Neville Chamberlain Only Went to Munich Once, or, Fool Me Seventeen Times, You Don’t Get Fooled Again

Via Hot Topic, by Simon Johnson, used with permission of the author and the website. Copyright retained by whoever owns it, which is one of those two; they seem pretty relaxed about it actually.

Astonishingly, this is our second Neville Chamberlain-related story of the week. -mt

Simon Johnson discusses the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations through the historic lens of the Second World War and the Rio 1992 Earth Summit.

In a very considered comment at Hot Topic yesterday, David Lewis questions whether the Durban UNFCCC international climate negotiations can come up with a binding treaty that effectively reduces greenhouse concentrations, given the existing public will.

“I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilise the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause [dangerous anthropogenic interference] without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population”

Lewis compares the public world-wide demand for action in the international climate change negotiations with the changing British attitudes to ‘Total War’ with Hitler’s Germany in 1940. Lewis implies that in the climate change negotiations, each government is “trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary”.

In terms of the purposes served by international climate change negotiations, I would go a step further than that thoughtful comment from David Lewis. I say that the negotiations have never had the goal of producing a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. Governments instead use the negotiations as one of their reasons for not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and for continuing with ‘business-as-usual’.

Let me summarise my contention using another reference to the Second World War.

Q. Whats the difference between Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations in 1938 with Hitler in Munich that lead to the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the UNFCCC international climate change negotiations?

A. Neville Chamberlain only went to Munich once.

In making this argument I am influenced by a paper my late father Robin Johnson wrote in 1992 about the political-economy of the Rio Earth Summit. Robin uses the term “political-economy” to indicate he is considering the various groups with interests in the Earth Summit and asking what interests were served by the outcomes.

He noted that the expected outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit were binding signed international conventions on climate change and biological diversity. However, the actual outcome was a “framework convention…full of resounding phraseology and generalities”.

Robin says the reason for this outcome was the fundamental split between the ‘North’ (developed countries) and South (developing country) blocs. Neither bloc was was willing to put global interest ahead of national interests. Instead, the outcome of the Earth Summit consisted of “non-binding language … adopted to get all major nations to sign”.

No agreement except on non-binding rhetorical statements! Sound familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t that whats happened with all the subsequent climate change talks?

Robin’s paper uncannily predicts much of the next 19 years of inconclusive negotiations. He wrote “Prior to meeting in Rio, some governments expressed concern that the Earth Summit would become a “pledging conference” where world leaders would be expected to step to the podium and announce their country’s contribution.” Copenhagen 2009, anyone?

He concluded “The challenge for those seeking action will be to channel the outcomes of Rio into concrete action by member states”. Substitute “Bali 2007″ or “Copenhagen 2009″ or “Cancun 2010″ for “Rio”, and we can re-use that conclusion for all subsequent international climate change negotiations.

So, from a political economy point of view, the climate change negotiations have had the effect of ensuring that international opinion stays “behind the demand curve” for decisive action. After all, that is the function they have served in the 19 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

We need to let go of the idea that the negotiations as they are currently constituted and conducted will make any useful contribution to the kind of decisive international action that is required. We need to accept that the negotiations are just another forum for business and politics as usual.


mt here again

And to tie it together, in the feature image, we see Mr. Chamberlain making a cameo appearance in a frame from a vintage comic book about sea level rise due to melting icebergs due to nefarious actions by irresponsible parties.

Forgive me for making light of all this. Obviously it is in dubious taste for me to be amused by these coincidences. But if it were somebody else’s planet it would be damned funny.

 Durban Update: The Chinese may not want anything to happen, but they’ll be damned if they are left holding the bag. Their recent actions implicitly put a lot of pressure on the US and explicitly on Canada. Maybe the Chinese are even serious.

But that still leaves India and America as absolutely essential players. (The defection of Canada and Russia hardly helping matters.) It is now officially Obama administration policy to kick the can down the road another eight years.

Is there any alternative to an international agreement involving most of the major players, with tarrifs holding the others in line? I can’t imagine one, other than eventual disaster.

Durban Update: Durban climate talks “a bit of a mouse wheel” according to former UN top climate official.

“I still have the same view of the process that led me to leave the process,” he told The Associated Press Sunday. “I’m still deeply concerned about where it’s going, or rather where it’s not going, about the lack of progress.”


  1. All analogies are bonkers in some ways. The interesting thing in an analogy is the part that is true, not the part that is false.

    People can be such literalists about analogies they don't like. It's ludicrous. Of course the climate is not Hitler. But the Durban meeting is like Chamberlain in some ways anyway.

  2. Lewis implies that in the climate change negotiations, each government is “trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary”.

    That may be, but it is unclear due to the lack of evidence of anyone actually trying. But I agree with this slightly different point:

    “I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilise the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause [dangerous anthropogenic interference] without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population”.

    Barring a serious climate shock, progress awaits far more activism, which in turn awaits a great increase in the number of activists.

    Create more activists!

  3. One could write for days about the relevance of the Chaimberlain-goes-to-Munich analogy for the climate talks.

    Interestingly, if you follow back to the David Lewis comment that Johnson starts with, it's not about Chamberlain's negotiations with Hitler, it's about Chamberlain's ability to mobilize the population for sacrifice, including after the war began.

    On the other hand, if one believes that Chamberlain was negotiating in good faith and that Hitler had no intention of abiding by his agreements, then the claim that (some? most? all?) of the parties to the UNFCCC don't have any real intention of agreeing to a binding agreement would make all of us who have any faith in the talks into Chamberlains, and all of the governments Hitlers.

    On the other other hand, if you ignore the Chamberlanology and look at the claim that Johnson attributes to his father, that neither the North nor the South was willing to put global interests ahead of national interests, you get yet another perspective. A critical problem, however, is that the interests of North and South, while parallel in many ways (both would like as rapid economic growth as possible) are not the same in a key dimension: the North has had literally centuries of fossil fueled growth and has more than enough wealth to ensure a comfortable standard of living for its people; the South (taken as a whole, especially in 1992 when the UNFCCC was negotiated) is just beginning the process of industrialization, and needs several decades of rapid growth just to raise the majority of its population to a decent level. Blaming the North and South equally for the stalemate since then is, in my opinion, a serious error.

    Of course things have changed somewhat in the twenty years since. But even in China today, per capita income is a fraction of the levels in the US and other wealthy countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>