Just as the Cold War turned the power that the U.S. gained after World War II against itself, climate change continues turning power against ourselves (and the rest of the world). Better dead than red, once an anti-communist slogan, takes on a new meaning as impacts from climate change grow while a sizable portion of the U.S. population denies or ignores the signs. We would rather die than suffer from being in the red (in the accounting ledger). It’s the economic equivalent of a drunken man ordering one more for the road.

We go to battle every day, spewing more carbon into the atmosphere, allowing more heat to be trapped. Unlike the Cold War, with its threat of instant annihilation from nuclear weapons, climate change is war on a much longer time scale, taking centuries (maybe only decades), to wreak similar amounts of havoc upon the world. Politically, few of the ruling elite want to make any concessions that they feel would place them in a short-term disadvantage. We have dug ourselves into trenches of apathy, not willing to take an offensive, unaware of the reeking stench of death from within.

Shortly before the U.S. Department of Energy reported the most recent carbon dioxide emissions figures, which “jumped by the biggest amount on record” to a level higher than the worst-case scenario anticipated by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That came as no surprise to many scientists, including the MIT program on climate change, which for years has warned that the IPCC predictions are too conservative.

Such critics of the IPCC predictions receive virtually no public attention, unlike the fringe of denialists who are supported by the corporate sector, along with huge propaganda campaigns that have driven Americans off the international spectrum in dismissal of the threats. Business support also translates directly to political power. Denialism is part of the catechism that must be intoned by Republican candidates in the farcical election campaign now in progress, and in Congress they are powerful enough to abort even efforts to inquire into the effects of global warming, let alone do anything serious about it. (Noam Chomsky)

An indirect result of a perceived external threat is that a crackdown happens internally before any action is taken against the real threat. Thus, the perception that climate change is an external threat becomes one of the primary reasons why action is lacking, even though no specific target exists. It’s difficult for the U.S. to acknowledge a threat if it can’t explicitly point to something such as communists or Islamic terrorists. And, like the war on terror, actions against climate change become mostly theater in order to make us feel as if we’re doing something to protect us against a ambiguous threat.

As witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, the poor caught the brunt of the effects of problems that were systemic, revealing larger symptoms of decline and neglect at home. While billions were quickly poured into the war against Iraq, such attention and expediency lacked in the response to Hurricane Katrina. The poor ultimately become part of the threat posed by climate change because they suffer the consequences, revealing our nation’s increasing inequality and our lack of willingness to address it.

High Noon (1952)

And, again much like the Cold War, attacks are leveled internally at the scientists who are doing the research and work on how and why our climate is changing so rapidly. Anti-intellectualism and attacks against science have been allowed to persist since the quick popular reversal against many atomic scientists after World War II, most notably the revoking of Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance after he questioned the tactics of McCarthyism. In today’s media, the attacks against climate scientists are presented as balanced reporting. At its core, it’s the same as the red baiting that took place after World War II.

In the early days of the Cold War, every demand for equal treatment became tainted with the prospect of Communism. Today, every demand for action against climate change is perceived as an equal threat against the nation’s economy. Addressing climate change is usually couched in terms that place boosting the economy first and foremost. To be for preserving the possibility of continued human existence is to be against the profits of corporations. And without corporations making profits, it seems, we would be doomed to an unthinkable existence. Or, as seen on the bumper of an SUV, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

“Even if the worst auguries of the immediate postwar era were not realized, the domestic consequences of the Cold War were bad enough. It was a mitigated disaster….While democracy in the abstract was exalted and ‘the West’ was elaborately defended, particular rights were enfeebled or ignored, with the acquiescence of the Eisenhower administration.” (Whitfield, p. 233)

As a public body, Americans seem willing to give up personal freedom when faced with an enemy such as communism or Islamic terrorists. When confronted by a more existential threat such as climate change, however, giving up anything that constitutes our comfortable existence is a choice few are willing to make. What good is freedom, however limited, if you can’t see it displayed on a large, flat-screen TV? Freedom, then, is only the freedom to make purchases.

The same successful post-war U.S. society took on some of the traits of those whom it both fought against and feared the most. While valuing freedom in words, the U.S. restricted it for much of the population in the aftermath of the World War II. Loyalty oaths, purges, and other actions usually connected with totalitarian regimes became common in the post-war U.S. To get a feeling for the era, one only need to dig up a few Hollywood films from that era for a glimpse into the madness.

“According to the Cogley Report on Blacklisting, the number of movies concerning other social issues decreased drastically between 1947 and 1954, although more than fifty anti-Communist films were produced. Most were shot on low budgets with non-stars–indicating that the studios did not expect them to earn well. Apparently, the producers hoped to satisfy their right-wing critics without losing money; films that evoked any kind of ideology were usually unpopular…. Perhaps in no other period have such dismal creations been launched as a form of public relations.” (Sayre, p. 80)

Viewing it a half century after it was released, the film My Son John, written and directed by Leo McCarey, seems to convey the opposite message of its original intention. Rather than warning about the threat of an insidious ideology from the outside, the story of the film could be the difficulties faced by an adult whose elderly parents have bought into the Tea Party ideology. With a few minor edits, the film could easily be re-released as a current warning against letting religious and patriotic zealotry get in the way of social progress. Although I imagine its message would still be on target for the viewer groomed on Fox News.

My Son John (1952)

Even is its own day, My Son John was seen as too over the top by most critics. Audiences weren’t flocking to see films that so adamantly stuffed a message down their throats. But an established director such as McCarey felt it necessary, at least personally, to make such a film to prove himself a true American.

One also can’t help think of climate scientists such as Michael Mann when watching My Son John. The writings and antics of those described as global warming skeptics or deniers are like the parents of the supposed communist John. Just as the beliefs and actions of the parents (played by Helen Hays and Dean Jagger) seem outrageous in hindsight, the attacks against climate scientists will (one hopes) look as spectacularly crazy to the average person in a few years as most intelligent people view HUAC and McCarthyism today. In another half century, however, there may be few artifacts documenting that a sizable portion of the U.S. population let a handful of loudmouths backed by corporate interests prevent taking action that would have protected humanity.

While the campaign against climate change comes primarily from the same lineage as the attacks against Communists in the post-war era, what the denialists lack in House Committees, they make up with think tanks and paid influence. They use their money and media connections to harass climate scientists and cast doubt on their work. While the tactics are different, the intent is the same. Find people who are doing good work and tarnish their image while making their lives miserable through lawsuits or campaigns to get them fired.

The Red Scare looked to prove individuals guilty by association. Behind the assaults by climate change deniers on various climate scientists, there lies an underlying Red Scare mentality that these scientists are anti-American, that they are against companies making a profit. A common refrain from some of the deniers, including candidates for the Republican nomination, is that climate change is a tactic to control people’s lives.

“As the capacity for mutual destruction became more and more assured, the two superpowers were in danger of becoming a pair of Goliaths, hampered by the very formidability of their weaponry. Paradoxically helpless, they were as unable to use atomic warheads as to do without them.

Such a situation, transmuting unimaginable power into its opposite at the wave of a wand, was without historical precedent. Yet it occurred in a world where nuclear proliferation remained both a possibility and a reality.” (McNeil, p. 374)

Unlike My Son John, High Noon was a discreet attempt to fight back at the damage that the Red Scare, and HUAC in particular, was having on Hollywood. The director, Fred Zinnemann, wasn’t sure that he would be able to complete the film under the circumstances of rampant anti-communist sentiment in Hollywood.

Similar to My Son John, High Noon could easily be viewed as its opposite fifty years later. High Noon is yet another story where an individual has to fight against an enemy because others are too afraid or apathetic to help. It trumpets the lone fighter against the bad guys. Even the protagonist, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), is betrayed by his own wife, the marriage itself only hours old.

Watching High Noon and My Son John together, one feels their protagonists are suffering from the same thing, at least until the final few minutes of each film. While both films focus on an individual under attack, the resolution of each individual’s challenge eventually provides for the safety and security of the community. While John dies knowing he did the right thing by renouncing his past, Marshal Kane lives and renounces the future (the town he saved).

Unlike the films, as individuals we lack any power to provide for the safety and security of the larger community against the effects of climate change. We must renounce both the past and future if we are to survive. Just as the U.S. built the ultimate weapon to end war (all wars) but found they were so powerful that their use was prohibitive, it allowed war to continue unabated. Likewise, we have transmuted the unimaginable power of converting sequestered carbon into energy to improve our lives into its opposite. We now face a future undermined by our success. Some will renounce the past, while others renounce the future.

Much like the paths taken by two different German boys in Rotation and Germany Year Zero at a moment of intense abjection, one chose to renounce the past while the other renounced the future. Yet neither provided a solution to the problem facing post-war Germany. What is the collective next step and how do we break through the indecision about what we can and can’t do? Must the world suffer years of natural disaster, drought, and famine in order to chart a new course?

The solution to climate change won’t come from an individual fighting against the grain but from a collective response that turns the power of the forces driving climate change into its opposite. As a first step, just as the anti-communist hysteria abated and McCarthy himself flamed out, the climate change denial movement can and will be obliterated, its spokespeople and financial backers should held responsible for their crimes against humanity. From there, we can renounce both past and future, concentrating on a present where we honestly address solutions.

“…we have a status quo bias so intense that it simply filters out and marginalizes any news that would require fundamental change. It’s not just the fraudulent work of partisan think tanks, not just the right-wing media or a few unhinged Senators. It’s all of the above, creating a white-noise roar of such volume that it only allows messages that reinforce the status quo to rise above it.”
posted by gompa on Metafilter at 10:03 AM on February 15, 2012


  • The Culture of the Cold War, Stephen J. Whitfield, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991
  • Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Nora Sayre, The Dial Press, 1982
  • The Pursuit of Power, William H. McNeil, University of Chicago Press, 1984