Last week, an English actor took the time to fly from Los Angeles to London Heathrow. This would be entirely unremarkable in itself, except that person was Emma Thompson, and she took the 5,400 mile trip to take part in the Extinction Rebellion protests about the climate crisis.
Cue the confected outrage. Much ink was spilled in the pages of the Express and Mail, shrieking about the hypocritical luvvie who flew over to take protest gigs away from hard working British residents. Everyone from James Cleverly MP to the Times cartoonist had a go.
Now, highlighting hypocrisy is good. It was obviously tin-eared of Emma Thompson to take a carbon spewing flight to a protest about the climate crisis. There are better (and more carbon efficient) ways of doing activism. But the disproportionate criticism of her is part of a wider trend of manufactured outrage at people who dare to take part in politics, while existing in our messy, contradictory world.
You can’t campaign against the failings of capitalism, they cry, if you exist within it. As if spending money and using the internet should only be the preserve of a bourgeois elite.
You can’t be angry about poverty, they shriek, if you aren’t currently experiencing their definition of it. How dare you eat food, whilst saying others should also have the money to do so.
So while I’m not personally a natural fit as an Extinction Rebellion protester (I enjoy both red meat and air travel), the smug, self-serving whimperings of those who “call out” individuals who happen to exist in the world whilst actively campaigning to change it, makes me want to go as far as to glue myself to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence.
But let’s move past the weird whataboutery that seems to pervade every part of the climate debate. It misses the fundamental point.
The climate delayers have predominantly laid out arguments convincing people that the climate crisis could only be solved by individuals, not collectively. Specifically other individuals – it’s always someone else’s problem.
The brilliant Greta Thunberg referenced this in her speech in parliament on Tuesday. She told – amongst others – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and environment secretary Michael Gove that “I am always offered help to write about the specific climate policies in specific countries. But that is not really necessary. Because the basic problem is the same everywhere.”
Ah ha, those on the right respond. You’re not necessarily wrong, they say, but what you’re missing is that we in the UK are by far and away not the main culprit. Even if the UK could change its ways, our tiny island nation is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to pollution. China, for instance, far outstrips us in terms of CO2 emissions and fossil fuel consumption, devouring resources to feed its growing middle class.
It should at this point be noted that the Venn diagram of those who carp on about the UK’s tiny influence on the climate crisis, and those who talk mightily of GREAT and Global Britain, is very much a circle.
Passing the buck is one of the few tools left in the climate change denier’s belt. That, and attacking an inspiring 16 year old girl with Asperger’s because her mum was on Eurovision.
As Greta herself has acknowledged, there’s a simple reason for this. They know they’ve lost the argument. The need for radical action on climate change now has overwhelming support in the science community, and across most western democracies and their elected leaders.
A whole generation of young people – led by brilliant, diverse leaders like Greta – are rising up to take action where the generations before us have not.
Extinction Rebellion – by any definition – has been a huge success. It’s achieved masses of media coverage for an important issue that had been ignored in the UK for at least 2 years. It’s put immense pressure on policy makers to respond. It’s even made us stop talking about Brexit, for God’s sake.
As we’ve seen today, Google searches on climate change have increased by 7 times since the beginning of the campaign. Ignoring the climate crisis and hoping it will go away is no longer an option.
Especially not since – as Extinction Rebellion have shown – there are thousands of activists who are willing to take desperate measures to keep this at the top our politicians’ agenda. The protesters know there is little time to waste. So does anyone under 30 who is going to have to live with the consequences of the mistakes of those who came before us.
When (if? Oh God) the history books are written of the 21st Century, who will they judge more harshly? The decision makers and policy shapers who consistently and constantly ignored the science and sat on their hands while the planet burned? Or Emma Thompson?