Moral malaise at the BBC


Dr Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University in London. He tweets at @Gareth_Daland

The facts of climate breakdown are scientifically established – so don’t get lost in BBC Radio Four’s latest Moral Maze.

The late 1970s saw the death of Elvis Presley and the birth of a new era in climate policy. By a strange twist of fate, the president of Elvis Presley’s Fan Club at the time was the lead singer of a group called The Jasons, and the new era of climate-politics was ushered in by a group of scientists called the JASONs. .

The basic science of anthropogenic climate change is simple. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, into the atmosphere where it remains for a very long time. For the better part of a century, the scientists who recognized that this raised the prospect of profound and long-term alteration in the global climate were isolated voices: Svante Arrhenius in 1896, Mikhail Budyko and Peter Bergmann in the 1960s, to name a few. .

But in 1979, the JASON report alerted the US government to the threat, and similar reports followed in 1981. The following year, another report was submitted to Exxon management warning of “catastrophic” climatological consequences. of burning fossil fuels.

Don’t look up

Beginning in 1985 when Carl Sagan testified in the US Congress, or later with the testimony of Jim Hansen in the US Senate in 1988, knowledge of the current reality and future threat of global warming entered the mainstream. .

“There is also the violence that Phillips, Buerk, Ross and other Holocaust deniers blithely encourage: the slow violence climate chaos.”

The BBC, for most of the period since the JASONs’ report, has treated anthropogenic climate change as a matter of belief, with non-believers being cast in lead roles.

It reserves this approach only for climate change. On other issues of popular discussion – say, where is Elvis Presley – the position is scientific. The BBC’s most recent Elvis documentary is a good example. Despite its title, The Rebirth Of The King, the presenter does not claim to have seen Elvis perform live at the Hammersmith Apollo last Friday night. He informs us instead that the king is dead.

With climate change, on the other hand, the BBC has been careful to “pocket” each “believer” with a penny. It wasn’t until 2018 that he decided that “climate science is solid,” writes George Monbiot in exasperation, and yet even now he continues to “let climate deniers walk over it.”

From my own experience on the BBC’s Moral Labyrinth, I can attest to this; it was my Don’t Look Up moment. The Moral Labyrinth is chaired by climate denier Michael Buerk. There are four panelists, one of whom is the Daily mail columnist Melanie Phillips, plus four “witnesses”. The latter each have one minute to present their case before being questioned by the members of the panel.

Making his priorities obvious through the use of the gavel, the president allowed one witness, climate denier Ross Clark, more than his time, then guillotined my own contribution when I was barely halfway through.

A clever trick

Buerk’s style of climate denial may be distinguished, but it is no less effective. It’s straight out of the oil companies’ playbook: confusing the public’s mind, giving the impression that the experts disagree, that everyone is picking their own facts. This was precisely his tactic on Moral Maze.

The climate issue is so appallingly complex, Buerk believes, that passionate claims or activism should be kept out of court. Environmentalists like me, he says, are “quasi-religious” fanatics. They use climate change as a vehicle for ulterior agendas such as ‘public sector job creation’, and they brazenly assert that the limits of nature limit the ‘free play’ of human desires.

Consider the climatological assumptions on which these claims are based. Buerk insists that no one knows “for certain” that human economic activity is “causing global warming”, and that there have been “no significant increases in global temperatures for over a decade “. It repeats the belief that the Sahara Desert has been shrinking for decades, as well as the claim, popularized in a novel by Michael Crichton, that Antarctica is cooling.

All of these claims have been refuted. But truthfulness is not the point; he mobilizes them as a rhetorical device. “There may be answers to all these quibbles,” he concedes, “I think there probably are and I’d like to hear them.”

This is nothing but a shrewd ruse: completely ignoring well-established scientific findings, tossing climate-denying ducks and stoking doubt, then spraying false modesty to give an air of fair-minded rationalism.

Switching in wind farms

Buerk’s partner in denial, Melanie Phillips, projects a rather different personality. She takes reckless positions – to put it politely – on many issues, not just climate.

Public health is a topical issue. Britain’s most prominent supporter of MMR fraudster Andrew Wakefield, she has done as much as anyone to undermine public confidence in vaccines. As for his climate denialism, he relies on coal-funded pseudoscience and the remarkable discovery that carbon dioxide, seen through Melanie’s microscope, occupies only a “small proportion of the atmosphere, most of which is water vapour. If that were so, ironically Monbiot, it would take gills.

Anthropogenic climate change is a “scam,” says Phillips. “The temperature does not rise”, the seas do not rise, the ice does not melt, the coral reefs do not whiten!

The idea that “the climate can be significantly affected by human beings is inherently absurd,” she stammered recently on climate denial website Net Zero Watch, adding that to achieve the goals of “net zero,” it would take “fascist measures” that would launch “the west into a pre-industrial way of life. Given that pre-industrial transportation and production relied on wind power, it’s no surprise that it condemns wind farms as “the most ruinous madness of our time”.

In his bitter opposition to wind and solar power, the Insulate Britain campaign and even the mildest green measures under the Cameron governments (which were quickly abandoned), Phillips played his part in ensuring the prolonged overreliance of the Britain on fossil gas. . The result is skyrocketing gas bills – and electricity too because its price is set by gas.

Britain’s energy bills are around £3billion higher than they would have been had these measures been implemented – billions of pounds flowing from consumers to fossil fuel giants, for be reinvested in disinformation campaigns on the climate.

Varieties of violence

At bottom, Phillips’ animosity toward climate radicals expresses a fear that, driven by a mistaken belief in human perfectibility, they agitate for utopian experiments that open the door to mob violence and totalitarian rule.

This is not the place to dissect this case in detail, but a few remarks can be made. One concerns violence. The main targets of radicals and environmentalists are largely funded and well-equipped institutions: governments and corporations.

Phillips, on the other hand, stirs up animosity against vulnerable social groups: Muslims, refugees, Palestinians, and trans and gay people, for which she received Stonewall’s “Bigot of the Year” award. His diary, The daily mail, is known for his defamation of welfare recipients and for his racism. It was the newspaper that applauded fascism in the interwar period. Phillips condemns the terrorist acts of Anders Breivik. But this feeling was not mutual. He quotes with admiration his chronicles tinged with prejudice.

There is also the violence that Phillips, Buerk, Ross and other Holocaust deniers blithely encourage: the slow violence climate chaos. Driven primarily by the wealthy and powerful, it is most lethally inflicted on poor and racialized communities.

An “uncontrolled climatic experiment”

We reds and greens in Phillips’ Demonology are eager to unleash a dangerous experiment on his established social order.

It is deeply misleading. Our favorite technologies are simple and harmless – bicycles, buses, wind turbines, home insulation – and our overriding goal is conservative: to maintain a habitable planet for humans and other species.

The social order it defends in its current industrial-capitalist form, on the other hand, is UNinstalled. It is, observes Martin Wolf at FinancialTimes, “to conduct a huge, uncontrolled, and almost certainly irreversible climate experiment” with the only home we humans have. The positive feedback effects of rising temperatures, Wolf continues, will increase the risk of “calamitous change.”

If the deniers have their way, emissions and temperature readings will rise without remorse, as will the potential for a cascade of feedback-propelled tipping points and abrupt disruptions such as the Gulf Stream shutdown.

An era of experimentation

To grasp even the basics of climate science is to be aware that humanity has entered an era of planetary experimentation. As I tried to explain during the Moral Labyrinth, the stable status quo ante, the Holocene, is no more. The dominant experience is fossil capitalism; its catastrophic chemical effects on the climate are recorded hour by hour at Mauna Loa.

What form should the alternative recovery experience take? My analysis suggests that it must surely be post-capitalist, since the cause of environmental despoliation and the polarization of global wealth is the irreformable capitalist engine, the accumulation imperative. One can imagine a rational episode of “Moral Maze” debating rival positions.

One could imagine a consequentialist debating with a virtue ethicist. A liberal might seek to expand the conception of rights to include those of future generations. A conservative might point to the social critique of Tractarians or John Ruskin, or the theology of stewardship, or the organic traditions of kinship and nation spanning generations, asking: what obligations do we owe to our descendants?

Such a debate is plural, but the language of established facts is not. If you throw my Elvis goldfish on the kitchen table, we can’t rationally debate the right and wrong of your act if you insist that the air is mostly water vapor and that it therefore survives.

Rational debate is the cornerstone of politics, but its common premise in the Anthropocene must be that anthropogenic climate change is real and a threat. Where that premise is denied, the result is the antics of Buerk and Phillips – moral malaise.

Originally posted by Ecologist


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