Peace in our time? Don’t bank on it

Climate change means we stand at a key moment in history, one on which future generations will judge us – if there’s anyone around left to judge.

Prime minister Boris Johnson likes to compare himself with another PM who stood on “the hinge of fate”, Winston Churchill. But the way things are going, the Government’s increasingly weak approach to climate change may mean history ends up comparing him to Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain.

For there are a clear parallels between our present politicians’ fear of upsetting populist newspapers and dimmer voters, and those of 1938.

At risk of infringing Godwin’s Law (the shortness of time before internet discussions cite the Nazis), I can’t help recalling the Munich Crisis of that year.

Hitler was demanding that Czechoslovakia (which he despised) surrender to him the Sudetenland which bordered Germany and had a substantial and restive German minority. But the area also housed the Czechs’ extensive border fortifications and several of their armaments and power plants. Without that area, the country’s small but well-equipped and professional armed forces would be quite powerless to join the European democracies’ defence against fascism.

A month of fruitless negotiations brought the four powers – Britain, France, Germany and Italy to Munich to discuss the problem. The Czech government was not even invited to the conference and Britain and France, faced with the prospect of war, capitulated to the fascist powers and gave Hitler pretty much all he wanted. The Czechs had to suck it up.

British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 with his ‘piece of paper’ ensuring peace in Europe. (Image: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo)
“Peace in our time”

Chamberlain returned to a massive hero’s welcome, cheered all the way from the airport to Downing Street by people who hadn’t forgotten the previous war. He was applauded by populist newspapers.

Czechoslovakia, however, was thrown to the wolves; six months after Munich, Hitler tore up the agreement and invaded the rest of the country anyway. Chamberlain’s “far away country” was left to be ravaged. Six months after that we were at war. His long and successful ministerial career became forgotten and he’s remembered for that massive mistake.

Yet despite the horrific threat that climate change now poses, however, I’m still to be persuaded by the call by the commentator George Monbiot that we should try to put the economy on a war footing – rationing, raising taxes to take the majority of peoples’ incomes etc. – to tackle climate change. He’s surely right in principle, but anyone can see there isn’t the proverbial snowball in hell’s chance of it happening at present.

But unless COP26 comes up with something much stronger than we now expect, lots of Chamberlain’s “far-away countries of which we know nothing” will be left to face ruin. Not just low-lying countries facing inundation, but those in very hot areas which are becoming uninhabitable – and anywhere that suffers extreme weather.

And shortly thereafter, everywhere else, including the UK.

It’s plain that today’s appeasement of car owners, truck operators, climate change deniers and, above all, readers of populist newspapers is a road to ruin.

Last week the Government published an important research report setting out some of the behavioural changes needed to achieve “net zero”.

It lasted less than two days before being withdrawn and dumped in the archives.

“This was an academic research paper, not Government policy,” said a spokesperson. “We have no plans to dictate consumer behaviour in this way. For that reason, our Net Zero Strategy… contained no such plans.”

It’s vaguely reminiscent of Mr Chamberlain’s post-Munich plan for a pan-European peace settlement and about as believable. Ministers obviously realised that asking dumb, angry folk to change anything significant would upset them and the newspapers they read. So forget driving and flying less. Now it’s electric cars and “sustainable aviation fuel”, whatever that is.

But without serious global action, including UK consumers, the future is very dangerous indeed, worse in many ways than 1938. Warfare could be just one of the outcomes of failure to act.

Peace in our time? Don’t bank on it.