Thursday 19 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Let's see some sacrifices by these saviours of the planet'

Climate change protesters must act in a way that's consistent with their own propaganda

LONG JOURNEY: Emma Thompson took part in the London protests after flying back from Los Angeles. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
LONG JOURNEY: Emma Thompson took part in the London protests after flying back from Los Angeles. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Eilis O'Hanlon

Compared with the protesters who brought London to a standstill last week, leading to the arrests of more than 500 people, the campaigners who staged a sit-down in Dublin's O'Connell Street last Friday were reassuringly non-disruptive.

Organisers of the protest by Extinction Rebellion Ireland, the local offshoot of the global campaign aimed at using direct action to force governments to tackle climate change, had said beforehand that they would "remain there until their demands are met".

In the event, they came, said what they had to say, and went home again. If this marks the start of a revolution, it's so far proving to be an admirably well-behaved one, in Ireland at least.

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That's still no reason to give the protesters the benefit of the doubt. Escalation remains a likely development when Extinction Rebellion insists its activists have "not just the right but the duty to rebel against tyranny".

The use of the word "tyranny" is something of a giveaway. With most protesters, it's possible to engage in some give and take. That's not the case with the new breed of climate change activists. They want nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism itself. Not even People Before Profit are that ambitious.

The justification for this uncompromising stance is an alarming claim that the world has only 12 years left to avert disaster. After that, the damage done to the planet will be so severe that it can never be fixed, and hundreds of millions around the world will face poverty.

"Are we the last generation?" as a gloomy banner last week asked.

The prosaic answer to that is probably: no, you're not. The world is now more abundant in resources than it's ever been, even as the global population grows. There's more food. Less extreme poverty. The chances are that we're not "headed for extinction" at all.

That's not how apocalyptic thinking works, however. As religion declines, climate change alarmists have become the new prophets of doom, crying aloud in the wilderness, clutching their copies of the most recent UN report on climate change as if it was holy scripture. Predictions of the end of the world have been a feature of human society for millennia.

Rather than challenge the protesters with inconvenient facts, unfortunately, we're meant to treat them with kid gloves because, in their own eyes, they care so deeply about the future of the planet.

It's tempting to say that this contemporary belief in the supremacy of emotion over reason will be the undoing of us all, if that wasn't an example of unduly fatalistic thinking in itself. The theoretical pendulum swings, eternally.

The climate change warriors' demands are not entirely without merit. Convening a citizens' assembly along the lines of the one which made recommendations before the abortion referendum is not a terrible idea. It's also hard to think of a long-term downside to promoting alternative forms of energy, or more vigorous methods of extracting CO2 gases from the air. Ireland is, shamefully, at the bottom of the EU league when it comes to decarbonisation.

But even those who are minded to be sympathetic will eventually turn against climate activists if the disruption they cause becomes too great. What they're calling for, after all, is the disruption of the entire social and economic order, without any clear idea of the long term consequences. At a minimum, it would mean limiting growth and development to such an extent that comforts which we now take for granted would become unattainable luxuries. It would make recent post-crash austerity look as prodigal as the Celtic Tiger era.

Such radical shocks to the economic system in the name of ideology have invariably ended in monstrous want and suffering in the past. Say what you like about capitalism, but no one starves. The same cannot be said for utopian systems which have replaced it.

"This is not the time to be realistic," is how Dr Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, puts the counter argument.

She makes being realistic sound like an unforgivable vice, rather than the basis of all sound policy making. This is the conundrum which climate change protesters refuse to face. They say they want "to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency", but gloss over the awkward truth that the overthrow of the capitalist system within the next few years is at best unlikely. It seems incredible that this even needs to be said.

The protesters believe it can be done, but, without wanting to be rude, that's only because they're zealots. The strength of their belief system is no proof that they're right, merely that they lack any doubt about their fallibility - and it's possible to wonder just how fervently they believe their own propaganda anyway. They don't always act as if they think the end is nigh. One Irish activist told reporters recently that he first got interested in climate change after watching former US vice-president Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, after which he moved to Australia and got involved in campaigning.

Sorry, come again? You were horrified by the damage being done to the planet, but then needlessly flew 15,000km anyway? Then, having done so, you came back a few years later to continue campaigning here in Ireland? It suggests that, psychologically speaking, he didn't really absorb the urgency of the crisis at all.

Put it this way, as a vegan who flies very rarely, I'd happily compare my carbon footprint to his, yet he's touted as the solution to climate change and I'm deemed to be the problem, for not supporting groups like Extinction Rebellion. That makes absolutely no sense.

The inconsistency of climate change protesters who say one thing and do another was brought home last week by actress Emma Thompson who took part in the protests in London one day after flying back from LA, where she'd been celebrating her 60th birthday.

Why do we continue to listen to a word that these ludicrous, pampered celebrities say? They're not even bothering to hide their insincerity any more.

Telling the truth should include exposing that hypocrisy, because there's no other word for it, and it's now so prevalent among climate change protesters as to qualify as an integral feature of the movement. Young people in particular piously bleat about the damage the older generation is doing to the planet while continuing to demand that their parents provide them with every home comfort.

Last month, schoolchildren even went on strike to demand that something be done about climate change, before presumably ringing up their parents for a lift home at the end of the protest. Indulging their refusal to do some joined up thinking simply encourages them to keep acting up. In a world in which it's all too easy to give in to human weakness, it should be incumbent upon the despised older generation to hold these young idealists to their ideals.

So no more lifts to school or to go see friends. Walk instead.

Let's turn down the central heating, too. It's wasteful to have a warm house when the world is dying. No more limitless internet either. Ration it instead. There's a weird perception out there that the internet is a clean technology. It's not. In 2009, Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross calculated that each second someone is online generates 20mg of CO2. For more complex web pages, for example with pictures or video, like the Extinction Rebellion website, it can rise to 300mg. The internet alone is responsible for 2pc of all carbon emissions, and that's expected to rise to 3pc by 2020. It's not granny who's surfing the web 24/7 for videos on YouTube. Charging all those smartphones and tablets further gobbles up precious electricity.

If capitalism is to fall as a necessary first step towards an ecological nirvana, then it obviously means no more foreign holidays as well. The next time the school sends home invitations to a trip abroad, or a trip anywhere, parents should refuse to pay for it as a matter of environmental principle.

As for eating meat and dairy, the planetary impact of food and agriculture is easily comparable to the transport industry. That means no more McDonald's, and no more skinny lattes from Starbucks. If they're serious about the steps needed to save the planet, young people ought to be glad to make these sacrifices. It won't make the slightest difference to global emissions, but it would at least be a testament to the strength of their convictions.

Without seeing evidence of that, they should expect to be mocked as spoiled attention seekers, rather than concerned citizens who genuinely believe the world is going to end imminently.

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