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28 July 2021

First Thoughts: Act now on the climate emergency, “I’m with Bonkers”, and the perils of altruism

After wildfires devastate California and commuters drown in China, it is obvious to me that Extinction Rebellion is right. 

By Peter Wilby

Climate scientists got it wrong. If we kept average global temperatures at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, they assured us, we would be “safe” from catastrophic results. Efforts to halt global warming were therefore discussed with a long timescale in mind. We should aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For many political and business leaders, switching to greener lifestyles – less air travel, less meat-eating, etc – was an act of generational altruism, intended to keep our children and grandchildren safe.

Now, it seems, scientists and their computers underestimated the effects of rising temperatures. Wildfires devastate California and Oregon and the smoke haze they create takes the air in New York, 3,000 miles away, 50 per cent beyond safe breathing levels; in China, commuters drown on underground trains; in western Europe, towns and villages are all but destroyed by floods; in London, hospitals close because of flooding; in British Columbia, temperatures get close to 50°C, breaking past records by an astounding 4.5°C.

“Concerned scientists are no longer concerned,” Bryony Worthington, an architect of the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act, said. “They are freaked out.” I am not a scientist, just a chap trying to keep his garage dry. But the truth seems clear to me. Extinction Rebellion is right. Governments need to treat the climate as an emergency, just as they did Covid. By the year 2050, it will be too late. It may already be too late.

Peter Hitchens’s T-shirt

“I’m with Bonkers,” says Boris Johnson, as reported by Dominic Cummings. “My heart is with Bonkers.”

He is allegedly referring, during an argument about the merits of lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid, to my old friend, the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens who, as well as dismissing global warming as “modish dogma”, describes lockdowns as “Maoist repression”. As Hitchens explains in his latest column, fellow labour correspondents called him “bonkers” when he reported on trade unions in the 1980s. A sensitive soul, he disliked the nickname and the sneering that went with it (“there was one of me and quite a few of them”) but, now it has the prime ministerial imprimatur, he tweets that he may have a T-shirt made.

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“This is what we believe,” Margaret Thatcher once told a Conservative meeting, extracting The Constitution of Liberty, a book by the economist and political philosopher FA Hayek, from her handbag. Will Johnson wear Hitchens’s T-shirt as a similar declaration of faith?

Rashford and Rand

The footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully campaigned for the government to extend free school meals into school holidays during the pandemic, asks: “Why can’t we just do the right thing? Why has there… got to be a motive?” He was commenting on rumours that the right-wing Spectator magazine was preparing an article, which hasn’t yet appeared, about how he benefits commercially from campaigning.

The answer lies in the right-wing view that there’s no such thing as altruism, and that everyone acts “rationally”, trying to maximise personal and family advantage. And a good thing too, the right believes. Sajid Javid’s favourite novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand argued that the individual “should exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself”. Selfishness, she declared, was a virtue.

Do-gooders such as Rashford are therefore objects of suspicion. Either they are hypocrites, using charitable work as a front for self-interest, or they are fools, failing in their moral duty to become what Rand called “heroic beings”, who presumably convert penalties successfully.

Rugby rules

I adore Rugby Union and rejoiced at the British and Irish Lions victory in South Africa. But at the end of the game, I realised that 27 of the 39 points scored came from penalties and I didn’t know why any of them was awarded. Have I been watching the sport for all these years without understanding the rules? Probably, but, since most players and even some referees don’t understand them either, I shan’t worry about it.

[See also: First Thoughts: The classroom culture wars, GB News founders, and cricket gets an update]

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special