A few years ago, I simply stopped watching Question Time, the BBC’s premier televised forum for ‘topical debate’. That was because the topical debates illustrated how hopelessly distracted we are from really pressing issues like climate change.
For those with an interest in current affairs, it was important, if not essential, viewing. A panel of politicians, academics and popular figures discuss the issues of the day before a live audience. Panels are largely drawn from a narrow class of acceptable commentators. The audience both asks the questions and gets stuck into the answers.
Some time ago, I decided the BBC’s current affairs showcase was too far removed from the real world. I found it rather depressing. Not always because of the panel, I must stress, because they have their worldview and professional territories to defend.
What really depressed me was how confined the audience’s opinions were. These are people who turned up for a show because they were politically engaged.
We might test children from the age of four in the idiotic exam-fest that is Britain’s education system, and we might have thousands of TV channels to choose from.
But if the level of Question Time debate is anything to go by, then we are failing to adequately explain the challenges, threats and opportunities we face.
Recorded in Slough
Partly through aversion therapy and partly as ongoing research for Psychopath Economics, I returned to the programme to find the same lack of inquisitiveness among our political leaders and newspaper leader writers.
The point was amply illustrated by yesterday evening’s edition, broadcast from Slough. It debated a question about whether there should be a third runway at London’s overstretched Heathrow Airport.
Audience member Duncan Reid got the show on the road: “Will Heathrow’s expansion provide the promised number of jobs? And can this justify the cost to the environment?”
An interesting and well-put questions which Duncan backed up. He added: “Well, Heathrow Airport Limited has not complained that the Davies Commission Report has happily traded the shortening of people’s lives for profit. And that cannot be right.”
Duncan was, of course, referring to the effects of nitrogen dioxide on the neighbouring suburbs caused by traffic to the airport from the A4.
Reckless on the environment
UKIP’s Mark Reckless was the first panelist to tackle the question. As has become a UKIP tradition, he used the question to vent his party’s obsession with the European Union. He railed against the EU’s lack of clarity on air pollution regulations, on the one hand, and its promotion of diesel vehicles, on the other.
His solution was to expand Gatwick Airport, south of London, so it could compete with Heathrow. And, he urged: “We should get on with doing it.”
Reckless was followed by the impeccably turned out Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg. He was all for extending Heathrow because “we need a functional airport … close to London, that is well connected, allows us to compete internationally, [and] has all the routes to China and the Far East.
“Every project we come up with is stopped by a particle, a bat, a badger or a newt,” he concluded. “Well, what about people and thinking of the needs of our economy?” Cue applause.
Labour’s Emily Thornberry was up next. She refuted another audience member’s assertion that London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan for an airport in the Thames Estuary was a great solution.
She said Heathrow should not be expanded until the diesel threat was removed. But she didn’t say where the new runway should go – if, indeed, it should go anywhere.
And then the debate made its inevitable foray onto the economic rationale when another audience member said Heathrow’s expansion would “add £100bn to the economy”.
Piers Morgan, a man never knowingly short of an opinion, took up this point with gusto. “In the time we have dithered over this, China has built 80 new airports, never mind just extra runways. The reason Europe seems to be in decline is precisely because of this kind of nonsense.
“Heathrow is a world-class airport. It’s a massive asset to this country. Frankly, we should be looking at not just one new runway, but probably two.
“I would build another spanking new airport just outside the M25 and with travel into central London. And I would make [us] the European hub for anyone coming from America or China or the Middle East or wherever.
“And I would do this fast so we can actually seize the moment and not let [businesses] – as Willie Walsh, the BA guy, [did] this week – say ‘we’ll take our business to other countries’.
“This is a dangerous situation for our economy.”
Liaisons dangereux: climate change
Stirring words, indeed.
But, of course, if we’re talking really dangerous situations, a bigger and more threatening issue didn’t get the slightest mention. Even from SNP MP Hannah Bardell, who had just enough time to say she’d happily have the new aviation capacity located in Scotland.
That unmentioned, more dangerous context is, of course, the environment. Or, more precisely, climate change, a topic which exercised world leaders’ minds in Paris last week. Albeit temporarily.
The UN’s climate change conference ended with a commitment to limiting rising global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees centigrade.
The Question Time panel could have been asked what they thought of this “historic, durable and ambitious” agreement. They could have discussed what it might mean for our lives. Any one of them could have taken up the climate change angle, but didn’t.
No one challenged Morgan and Rees-Mogg et al on the existential threat posed by rising temperatures. There was no debate about whether the 1.5 degree target is achievable or even necessary. There was no discussion of how expanding Heathrow fitted into the glorious low-carbon future that Britain has signed up to.
There wasn’t even any mention of the cuts in subsidies for solar installations revealed this week. Or the 6,000 solar technicians’ jobs already lost as a result of similar cuts made since 2010. And all this to an industry regarded as on the cusp of major growth.
In other words, the whole focus on ‘economic issues’ was a very narrow one indeed. It excluded any commitments our government made in Paris, or the likely effects that our continuing carbon emissions will have on the planet.
And if the climate scientists are right, this is where the very real threats to our wellbeing lie. The most dangerous trends are already clearly in evidence. There’s storm-submerged Carlisle and drought-hit California. And we must not forget how climate change helped spark the tide of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe.
The Paris agreement seems to have reinforced our collective complacency and the notion that we are the masters of creation.
When, in actual fact, even containing global warming to the 1.5 degree limit is probably not achievable and is unlikely to save us even if it was.
For we have already set in train long-term positive feedback loops that will fuel rapid, uncontrolled warming and higher sea levels. This much is clear, as this talk by world-renowned professor of economics and sustainable development, Jeffrey Sachs, shows.
So rather than settling our climate that the Paris accord suggests, we are on course for ever more serious droughts, storms and floods. And more conflict, migration and food shortages.
In short, what we face is far worse than anything the likes of ISIS can do to us. Yet it’s only the abhorrent threats from our human enemies that absorb our collective imagination.
The gathering environmental storm we have stoked is emotionally neutralised by what Sachs describes as the “internationalisation of indifference”. The evidence is our indifference will kill us – or, at least, our children.
Enemies with human faces
The problem is that climate change doesn’t have a face. We can’t anthropomorphise the forces of flood and drought.
What’s more, there are plenty of corporate interests that want to prevent us from visualising the existential threat climate change poses. That’s because combatting climate change implies the need for co-operation in manpower, sacrifice and wealth – anathema to the elite.
The financial and corporate elite is too sold on its own symbols of status. It doesn’t like to think we humans are inter-dependent, because that would imply a moral imperative to reduce inequality. It would also undermine its own sense of entitlement.
And this is the point: human consciousness – the ‘reality’ we feel and believe – is nothing but a social and emotional construction. We inhabit a world of symbols and narratives, most of which are supplied ready-made by media and advertising executives.
History shows that disaster ensues when our consciousness becomes detached from the physical reality of living on a finite planet. Unfortunately, this is where we are today.
Thanks to the all-pervading, multi-billion dollar infrastructure of ‘reality maintenance’, we are repeating the same fatal mistakes of previous civilisations. Only, this time, it’s on a global scale. There’ll be nowhere to escape when the proverbial really hits the fan.
Yesterday’s Question Time was but a microcosm of the consciousness straightjacket that confines political discourse. But the reality distortion is worse elsewhere – just watch Fox News on an average day.
If we don’t wake up to our environmental debt, then our children will pay. Without a stable climate, there is no economy, period.
We need to deconstruct the entire set of institutions and belief systems that maintain our unreal and unsustainable lives, along with the interests that seek to enforce them. We need to repudiate the view that trade is sacrosanct whatever the cost. And we need to embark on this soon.
But you won’t hear such things uttered on Question Time. Though, anything less and we’re surely signing our own death warrant.