IS THE EARTH REALLY FINISHED? Countering Despair With The Momentum Of Hope

“What goes against the grain of conditioning is experienced as not credible, or as a hostile act.” (John McMurtry, philosopher)

Bizarre Conversations

Climate crisis is not a future risk. It is today’s reality. As Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University, warned recently: “The danger zone is not something we are going to reach in the middle of this century. We are in it now.” (Roger Highfield, ‘Screen saver weather trial predicts 10 deg rise in British temperatures’, Daily Telegraph, 31 January, 2005)

Human-induced climate change has been killing people for decades. Climatologists estimate that global warming has led to the deaths of 150,000 people since 1970. (Meteorological Office, ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’, 1-3 February 2005, Table 2a. ‘Impacts on human systems due to temperature rise, precipitation change and increases in extreme events’, page 1; By 2050, as temperatures rise, scientists warn that three billion people will be under “water stress”, with tens of millions likely dying as a result.

At such a desperate moment in the planet’s history, we could simply throw up our hands in despair, or we could try to reduce the likelihood of the worst predictions coming true. The corporate media has yet to examine its own role in setting up huge obstacles to the latter option of hope.

Consider, for example, Michael McCarthy, environment editor of the Independent. McCarthy described how he “was taken aback” at dramatic scientific warnings of “major new threats” at a recent climate conference in Exeter. One frightening prospect is the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, previously considered stable, which would lead to a 5-metre rise in global sea level. As McCarthy notes dramatically: “Goodbye London; goodbye Bangladesh”.

On the way back from Exeter on the train, he mulls over the conference findings with Paul Brown, environment correspondent of the Guardian:

“By the time we reached London we knew what the conclusion was. I said: ‘The earth is finished.’ Paul said: ‘It is, yes.’ We both shook our heads and gave that half-laugh that is sparked by incredulity. So many environmental scare stories, over the years; I never dreamed of such a one as this.

“And what will our children make of our generation, who let this planet, so lovingly created, go to waste?” (McCarthy, ‘Slouching towards disaster’, The Tablet, 12 February, 2005; available at

This is a remarkably bleak conclusion. McCarthy glibly notes the “inevitability of what [is] going to happen”, namely: “The earth is finished.” We applaud the journalist for presenting the reality of human-caused climate change. But the resignation, and the apparent lack of any resolve to avert catastrophe, is irresponsible. As Noam Chomsky has put it in a different, though related, context:

“We are faced with a kind of Pascal’s wager: assume the worst and it will surely arrive: commit oneself to the struggle for freedom and justice, and its cause may be advanced.” (Chomsky, ‘Deterring Democracy’, Vintage, London, 1992, p. 64)

Following McCarthy’s anguished return to the Independent’s comfortable offices in London, one searches in vain for his penetrating news reports on how corporate greed and government complicity have dragged humanity into this abyss. One searches in vain, too, for anything similar by Paul Brown in The Guardian.

The notion of government and big business perpetrating climate crimes against humanity is simply off the news agenda. A collective madness of suffocating silence pervades the media, afflicting even those editors and journalists that we are supposed to regard as the best.

Contraction and Convergence: Climate Logic for Survival

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed. The objective of the convention is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will avoid dangerous rates of climate change.” The Kyoto protocol, which came into force in February, requires developed nations to cut emissions by just 5 per cent, compared to 1990 levels. This is a tiny first step, and is far less than the cuts required, which are around 80 per cent.

One of the major gaps in the climate ‘debate’ is the deafening silence surrounding contraction and convergence (C&C). This proposal by the London-based Global Commons Institute would cut greenhouse gas emissions in a fair and timely manner, averting the worst climatic impacts. Unlike Kyoto, it is a global framework involving all countries, both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’.

C&C requires that annual emissions of greenhouse gases contract over time to a sustainable level. The aim would be to limit the equivalent concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a safe level. The pre-industrial level, in 1800, was 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv). The current level is around 380 ppmv, and it will exceed 400 ppmv within ten years under a business as usual scenario. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the planet would continue to heat up for more than a hundred years. In other words, humanity has already committed life on the planet to considerable climate-related damages in the years to come.

Setting a ‘safe’ limit of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration actually means estimating a limit beyond which damage to the planet is unacceptable. This may be 450 ppmv; or it may be that the international community agrees on a target lower than the present atmospheric level, say 350 ppmv. Once the target is agreed, it is a simple matter to allocate an equitable ‘carbon budget’ of annual emissions amongst the world’s population on a per capita basis. This is worked out for each country or world region (e.g. the European Union).

The Global Commons Institute’s eye-catching computer graphics illustrate past emissions and future allocation of emissions by country (or region), achieving per capita equality by 2030, for example. This is the convergence part of C&C. After 2030, emissions drop off to reach safe levels by 2100. This is the contraction. (Further information on C&C, with illustrations, can be found at

Recall that the objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will avoid dangerous rates of climate change.” Its basic principles are precaution and equity. C&C is a simple and powerful proposal that directly embodies both the convention’s objective and principles.

Last year, the secretariat to the UNFCCC negotiations declared that achieving the treaty’s objective “inevitably requires Contraction and Convergence”. C&C is supported by an impressive array of authorities in climate science, including physicist Sir John Houghton, the former chair of the science assessment working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-2002). Indeed, the IPCC, comprising the world’s recognised climate experts, has announced that: “C&C takes the rights-based approach to its logical conclusion.”

The prestigious Institute of Civil Engineers in London recently described C&C as “an antidote to the expanding, diverging and climate-changing nature of global economic development”. The ICE added that C&C “could prove to be the ultimate sustainability initia­tive.” (Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, paper 13982, December 2004)

In February 2005, Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute was given a lifetime’s achievement award by the Corporation of London. Nominations had been sought for “the person from the worlds of business, academia, politics and activism seeking the individual who had made the greatest contribution to the understanding and combating of climate change, leading strategic debate and policy formation.”

Although Meyer is at times understandably somewhat despondent at the enormity of the task ahead, he sees fruitful signs in the global grassroots push for sustainable development, something which “is impossible without personal and human development. These are things we have to work for so hope has momentum as well as motive.” (‘GCI’s Meyer looks ahead’, interview with Energy Argus, December 2004, p. 15; reprinted in, p. 27)

And that momentum of hope is building. C&C has attracted statements of support from leading politicians and grassroots groups in a majority of the world’s countries, including the Africa Group, the Non-Aligned Movement, China and India. C&C may well be the only approach to greenhouse emissions that developing countries are willing to accept. That, in turn, should grab the attention of even the US; the Bush administration rejected the Kyoto protocol ostensibly, at least, because the agreement requires no commitments from developing nations. Kyoto involves only trivial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, as we noted above, and the agreement will expire in 2012. A replacement agreement is needed fast.

On a sane planet, politicians and the media would now be clamouring to introduce C&C as a truly global, logical and equitable framework for stabilising the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Rational and balanced coverage of climate change would be devoting considerable resources to discussion of this groundbreaking proposal. It would be central to news reports of international climate meetings as a way out of the deadlock of negotiations; Jon Snow of Channel 4 news would be hosting hour-long live debates; the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman would demand of government ministers why they had not yet signed up to C&C; ITN’s Trevor Macdonald would present special documentaries from a multimillion pound ITN television studio; newspaper editorials would analyse the implications of C&C for sensible energy policies and tax regimes; Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace would be endlessly promoting C&C to their supporters. Instead, a horrible silence prevails.

Leaders as Moral Metaphors of a Corrupt System

We conducted a Lexis-Nexis newspaper database search to gauge the relative importance given to different topics in climate news reports by a number of major environment reporters. The following figures relate to the five year period leading up to, and including, 25 February 2005. We investigated to what extent equity, and contraction and convergence, entered into mainstream news reports on climate, in the best British press.

Michael McCarthy (Independent) Number of news reports
“climate” 232
“climate” + “industry” 80
“climate” + “Blair” 53
“climate” + “equity” 0
“climate” + “contraction and convergence” 0

Geoffrey Lean (Independent on Sunday)
“climate” 105
“climate” + “industry” 40
“climate” + “Blair” 38
“climate” + “equity” 0
“climate” + “contraction and convergence” 1

Charles Clover (Telegraph)
“climate” 136
“climate” + “industry” 47
“climate” + “Blair” 38
“climate” + “equity” 0
“climate” + “contraction and convergence” 0

Paul Brown (Guardian)
“climate” 287
“climate” + “industry” 137
“climate” + “Blair” 48
“climate” + “equity” 1
“climate” + “contraction and convergence” 1

John Vidal (Guardian)
“climate” 193
“climate” + “industry” 98
“climate” + “Blair” 31
“climate” + “equity” 1
“climate” + “contraction and convergence” 0

This is not a rigorous scientific analysis, of course, but the numbers +are+ highly indicative of hugely skewed priorities. Out of a grand total of 953 articles across the Independent, Independent on Sunday, Guardian and Telegraph, C&C was mentioned only twice, as was equity. On the other hand, industry was addressed in 402 articles, and Blair was mentioned 208 times, both almost entirely from an uncritical perspective.

One might counter that pronouncements on climate by Tony Blair, as prime minister, should be deemed automatically ‘newsworthy’. But we must also bear in mind what Blair actually represents, even if the media conceals it well. Canadian philosopher John McMurtry explains:

“Tony Blair exemplifies the character structure of the global market order. Packaged in the corporate culture of youthful image, he is constructed as sincere, energetic and moral. Like other ruling-party leaders, he has worked hard to be selected by the financial and media axes of power as ‘the man to do the job’. He is a moral metaphor of the system.” (McMurtry, ‘Value Wars’, Pluto, London, 2002, p. 22)

Although public trust in Blair has collapsed after his many deceptions over Iraq, the media continue to present him as a fundamentally well-intentioned leader pursuing the interests of the nation. Thus, whenever Blair, Bush and other corporate-backed political leaders are given prominent news coverage, the media is in effect promoting its own business goals of profit and power. This is inimical to any reasonable prospect of averting climate catastrophe.

Contraction and convergence is the only serious global framework on the table for plotting a route out of the climate crisis. That C&C, and the concept of equity, can be so systematically ignored by the corporate media, is yet another damning indictment of the media’s systemic failings. It is incumbent upon us all to push these issues onto the news agenda.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. You could ask questions along the following lines: In your reports on climate change, why do you never address equity, or contraction and convergence?

Write to Michael McCarthy, environment editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Geoffrey Lean, environment editor of the Independent on Sunday:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Charles Clover, environment editor of the Daily Telegraph:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Paul Brown, environment correspondent of the Guardian:
Email: [email protected]

Write to John Vidal, environment editor of the Guardian:
Email: [email protected]