Why I want balance on climate change coverage

Debate versus "debate".

I want balance in my reporting on climate change. I need to be exposed to views different to my own, to get the facts required to be able to defend my views when they’re right, or reassess them if they’re wrong.

I want balance between people who say aviation can be made clean, and those who say it is inherently unsustainably polluting.

I want balance between people who say nuclear capacity can be increased in time to aid the short-term cuts to emissions, and those who argue it is too slow and expensive to build.

I want balance between people who view carbon reduction as the only priority for green politics, and those who maintain that it is one problem in many. Between the people who would barrage the Severn for clean energy, and those who would burn dirty fuel to save endangered species.

I want balance between those who think CCS can capture enough carbon to matter, and those who don’t.

I want balance between the technological utopians and the people who argue every facet of our lives will need to change.

I want balance between the photovoltaic cell manufacturers, the wind turbine machinists, the nuclear physicists, and the myriad other sources of carbon-neutral energy.

I want balance between people who argue for 80 per cent reductions by 2050, and those who say that needs to happen 20 years sooner.

With some of these debates, I take sides. With a few, I think the other side is dangerously wrong. But, as much as a might wish otherwise, these are discussions we need to have. 

What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t. Between those who want to do something to stop it, and those who want to save their money and spend it on mopping up the bodies later.

These are not questions on which there is confusion, on which there are strong arguments on both sides where concerted debate is necessary to sort out competing claims. These are questions which are settled, and which have been settled for years. Absent compelling new evidence, there is no point in repeating the historical debates. And that evidence the sort likely to be supplied by climatologists, not Telegraph bloggers -

I have no interest in arguing with these people. I don’t need to hear their viewpoints, or learn ways to rebut them, because I don’t plan on wasting my time talking to them about it in the first place, and doubt they plan on being convinced any time soon. They don’t want debate, they want uncertainty, doubt and, above all, delay. 

So when the BBC is revealed to have consulted a range of voices on guiding its climate coverage, from members of the IEA and CBI, through industry groups like NPower and BP, to organisations like Greenpeace and Tearfund and academics from Oxford, Imperial and Harvard universities, I am cheered. But the fact that they didn't feel the need to hew to false balance, to invite people to rekindle quenched fires for no reason other than their own desire to do so, is even better news.

Are wind farms the best way to cut carbon? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser