Where’s a Roosevelt when you need one?

Last week’s Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme concluded that:

  • Current climate policies (excluding mere promises) would equate to warming of 2.8°C by 2100;
  • Avoiding warming of more than 1.5°C (the Paris target) requires greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 and then fall by 43% from 2019 levels by 2030; and
  • Of the 40 indicators identified to monitor the above required reductions, not a single one is on track.

Climate breakdown is consequently by far the greatest risk to human and a lot of other life on this planet.

At his inauguration as President of the USA in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised “Action, and action now” to address the pressing issues of the day, and what is more he followed up on it, big style.

Both Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR – president from 1933-1945) and his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt (TR – president from 1901-1909) were born into wealth yet both attacked vested interests that resisted change as “the malefactors of great wealth” (TR) and “economic royalists” (FDR).  They were both leaders of social and economic revolution with TR’s Square Deal and FDR’s New Deal.

TR’s Square Deal addressed the three Cs of Conservation, Control of Corporations, and Consumer Protection; and FDR’s New Deal urgently addressed the Great Depression that had resulted in millions of unemployed, and the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and ‘30s.

There is so much we could learn from both of these presidents when addressing the existential risk that is climate breakdown.  Here are just three from FDR:

  1. The Soil Conservation Act of 1935 established the Soil Conservation Service with the purpose of restoring the topsoil destroyed by the Dust Bowl, employing thousands and directing better farming practice.  At COP21 (Paris 2015) regenerative agriculture was proposed as an easy way to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere – everyone smiled, agreed and then ignored it.  It is now a necessity that requires Rooseveltian-style energy and policy-making for people to take seriously. 
  1. Between February 1942 and October 1945, no cars were produced in USA. Instead the War            Production Board, established by presidential executive order, gave auto companies massive contracts to produce what was needed for the war, i.e. tanks, jeeps, aircraft engines, etc.  This was the reallocation of resources to address a national emergency – the difference now is that the emergency is global.
  1. “A chicken in the pot every Sunday” is a phrase that has been associated with a number of US presidents (at least four according to assorted Googling). It was actually coined by sixteenth century French King Henri IV.  Whether or not the attribution to FDR is correct, the idea was that working people should be able to eat meat at least once a week.  Now, at least in the developed world, we suffer the opposite problem – we eat far too much meat and it is hugely damaging to the environment.  At COP21, Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed that people should only eat meat two or three times a week, and the recent Climate Crisis report suggested that the equivalent of no more than two burgers a week per person was now a necessity.  A Rooseveltian solution might be something like “a chicken in the pot only on a Sunday”, perhaps supported by taxation and rationing.

It is often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it; however, we might do well to repeat the Rooseveltian approach and take action, action now.

Data Sources: A Pictorial History of American Presidents, John and Alice Durant; The Guardian newspaper; teachinghistory.org; livingnewdeal.org; britannica.com; Kiss the Ground (Netflix documentary); Google.

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