My father was a young high school teacher in Florida on Dec. 7, 1941. Following Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army and made it his career, including in Army intelligence assessing future security threats.

I once asked him what he thought, on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, were our chances of winning the war. His answer was “not good.” He was confident in 1941 that America could build a massive military force, and that our role as the arsenal of democracy could prove decisive. But the key question was whether there was enough time left?


For people of my generation and those younger, World War II looks like a familiar movie about a football team that storms back from a terrible first half to win the big game. The problem is that since we already know that the story has a good ending, we have become dangerously oblivious to the reality that we very nearly lost that war. And there’s an important lesson in that for us today as we face another profound threat to our world — that of climate change.

President Franklin Roosevelt had been trying desperately to get recognition of the tremendous scale of the threats to America, and of the need to join directly into the war against Adolph Hitler even as he tried to buy time to build up our forces facing a possible war with Japan.

But isolationists kept hindering such actions, claiming that the threats of Hitler or the Japanese were not clear enough, and denying the seriousness of these threats to the U.S. By the time Pearl Harbor forced us into war, we were at a high risk of losing that war, and without some luck, we probably would have.

The most decisive piece of luck was Hitler’s underestimation of the Russians. Hitler was sure his surprise attack in June 1941 would defeat Russia before the snows came, and allow Germany to turn its full might to the western front. He misread Russia’s staying capacity.

Estimates are that well over 16 million Russians died, meaning more than 40 Russian deaths for every American one. Over two-thirds of the German military deaths in World War II were on the eastern front. By the time of the bold invasion of Allied forces at Normandy, we were facing a weakened enemy that still had over half of its forces fighting the Russians. Indeed, if Russia had collapsed in 1941-42, the delayed U.S. entry into the war until after Pearl Harbor would probably have been too late to be decisive.

This lesson in the danger of failing to confront a grave threat by denying its importance, or even its existence, resonates strongly for us today. Most Americans recognize the reality of climate change. However, they don’t fully understand the truly catastrophic impacts it will have unless we make major changes quickly to curb greenhouse gases.

There is increasing evidence that the rate of many types of climate change impacts, such as melting polar ices caps and rising sea waters, is accelerating even faster than predicted earlier. And the onset of catastrophic climate change will not be a sudden single event like a Pearl Harbor.

If we continue to wait for the catastrophes to be fully upon us, we will likely have waited too long to be able to reverse many of the worst changes, which may already have gone over key “tipping points.”

We need to join all the other countries of the world now, and to bring the full power of the world’s largest economy and its strongest technology development machine to bear on these threats. We need to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and to lead on the additional actions that are needed to win against climate change.

Those who denied the threats from Nazi Germany and imperial Japan came very close to losing our country and world as we know it. We cannot afford to let the denial of science and of the overwhelming evidence of climate change destroy our world in the 21st century. We are running out of time.