occasions the Air Ministry’s objections to undercutting the country’s defence capability by a policy of air disarmament certain to find no reciprocation in some countries, and the readiness to accept internationally agreed measures only if safeguards to guarantee their effectiveness were introduced.
Londonderry’s warnings might have seemed strange in retrospect, given the close friendships he cultivated with leading Nazis later in the decade with a view to defusing hostility between Germany and the UK and trying to reach some sort of modus operandi which might prevent war. He came to be regarded as at worst a leading Nazi apologist and, at best, as rather naïve. But in 1933, when his job required it, he saw all too clearly the futility (and indeed folly and danger) of the UK forging ahead unilaterally without binding commitments from all those countries which could pose a threat to the UK (and to the world) in those circumstances.
And he was right to be cautious. By the time MacDonald tabled his plan Japan was running amok in eastern Asia, and Hitler had just come to power in Germany. Mussolini had been running things in Italy for more than a decade.
Some caution in 2021 might have seemed appropriate, too, given that Russia, China and India didn’t even bother sending their leaders to Glasgow, and for those with eyes to see didn’t seem to be all that interested in the agenda set forth by Alok Sharma. In 1933, the MacDonald Plan “withered on the vine”. Germany (under Hitler) withdrew from both the Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations (on 14th October 1933). As Kershaw puts it, these acts
denoted the effective end of the futile attempts to produce a collective agreement on peace and security in Europe. Though disarmament talks in Geneva dragged on for some months, the last rites could not be long delayed. The patient finally expired gently in June 1934, even if some believers in a Lazarus-style recovery continued to try for long afterwards to breathe life into the corpse. European disarmament was dead.
Compare and contrast with Glasgow in 2021. Nobody actually walked out of the conference, as the Germans did in 1933, but China and India delivered what should have been the coup de grace to the Glasgow Pact. They watered down the key paragraph about coal to the point of meaninglessness. The rest of the Glasgow Climate Pact contains a lot of vacuous and nice-sounding words, but there is no binding commitment on the part of any country to do anything.
And yet, despite the obvious fact that many of the world’s main powers (just as in 1932-4) are not remotely signed up to the agenda, the UK government continues, pretty much unilaterally, to press ahead with its “net zero” agenda, to the significant disadvantage of the country vis-a-vis the rest of the world. This is probably the key difference between Glasgow and Geneva. In the 1930s it eventually dawned even on a Government stacked full of nonentities and weak thinkers that the game was up and there was no point – indeed that it would be dangerous and reckless – to press on unilaterally with disarmament. In 2021 it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone within a government stacked full of nonentities and weak thinkers that the game is up and that pressing forward pretty much unilaterally with “net zero” is dangerous and reckless. A power crisis in the early winter of 2021/22, showing the jeopardy and futility of over-reliance on electricity, hasn’t registered with them. Worse still, perhaps, none of this has registered with opposition politicians either, whose sole criticism is that the Government isn’t taking the country over the edge of the energy cliff with sufficient speed.
In 1934 the Disarmament Conference ended in failure. It was desperately sad, and as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, humankind was already rushing towards world war. But there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it, certainly not by way of unilateral arms reduction on the part of the western democracies.
In 2021 we endured yet another COP – the 26th – but still greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow relentlessly. Undaunted, the powers that be have already lined up COPs 27 and 28. I don’t know whether Einstein really did say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but whoever said it, somebody at the United Nations, and within the UK government, needs to ponder on the gritty reality of that observation. It’s time for western leaders to wake up to reality.