Opinion Articles

Slavery and climate change: lessons to be learned

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In a recent interview with the Guardian, James Hansen, one of the world's best-known climate scientist suggested that it would be better for the planet and for future generations if the Copenhagen climate change summit ended in collapse, rather than a flawed deal. Hansen claimed that dealing with climate change, 'is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill… On those kind of issues you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50% or reduce it 40%.'

Hansen is right to warn that a weak compromise might give the general public the impression that climate change has been 'solved', and because a deal has been struck we can now carry on with our lives as before. He is also right to draw a parallel between the transatlantic slave trade and climate change: both slavery and fossil fuel use draw on the same human desire for 'power', and both have strong negative consequences for the world's poor.

But Hansen is very wrong to claim that there were no compromises during the campaign to abolish slavery, and this suggestion could lead the world leaders now gathered in Copenhagen down entirely the wrong track.

Slavery was, in fact, abolished through a series of tactical tricks and compromises. Campaigners in Britain realised it would be almost impossible to abolish slavery 'in one fell swoop', and chose to focus strategically on abolishing the slave-trade. A watered-down bill was surreptitiously introduced to Parliament that 'only' banned British merchants from participating in the slave trade with foreign colonies. This was a shrewd move, as the bill stayed below the radar of the pro-slavery faction, by concealing all humanitarian motives. The focus on national and military self-interest was difficult to attack and the Foreign Slave Trade Bill was easily passed into law in 1806.

This seemingly innocent bill was part of a step-by-step approach calculated to weaken the powerful lobbies who were opposing the end of the slave trade altogether and eventually made possible the abolition of slavery itself in Britain's colonies in 1833, more than two decades later and after more compromises. Large concessions were made to the slave-holding lobby, including the gradual emancipation of slaves (through the apprenticeship system) and the payment of compensation for loss of property. Even though this might outrage our modern sensibilities, the aim of abolitionists was achieved far more peacefully and, one could argue, successfully than in the United States, where abolition was only achieved through civil war.

Furthermore, the tactics of hard-line abolitionists in the US, like William Lloyd Garrison, who refused to accept anything but the immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves, were actually counter-productive. The leading historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, has suggested that Garrison's 'eccentricities and extreme rhetoric may have deterred many potential converts', and this might explain why 'American abolitionism was always confined to a small minority.' Lincoln won the Republican nomination for President because he was a moderate and, like most westerners, took a dim view of abolitionists, saying that he loathed their 'self-righteousness', even though he also hated slavery.

Slavery offers here a poignant cautionary tale of what can happen when people are forced to do things they do not want to do. In the US, the abolition of slavery was imposed from above by the northern states against the will of southern slave-owners, who managed to propagate a system of segregation and oppression for another century after the end of the American Civil War. Many ex-slaves experienced worse conditions as 'free men' than they had as slaves. This strongly contrasts with the example in Britain's colonies, and suggests that the gradual abolition of slavery, through compromises and a step-by-step process, was ultimately a quicker, more efficient and less bloody way to achieve the aim of anti-slavery campaigners than the imposition of abolition by force. This is the lesson that politicians meeting in Copenhagen this week should take from the abolition of slavery. It is a dangerous abuse of history to suggest that a 'no compromises' approach ended the inhumanity of the slave trade. Like abolition, legislation to combat climate change is likely to be achieved through a string of hard-won compromises.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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