Another Movie Review That Isn’t: Darkest Hour

Another Movie Review that Isn’t: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the slightly fictionalized history of Winston Churchill’s first month or so as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in late spring 1940. The title is based on the situation that the British government and nation were in at that time: Hitler had just invaded France and Belgium and was winning an unexpectedly complete and swift victory. It looked like England’s darkest hour, not only of the time but the darkest in its history.

Why did this movie come out now? Perhaps its producers felt that much of the American audience would see 2017 as our darkest hour. Certainly I have heard such sentiments expressed concerning climate change. This movie, and the history it dramatizes, offers us some insights on how to deal with adversity—so let’s go back to the story.

Some 300,000 British troops were becoming surrounded at Dunkirk without the ability of the British Navy to evacuate them. Churchill and others tried bucking up the spirits of the French only to be seen as delusional concerning how dire the military situation was. If the troops could not be evacuated over the Channel, as appeared to all of the military to be the case, Britain would lose almost its entire army to prisoners of war.

The outgoing leaders in the government were encouraging the prime minister to initiate peace discussions with Germany, which would have been tantamount to surrender and collaboration with the Nazis. There were good rational arguments made by characters in the movie—Neville Chamberlain and the Viscount Halifax—that this was the best possible outcome: that it was simply wishful thinking to hold out for anything better.

Churchill, at that point a man not widely loved by either his party or the main opposition, but one that both parties could stomach, disagreed. He thought that resistance to Nazi tyranny and oppression (“ a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime”) was necessary—that saying the people would rather “die choking on their own blood” in resistance than submit to the slavery of subservience to Germany.

The movie illustrates how his passionate advocacy won over the Parliament and the King and also the people, and how his daring decision to evacuate the surrounded military from Dunkirk by expropriating hundreds of privately owned civilian sailing vessels—a scheme that sounded hare-brained and desperate—turned out to work. (That’s another movie.)

Applying the Lesson to Climate Change

This is where I think we in the United States are, emotionally, on climate change. With the assaults of the Trump Administration both on climate protection policy and on the clean energy policies that realize it, and the projections of emissions that will smash through the 2-degree target that the world has had for decades, much less the 1.5 degree limit adopted in the Paris Agreement, most people seem to respond with pessimism and gloom.

I see this movie as a parable about what our choices are today. We can bow to the “realists” who claim that all is lost, and take only perfunctory steps to cutting emissions. Or we can just not try as hard, because we think our efforts are doomed to failure. These “realists” make a good point about how grim the situation is: how current and expected efforts to stop climate change will be inadequate even if they succeed. But this attitude is comparable to the view of the pessimists in the UK in May 1940. There were even more convincing reasons to expect the worst in that time and place.

But I refuse to just sit back and accept that my grandchildren will grow up in a world that is poorer both in terms of the environment and in terms of prosperity. Instead, I think we can be audacious and creative and try things that might not work, as Churchill did first in his Dunkirk evacuation scheme and more broadly as he did in sending the message to Hitler that the British would resist to the end, and in building up a strong military defense (I assume, since the movie ends before this is discussed).

Focus on the Solutions

That is why I want to focus our discussions on WHAT IT WOULD TAKE to meet the more ambitious Paris goal of 1.5 degrees of warming, and see how far we can push our institutions and governments (at all levels—state and local as well as national).

Unlike Churchill, who could only promise, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, environmentalists can promise more jobs, enhanced economic development, lower energy bills, and cleaner air. And we have a track record of delivering on them.

NRDC has a detailed study on what it would take to limit climate change to 2 degrees, which is the basis for the 1.5-degree recipe. It shows that the cost of meeting this goal is essentially zero.

The British faced a tough choice in 1940. Since we know how history came out, we can see that the option Churchill supported was the right one. We face an easy choice now: the fossil fuel industry is alone in arguing that stopping climate change is painful.

We need to demand that our businesses, governments, religions, and associations take action.

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