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Blue Planet II’s environmental message is heartfelt – but it misses the point

What I wish David Attenborough had said instead. 

The achievement of Blue Planet II is immense. It is incredible not just for the skill, courage and patience needed to produce the footage of our amazing natural world, but also for the incredible communication abilities of David Attenborough. It’s not easy to get 17 million people tuned in to watch anything, let alone a programme about our natural world and the threat it’s under.

Attenborough’s communication of the global problems we face – plastic pollution, ocean acidification, over-fishing, climate-change – was masterful. It was frank about the scale of the problem, without coming across as heavy-handed or nagging about the role humanity plays in all this. It mixed serious problems with a dose of hope. In short, it managed to avoid a lot of the mistakes that we in the environmental movement make when trying to get masses of people to care about these issues.

That is, until the very end of the documentary. 

After showing us plastic in the stomachs of albatrosses, coral reefs turned into graveyards by the seas we are warming, and injecting a dose of hope by introducing us to the people who dedicate their lives to saving the oceans, the tone moved into an area that took away the power of the message.

In one of the final sequences, Attenborough shows us how the sea level rises that we are driving will affect hundreds of millions of people who live near the coast. Deep sea scientist Jon Copley says: “It comes down to us each taking responsibility for the personal choices that we make in our everyday lives. That's all any of us can be expected to do. And it is those everyday choices that add up.”

But as one of the final messages of the series, this isn’t what people need to hear. Not when just 90 mega-companies are responsible for two-thirds of all man-made carbon emissions.

The blame is not shared equally, so the problem cannot be solved by individual behaviour change. Suggesting otherwise creates the false illusion that individual lifestyle choices can change the world, and that is all we should be expected to do.

Attenborough then signed off with an earnest and heartfelt appeal – “Surely, we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet?”

These are fine words from an incredible advocate for nature. But with the programme leaves the millions of viewers with the idea that we are all equally responsible and that the way to fix this is to, say, switching the lights off before bed.

I wish David Attenborough had instead said: “We all contribute to this, yes – but the blame is not shared equally. We all have a responsibility to take on the huge polluters – the fossil fuel companies, the big businesses obsessed with profit over everything else, that are wrecking our world, and make our governments take action. This is the only way that we can truly protect our Blue Planet.”

Putting the emphasis on individual behaviour and consumer choices not only doesn't make any substantial difference, it takes the heat off the real enemy. It removes the politics from this most political of situations – who is in power? Who is in control? And why?

It also plays into the well-worn idea that the green movement are middle-class moralisers who obsess over people's lifestyle choices, anBlud thus aren't worth listening to. It isn't an effective campaign tactic. The problem is government inaction and big polluters, and we need more people turning their fire on them.

The enemy is not those of us who use too many plastic bags. Our enemy are the polluting corporations of the world, that resist government regulation on plastics, fisheries, air pollution and more. They poison our air, trash our climate and unduly influence government. We now know that oil companies knew about the potential for climate change in the 1960s, yet robbed us of a generation to deal with the problem by supressing the science and funding climate denial thinktanks for decades.

People should be angry. They should be furious. We need someone as widely respected as David Attenborough – someone who can communicate beyond the usual environmental movement circles – to say, loudly, clearly, that the corporate ransacking of the world and their capture of governments is to blame. Act individually if you want, but we should go after these companies with the ferocity needed to force our governments to take action against them. This means divestment, direct action, and delegitimising the companies who are wrecking the climate.

There is a tendency to shy away from the politics of all of this. But the problem is so serious that we need someone as gifted, talented and well-respected as David Attenborough to speak out in this way. Giving 17 million viewers a truly powerful call-to-action could be world-changing. We can all get a Bag For Life from the supermarket if we want – but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the corporate ransacking of the world. This is the root of the consumption and climate problem. This is what we need to tackle.

Adam McGibbon is an Irish activist and campaign manager. He has worked for the Green Party and various environmental and social justice NGOs. He writes on environmentalism, social justice, tenant's rights and contested nationality in Northern Ireland. He tweets at @AdamMcGibbon.

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.