Doing Nothing While the World Burns and Extinction Looms, by Andy Worthington

Rally against Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain

Image by Mark Klotz via Flickr

by Andy Worthington
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Andy Worthington website, Aug. 10, 2022
August 14, 2022

Three weeks since the UK experienced its hottest weather ever, with temperatures hitting 40°C, it’s become clear that that was just a spike in a long hot summer in which, for the first time ever in my 37-year history of living in London, the weather has turned hostile.

“It’s just summer”, the right-wing tabloids and right-wing politicians say, as though it isn’t the hottest year on record, as though the ten hottest years on record haven’t all been since 2002, and as if temperatures exceeding 50°C in India and Pakistan, and exceeding 40°C in France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain are nothing to worry about.

We are led by liars, mostly in the service of the oil and gas companies who have been lying about the catastrophic impact of man-made climate change, through the profligate use of fossil fuels, ever since they first discovered the awful truth in the early 1980s. This took place though their own research, but they then deliberately suppressed it, as was recently spelled out, in agonising detail, in the BBC’s excellent three-part documentary series, ‘Big Oil v. the World.’

Slowly, however, the people of the world have woken up to the truth — either through increasingly alarming reports by climate scientists, through the consciousness-raising activities of activists, or, increasingly, through the evidence of their own senses, as more and more people experience the devastating effects of climate change first-hand.

A recent study by Cornell University established that over 99.9% of climate scientists now agree that man-made climate change is real, based on a study of research into climate change from 2002 to 2020, consisting of nearly 90,000 peer-reviewed academic papers and reports. Speaking about how, as the Guardian described it, “scepticism among experts is now vanishingly small”, Mark Lynas, the lead author of the study, said, “It is really case closed. There is nobody of significance in the scientific community who doubts human-caused climate change.”

Ordinary people, moreover, are also taking the crisis seriously — and in significant numbers. As the Guardian reported last November:

[T]he biggest ever opinion poll on climate change, for the UN Development Programme, found two-thirds saying it is a “global emergency”. Across 50 countries, a majority in every one agreed. Both the young and the old agreed: 69% of those aged 14-18 and 58% of those over 60, indicating there is not a huge generational divide.

Another large poll, for the BBC, showed most people (56%) across 31 nations want their governments to set stronger targets to address climate change as quickly as possible, with 36% backing more gradual action, and just 8% opposing action.

In the UK, Ipsos Mori found that 80% of people think the climate crisis is a global emergency, with the same proportion blaming human activity. Concern is rising fast: between 2016 and 2020, the proportion of people very or extremely worried about climate change jumped from about 20% to almost 60% among UK citizens over 35 years old, with those younger going from 30% to 70%.

A howling void where there should be action

And yet, where there should be leadership, there is a howling void. 30 years of international climate summits have finally led to agreement that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, but still nothing is happening.

There are a number of reasons for this. One, undoubtedly, is media misinformation. In the UK, broadcast media rules aimed at ensuring impartiality — defined by OFCOM, the regulator, as “not favouring one side over another” — require differing points of view to be aired on any given topic. For decades, this has allowed climate change deniers — generally, if not always funded by the oil and gas industry — a platform for their dangerous lies, but when scientific agreement on the existence of, and reasons for catastrophic climate change is essentially unchallenged, no one should be allowed to debate it as though it is still just an unproven theory.

A useful analogy would be the tobacco industry, which, like the oil and gas industry, spent decades denying what they knew, from their own research, to be true — in their case that smoking was a major cause of cancer. No one would now realistically argue that apologists for the tobacco industry should be allowed to question the science, and climate change deniers should now, similarly, be prevented from airing their views.

In the British broadcast media, to be fair, climate change denial has now largely been marginalised, although the same cannot be said of the print media, where prominent newspapers — particularly the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun — continue to peddle climate-related lies. To be blunt, it should be possible for them to be prosecuted for doing so, along with social media organisations that continue to provide a platform for climate change deniers.

In addition, politicians in the pay of oil and gas companies should also be banned from airing their views, and, as the activist Donnachadh McCarthy recently explained, the revolving door between the corrupt media and the government also needs to be exposed and shut down.

As McCarthy described it,

“Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for on- and offshore wind, solar and insulation/energy efficiency. Over three in five (63%) British adults support the UK government redirecting spending allocated to North Sea oil & gas extraction to renewable energy technologies such as wind/solar/storage and low carbon industries such as energy efficiency. The government’s own 2021 Public Attitudes Tracker showed 87% support for renewable energy, with only a tiny 1% opposing it. Onshore wind specifically had 80% support, with only 4% opposing [and] by a majority of two to one, the public opposed fracking for natural gas. In a YouGov poll, 49% of people put investment in renewables at their top priority for government investment, compared to just 7% for nuclear power.”

And yet, when it came to the government’s own Energy Security Strategy, introduced in April, the public’s concerns were overridden by the government’s adherence to the diktats of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun, calling for the expansion of nuclear power, maximising new fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea, sidelining the creation of new onshore wind farms, reopening the possibility of fracking, and refusing to consider a major insulation programme to reduce the cost of energy bills.

Profound system change is needed

Even more sweepingly, however, an even more fundamental obstacle to change is that the crisis is so severe that only profound system change can address it, and give humanity a chance of surviving the climate apocalypse that, it is now clear, is happening far quicker than even the most pessimistic climate experts expected.

If we lived in a sane world, all new fossil fuel extraction — of coal, oil and gas — would stop overnight, as would all single-use plastic production. The construction industry would end its devastating love affair with concrete, and our obsession with dirty vehicles — cars, planes, container ships and cruise ships — would also be severely curtailed.

We don’t, however, live in a sane world, and all these changes would spell electoral disaster for those who tried to implement them, even if any genuinely visionary leader could be found.

They could, however, start with education, relentlessly telling the truth via broadcast media, social media and advertising, pointing out that the emergency is so severe that it will soon be impossible for any political opposition to sweep to power by cynically telling people that “business as usual” is still viable, and that everyone should be allowed to continue doing whatever they want, regardless of its environmental cost, because doing what you want — so long as it involves selfish consumption within a capitalist framework — is what they’ve all been selling us for 40 years since they so effectively began dismantling a socialist alternative in the 1980s.

Instead, however, we have that total collapse in leadership noted above — in the UK, a rudderless government, in which the most irresponsible Prime Minister in history, Boris Johnson, swept to power in December 2019 by promising to fulfil an impossible and poisonous dream — unleashing anything but economic disaster through leaving the EU — will be succeeded by either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, both inadequate to the task, in large part because of their refusal to engage with how disastrous Brexit has been and will continue to be, but also because their only focus is on persuading 200,000 of the most selfish and deluded people in the UK — the Conservative Party’s members — to vote for them.

Generally white, elderly, well-off and living in the south east of England, these people — just 0.0033% of the population — care only about immigration and tax cuts to enrich them further at everyone else’s expense, and seem to be thoroughly marinaded in misery and hate, despite being amongst the most fortunate and economically comfortable people in the whole of human history.

We have set the world on fire

And yet, in spite of all these obstacles, the blunt truth is that what we do today, tomorrow, next week, throughout the rest of 2022 and into 2023 is going to determine our very survival. We’ve never faced a crisis like this before. Money can’t save us, and nor can turning a blind eye and hoping it will all go away. Even in war, in an occupied country, at least a percentage of the population has generally been able to survive by keeping their heads down, and, often, through cooperating with whichever warmongering lunatic is in charge, but with catastrophic climate change there is no escape. We are at war with ourselves. Our home, our mother, our planet, us turning against us, directly as a result of us having set her on fire.

So who will step up to address this void where unprecedented system change needs to be? We can’t count on the political opposition, as the underwhelming Keir Starmer hopes only that, by standing still and saying and doing almost nothing, the inevitable anti-Tory backlash will swing his way.

More likely is that civil unrest will be triggered this autumn by what is being euphemistically described as the “cost of living crisis”, driven by the failures of Brexit, Covid-related economic collapse, the war in Ukraine and the greed of the energy companies, completely unchallenged by the government.

With inflation at 9.4% (the highest rate in 40 years), and fears that it will reach 15% by the start of 2023, and with the average household’s energy bills also set to rise to £4,266 a year next year as OFGEN, the energy regulator, plans to yet again lift the price cap that dictates what can be charged — with, apparently, no concern whatsoever about who, along the supply chain, is nakedly profiteering from rising fuel costs — tens of millions of people are set to be unable to afford to live this autumn and winter, making some kind of widespread civil agitation seem inevitable.

A new movement, Don’t Pay UK, has already arisen to challenge this disastrous predicament, demanding “a reduction in energy bills to an affordable level”, and a promise by members to cancel their direct debit payments from October 1, if they are ignored, and if they can secure the support of a million people (they are currently close to 100,000).

However, while this resistance is understandable, recalling the mass non-payment of the Poll Tax by 17 million people in 1989-91, it still needs to be undertaken in the wider context of catastrophic environmental collapse. Being unable to afford food or to heat your home is a pretty devastating scenario in one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s still taking place in a world on fire, in which immeasurably worse conditions are imminent unless we also take action to dismantle the entire ecocidal economic system. Imagine dwindling food supplies because of drought, and water supplies drying up. That would kill us in just a couple of days, and yet it’s no longer a far-fetched dystopian scenario.

On the political front, a new centre-right political party, the Climate Party, has just been formed to address the Tories’ failure to tackle the crisis, set up by Ed Gemmell, a former army officer and city lawyer, who, as the Guardian explained, “plans to challenge the Conservatives in 110 marginal seats in the next election”, and whose aim is “decarbonising the economy by 2030.” As the Guardian added, “Gemmell’s vision is for the UK to become a global leader in the energy transition by stopping all subsidies for fossil fuel companies, implementing polluter-pays policies to stimulate the circular economy, and investing in renewable infrastructures and technologies.”

This is an interesting development, but realistically, in our broken first-past-the-post electoral system, the party will struggle as much as the heroic Green Party to turn urgent political concerns into electoral success.

Fundamentally, then, we the people — the majority of us, who aren’t part of the delusional, largely geriatric Brexit fantasy — are alone, in a burning world that is making clear to us, on a daily basis, how our home is on fire like never before, in which extinction looms, and yet the tools for necessary change remain largely locked up and inaccessible by those who have so often conspired to make life wretched, but who, never before, have threatened our very existence — greedy, embittered old white men (and sometimes women, and occasionally people of colour) who, this time, will kill us all unless we stop them.

Take action

To take action, please consider getting involved with Extinction Rebellion, whose next actions begin on September 10, and Just Stop Oil, who are currently holding up to 30 public meetings a week, online and in person, to build their direct action movement, committed to “immediately halt[ing] all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.”

If we all get involved, change is possible, perhaps through these existing groups, or perhaps through another, even more successful disruptive organisation, not yet imagined. Whatever we do, however, we have to be aware that, if we do nothing, we are signing our own death sentence, and I’m pretty sure that none of us want that.

Over to you.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

From the archives:

Heat Waves Tied To Big Energy Capitalism, by Scott Scheffer

Our Climate Crisis Paralysis: How, in the Face of Unprecedented Signs of Climate Collapse, We’re Still Being Failed by Politicians, the Media and Ourselves, by Andy Worthington

John Bellamy Foster: The Financialization of Nature

Banks Fueling Global Warming Is Business As Usual, by Pete Dolack

Another Global Warming Worry: Parts of Earth Could Become Uninhabitable, by Pete Dolack + A Dire Warning About the End of Human Civilization

Privatizing Nature, by William T. Hathaway

Earth Burns and the Capitalist World Talks, by Pete Dolack

24 thoughts on “Doing Nothing While the World Burns and Extinction Looms, by Andy Worthington

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  17. Actually, it didn’t hit 40C on 14 August, yesterday, it reached 35C at its highest and trust me, I noticed the difference when it DID hit 40C earlier this year, here in London. It actually hit 41C on the East coast, in Norfolk I think.

      • Sorry, I misread that but yes, 35C IS hot! And no, I don’t have aircon and I don’t know anybody who has, here in London. You need to hit a shop or a restaurant if you want to chill a little.

        • In our city, we have cooling “stations” like the public library, the recreation center, our free bus service, etc. where people can get some cooling. It’s really a necessity.

        • That is something necessary when temperatures are so hot and people can die from heat stroke. We also have a dedicated team of volunteers (a mutual aid group of mostly anarchists) that go to the camp sites where those without homes live and give them ice, water, as well as food and some medical care. Much more is needed, of course.

          We live in an area that “normally” has high temperatures in the Summer, so most people with homes/apartments do have A/C.

  18. More and more people are agreeing that “the crisis is so severe that only profound system change can address it.” But they are not really in agreement, because they are not agreed on how profound that system change must be.

    My own position is at the very extreme. We switched from sharing to hoarding 12,000 years ago. Property necessitates trade, which concentrates wealth, which causes plutocracy (possibly disguised as democracy), which causes corruption. Then the commons gets destroyed for private gain; in recent decades our atmosphere has been part of that plunder. I am convinced that, as long as the wealthy class continues to exist, it will continue destroying the world. Any compromise plan, such as rationing, will be subverted by the wealthy.

    Thus, I am convinced that we can only avoid extinction by ending the wealthy class, ending trade, ending property, switching back to sharing. The wealthy class will resist that idea, and so will most non-wealthy people, for they’ve had 12,000 years to get used to the idea of property. Still, I believe sharing is our only hope, so I will continue advocating for it.

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