Reality clashed with the BBC version of false consensus in a remarkable edition of HardTalk last month. Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, was starkly honest about humanity’s extreme predicament in the face of climate breakdown and refused to buckle under host Stephen Sackur’s incredulous questioning. Sackur’s inability to grasp that we are already in a climate emergency, and that massive changes are necessary now to avoid societal collapse, was clear for all to see. His line of questioning attempted to present Hallam to the BBC audience as a dangerous revolutionary, trying to destroy capitalism for twisted ideological reasons.
Sackur: ‘You want to bring down the capitalist system as we know it, is that correct?
Hallam: ‘The capitalist system is going to be brought down by itself. The capitalist system is eating itself.’
Sackur: ‘Well, no, the point about your…’
Hallam (interrupting): ‘Let me make this point clear, right. The capitalist system – the global system that we’re in – is in the process of destroying itself, and it will destroy itself in the next ten years. The reason for that is because it’s destroying the climate. The climate is what’s necessary to grow food. If you can’t grow food, there will be starvation and social collapse. Now, the problem is, people in elites, people in the BBC, and people in the governmental sector, cannot get their heads round what’s actually happening. The fact of the matter is, if you go out and talk to ordinary people in the street, they’re aware of this. And that’s why hundreds of thousands of people around the world are starting to take action…’
Sackur (interrupting): ‘I understand what you’re [saying], your perspective on the climate is that the emergency is here, it’s now and we have to respond.’
Hallam (interrupting): ‘No, I don’t think you have [understood].’
As Hallam pointed out in the interview, ‘hard science’ shows that, as things stand, billions of people will die in the next few decades as a result of climate breakdown. William Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia, and the originator of the concept of ‘ecological footprint’, agreed. He added bluntly:
‘Humanity is literally converting the ecosphere into human bodies, prodigious quantities of cultural artifacts, and vastly larger volumes of entropic waste. (That’s what tropical deforestation, fisheries collapses, plummeting biodiversity, ocean pollution, climate change, etc. are all about.)’
Earlier this year, Noam Chomsky noted that:
‘In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive.’
If corporate media were structurally capable of reflecting reality, this would be constant headline news:
‘Every single [newspaper] should have a shrieking headline every day saying we are heading to total catastrophe. […] That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly. After all, there’s been nothing like this in all of human history. The current generation has to make a decision as to whether organized human society will survive another couple of generations, and it has to be done quickly, there’s not a lot of time. So, there’s no time for dillydallying and beating around the bush. And [the US] pulling out of the Paris negotiations should be regarded as one of the worst crimes in history.’
Human extinction within one hundred years is a real possibility. A massive upsurge of public concern, placing unassailable pressure on governments to drastically change course, is urgently needed. Climate strikes, with seven million people taking part last Friday, inspired in large part by the example of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, need to be ramped up even further, demanding real change; not fixes to a fundamentally destructive system that is falling apart, bringing humans and numerous other species with it.
As Thunberg passionately told world leaders at the UN in New York last week, in a powerful mix of emotion and reason:
‘People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! […] How dare you pretend that this can be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions.’
Thunberg’s speech gave the lie, yet again, to ill-founded claims that she is being manipulated or ‘manufactured’ as a front for neoliberalism, ‘green’ capitalism or ‘neo-feudalism’. As Jonathan Cook wrote in a cogent demolition of cynical claims made against her, including by some on the left:
‘Thunberg is not Wonder Girl. She will have to navigate through these treacherous waters as best she can, deciding who genuinely wants to help, who is trying to sabotage her cause, and which partners she can afford to ally with. She and similar movements will make mistakes. That is how social protests always work. It is also how they evolve.’
‘Should Thunberg become captured, wittingly or not, by western elites, it is patronising in the extreme to assume that the many millions of young and old alike joining her on the climate strikes will be incapable of recognising her co-option or whether she has lost her way. Those making this argument arrogantly assume that only they can divine the true path.’
Elite Fear Of The Public
Despite considerable ‘mainstream’ coverage given to climate activism in 2019, public demands to make fundamental changes to the global economy will most likely continue to be ignored, twisted or derided. Indeed, the more extremist elements of the corporate media are prone to fear-mongering about the supposed risks – i.e. to wealth and power – in making significant changes in society. Thus, for example, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of the Daily Telegraph, warned darkly:
‘The Green Taliban will sweep away our liberal order unless we get a grip on climate change.’
‘We have a choice. Either we fight runaway climate change with liberal market policies and capitalist creativity, or we cede the field to Malthusians and the Green Taliban.’
A Telegraph editorial had mocked the climate movement the previous week:
‘This climate strike is a joke. Childish socialism won’t help the environment.’
The establishment paper scorned protesters as ‘economically illiterate’ and dismissed their ‘Luddite war on capitalism’. This is the stock clichéd insult, seemingly requiring no explanation or justification. The fact is, there is virtually no substantive coverage or discussion of capitalism as a root cause of the climate crisis, and that it is driving its own collapse, as Roger Hallam pointed out on BBC’s HardTalk – a rare mention indeed.
As an illustrative example: a search of the ProQuest newspaper database on September 26, covering the previous seven days, yielded 2,075 mentions of ‘Greta Thunberg’. But only 21 of these included the word ‘capitalism’. And, of these, only four made substantive critical remarks about capitalism: an article on The Canary website, an Irish Times piece quoting Naomi Klein, an article in Kashmir Times, and an opinion piece in Free Press Journal, based in Mumbai, India. In other words, vanishingly few; and not one in a major UK newspaper.
But then, corporate media and political leaders hate the idea of an informed public demanding real societal change. Bear in mind former Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent admission that he panicked over a possible ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. When a YouGov poll put the ‘Yes’ campaign in the lead, it hit him ‘like a blow to the solar plexus’ and led to ‘a mounting sense of panic’.
Or recall the consternation of Tony Blair, Prime Minister in the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was so concerned about public opposition to the coming war that he told George Bush that the US may have to go ahead without UK involvement. Ian Sinclair, author of the 2013 book, ‘The March That Shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, said:
‘It is important to remember just how close and how much the anti-war movement came to shaking Blair during that period and nearly stopping the participation.’
‘On 9 March 2003 Development Secretary Clare Short threatened to resign, and there was a real concern within Blair’s inner circle that the Government might not win the parliamentary vote on the war. Receiving worrying reports from their embassy in London, Washington was so concerned about Blair’s position that on 9 March President Bush told his National Security Advisor Condeeleeza Rice “We can’t have the British Government fall because of this decision over war.” Bush then called Blair and suggested the UK could drop out of the initial invasion and find some other way to participate.’
‘Two days later was what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph. The same report explained that the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” The Sunday Mirror reported that Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.” An hour later Rumsfeld held a press conference and explained that Britain might not be involved in the invasion. The Government was thrown into panic. Blair “went bonkers”, according to Alastair Campbell.’
Sinclair argues that although the invasion of Iraq went ahead:
‘it’s important to be aware of just how close the anti-war movement came to derailing British participation in the Iraq invasion.’
‘It’s Appropriate To Be Scared’
We therefore need to take heart from the growing public awareness and determination to act in the face of the climate crisis. A recent poll showed that, in seven out of the eight countries surveyed, the climate emergency is seen as ‘the most important issue’ facing the world, ahead of migration, terrorism and the global economy.
At least three-quarters of the public agree that the world is facing a ‘climate emergency’, with climate breakdown at risk of becoming ‘extremely dangerous’. In the UK, 64 per cent agreed with the statement ‘time is running out to save the planet’ and a mere 23 per cent in the country think that the government is taking sufficient action.
Time is indeed running out, just as the scale of the crisis becomes ever clearer. Senior climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf cautioned via Twitter:
‘Climate skeptics and deniers have often accused scientists of exaggerating the threat of climate change, but the evidence shows that not only have they not exaggerated, they have underestimated.’
He was pointing to a piece in Scientific American titled, ‘Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change’. The article’s authors, including renowned science historian Naomi Oreskes, warned that:
‘climate change and its impacts are emerging faster than scientists previously thought.’
As if on cue, a new landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that sea levels could rise by fully one metre by the end of the century. Professor Jonathan Bamber, director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre at the University of Bristol, said:
‘Sea level rise is projected to continue whatever the emission scenario and for something like business-as-usual the future for low lying coastal communities looks extremely bleak. The consequences will be felt by all of us.’
Even worse, warned Professor Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, the report did not mention the ‘very serious threat’ of methane coming from the seabed of the Arctic continental shelf as the permafrost thaws, releasing large amounts of powerful global-warming gas.
In an article for Nature, the prestigious science journal, lawyer Farhana Yamin explained why she embarked on civil disobedience after three decades of environmental advocacy for the IPCC, the United Nations and others:
‘The global economy must be fundamentally reconfigured into a circular system that uses fewer resources and is based on renewable technologies. The time for half measures has run out — as made plain by the 2018 IPCC special report on the impacts of a 1.5 °C rise in global average temperatures. That’s why I chose to get arrested.’
In April, Yamin superglued her hands to the pavement outside the Shell headquarters in London, surrounded by numerous policemen. Once unstuck, she was arrested for causing criminal damage.
‘The current form of capitalism is toxic for life on Earth.’
One might as well delete those three words, ‘current form of’.
‘By now you might have labelled me an extremist, here to boast about her mid-life flirtation with the barricades. Talk of injustice, devastation, emergency and the need for radical change is far removed from the neutral vocabulary used by the scientific community in journals such as Nature. But these seemingly emotional terms now fit the facts — and they effect change. I’d rather be labelled ideological than mislead the public into complacency.’
How long will it be before other, even more senior, figures ‘take to the streets’, figuratively or otherwise, demanding real change? Professor Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, recently told Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst, that the faster pace of climate change, with an increasing number of extreme events, is ‘scary’. He expanded:
‘It’s appropriate to be scared. We predicted temperatures would rise, but we didn’t foresee these sorts of extreme events we’re getting so soon.’
Other scientists contacted by the BBC echoed King’s emotive language. Senior physicist Professor Jo Haigh from Imperial College London said:
‘David King is right to be scared – I’m scared too.
‘We do the analysis, we think what’s going to happen, then publish in a very scientific way.
‘Then we have a human response to that… and it is scary.’
Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, warned:
‘I have a sense of the numbing inevitability of it all.
‘It’s like seeing a locomotive coming at you for 40 years – you could see it coming and were waving the warning flags but were powerless to stop it.’
The BBC’s Harrabin observed:
‘Few of the scientists we contacted had faith that governments would do what was needed to rescue the climate in time.’
This ought to be so shocking that, to repeat Noam Chomsky’s point, newspapers should be headlining scientists’ warnings about climate every day, as well as highlighting that even normally cautious leading science experts have little faith in governments taking the necessary action to avoid the worst effects of climate chaos.
The UN has already warned that the climate crisis is the ‘greatest ever threat to human rights’. If the UN had warned that Iran, Russia or China is the ‘greatest ever threat to human rights’, it would get blanket coverage with huge headlines and leading pundits screaming, ‘Something must be done!’.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN rights chief, told the UN human rights council in Geneva earlier this month:
‘The economies of all nations, the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every state, and the rights of all your people, and future generations, will be impacted [by climate change].’
She also denounced attacks on environmental activists, and the abuse and insidious accusations hurled at Greta Thunberg (which Thunberg herself has stoutly rebutted).
Writing for the leading physics news website, phys.org, Ivan Couronne called Thunberg’s ‘How dare you?’ UN speech ‘a major moment for climate movement’:
‘Thunberg’s way of speaking—brief, forceful and backed up by well-chosen scientific data points—contrasts sharply with the style of her peers, as was apparent over the weekend during a youth summit.
‘Some of the young activists already speak like their elders, reciting long texts lacking in nuance.
‘The uniqueness of Thunberg’s speech—at times reserved, at others blunt—partly comes from her Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism that the teen says has made her very direct.’
Couronne reported that Thunberg writes her own speeches, relying on reputable climate scientists to ensure that she gets her facts correct. These include Johan Rockstrom, Stefan Rahmstorf, Kevin Anderson, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Glen Peters and others.
Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, told phys.org:
‘I am confident that Greta writes her own speeches, but quite appropriately checks the robustness of facts, scientific statements and any use of numbers with a range of specialists in those particular areas.’
Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, added his support:
‘After discussing with Greta here in Potsdam and in Stockholm, I can vouch that she acts out of her own authentic motivation, and she knows the science. I wish more politicians would get this well-informed about climate science! Why is that not the case?’
The answer is that political leaders remain largely beholden to powerful financial, economic and corporate forces that have yet to acknowledge the gravity of the climate crisis; and – in the case of the huge fossil fuel industries, in particular – are actually driving us ever closer towards oblivion. Only massive mobilisation of the public can turn things around. We are literally fighting for human survival.