SBelow, some of the most shameless newspaper commentators will urge the rest of us to “learn to live” with climate collapse. Soon, a couple of especially tough cabinet ministers will sigh to the viewer that, yes, carbon emissions should ideally be reduced, but we must make a trade-off between “lives and livelihoods.” Soon, a small platoon of conservative backbenchers will respond to television images of another devastating flash flood or deadly heat wave by complaining of “scaremongering.” “Why is the BBC so fatal?” they will ask, as the death toll rises.
Soon, surprisingly soon, the cheap blows, the blatant bending of statistics and the coprophagic cynicism that have warped British discourse since March 2020 will migrate from Covid to an even bigger and more deadly crisis: the climate emergency. And just as they have helped shape the self-inflicted catastrophe that England embarked on this week, they will also exert their terrible influence on that week.
Scientists and politicians around the world have noted the strong similarities between the coronavirus and climate collapse. In papers and speeches, they’ve drawn lessons on some of the best ways to handle both: go early, go big, and don’t pretend you can strike a special deal with a deadly force. The week-long delay in the UK to close in March 2020 led to around 20,000 deaths, Neil Ferguson estimates. Every year wasted on reducing carbon emissions pushes us further into extreme weather, environmental destruction, and loss of human and animal life. These lessons appeared to have been fully absorbed by Boris Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, when they pledged last March to do “whatever it takes” to tackle the pandemic.
Goodbye to all that. As of this week, our Prime Minister no longer even wants to contain infections in England; Instead, it is allowing more people to contract the disease, hospitals to drown amid the number of cases, and thousands more Britons to die. That scenario is not based on critics of the government: it is the one publicly accepted by Whitehall. It is less a policy than a white flag.
Even when world health experts come together to condemn the UK as a ‘threat to the world’, Johnson simply shrugs and asks: “If not now when?It is a naive and shortsighted phrase that will come back to haunt you, thrown in your face at future press conferences and resurfaced when the public inquiry finally begins.
As always with anything involving this prime minister, the fatal “Freedom Day” farce will be refracted through a thousand discussions on the radio about Johnson’s fitness to govern. But the Conservative leader is riding a wave much bigger than he is. Riding forces greater than him is what Johnson has done throughout his career, and it is what makes him such an effective political activist. It is also what should make us worry about the terrain on which future political battles will be fought.
What you have correctly identified is a growing extremist individualism. It is an ideology that pretends to be of freedom when in reality it means selfishness; and he sees any restriction on his freedoms, no matter how justified or temporary, like Stalin sending the tanks. Last weekend, the chairman of the 1922 Conservative support committee, Graham Brady, claimed that face masks were really about social control. After criticizing voters for meekly accepting a measure designed to reduce the spread of the infection, he accused them of suffering from Stockholm syndrome. “The line between coercion and care becomes blurred, the hostage begins to see the man with the AK-47 who is holding him in a cell not as a jailer but as a protector.”
Selfishness is not a new feature of our politics. But what is striking today is how the politicians and commentators who use it mock those who stand in their way. There is a cruelty to this policy that takes your breath away. Right-wing commentator Douglas Murray complained in the Sun Sunday of the “terrible fear” of the British. He did not attribute this to the fact that the country is mourning more than 150,000 Covid deaths.
Before Covid appeared, Murray had a line to dismiss activists who have the gall to sound the alarm about the climate crisis. A “fringe eco-lobby”, he declared in the Daily Mail, was committing “child abuse on a massive and unforgivable scale” by making them fearful of the future. Covid deniers are often climate deniers as well; who they are – wouldn’t you know? – the most extreme Brexiters. Earlier this year, Steve Baker, the MP who calls himself the “Brexit tough guy” (which certainly sounds better than his actual title of “former software consultant”), joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organization who claims to speak “common sense about climate change.” The honorary president is climate change denier Nigel Lawson. The carousel goes round and round, but the faces on it never seem to change.
Lawson, as Chancellor to Margaret Thatcher, played a vital role in breaking the social contract that had underpinned postwar Britain, in everything from welfare to paying pensions. What his successors are doing now is trying to dismantle what remains of the ethical contract that the British still hold with each other. If successful, the politics of extreme individualism will preclude the collective response essential to addressing social crises, from Covid to social care and climate.
In his new book, Go Big, former Labor leader Ed Miliband writes: “If we treat the climate crisis as a technical solution or a technological problem to be solved and we think we can do it without neglecting other injustices… we will fail. “He is correct. But this is exactly how the new right has dealt with the pandemic. The Johnson government did not even attempt a Covid zero strategy; instead, it spent the bulk of a billion pounds to make sure it was. Nando’s was half price for the summer. And he was lucky: Covid vaccines were in production in a few months. Climate-wise, almost all tech solutions have remained a money-sucking mirage, as is the case with catching. and carbon storage.
And each time, cooperation is simply dismissed as a political impossibility. Even when politicians nod their heads while scientists insist that “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” nothing happens. While almost 70% of British adults have received a double needlestick, only 1% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose. As Home Secretary Priti Patel cheered on England in the Euro Cup final, Ugandans living in Kampala, their parents’ former home, were turning their equivalent of Wembley Stadium into a Covid hospital.
This smiling ignorance is possible as long as the people who die, either from Covid or from a climate collapse, are brown, black or poor. But even people like Murray, Baker, and Lawson can’t trust that. Not when a flood can break into a German nursing home and drown the residents. Not when a forest fire can consume one of the richest provinces in America and the world. Some bunkers simply cannot be purchased.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism