Four decades of climate change denial may just be the big lie that finally does for human life on Earth, writes Joyce McMillan.
When and if the history of our time comes to be written, I have a feeling that the last 40 years will come to be seen as an age of liars, and of the colossal lies they told, in pursuit of their own short-term interests. The biggest lie, of course, has been the one about carbon emissions and climate change. In 2017, Harvard scientists produced evidence that as long ago as 1979, scientists working for Exxon, among other large oil companies, were well aware that a steadily rising level of emissions could lead to devastating climate change by 2050; but that the companies reacted by mounting extensive public campaigns questioning the validity of their own climate science, and by funding individuals and organisations to promote the idea that the climate threat was debatable or non-existent.
The men in charge of the ever-growing oil and gas industry were not, though, the only big liars, in an age defined by them; in fact it was around the same time, the late 1970s, that British political debate began to be influenced by the big lie of the Thatcher period – the idea that public-sector services are always hopeless and inefficient, and that the private sector will always do better. There was never a great deal of hard evidence to support this belief, although in one or two areas where real competition is possible privatisation worked well enough.
There is, though a striking catalogue of areas where privatisation, in areas where there can be no real competition, has led to nothing but the setting up of large, expensive private contracting companies which extract huge sums from the public purse, while often delivering an inferior service. Rail privatisation has hardly been a roaring success, as key franchises fall back into public hands, and fares rocket through the roof. Two huge private government contractors, Carillion and Interserve (whose now-defunct name is emblazoned on the fencing around the current scene of devastation in East Princes Street Gardens) have recently collapsed amid suggestions of financial mismanagement. And this week, it was announced that Chris Grayling’s ill-fated 2014 attempt at privatisation of the probation service is to be ended; as, indeed, should any attempt to turn aspects of the justice system into a commercial operation.
If these two gigantic lies about climate change and the unfailing efficiency of the market have shaped much of 21st political life, though, they pale into the background compared with the colossal pack of lies that now sits front and centre of British political life, as we lurch towards next week’s European elections; and that is the big lie that all the problems of ordinary British people, over the last generation, have been caused by Britain’s EU membership, and by the immigration it has brought in its wake.
We all know, of course, that some sections of the British media have never liked the EU, and tend to take every opportunity to print negative stories about immigration; but to visit the relevant page of the European Commission website, which methodically lists the inaccurate stories about the EU published in the British media over the last 25 years, is to understand that British public debate on this issue has been profoundly affected, and radically shifted, by a diet of deliberate lies, many of them invented by Boris Johnson himself when he was a Brussels correspondent in the 1990s. As for lies about immigration, they were for many years rife in British public debate; not least the big lie that immigrants somehow cost the existing population money and jobs, when in fact the reverse is true.
And the point about these campaigns of lies is not only that they are wrong in themselves; it is that once they enter the political mainstream, in the form of lie-based policy and ideology, they lead inevitably to the kind of colossal waste of public resources, time, effort and attention that has characterised Britain’s Brexit fiasco. The British political class has all but broken itself, over the last three years, trying to make reality conform to the absurd promises made to British Leave voters during the 2016 referendum; and has found, naturally enough, that it cannot do it. By the same token, the amount of public money, time and effort wasted on all Britain’s failed or none-too-successful outsourcings and privatisations is painful to contemplate; even today, they are still nagging us to waste our own time by constantly switching energy suppliers, in an effort to make a success of the pseudo-market they created in an area of natural monopoly.
And as for the waste of time involved in the last 40 years of climate change denial – well, that may just be the big lie that finally does for human life on Earth, particularly if those at the heart of the petrochemical beast keep on stalling and prevaricating.
Come next week’s EU election, I will therefore be voting Green; not because I do not appreciate the Scottish Government’s efforts on climate change, but because I know they do not go far enough, and because in an age of liars telling powerful lies, the best we can do for ourselves is to vote for politicians who are at least trying to base their policies on the facts as we know them.
It’s clear, of course, that in this political age, facts are no longer enough to shift the opinions of those who have committed themselves to a lie-based belief system – hence the disarray of old-style television interviewers, who try to catch out populist figures by quoting facts at them.
We can still hope, though, that the hard edge of lived experience will cut through the barrage of lies in the end. “Facts are chiels that winna ding,” said Robert Burns in 1786, at the height of what we now call the Scottish Enlightenment; and in this new age of endarkenment, the least we owe to ourselves as citizens and human beings is to respect truth, to continue to seek it, and to try to act on it to the best of our ability, for as long as we are spared.