How two farm-boys-done-good could change the world

While everyone loves Commander Chris Hadfield, it's Iowan James Hansen who really needs the attention.

One was a farm boy from Ontario, the other the son of itinerant Iowa farmers. Both are now world-renowned scientists and activists with the attention of global leaders. However, the public only listens to one of them. The wrong one.

Commander Chris Hadfield has expanded our horizons, making the International Space Station an accessible place to virtually visit, and giving us wonderful views of our planet photographed from space. When the Canadian astronaut recorded a version of David Bowie's Space Oddity for his departure from the ISS, it was played on national news broadcasts across the globe and has been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube.

It's a stark contrast with the stern-faced Iowan caution of James Hansen. The world's most renowned climate scientist has little joy to bring. Instead of heart-warming photos of electric lights blazing from the surface of Earth, he has dull graphs showing the slow, steady advance of the global warming apocalypse – ironically, caused in part by the electric lights that have made Hadfield's pictures so popular. Hansen doesn't have a song.

He doesn't even have a particularly motivating speaking style. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Hansen was a firebrand. He gets arrested in protests over environment-damaging mining practices and the construction of a pipeline that will bring the world's dirtiest oil to market. NASA has tried to gag him – and he gathered evidence of this and then took it to the New York Times. He has lobbied national leaders the world over. But Hansen is a fact-driven, cautious speaker who is careful not to get emotional over his message.

That is probably why it hasn't made any headway. If you heard the sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth in central London last night [16 May], it was because Hansen was giving a talk. The howling from the LSE lecture hall wasn't outrage over climate change - everyone in the building already appreciated those facts. What became increasingly clear as Hansen spoke was that there is no way to make anyone in power do anything about them.

Being informed is not enough. In April, Hansen retired from his position as director of NASA's Institute of Space Studies in order to be able to sue the federal government (government employees are not allowed to sue their employer) over their lack of action on climate change. The federal government's defence is likely to be, "well, it was all so dull, James."

By Hansen's own admission, the whole subject is "too technical for the public". He has tried to soften the message by framing the issue in terms of the world that we are bequeathing to his descendants. In his book Storms of my Grandchildren, Hansen allowed himself "one graph per chapter" he said last night. It was still too much: the book was dismissed as dry. He is currently forcing his message downwards in complexity by working on another book that is composed of a series of letters to his first grandchild, called Sophie's Planet. He's not confident it will make any difference at all. An audience member asked how he would reach the people who mattered: the ones who didn't fancy coming to hear him speak. "I don't really have a good answer to that," he said.

It would be interesting to know what Hadfield's answer would be - if he were allowed to speak. Hansen was in Europe to give testimony to the European Parliament about the folly of using oil from the Canadian tar sands. This is not something a Canadian scientist can do: if they receive government money, they are not allowed to talk about environmental issues without government permission, which is rarely forthcoming. Coverage of government-funded climate change research has dropped by 80 per cent in Canadian media because reporters can't access the researchers.

By now, however, Hadfield surely has the global currency to take off the gag without fear of reprisals from the Harper government. Perhaps he could even write the protest song that Hansen so desperately needs. At the end of the 1960s, the Apollo astronauts' experience and photography of Earth from space kick-started the modern environmental movement: their photographs made us fall in love with Earth. Hadfield has successfully repeated the trick for the age of social media – now he should use his power for good. If he were to join forces with Hansen, it's conceivable that two farm boys might just save the world.

The crew of the ISS, including Commander Chris Hadfield, return to earth. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.