Environmental activism has finally debunked the nonsense charges against it

·5 min read

Radio wonks are calling it the interview that made its own headlines: TalkRadio’s Mike Graham went head-to-head with Cameron Ford, a young carpenter and environmental activist. In 57 seconds, each more delicious than the last, Graham sets out to unmask Ford as just another blowhard hypocrite and instead checkmates himself so thoroughly that the only logical endpoint to his argument is to claim that you can grow concrete.

Ford’s is a masterclass in a new debating style: you don’t have to chase every stick your opponent throws for you. Silence can be a bear trap. But the exchange distilled something more profound: an imperturbable confidence and maturity not just in the carpenter but in the environmental cause itself.

Climate change denial is an agile creed. Fifteen years ago, deniers – yet
to rebrand themselves “sceptics” – would simply show up on current
affairs shows armed with a big rhetorical question, like “What’s in a
greenhouse gas? You don’t know, do you? Well, do you?”

The Green party’s Caroline Lucas used to deal with that quite well, but for most people arguing the case, the burden of having to start there, explaining gases to a man who didn’t care about gas – indeed, had absolutely no interest in science or its conclusions – was just head-scrambling. TV debates took on the quality of parables, simultaneously creating content and metaphor: an expert would describe why the world had no time to waste, and then a huge amount of time would be wasted, as some member of the Lawson family (not Nigella!) pooh-poohed their qualifications and asked them why, if their findings were correct, it had recently snowed in Northumberland.

Over time, broadcasting norms changed: if 95% of the world’s scientists were in accord, if even politicians had reached a consensus that carbon emissions were dangerous (as they did in 2008), it was no longer responsible to air the views of those who simply refuted it all. So the focus changed, away from “Is climate change happening?” towards “How fast is it, how serious, and is it anthropogenic?”

Related: Insulate Britain won’t be stopped by people who think you can grow concrete | Cameron Ford

Sceptics became “lukewarmers” – they accepted that the climate was changing but were unpersuaded on the seriousness of the implications. Climate researchers would turn themselves inside out: can we say this wildfire or that flood is the result of climate change, and with what degree of certainty?

That discursive period didn’t survive contact with reality; as freak weather events became commonplace in exactly the way climatologists had predicted, the general appetite waned for asking science to prove its case over and again. The alignments shifted, and that chorus – which had once set out to disprove the entire concept of ecological crisis – set its face against zealots, activists, “woke-armies” and hypocrites. Why does this Insulate Britain activist live in an uninsulated flat? Why does that one drive a diesel van? Why does Greta Thunberg eat salad out of a plastic container, if she loves the environment so much? Isn’t every world leader travelling to Cop26 next week using a plane?

These arguments are inexhaustible: there is no such thing as a life of total environmental purity. You would either have to secede from the world altogether and live in a tree, or be so affluent – with your Tesla and your “passive house” – that the question would then arise, “If you’re so green, how come you haven’t given away all your money?” The long game, very similar to that used against the left, is not so much to land a point as to taint everyone with the same unlovely qualities – hypocrisy, self-interest, shortsightedness – that prove progress is impossible.

There was a time when this line of attack resonated: when we knew that renewable energy was urgently required, but hadn’t yet seen it succeed; when there was a general consensus that there was a climate emergency, but governments hadn’t yet pledged to act. Or when we had this sense that everything would have to change – from the way we ate to the way we travelled, to where we went and what we bought – but there was no roadmap, no sense of scale.

Environmental activism and campaigning had this critical insecurity at its centre. What if we just weren’t up to it, as a species? What if collective action were beyond our wit? From the moment Al Gore stepped on a plane to tell the world to stop flying, the climate change movement had allowed an open goal, and lukewarmers could just keep popping balls in.

That context has now changed. The galloping success of renewable technologies has fostered an entirely different sense of what’s possible. Global youth climate strikes have disrupted all the cliches about what people will accept and how ready they are for change. Political will has shifted – two-thirds of the world’s GDP is now in countries that have declared a net zero target.

Yes, it would have been better if we’d got here 30 years ago. Yes, there are still real question marks over whether international collaboration will hold, whether it will be ambitious enough – and there’s justifiable, well-founded terror about the warming effects that are already baked in. But there is a new solidity to environmentalism that makes it impervious to the nonsense charge that its activists have to be perfect before they can be heard. It will be interesting to see where the Mike Grahams of the world head next; but only mildly.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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