Holding a Steady Mirror

Saturday 29th of February 2020
climate change march

It seems at the moment as if there are items of news reporting every day which relate to climate change. Some of them have obvious links, but others less so. One of the obvious ones is when there is coverage of the “climate strikes”. Yesterday a gathering in Bristol in the UK was highlighted. I would guess this was mainly because of Greta Thunberg’s attendance.
I happened to listen to Radio 4’s The World at One, in which they had a live report from Bristol. I was shocked by the degree of negativity about both Greta Thunberg and the event generally. I also felt that there was a degree of trivialisation of the issues involved and which the march aims to bring into people’s awareness. I have written to the BBC to complain about this.
There is a significant issue here for anyone wanting the media to talk about issues of climate change. The media does not generally respond well to a group of people who choose to continue over time to give voice to an issue which they are highlighting but which most people in society would prefer to ignore. One historical example of this would be those protesting about the lack of accountability for what took place at Hillsborough at the FA Cup Semi-Final in 1989, when nearly a hundred people died.
When an individual or group of individuals, with both dignity and perseverance, maintain an adherence to what at the time may be a minority view, the media coverage very easily tends towards further marginalising that view. That often happens through focusing on side issues rather than the main issue itself. In the case of the march yesterday, there were various strands to this. One was the emphasis on Greta Thunberg herself. I have written previously about my sense that the “cult of personality” or seeing Greta as a “climate change celebrity” is a distraction from the issues that she wants to highlight (see blog dated 30th December 2019, A Globe-All Perspective).
Others were descriptions of children or young people “skipping” school, the disruption to the city or the damage to the normal “cricket pitch” like state of College Green and the police’s prediction of trouble rather than the totally peaceful assembly which took place. (What this report failed to mention in stressing how unhappy people in Bristol were likely to be about the disturbance to their city - but which I have heard talked about previously on the BBC - is that Bristol Council declared a climate emergency in November 2018 and aims to be carbon neutral by 2030). There is also a tendency to dismiss these events because they are organised by and primarily attended by young people. The implication is that young people do not understand the world as it really is. I would argue that they understand it only too well - they are prepared to point out what others have chosen to avoid. I hope it could be seen as a meaningful statement rather than a meaningless story if I refer to The Emperor’s New Clothes.
What is more, when mainstream opinion does not respond to the presentation of alternative ideas (or even if it starts to do so slowly), the temptation is to start to concentrate on the degree of resistance rather than the nature of the issue itself. This then tends even more to become the focus of media reporting. I haven’t heard the whole of Greta Thunberg’s speech from Bristol, but the part I heard on the BBC yesterday highlighted the intransigence of world leaders. This echoes the speech she gave to the United Nations in September 2019, where she spoke very directly to the leaders gathered there and accused them of a lack of response to the climate emergency.
This risk is similar to that of some of the direct action undertaken by Extinction Rebellion in the UK. Extinction Rebellion’s stated aim is to use non-violent civil disobedience “to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse”. My understanding is that this both depends on receiving media coverage and on the media coverage facilitating at least some element of putting across a message. The danger will then become that the issue becomes the action and not its underlying purpose.
One of the tactics used when someone knows that they are in the wrong but they are not prepared to admit it or to change their behaviour is that they disengage from any potential criticism. The reason that this is a potentially successful tactic is that the frustration of other protagonists is then likely to be increased. The risk then is that they overreach themselves in continuing to put across their point of view. If this is being done through action, the danger is that the actions become more extreme, but even if we are dealing with words, the same is likely to be true. The focus can then shift to the style of presentation rather than the substance of the message.
What then is the alternative? It is not particularly media-friendly in many ways. It is to continue to talk, including in referring to scientific observation and the modelling which follows from this, about the reality of global warming or habit destruction or species extinction. The hope would be that this conversation continues to build and to become more mainstream as more people become involved in it. Not only that, but we need also to find ways of encouraging people to take practical and repeatable steps which have the potential to halt these processes; in the case of extinction there is no way of going into reverse.
One of the challenge of making these changes is that there won’t necessarily be immediate feedback through the science, because there will be time needed for them to take effect. The positive feedback loops need to come from creating large and small communities where people can support, encourage and even nurture each other. (Perhaps it is significant that in the interviews with people attending the Bristol event, comments about Greta Thunberg were that she is “courageous” and that she “speaks her words and stands her ground”). This is clearly one of the functions of climate gatherings of various sorts and various climate networks, including, I imagine, Extinction Rebellion, although that is not its primary function. This is another of the paradoxes of combating climate change. We are dealing with a global problem, which knows no boundaries, but we need to be able to find a human scale in order to act. There is perhaps a value in finishing by re-stating a slogan which has been part of the sustainability movement for some years: Think Globally, Act Locally.