Bill Whalen

Is the threat from climate change really like the Nazis?

Gov. Jerry Brown, right, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Monday. In a San Diego appearance last month, Brown likened the “existential threat” of climate change to Nazi Germany, which Bill Whalen says is an overstated analogy.
Gov. Jerry Brown, right, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco on Monday. In a San Diego appearance last month, Brown likened the “existential threat” of climate change to Nazi Germany, which Bill Whalen says is an overstated analogy. The Associated Press

In the great tradition of such 1940s sloganeering as “We can do it” (but not “Keep calm and carry on”), a very animated Gov. Jerry Brown puts California’s response to climate change on par with the Golden State’s involvement in the birth of the world’s first atomic bomb.

This isn’t a critique of the significance the governor places on global warming. He believes those who disagree with him fall into one of three camps – partisans, industry defenders and the media. I suppose that makes me a two-fer. Only, I don’t disagree with Brown on the science behind climate change. My concern is one of unwieldy language.

Brown has likened the “existential threat” of climate change to Nazi Germany. Maybe he has Europe on the brain since he’s leading a delegation to Paris next month for the United Nations conference on climate change. Perhaps the governor hopes for a Yalta-like photo-op, him as Franklin D. Roosevelt in between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Which is swell, so long as Brown is delicate with his rhetoric so that “global warming” and “Nazi Germany” do not appear in the same headline.

The Holocaust is in a class of its own in its destruction and depravity. Yet, politicians abuse the metaphor. Twenty-five years ago, then-President George H.W. Bush claimed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was “worse than Hitler.” More recently, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen compared the House GOP’s denunciation of Obamacare to Nazi propaganda.

Some of us compound the problem by making light of a genocidal madman. YouTube is full of parodies of a Hitler rant from the German movie “Downfall” – the Nazi leader going off on the likes of iPads, Justin Bieber and Indian tech support. Funny? You decide. But it desensitizes history.

We’re soon to enter an election year in which truth is sure to the first casualty – interspersed with sloppy historical parallels. The left would have us believe that a Republican presidency is a ticket to black-shirted fascism. The right’s no better: It says that Hillary Clinton, in reality the queen of calculation, will doom us all to socialist collectivism.

It’s not just climate change that requires the right tone. Is the Islamic State on the same scale as the Axis powers’ pursuit of global dominance during World War II? Is the recent Great Recession worse than the Great Depression? Have we lost touch with the Founding Fathers?

Brown and other leaders can do the nation a favor by choosing their words carefully. But that doesn’t mean he should ignore the past.

Before the Second World War overtook California’s economy and lifestyle, the Golden State enjoyed the fruits of an activist government. In the decade leading up to 1942, the federal Civilian Conservation Corps constructed more than 1,500 buildings and structures in state parks. Artists produced government-sponsored murals. The Works Progress Administration, another Roosevelt initiative during the New Deal, funded hundreds of construction projects statewide.

Brown wants to unleash the power of California’s science and technology to save the planet. But he shouldn’t overlook our wealth of engineering and artistic prowess in reviving the state.

Yes, money will be involved. And Brown cautions that the state budget is “precariously balanced” – $1 billion in spending cuts could be in order.

However, if happy days are here again, there’s nothing stopping a resourceful governor from coming up with a modest new deal of his own. Nothing huge – clearing burned-out forests, repairing roads, coloring our world with new art.

In other words, something to keep California occupied during his great environmental crusade.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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