Culpability and the Judgement of History

by Ray Grigg

Great dangers begin as barely discernible trends, then quietly escalate to obvious threats before becoming unavoidable disasters. Political leaders who are early to recognize and address these dangers are praised by history as foresighted and astute; those who miss the early warning signs are censured as foolish and inept. Because leaders supposedly possess the exceptional qualities that allow them to discern the signs of approaching danger, the responsibility falls on them to accurately gauge their times and make wise decisions that will safely guide their followers through the approaching adversities.

Ignorance, of course, is the excuse of last defence. Could the Roman consul of Pompeii have known that the daily earth tremors preceding 24 August 79 CE were sufficient warnings to evacuate the city and save its citizens from being entombed by the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius? Could King Harold have known in 1066 that the armies of William of Normandy were massing on the coast of France for an invasion of England? Could Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, have known in 1938 that the ambitions of Adolph Hitler could not be satisfied by a strategy of appeasement? Could George W. Bush have known that US policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan would culminate in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America?

History is clearest in hindsight. But this has never been a valid reason for leaders to be excused from accurately assessing the perils of the moment and charting a safe course into the future. As leaders, they steer the ship of state, with its full load of resources at their disposal. And the global world they now inhabit is so awash with information that misjudging dangerous trends is less excusable than ever before.

So here we are in 2015 on the verge of runaway global climate change, very likely the greatest danger ever encountered by human civilization. Tremors of extreme weather are shaking the planet; carbon dioxide is amassing in the atmosphere by the billion of tonnes; the fossil fuel industry is being appeased by a tardy response to greenhouse gas emissions; and policies are still supporting strategies that seem oblivious to ecological destruction.

Barely discernible trends have now escalated to obvious threats. Unavoidable disasters are looming. Carbon dioxide levels are creeping higher, sea levels are rising, the weather is more extreme, the oceans are acidifying, ecologies are reeling in disarray. The evidence of a global environmental crisis is now unequivocal. Even the subjectivity of anecdotal experience is confirming the carefully considered conclusions of science.

Compared to the consequences of living on a considerably hotter planet, the eruption of Vesuvius will be measured as a trivial inconvenience. Compared to the disruptions to ordinary life that will arrive with extreme climate change, a few Norman invaders will be considered a minor bother. Appeasement is not a strategy understood by the intractable laws of nature. And no defence exists for the persistent terrorism that will gradually drown humanity’s monumental coastal cities.

Every leader in the world is now aware of these great dangers. The environmental threats are no longer hypothetical — they are discernible, incremental, irreversible, imminent and unavoidable. So, what are our leaders thinking? They convene in national capitals and gather at international climate conferences. They consult with advisors and each other. The world’s community of scientists has unequivocally and persistently expressed alarm about the impending threats. Any ambiguity or uncertainty regarding the precariousness of our situation is gone. Every leader has been informed and warned, and is now culpable for inaction. Small thinking, parochial understandings, myopic perspectives, popularity polls, election cycles and the oxymoronic inclination of leaders to be followers are the only obstructions preventing the required corrective initiatives.

The dangers are now sufficiently obvious that history cannot judge these obstructions as legitimate excuses for hesitation. The leaders of the world know about the deteriorating condition of our planet’s ecologies, have been advised of the high risks and apprised of the dire consequences. They now carry the burden of culpability if the dangers are not averted.

Because we no longer live in a time of exclusively national, regional or local interests, averting these dangers in a large and complex world is not as daunting as it once seemed. The bewildering array of narrow perspectives is rapidly being replaced by the larger principles arising from global interconnections. Airplanes and ships ply an almost borderless world; multi-national trade agreements abound for the unimpeded distribution of currency, goods and services; international sanctions, boycotts, embargoes and levies commonly bring wayward nations into compliance with acceptable economic and humanitarian norms. Many of the existing mechanisms that have globalized the world could be used to improve the planet’s environmental condition. But many political leaders still lack the will to redirect these mechanisms to address a disaster on track to become unavoidable.

As the ancient Chinese curse reminds us, we live in interesting times. Indeed, these are unquestionably pivotal years in the history of humanity. Every indication is that our errant behaviour is tipping our planet toward environmental crisis. And the only solution to this problem is a human solution. So the legacy of our present political leaders will be judged by the vision, resolve, skill and wisdom of their current decisions.