No burning issue

Freedoms of speech do not excuse giving the largest soapbox to the most egregious orator.

The last few weeks have seen more ink spilled over the ill-conceived conflagration of a couple of hundred Qurans than is probably contained within the books themselves, and the media machine shows no signs of letting up.

The chief target of this stupid act of vandalism is Al-Qaeda, a group whose paid-up membership in the coalition's chief battleground is apparently not much larger than the pathetic congregation of their bibliographic tormentors.

News of the Quran burning - to be held at the at the inaptly-named Dove World Outreach Centre, Gainesville, Florida - has been met with several similarly ill-attended protests, most notably in Kabul, Afghanistan. Counter-protestors have burned the US flag (as usual), and an effigy of 'Reverend' Terry Jones, a man of improbable moustache and abhorrent attire and 'mastermind' of the burning. Reuters reports that more spectacles of this sort are likely to follow throughout Europe.

This inverse pyramid of events can only built on so paltry a foundation by a global news media that dredges for the most pathetic actions of the most dismal fringe actors and then seeks to shape an entire discourse around them. Thanks to the Ponzi mores of the world's 24-hour news media, we can mark the end of 9/11 anniversaries' exemption from America's rabid religious-cum-political discourse. If coverage continues we may also witness an eruption of violence not seen since the barbarous reaction by several mobs of Muslim men to a Danish cartoon.

Meanwhile, millions of words - many of them ensconced in the vocabulary of "offence" "insensitivity" "freedom" and so on - have been uttered over a planning application for the erection of a community centre/Mosque/whatever on a bustling commercial street in lower Manhattan, New York that is unlikely to ever come to fruition unless a Fox shareholder foots the bill.

These events share two common factors. The first is their parochialism: before mid-term election season and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, each story would only would prick the ears of a provincial news editor. The second was best put by James Joyce of his young artist, for whom "the preacher's knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience". Today, our respected news outlets give preachers' barbs their reach, successfully putting the 'International' in 'International-Burn-A-Koran-Day'.

If - rather than encouraging Jones by reporting on the wacky schemes from his Jesus shed - the media moved on, Jones will simply go away.

Instead, increasing news coverage of Jones and the "Ground-Zero mosque" has had a Wonderbra effect, pushing two otherwise uninspiring bagatelles together, up and out, to form a putative cleavage of civilizations. A report in today's Telegraph is a typical example of the self-reinforcing nature of this story:

It is feared the event at the Dove World Outreach Centre, an evangelical church in Gainesville, will put the lives of coalition forces serving in Afghanistan at risk and inflame religious tensions worldwide.

Between 'the' and 'event' above, we should insert 'mediation of', and divide culpability for the lives put at risk and 'religious tension inflamed' (whatever that means, presumably riots and the like) accordingly. Instead, commentators deride the pastor without questioning their collective role in his rise to to the international stage. The BBC website also conforms to Godwin's Law to lend the prospect of this squalid little episode some 'context'.

Fevered coverage of these non-stories has also required a menagerie of luminaries from Barack Obama through Ban Ki-Moon to Angela Merkel debase their high offices by denouncing a congregation too small to put on an American football game.

Sadly, the media circus has now gone far enough in its invention of a crisis in the 'culture war' to endanger service personnel and retard the progress (and thereby conclusion) of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

No doubt that, should someone be killed as a result of this wretched incident, a few dozen camera crews will be there to cover it too. And so on.

Orwell, in reference to the politicization of literature through the 1930s, wrote "What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant." The news media may do well to take account of their effect on events before conflating freedom of speech with a premise that the largest soapbox be given to the most egregious orator.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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