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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder