Climate change

As attacks on climate science intensify, we must all work hard to protect our living planet

Martin Williams says the environmental movement’s apparent loss of momentum under the sway of money and politics should worry us, for human survival is at stake

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 9:26pm

Growing up in the 1970s, I loved the outdoors and wildlife, and was highly impressed by the environmental movement, which to me seemed brimming with energy and optimism. “Save the Whale” was a rallying cry, as activists clashed with hunters, leading to a ban on commercial whaling in 1982. Other issues like acid rain and the ozone hole became prominent, and likewise spurred action to reduce the damage. To me, it was a given that environmental awareness would grow.

Arriving in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, I found that environmental awareness seemed to lag behind my native UK, but it began blossoming as local campaigners worked to save wildlife like the black-faced spoonbills and highlighted air pollution.

But lately, things have changed. The “green movement” seems to have lost momentum and stalled, maybe even gone into reverse. This is partly as the magnitude of problems has grown; it’s no longer enough to “just” save whales and lovely places, but global threats loom ever larger, notably climate change and overpopulation. Maybe these seem just too daunting to many people.

Also, environmentalism has become subject to a concerted counter-attack, sponsored by big business. This employs effective messaging such as suggesting science on the issue is far from settled, perhaps even wrong.

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The attack on climate science has been especially fierce, underwritten by fossil-fuel companies, including ExxonMobil. Yet, as early as 1977, Exxon (yet to merge with Mobil) was aware of the issue, with an internal report warning that human-caused emissions could raise global temperatures and result in serious consequences. It started research programmes and created computer models on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Publicly, however, Exxon cast doubt on the science.

Exxon and other companies were criticised for this approach, and their backing of climate change denial became more furtive. Today the attack on climate change has moved beyond doubt, to the absurd – like an “alt-right” website, Breitbart News, billing climate change as “the greatest-ever conspiracy against the taxpayer” and Donald Trump, now US president, asserting that it is a “Chinese hoax”.

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Helped by the internet, there is appeal in such easily read and retweeted alternative facts.

So instead of environmental enlightenment, swathes of society have lurched towards anti-science. To climate science denier Myron Ebell, an adviser to Trump, the environmental movement is the “greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world”. Trump aims to ease environmental regulations and to hobble the Environmental Protection Agency. In the UK, Brexit will mean an end to various European Union measures for safeguarding the environment.

Here in Hong Kong, there are calls to build housing in country parks, plans to develop Lantau, and huge reclamation. Officials may speak as if the environment is important, yet it’s little more than lip service – otherwise, the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau would include a rail link.

Overall, the environment seems a fringe issue. Yet, it is crucial to our existence. This planet is the only home we have.

Trump’s Svengali, Steve Bannon, speaks of the US fighting current or imminent wars – with Islam, and China. Yet a far greater war is under way, an accidental war between humans and our life support system. News from the front line is not good; blistering heatwaves in Australia even as high temperatures accelerate the melting of Arctic ice.

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Such reports should concern everyone, even the most profit-minded and sociopathic billionaires. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking puts it this way: “Right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” American comedian George Carlin was bleaker and more caustic: “The planet is fine. The people are f***** … The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”

We should all be striving for better. After all, it’s our life support system.

Martin Williams is a writer with a PhD in physical chemistry, who led pioneering studies of bird migration in China, and has lived in Hong Kong 30 years, advocating conservation of the natural world