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2021 Review: COVID, Climate Change, Corrupt, Complicit Governments And ‘Don’t Look Up’ – OpEd


As 2022 begins, Covid-19 continues to dominate our lives. It’s now nearly two years since its arrival triggered levels of panic unprecedented in the lifetimes of most of us in the West — isolating people in their homes, shutting down offices, the hospitality and entertainment industries, and most retail outlets. After restrictions were eased over the summer of 2020 and into autumn, a second wave of the pandemic shut society down again for several long and gruelling months at the start of 2021, and, after another easing of restrictions, a third wave — of the Omicron variant — has once more derailed notions of a return to “normality.”

Thankfully, it looks as though this variant, although highly infectious, is far less deadly, although it will still put a strain on overstretched and exhausted health services. In the UK, however, another serious lockdown looks unlikely — not for medical reasons, but because Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a backbench rebellion that will topple him from power if he once more imposes serious restrictions.

Throughout this period, a far bigger crisis — catastrophic climate change, caused by humanity’s obsession with fossil fuels — has generally been relegated to a secondary position in the considerations of politicians and the media. Activists did a great job of amplifying the concerns of largely ignored climate scientists in the years before Covid hit, but although there was a brief reawakening of interest in climate change in November, when the COP26 climate summit of world leaders took place in Glasgow, it passed as soon as the conference ended, and the Omicron variant took over.

This is, to put it mildly, a profound disappointment, because what COP26 highlighted, inarguably, was how governments remain in thrall to the fossil fuel companies, and how, despite the best efforts to secure promises of serious emissions cuts over the rest of this decade, in an effort to keep global warming since the start of the industrial era to just 1.5°C (beyond which all hell breaks loose), a sense of urgency is completely lacking.

If there was any intent to follow up on the promises, our politicians and our media would be relentlessly discussing how, in order to “keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the [2015] Paris Agreement”, as the UN’s Emissions Gap Report stated in October, “the world needs to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years”; in other words, by seven percent a year for the rest of the decade.

Instead, as the report also explained, “new national climate pledges combined with other mitigation measures put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century”, which is “well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate.”

Imagine if, today, governments pledged to do what is needed: cutting emissions by seven percent a year regardless of all the impediments — corporate lawyers and lobbyists, the corruption of the political class, the powerful  climate denial industry, the shallow or corrupt mainstream media, and the unwillingness of the world’s individual citizens to take the threat seriously.

Imagine if our governments, passing new laws, shut down seven percent of the worst polluters’ activities every year from now until 2030, and embarked on national conversations to involve us all in understanding what, collectively, we all need to do to achieve the aim — which, in case we forget, is not one that involves any kind of choice. If we don’t act, we will be refusing to do what is necessary to keep the planet sustainable for human life, and the longer we wait to act, the more swingeing the cuts will have to be when, as is inevitable, they finally have to be enacted.

Today, we could, and should be debating what to lose — all new fossil fuel extraction, for starters, and an end to much of the construction industry, with its obsession with highly polluting cement and concrete, and its wanton destruction of existing buildings, to create new ones for profit alone. But what about if we cut seven percent off all the activities that are killing us — meat production, travel using fossil fuels, the creation of plastics and all the other aspects of our daily lives that rely on oil? We could do it, and it would be an inspiring journey, but to do so we would need to arrest capitalism and its prime directive, the one that has got us into this mess in the first place: endless growth, meaning ever-growing profits for investors and shareholders, regardless of the damage that causes to the very planet that we rely on to sustain us.

The irony, of course, is that the pandemic, and the response it it, have shown us that, if a situation is regarded as serious enough, the majority of people are prepared to make massive changes to the way they live. With Covid, this was possible because people believed in an imminent threat to themselves and their loved ones, but somehow the reality of catastrophic climate change lacks that sense of urgency outside of the places most affected.

Many of these are in the Global South, typically ignored by the planet’s wealthier countries, but 2021 saw the realities of catastrophic climate change brought home to the countries most responsible for it — via unprecedented fires in the US and Australia, for example, and via flooding caused by unprecedented rainfall in various European countries. More and more people are waking up to the realization that catastrophic climate change is not only real, but is happening now, and it is a safe bet that, in 2022, many parts of the world will become less supportive of human existence than they were in 2021.

‘Don’t Look Up’

I recently watched ‘Don’t Look Up’, a powerful satirical film directed by Adam McKay, in which the impending arrival of a comet that will destroy all life on earth is used as an allegory for climate change denial. The film skewers self-interested politicians, and a shallow media obsessed with ratings and celebrity inanity, but the comet, it turns out, stands best as a metaphor for Covid, not for catastrophic climate change.

In the film, most people only realize what is happening when it is too late, when the comet is visibly approaching earth, just hours before the repercussions of its impact wipe out all life on the planet. Despite the fires, despite the flooding, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, most people continue to live their lives in denial, rather than all of us stopping what we’re doing  and precipitating a global velvet revolution in which we could immediately do what is required: cutting emissions by seven percent a year to have a chance of keeping the planet habitable.

Sadly, however, imminent velvet revolutions look unlikely. In true millennial “end times” fashion, a disturbingly high proportion of the populations of the world’s wealthier countries have decided that Covid is a pretext for enslavement of humanity, and are ignoring the rather more pressing concerns presented by the climate crisis. Politicians, meanwhile, have become adept at saying what needs to be said, but not doing anything about it — and we are going to continue to need to find ways to get them to take it seriously.

One way is to put unrelenting pressure on the banks that support the fossil fuel industries, and other dirty extractive industrial processes, but another involves us coming together to protest — and in the UK, in particular, our addled government, mired in Covid corruption scandals involving cronyism, abdicating real leadership for endless lies about the benefits of the patently ruinous isolation and economic ruin caused by Brexit, has handed law and order to an extraordinarily authoritarian bigot in the form of Priti Patel, whose Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, seeks to make any kind of effective protest illegal (as well as criminalizing the very existence of Gypsies and travellers).

It would be nice to think that the British people could come together to resist the criminalisation of protest — as that is one of the first steps towards the creation of truly authoritarian states — but at present that seems unlikely, when so many of those who should be able to recognise a true threat are too busy inventing conspiracies instead.

In conclusion, then, 2022 doesn’t look great, but I’m never one to give up on hope, and what can be achieved by those who hold it in their hearts, and, despite all of the above, it remains apparent to me that millions of people recognize the gravity of the existential threat we face, and are prepared to change their lives in an appropriate manner, however many inconveniences that might involve, if only we could locate leaders able to act on it.

In their absence, I suggest that it’s up to all of us who are awake to commit as much of our time, money and resources as we can manage to amplifying the message that we need an immediate end to the vacillating and dissembling that has typified the response to the climate crisis to date by those in positions of power and responsibility.

We need seven percent emissions cuts every year, and we need to start them now. Shut down the funders of planetary destruction, and envisage a new world in which we all take responsibility — for the planet, and for each other. It will involve some sacrifices, yes, but it will actually be a better life than the one we’ve been living in for decades — of buying into our allotted role as defenders of the planet’s rapists by admiring the greedy, and distracting ourselves with endless diversionary pointlessness that doesn’t actually make us happy.

The struggle is all, and through the struggle we can not only avoid extinction but also reclaim our essential humanity.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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