The Environmental Emergency: Beware the Responses

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The October 2018 IPCC report and recent UN Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystems Services report present a dire prognosis for life on Earth. Without swift and decisive action around the world, rising sea levels, extreme weather events of increasing frequency and severity, and the collapse of food security will endanger and displace millions of people, while 1 million species are under threat of extinction from humans. The flood of scientific data, as well as literal floods and other catastrophic events, have resulted in a swelling of public protests and demands which politicians can no longer ignore. However, there are still many in positions of power who see environmental regulations as an assault on the free market, and are desperate to maintain the status quo by protecting the industries causing the most damage. They have well-developed and coordinated methods to distract, deflect and muddy the waters, all allowing them to avoid or delay taking action. Here are four common techniques to be aware of:

Casting Doubt

Doubt has long been a tool of the science denier. The scientific method functions through questioning and continually reaffirming results. When 98% of scientists agree on something this is a clear scientific consensus but it leaves a tiny chink in the armour which can then be exploited by sceptics or those who wish to discredit the science for their own gain. In their 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway detail how industry has repeatedly worked diligently to spread doubt on the science surrounding the dangers of tobacco and DDT, the causes of acid rain and the ozone hole, and anthropogenic climate change. In these case studies, it is often the same few scientists, such as physicist Fred Singer, who help provide theories opposing the consensus, driven by an ideology that sees environmentalism as a threat to capitalism, fearing regulation as the slippery slope to Communism. The voice of this small minority is then given credence and amplified by the media’s misguided attempt to present ‘balance’, creating false equivalence between ‘both sides’ of the science and meaning remedial action is delayed or avoided. Documents leaked in 2015 made it clear that companies including Exxon and Shell knew about the consequences of increased CO2 in the atmosphere in the 1970s and 80s but chose not to make the knowledge public, in spite of knowing it was “potentially catastrophic”. Instead, they spent millions of dollars on climate change denial think tanks and cast doubt on the growing consensus in science that fossil fuels were a danger to the future of the planet.

More insane attempts at changing the narrative around the science have included politicians bringing snowballs into the US Senate to ‘prove’ that the climate is not warming, and coal into the Australian parliament to show its not dangerous. Most of the public may not be misled by such blatant gaslighting but this is not always reflected in political outcomes, with the coal-brandishing Australian politician, Scott Morrison, now the country’s Prime Minister, winning re-election just this month.

Attacking the Messenger

When the science itself proves to be too strong to dispute, the attack turns to the motives and character of the scientist themselves.

In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson, warned of the dangers to the ecosystem posed by DDT used in pesticides. The chemical companies Du Pont and Velsicol threatened legal action against her publisher, but scientific peer review proved her conclusions to be accurate. This validation did not stop the personal attacks against Carson, even reaching the highest levels of politics, with former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson writing to President Eisenhower questioning why a “spinster” would be interested in genetics and concluding that she was “probably a Communist”. Carson’s work went on to inspire many in the burgeoning environmental protection movement, but accusations of Communism or Marxism have persisted as a repeated refrain, with environmentalism seen by some as a cover for anti-Capitalism and an attempt to bring down the free market through regulations.

Michael Mann is another example of a scientist who underwent years of personal and political attacks due to his work on climate change models. His 1998 ‘hockey stick graph’ clearly presented the link between the warming atmosphere and human activity. His work was met with leaked personal emails, accusations of falsification and manipulation of statistics, and the Attorney General of Virginia taking a legal battle for access to Mann’s personal records as far as the state’s Supreme Court. Ultimately, this was rejected as an abuse of power, Mann was cleared of all scientific wrongdoing, and the predictions he made have proven to be accurate. However, Mann himself has concerns that the harassment he underwent may deter other scientists in the field, and that that is exactly what was intended.

It is not only environmental scientists who are being attacked for their work, but also the activists working to raise public awareness and pressure governments into taking action. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s school climate strikes have seen young people taking to the streets all around the world, demanding that their governments secure their futures. Being a sixteen-year-old girl has not insulated Thunberg from attacks though. Political commentators and right-wing populists, including Germany’s AfD, have latched onto the fact that this eloquent, persuasive young women is on the autism spectrum, calling her, “weird” and “mentally challenged”, comparing her to “the Nazi youth”, and claiming she has a “psychosis”, is prone to “meltdowns”, and is “a patsy for scared and elitist adults”. In the face of such attacks, Greta has refused to back down, answering her critics head on and seeing the movement she has inspired continue to grow.

Attacking the Solutions

The environmental crisis is a global problem, with those on the frontline of the effects being at the mercy of the nations and industries causing the pollution while also having the capacity to halt the destruction. At a time when international cooperation on solutions is vital, the US announced in June 2017 their intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, as the global pact was not in line with their “America First” policy. So far, this has not led to any further fractures but some politicians in countries including Australia and Brazil have seen their own resistance to restrictions on the fossil fuel industry vindicated by the US’ actions and are also itching to have their nations withdraw.

In response to the IPPC’s 2018 warnings, Democrats in the US proposed solutions in their Green New Deal. It was an aspirational 14-page submission with a range of goals for environmental and social improvements: emissions reductions; infrastructure and transport investment and job creation; the retraining of workers to re-skill for renewable energy industries; clean water and air and healthy food for all; support for sustainable farming; the protection of ecosystems and public land and cooperation with indigenous people. Their jointly economic/ecologic solution runs counter to arguments that this is a zero sum situation and that taking action on the climate means an automatic loss of jobs and economic wellbeing. As a result, the responses from critics have been hyperbolic to say the least. Trump, who has never been a fan of wind turbines, railed against the Green New Deal’s proposed windmills by claiming they result in piles of dead bald eagles and that the noise they create gives you cancer. Both Trump Sr. and Jr., along with Senator Ted Cruz, have branded the “leftist crazy theory” as an attempt to ban pick-up trucks, planes and cows, leading to the end of hamburgers, and subjecting the country to Marxism.

This fear mongering that sustainable solutions to the environmental crisis mean losing the things we love, is not isolated to the US. In the lead up to the recent election in Australia, opposition leader Bill Shorten announced his party’s target for 50% of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030. In response, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that,“That’s the cheapest car Bill Shorten wants to make available to you to buy in the future, and I’ll tell you what — it’s not going to tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family”. He capitalised on the idea that, for many in the country, the thought of being deprived of their utes (utility vehicles), is a fate not to be countenanced.

Claiming There’s a Bright Side

Perhaps the most mindblowing response to the climate emergency is those arguing that there is no need to act as the environmental changes will have a net positive result, rather than negative. Back in the 1980s, when the fossil fuel industry’s own research predicted the coming climate catastrophe, they comforted themselves in the knowledge that this would not be as “significant to mankind as a nuclear holocaust or world famine”.

More recently, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech at last month’s Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting made no mention at all of climate change, while the US sought to remove climate references from the joint statement before finally refusing to sign it. Instead, Pompeo took a deep dive into the positive opportunities for exploration and new access to lucrative resources provided by the rapidly receding ice, giddy in his excitement that, “steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could come before — could [become] the 21st Century Suez and Panama Canals”.

Bringing us full circle from the “Merchants of Doubt” we come to the Heartland Institute. This is a conservative think tank, whose financial supporters have included Philip Morris and Exxon. Fred Singer is a director of their environmental policy and they have worked for years to discredit the science around the dangers of tobacco and to question the scientific consensus on climate change. They currently promote and work with, Gregory Wrightstone, a geologist -not a climate scientist – and consultant to the fracking industry. In Wrightstone’s self-published, non-peer-reviewed work, he argues, that yes, global temperatures and CO2 levels are increasing but that it is not as drastic as the predictions and indeed will be advantageous to humankind. He argues that increased CO2 will cause a greening of the planet, leading to increased agricultural yields and reduced wildfires, and that rising temperatures will result in fewer winter deaths in high latitudes. In spite of the lack of scientific weight behind his conclusions, his rosy view of the environmental emergency has been given a wide-reaching platform, from Fox News to Congressional committees.

29th May 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Politics and Protest: Voices of Youth

Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:

  • in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
  • in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
  • in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
  • in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
  • starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring

Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.

Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.

Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″.  The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.

Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.

Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.

 

April 17th 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald