My father was a young high school teacher in Florida on Dec. 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Army and made it his career, including in Army intelligence assessing future security threats.
I once asked him what he thought, on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, were our chances of winning the war. His answer was “not good.”
He was confident in 1941 that America could build a massive military force and that our role as the arsenal of democracy could prove decisive. But the key questions were, “Is there enough time left, or have we waited too long?”
For people of my generation and those younger, World War II looks like a familiar movie about a football team that storms back from a terrible first half to win the big game. The problem is that since we already know that the story has a good ending, we have become dangerously oblivious to the reality that we very nearly lost that war. And there is an important lesson in that for us today as we face another profound threat to our world — that of climate change.
President Franklin Roosevelt had been trying desperately to get recognition of the tremendous scale of the threats to America and of the need to join directly into the war against Adolf Hitler even as he tried to buy time to build up our forces facing a possible war with Japan. But isolationists kept hindering such actions, claiming that the threats of Hitler or the Japanese were not clear enough and denying the seriousness of these threats to the United States.
By the time the attack on Pearl Harbor forced us into war, overcoming the deniers, we were at a high risk of losing that war. And without some luck, we probably would have.
The most decisive piece of luck was Hitler’s under-estimation of the Russians. Hitler was sure his surprise attack in June 1941 would defeat Russia before the snows came and would allow Germany to turn its full might to the Western front. He misread Russia’s staying capacity.
Estimates are that more than 16 million Russians died, meaning more than 40 Russian deaths for every American one. More than two-thirds of the German military deaths in World War II were on the Eastern front.
By the time of the bold invasion of Allied forces at Normandy, we were facing a weakened enemy that still had more than half of its forces fighting the Russians. Indeed, if Russia had collapsed in 1941-42, the delayed U.S. entry into the war until after Pearl Harbor would probably have been too late to be decisive, with horrific consequences for our country and our world.
This lesson about the danger of waiting too late to fight back against a grave threat — by denying its importance or even its existence — resonates strongly for us today. Most Americans recognize the reality of climate change.
However, they don’t fully understand the truly catastrophic impacts it will have unless we make major changes now to curb greenhouse gases. The evidence is already piling up — record fires in the West, record hurricanes in the South, record high yearly temperatures globally including 100 degrees recorded north of the Arctic Circle, and much more.
A key aspect is that the greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere today will be with us for many decades to come. If we wait for the catastrophes to be fully upon us, we will have waited too long to be able to reverse many of the worst changes, whatever we eventually do.
Joe Biden has already committed to make the fight against climate change a top national priority. This includes appointing John Kerry as his climate envoy and putting him on the National Security Council.
This shows recognition that climate change is an enormous national security threat — to our military capabilities and by making wars and conflicts more likely. But if our actions are to be soon enough and powerful enough, this fight needs to get taken out of the realm of partisan politics and instead must be something that we all get behind.
Denying the threats from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan came very close to losing our country and world as we know it. We cannot afford to let denial of science and of the overwhelming evidence of climate change destroy our world in the 21st century. We are running out of time.
Lance Clark is a former United Nations ambassador with 35 years of experience in international work and conflicts focused on emergency relief in conflict situations, early warning of conflicts, and peace operations and peace-building. He has worked in places such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Iraq, Georgia (former Soviet Union), Bosnia, Serbia and other countries. He and his wife now live in upstate New York.