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18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 4:04pm

First Thoughts: Borisgraph in crisis and what Australian Labor’s shock defeat tells us about climate change

By Peter Wilby

Anyone who questions my pessimism about the chances of serious action on global warming – or global heating, as the Guardian now calls it – should ponder the result of the Australian general election. The division between the main Australian parties on environmental policies was particularly stark and much talked about. Labor said it would target a 45 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030; the centre-right Liberals approved a new coal mine just before campaigning started and promised more. In a poll this year, more than 60 per cent of Australians agreed that global warming requires action now “even if this involves significant cost”. Yet the Liberals and their coalition partners, warning that Labor’s plans entailed higher energy prices, were unexpectedly returned to office.

If any country should be clear that we face a climate emergency, it is Australia, which has suffered prolonged droughts and record heatwaves in recent years. By the end of the century, it may be possible to live comfortably only off the southern coast on Tasmania, regarded by most Australians with the disdain that the British used to reserve for Ireland. But like voters in other affluent countries, Australians think that, whoever pays the costs of preventing such an outcome, it shouldn’t be them.

One-way ticket to Tasmania

Mention of Tasmania reminds me that, when I was a child, it was confidently asserted that, with a bit of a squeeze, the entire world population could fit on to the Isle of Wight (384 sq km). As the population grew, Zanzibar (2,462 sq km) was cited instead. But Tasmania, with 68,401 sq km, would feel positively roomy even for a world population predicted to reach 11 billion by 2100.

Jesting aside (at least I think I’m jesting), the millions of mostly poor people who live in equatorial zones that could be made uninhabitable by global warming won’t be allowed into Tasmania, the Isle of Wight or anywhere else in the temperate zones that remain (relatively) comfortable. The treatment of those fleeing areas that already suffer climate stress makes that clear. As the planet heats up, attitudes will harden and refugees will be perceived almost as sub-human. My fear is that, as people become convinced that climate scientists are right, they won’t vote for a Caroline Lucas, but for a Donald Trump or a Nigel Farage.

In praise of the Times

Sometime this year, almost certainly, the Times’s sales will overtake the Daily Telegraph’s. The Telegraph was once the “quality” market leader, selling more than a million copies in the early Noughties, with the Times in the 700,000s. While both titles, like other papers, have since suffered heavy circulation losses, the Telegraph fell faster and is now, at 335,742, less than 5,000 ahead of its rival. (You may have read that the Times is already ahead, but that counts copies distributed free to businesses to hand out to customers.) Rupert Murdoch’s Times is now a far better paper than the Telegraph. Although the latter occasionally gets a spectacular scoop, such as the details of MPs’ expenses claims, its news is heavily slanted towards the pro-Brexit brand of hard Toryism. It sometimes allows commercial considerations to influence editorial decisions, prompting its former political commentator Peter Oborne to resign in protest. Its columnists are mostly narrow and dogmatic. The annual £275,000 it pays Boris Johnson to write a poorly crafted piece for each Monday morning – and the frequency with which his ramblings lead the front page – has earned it the nickname “the Borisgraph”.

The Times also has its failings – notably that much of the paper seems written for people who send their children to fee-paying schools or aspire to do so. But its news is sharp, its sports coverage (once a Telegraph strength) unsurpassed, and most of its comment middle-of-the-road and thoughtful. Against the Telegraph, it deserves its success.

Fuzzy figures and binge drinkers

The average Briton, it is reported, gets drunk 51.1 times a year – that is, nearly once a week and more often than any other nationality. Such figures tend to embed themselves in public discourse and this one will no doubt be quoted to demand more money for public education on the perils of alcohol. But can it be true, when roughly one in five Britons claims to be teetotal?

The weekly inebriation figure comes from the Global Drug Survey, run by specialists in the treatment of addiction. A quick reading shows it isn’t based on nationally representative samples and cannot “be used to determine the prevalence of drug use within a population”. The respondents, who completed an online questionnaire, were self-selected. No media report mentioned this.

A recent study by the Office for National Statistics found 25 per cent of drinkers exceeded six to eight units of alcohol – a level likely to get you drunk – on their heaviest drinking day of the previous week. Taking account of teetotallers, that suggests about 20 per cent of the population go on a weekly binge. A more believable figure, which I predict you won’t hear quoted very often.

Fashions for a chillier age

In the 1960s, Mary Quant’s fashion designs seemed daring and liberating. Wandering round the exhibition of her work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I was struck by how often she used thick wool. My wife said just looking at the exhibits made her feel hot.

It is, I suppose, another effect of climate change that Quant’s clothes, despite the miniskirts, now seem too heavy and too fussed about keeping the wearer warm. The winter of 1962-63 was England’s coldest for over 200 years. But a more important factor, I suspect, was that, in the 1960s, the large majority of British homes didn’t have central heating and the average indoor temperature was four degrees centigrade lower than it is now.

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This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake