Can COP21 Save the World?

How can we save the world? During the United Nations climate conference, we can—and should—find our inspiration in history. Look to Winston Churchill.
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Prime Minister Winston Churchill walking the deck of HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference in 1941. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Prime Minister Winston Churchill walking the deck of HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference in 1941. (Photo: Library of Congress)

By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to uplifting stories about people who band together and overcome tremendous obstacles to save the world. For the most part, however, these narratives belong to our fictions: our summer blockbusters, our television shows, our Manichaean literary fantasies that pit good wizards against bad. But it’s worth remembering that, every now and then, our valor, cooperation, and fortitude actually match the heroic self-image we like to put into storybooks and project onto screens.

The 21st United Nations Conference on Climate Change (better known as COP21) kicked off in Paris on Monday. In a city still reeling from the deadly string of terrorist attacks, participants representing more than 130 countries will gather to formalize their commitments to curbing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

They will, in other words, come together to try and save the world at precisely the moment when current events remind us, once again, of just how fractured and damaged our world is. Given the gravity of the climate mission and the global anxiety over recent tragedies, the conference’s participants might crave a bit of inspiration right about now.

Coincidentally—some might say auspiciously—Monday also happened to be the birthday of a certain historical figure who knew a thing or two about motivating people to fight the good fight. On November 30, 1874—141 years ago—Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in England, the country he would later lead as prime minister through the darkest days of World War II.

Many people believed Hitler couldn’t be beaten, but those doubters only seemed to fuel Churchill’s eloquence, determination, and strength. As the Nazis marched across Europe, invading neighbor after neighbor and slaughtering millions, it was he, more than any other Allied leader, whose broadcast words provided rousing assurance to all that the war could, indeed, be won.

By late August 1941, Axis powers had invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, and France. Much of England had been reduced to rubble by German Luftwaffe bombs—which fell over London for 57 consecutive nights, destroying more than a million homes and killing tens of thousands of Britons. With the news that Stalingrad was next on Hitler’s list of conquests, Churchill flew to Newfoundland, Canada, and met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Their agreement, which later became known as the Atlantic Charter, spelled out the shared goals of the British-American alliance for thwarting the Third Reich.

In an August 24 radio address (which you can listen to here), Churchill relayed publicly what he had felt privately as he sat there in Newfoundland, contemplating the difficult road ahead:

When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of the fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals, and to a large extent of the same interests—and certainly, in different degrees, facing the same dangers—it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from merciless degradation. And so we came back across the ocean waves uplifted in spirit, fortified in resolve.

Stop and think about those two remarkable sentences for a moment. Consider that when Churchill uttered them, London was still smoldering and the German army was frighteningly far from retreat, with Hitler optimistically preparing to invade the biggest country in the world, the Soviet Union. And yet: those soaring, sanguine words. “[H]ere was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from merciless degradation. And so we came back across the ocean waves uplifted in spirit, fortified in resolve.”

On the afternoon of Victory in Europe Day,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits at a BBC microphone, waiting to  broadcast to the nation that World War II has come to an end. And the  Allies won. (Photo: © IWM [H 41843])

On the afternoon of Victory in Europe Day, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sits at a BBC microphone, waiting to broadcast to the nation that World War II has come to an end. And the Allies won. (Photo: © IWM [H 41843])

What on Earth, you might ask, could have given Churchill such genuine faith and confidence at such a dark time? In the context of the full speech, it was the promise of unflinching unity among partners that uplifted his spirit and fortified his resolve that day. And once the United States formally entered the war a few months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was that same unflinching unity that would ultimately lead to Hitler’s defeat at the hands of the Allied forces, ending one of the deadliest and most widespread wars in human history.

The climate negotiations in Paris have been burdened with some pretty daunting subtext. Though you aren’t likely see it labeled this way on any of the official programs or schedules, unofficially the conference is being billed as something like “Earth’s very last chance to get this thing right.”

With that kind of pressure, it’s only natural that some would be unsure of our ability to effect a unanimous international agreement that would do what absolutely, unequivocally must be done: We must reduce the rate of global warming, immediately and substantially, in order to curtail the devastating effects of climate change.

Naysayers who told Winston Churchill to his face that he and his partners couldn’t save the world were likely to walk away with cigar smoke up their nose and a witheringly clever insult ringing in their ears. The great man had no patience for doubters or deniers. Instead, he took whatever rhetorical energy he might have spent arguing with them and put it into inspiring others—those who were ready to sacrifice and willing to fight, even though the foe was formidable and the hour was late.

Giving up wasn’t an option. Nor, for that matter, was losing.

As it was in 1941, so is it now. We must find a way to summon that same iron-willed resolve and that same gift for rallying others and bring them to bear on this formidable global threat. So—whether you happen to be at an international climate summit in Paris, France, or at Jaxx Gourmet Burgers in Paris, Texas—raise a glass of champagne (or a bottle of Lone Star) and wish Winston Churchill, “the British bulldog,” a happy 141st birthday. Toast his tenacity. Toast his fearlessness. Toast his faith in humankind’s ability to band together in moments of crisis and to win against incredible odds.

He—and we—really did save the world once. We can do it again.

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This story originally appeared on Earthwire as “Our Finest Hour” and is re-published here under a Creative Commons license.

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