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21 November 2018

First Thoughts: Climate hypocrisy, temperate tea drinking and the long, slow decline of local newspapers

In every country, public commitment to keeping the climate stable is skin-deep.

By Peter Wilby

As supporters of Extinction Rebellion, who are demanding stronger government action against global warming, blocked five London bridges, the French also blockaded roads. Their more dramatic and widespread protests, which led to one death, were against fuel tax increases designed to curb carbon emissions. Polls suggest 70 per cent of the population support the protests.

You could not have a better illustration of the scale of the task facing those who hope to prevent catastrophic climate change. France has a relatively good record on green issues. Its controls on vehicle pollution in big cities are far stricter than Britain’s. According to a new study reported by the journal Nature Communications, its policies, if adopted globally, would lead to warming of 2.6°C which, though well above the 1.5°C that scientists say is reasonably safe, is below every other European country except Norway and Iceland. (British policies would lead to warming of 2.9°C.)

In every country, public commitment to keeping the climate stable is skin-deep. British drivers also blocked roads in 2000 when their government was committed to increasing fuel prices annually above inflation. No chancellor has since dared to revive the fuel price escalator. The British can now indulge in a little tut-tutting at the characteristically anarchic behaviour of the French while expressing mild support for Extinction Rebellion – just so long as their own journeys aren’t delayed.

Hail, Chief Monbiot

A popular riposte to calls for action on climate change is that, if we curb emissions, the Chinese – whose policies would warm the planet by more than 5°C – will carry on, so why bother? As the British Museum is asked to return to Easter Island a statue we nicked in the 1860s, we should ponder the fate of the thriving Polynesian community that once lived there. As every schoolchild knows, the densely forested island became denuded of trees. I sometimes try to imagine exchanges between the inhabitants when there were just a few trees left. A Polynesian George Monbiot would have implored his neighbours to refrain from chopping down more. And one of them would have replied: “Look, mate, that lot on the other side of the island are still hacking away like mad.”

A good book

“It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning,” said Churchill after victory in North Africa in November 1942. Alas, Brexit hasn’t reached that stage. All those issues you don’t understand and would rather not attempt to understand – fishing rights, customs arrangements, Gibraltar, the Irish border, passporting rights, the role of the European Court of Justice – will be the subject of at least three more years of wrangling. Politicians will love every second of it. The most obscure MPs, ministers and parliamentary aides will get their 15 minutes of self-importance as they ponder resignation or votes of no-confidence. The most insignificant regional assembly in an EU country you’d struggle to find on a map can plunge a spanner into the works. My advice is to switch off and read a novel, preferably not one about the state of the nation.

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Two plus two

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail, as always, denounces plotters, traitors and saboteurs. But the names have changed. Not long ago, they were Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Nicky Morgan and other Remainers. Now they are Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab (now an “arch-plotter” forsooth) and other hard-line Brexiteers. For Mail readers, it must be like living in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where citizens were instructed to hate Eurasia one month and Eastasia the next.

Whatever the enemy, they must still love Big Brother – or in this case, Big Sister. The former Mail editor Paul Dacre backed a hard Brexit, while still supporting May (I think that’s called cognitive dissonance). Under the new editor, Geordie Greig, a Remainer at heart, the Mail praises the Prime Minister for straining “every sinew to forge a deal that can unite a divided nation”. A united nation seems as improbable as the prosperous nation that, according to Dacre’s Mail, would follow our crashing out of the EU. But in Mail-land, if the editor says two plus two makes five, you had better believe it.

Markle my words

Johnston Press, owner of some 200 regional newspapers, from the Falkirk Herald to the Mid Sussex Times, the Burnley Express to the Skegness Standard, as well as the i newspaper (a cousin of the now online-only Independent), has sold its debt-laden business to creditors. The hedge-fund managers now in charge will in all probability preside over a further decline in Britain’s local press, closing titles and cutting staff. More court cases and council meetings will go uncovered. Planning and housing scandals will be ignored. The triumphs and disasters of local sports teams will hardly be noticed.

In our supposedly information-rich age, we learn more and more about less and less. We know every detail about Meghan Markle, Taylor Swift, contestants on The Great British Bake Off and the latest Manchester City signing. But we haven’t a clue what’s going on a few streets away.

Taking the temperature

One expects culture shock when travelling but not in Edinburgh. Taking afternoon tea in the city’s Balmoral Hotel, we were startled to see our waiter stretch her arms high above her head to pour hot water into the teapots. My research reveals that pouring from altitude is common in Morocco because, though all kinds of tea should be made with freshly boiled water, the water should ideally be cooler when it meets green and white leaves. Purists apparently use a thermometer so they can adjust the height as they pour. But the waiter didn’t look or sound Moroccan and we were both drinking black tea.

Is Scotland’s capital city trying too hard to be cosmopolitan?

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This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis