Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 9 December 2016

'One thing we haven't mentioned yet ...'

A few days ago, I recorded one of those year-end radio discussions that help to fill the schedules between Christmas and the New Year. (It'll be on the online radio network Monocle24 on 26 December.)

You know the kind of thing: highs and lows of the year gone by; thoughts about the year to come; most influential political leaders. Right at the end, one of my fellow panellists remarked: 'You know, there's one thing we haven't mentioned yet, and that's climate change.'

The presenter suggested that it might make a good name for a new radio show: 'One thing we haven't mentioned yet'. And it would always be about climate change.

Earlier this week, it was reported that sea ice levels in both the Antarctic and the Arctic have hit record lows, leading to fears that the effects of climate change might be far worse than previously thought.

According to Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado: 'There are some really crazy things going on.' In some parts of the Arctic, temperatures last month were 20 degrees Celsius higher than normal. I'll write that again: 20 degrees higher than normal.

Then on Thursday, the sainted Sir David Attenborough said: 'There has never been a time in history when the natural environment has been under greater threat than it is now.'

So why wasn't it splashed across all our front pages? Why do we pay more attention to the late-night online ravings of the US president-elect than to threats of impending global catastrophe?

In fact, the two issues are not unrelated, given that Donald Trump has claimed (on Twitter, of course) that 'the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.'

And now he has appointed as the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency a man who still insists that the evidence for human-induced climate change is 'far from settled'.  According to Michael Brune of the environmental campaign group the Sierra Club, Scott Pruitt is 'a climate science denier who, as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, regularly conspired with the fossil fuel industry to attack EPA regulations.' The New York Times said his appointment signalled 'Mr. Trump’s determination to dismantle President Obama’s efforts to counter climate change — and much of the EPA itself.'

Poor old Planet Earth. We journalists can't really cope with slow-moving stories, and we hate complexity. Climate change is both, which is why stories about it tend to get buried deep inside the newspapers, or way down at the bottom of their websites. In the words of Alan Rusbridger, who mounted one last major climate change campaign before he stepped down as editor of The Guardian last year: 'Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.'

Exceptional? Like the fact that 2016 is about to go down as the hottest year on record? Ask people where floods, storms, cyclones and hurricanes have devastated communities more frequently than ever before -- and then ask how exceptional things have to be before we take them seriously.

No one knows what Donald Trump really thinks about climate change because he blows hot and cold (sorry) about it. And it may well be that his new EPA director will not have things all his own way. According to Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit: 'It's unclear to what extent Mr Pruitt will be able to deliver, or what impact four years of trying will have in the real world. Many US states, headed by California, are heading inexorably in a clean energy direction, and both they and environment groups are promising legal action if the new administration tries to turn back the clock.' (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECIU's advisory board.)

Of course, no one believes experts any more, so perhaps there's no point quoting what they say. Senior military men are often thought to know what's what, however -- certainly, Mr Trump seems to trust them enough to stuff his administration with them -- so here's what some of them think about climate change.

Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, of the US State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board, for example: 'Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.'

And Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, former military adviser to the President of Bangladesh and chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change: 'South Asia is one of the most water-stressed regions of the world. A combination of water scarcity in the climate-induced conditions and regional politics has made the right brew for a potential conflict ... Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century.'

When I was in northern Nigeria last month to report on the massive humanitarian crisis that is about to explode there following the Boko Haram insurgency, I saw for myself what can happen when huge numbers of people are displaced by violence caused at least in part by food scarcity. Yet it is so much simpler to blame the disaster on jihadi extremists than to confront the role played by changing climate patterns.

I have given up making predictions these days, but today I'll make an exception: I predict that this blogpost will be shared  by far fewer people online than anything I've written over the past several weeks.

Climate change? Boring. Or will you prove me wrong?