The first part of our epic history of climate denial opens with our hero’s harrowing experience during the Battle of Britain and the war against totalitarianism
His parachute was engulfed in flames. Antony Fisher and his younger brother Basil were engaged in a fierce firefight over the rolling hills of Sussex on 15 August 1940 after a crack Nazi squadron launched a surprise bombardment of their airbase during a decisive day in the Battle of Britain.
“Things looked very stern, with the odds against us,” Anthony Eden, the Minister for War, wrote that very evening after having met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the War Office. “[T]his was to be one of the critical days of the war.”
Adolf Hitler had launched every single plane in his Luftwaffe to attack England’s Royal Air Force and deliver what he hoped would be decisive blow to the country’s defences before launching a ground assault and occupation.
Shortly after 7pm the Nazis’ fiercest squadron attacked the Croydon airbase where Antony and Basil were stationed.
The brothers scrambled to defend their base. The RAF 111 Squadron replied with a daring ambush and forced the enemy into a panicked retreat towards the Channel. Basil pursued the fleeing fighters.
But he soon became entangled in a fierce dogfight over the Sussex countryside. Gunfire tore through Basil’s plane and he was forced to eject from the cockpit.
Antony could see that flames had engulfed the silk canapé of his brothers parachute and burnt through its harness. He watched helplessly as the 23-year-old dropped through the sky like a sack of coal.
The stricken plane crashed into a farmhouse barn and exploded. That evening, Basil’s body was retrieved from a pond near Sidleham, Sussex, not far from his idyllic childhood home at Ashdown Park.
“I survived,” Antony would reflect. “But no thanks to my own efforts. For it was some time before I was to learn that the main ability for which I and my squadron existed, to destroy enemy aircraft, I did not possess. Unaware of my inability, and maybe with less than average inclination for violent aggression, I was no credit in that particular occupation.”
The landed aristocrat would reach profound conclusions from his own experience of war. “Mankind is in much the same position as I was as an ignorant fighter pilot and in worse danger for being unaware of the need to correct that ignorance,” he mused. The lesson for Antony was painfully clear.
The cause of his tragedy had been his caution. If he had demonstrated Basil’s self-assured bravery his brother may have been saved. Perhaps he could have shot down the Nazi aggressor.
Antony never flew again and served out the rest of the war inventing a training machine to improve the aim of Britain’s airmen.
He also set about reading, trying to fully understand the political, economic and philosophical divides that had resulted in war and his brother’s death.
This was the beginning of a tireless, lifelong campaign to wake humanity from its ignorant slumber, and prevent the slow march towards tyranny and war.
The rest of his life was like his war years: beyond extraordinary. The decisions he took, the ideas he promoted, and the men he allied with would change the course of history.
The machinery of government had created the worst loss of life in human history as the British Empire and the German Wehrmacht pounded each other almost to extinction.
Antony was a deeply sensitive, intelligent man. His devout religious upbringing and the profound grief that characterised his early childhood meant that he was determined to understand the true cause of the Second World War, from the Wall Street crash of 1929 to the rise of “National Socialism” in Germany under Hitler.
An Exotic and Varied Life
And as an Eton and Cambridge educated chap, Antony turned to the field of economics. Antony devoured Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Capital. “Ideas have consequences”, he repeated often.
The ideas that Antony found in those books would reverberate down through the ages and have profound implications for our own economic and ecological predicament.
Antony’s life was in every detail extraordinary. His long years were filled with the unprecedented privileges of his century while he also suffered from the devastation and grief that scarred the age.
Indeed, he seems more a fictional character devised to tell the story of Britain’s history, power and ideology.
His friend and disciple, the late John Blundell, once remarked that Antony led “the kind of exotic and varied life normally found only in the pages of thick paperback novels stacked high at airports.”
My own sense is that his life was more Shakespearian in scope: defined by comedic tragedy while offering a richness and complexity in its lessons about our own age and the political reality of our time.
Antony founded Britain’s first think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and dedicated his later years to establishing a complex network of similar free market institutions in the United States.
These erstwhile quasi-academic hothouses would provide the “beliefs” that underpinned Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in America. Andrew Marr, in his BBC political history would describe the IEA as “undoubtedly the most influential think tank in modern British history.”
These institutions would also, as I will show, prove instrumental in germinating climate denial in the United States and then cross pollinating it to Britain.
Antony would dedicate his life to fighting tyranny, real and imagined, in a mostly honest and well meant campaign to liberate the individual from the obligations of the State and society.
Margaret Thatcher, some years after serving as Prime minister, would reflect: “Yes, it started with ideas, with beliefs. That’s it. You must start with beliefs. Yes, always with beliefs.”
Today there is considerable reflection among climate change policy advocates as they try to comprehend how a small yet influential community of deniers could threaten political attempts to prevent catastrophic global warming.
There is irrefutable evidence that ExxonMobil and other oil interests have funded think tanks and individuals determined to attack science and scientists. But could it really be the case that conscious, intelligent men and women would take the devil’s silver?
Even when their actions could seriously jeopardize the well-being of their children and their entire world?
Neoliberalism is Ideology
Others have asked what role ideology plays in people’s “scepticism” of climate change science. Thatcher when discussing beliefs was referring to the work of Antony Fisher and his Institute of Economic Affairs.
And she was speaking about the IEA‘s relentless promulgation of the ideas of the once obscure and forgotten economist Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek had in turn tirelessly promoted a new school in economics, neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is an ideology. And it is an ideology that says that unless we submit to the “invisible hand” of the free market we shall cause totalitarianism and want on a global scale.
Ideology can be described as a coherent belief system, that takes on our almost unconscious assumptions about economics, about values systems, about right and wrong.
When you research climate denial you quickly establish that almost everyone involved in its inception and promulgation is a fervent believer in the once fringe ideology of neoliberalism.
Climate change regulations, like any regulations, distort and pervert the free market. The best intentions of environmentalists can lead to the hell of state control.
This is what they believe. And beliefs are usually based on our experiences, rather than on peer-reviewed scientific journals or sophisticated experimentation.
The War of Ideas
This is the history of climate denial. It is the first comprehensive telling of this story from its very origins in the ideological “battle of ideas” for neoliberalism and against “reformist” Keynesianism and the more incendiary, revolutionary communism.
This “first rough draft” is based on hundreds of interviews, including long and fascinating conversations with the deniers themselves. And it begins with the horrific shock and grief suffered by the young Antony at the height of the Second World War.
There is much to learn from Antony’s life and ideas. These ideas, as I will show during the course of this series, would prove to be the curious cause of climate scepticism.
This remarkable story provides the absolutely vital clues we need to understand how senior statesmen, politicians of integrity and intellect, scientists and sensible people can come to question something as fundamental as climate change.
And this story unlocks the secret of how we who accept the science and its consequence can still hope to secure a prosperous and happy future for generations to come.