Where on the spectrum from tragedy to farce are we when we see the same images of upturned cars floating in floodwaters, of desperate people awaiting rescue on rooftops, in so many cities around the world?
Comment: In 1936, as Hitler’s Germany geared up for war, Winston Churchill railed against the comparatively poor state of the British military.
“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences,” he said in a fiery speech in Parliament.
Of course, at this time, Europe was not yet on the eve of war. Still, Churchill had the foresight to warn against what was to come.
James Shaw invoked that same phrase in Parliament on Tuesday, describing the devastating Cyclone Gabrielle as “an even more significant challenge” than the Auckland floods, which were themselves at the time “our worst climate-related disaster in this country”.
He’s not the first person to call up Churchill’s prescient warning and apply it to this century’s “gathering storm” either.
In An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, former US Vice President Al Gore quoted Churchill’s foreboding prediction of “a period of consequences”.
How are we still reaching for the same metaphors to describe the same problem? Why does it feel like so little has changed?
In the documentary, Gore turns to Churchill after describing the ways in which climate change will make hurricanes – the Atlantic version of cyclones – more intense. He points to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1000 people and turned into the costliest-ever tropical storm.
“There had been warnings that hurricanes would get stronger. There were warnings that this hurricane, days before it hit, would breach the levies and cause the kind of damage that it ultimately did cause. And one question that we, as a people, need to decide is how we react when we hear warnings from the leading scientists in the world,” Gore said.
Cyclone Gabrielle wasn’t a surprise either. And while we were as prepared as we could be for its landfall, we are not prepared for the progression of ever more intense and ever more frequent tropical storms which will come in its wake over the coming years and decades.
Karl Marx wrote, paraphrasing Hegel, that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. But what about the third time? The fourth or fifth? Where on the spectrum from tragedy to farce are we when we see the same images of upturned cars floating in floodwaters, of desperate people awaiting rescue on rooftops, in so many cities all around the world?
We are in a period of consequences precisely because we have ignored decades of warnings about the impact of burning fossil fuels and the need to prepare our societies for a changing climate.
More than 30 years ago, the world committed to act on climate change. In the intervening time, annual global emissions have risen 60 percent.
New Zealand isn’t exempt from this problem. Our emissions are a third higher than they were in 1990.
At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year “gaps exist between current levels of adaptation and levels needed to respond to impacts and reduce climate risks”.
We have done nothing to get at the root cause of climate change and done far too little to protect against its effects.
People on Twitter have a shorter, more vulgar summary of Churchill’s quote: F**k around and find out.
Right now, we’re in the “find out” stage.
This isn’t to say that every individual bears responsibility for the devastation of the cyclone, or the litany of climate catastrophes that have played out both here and abroad in recent years.
The climate crisis is a systemic problem, not an individual one. The “procrastination, the half measures, the soothing and baffling expedients, the delays” are the fault of those with the power to stop the pollution: Fossil fuel companies, their corporate clients and the politicians who have failed to rein them in.
These companies are continuing to make record profits by knowingly selling us the very thing that makes events like Gabrielle so much more likely and so much more extreme. They knew their products were poisoning the atmosphere as early as 1959 and they lied about it. Now, they pretend to support green solutions but leap at the chance to increase production of fossil fuels when the opportunity arises.
When we look at the ruin left in Gabrielle’s wake, we should know it isn’t simply the result of a capricious and arbitrary weather system. That’s part of it, but an added edge of intensity is the result of conscious choices by people who have the power to act but choose not to.
It was a similar neglectful inaction which so disquieted Churchill all the way back in 1936. In a less-quoted part of the same speech, he went on to describe the two major surprises of the situation.
“The first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world,” he said.
“Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government’s own confessions of error have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency.
“I say that unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself, it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.”
As the disastrous impacts of climate change continue to rack up, with no change in our response, we find ourselves witnessing a similar derelict inaction – an “abdication of duty without parallel”.