2021 Review: Covid, Climate Change, Corrupt, Complicit Governments – and ‘Don’t Look Up’

3.1.22

A poster featuring a quote from Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence in Adam McKay’s climate denial satire ‘Don’t Look Up.’

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As 2022 begins, Covid-19 continues to dominate our lives. It’s now nearly two years since its arrival triggered levels of panic unprecedented in the lifetimes of most of us in the West — isolating people in their homes, shutting down offices, the hospitality and entertainment industries, and most retail outlets. After restrictions were eased over the summer of 2020 and into autumn, a second wave of the pandemic shut society down again for several long and gruelling months at the start of 2021, and, after another easing of restrictions, a third wave — of the Omicron variant — has once more derailed notions of a return to “normality.”

Thankfully, it looks as though this variant, although highly infectious, is far less deadly, although it will still put a strain on overstretched and exhausted health services. In the UK, however, another serious lockdown looks unlikely — not for medical reasons, but because Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a backbench rebellion that will topple him from power if he once more imposes serious restrictions.

Throughout this period, a far bigger crisis — catastrophic climate change, caused by humanity’s obsession with fossil fuels — has generally been relegated to a secondary position in the considerations of politicians and the media. Activists did a great job of amplifying the concerns of largely ignored climate scientists in the years before Covid hit, but although there was a brief reawakening of interest in climate change in November, when the COP26 climate summit of world leaders took place in Glasgow, it passed as soon as the conference ended, and the Omicron variant took over.

This is, to put it mildly, a profound disappointment, because what COP26 highlighted, inarguably, was how governments remain in thrall to the fossil fuel companies, and how, despite the best efforts to secure promises of serious emissions cuts over the rest of this decade, in an effort to keep global warming since the start of the industrial era to just 1.5°C (beyond which all hell breaks loose), a sense of urgency is completely lacking.

If there was any intent to follow up on the promises, our politicians and our media would be relentlessly discussing how, in order to “keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the [2015] Paris Agreement”, as the UN’s Emissions Gap Report stated in October, “the world needs to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years”; in other words, by seven percent a year for the rest of the decade.

Instead, as the report also explained, “new national climate pledges combined with other mitigation measures put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century”, which is “well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate.”

Imagine if, today, governments pledged to do what is needed: cutting emissions by seven percent a year regardless of all the impediments — corporate lawyers and lobbyists, the corruption of the political class, the powerful  climate denial industry, the shallow or corrupt mainstream media, and the unwillingness of the world’s individual citizens to take the threat seriously.

Imagine if our governments, passing new laws, shut down seven percent of the worst polluters’ activities every year from now until 2030, and embarked on national conversations to involve us all in understanding what, collectively, we all need to do to achieve the aim — which, in case we forget, is not one that involves any kind of choice. If we don’t act, we will be refusing to do what is necessary to keep the planet sustainable for human life, and the longer we wait to act, the more swingeing the cuts will have to be when, as is inevitable, they finally have to be enacted.

Today, we could, and should be debating what to lose — all new fossil fuel extraction, for starters, and an end to much of the construction industry, with its obsession with highly polluting cement and concrete, and its wanton destruction of existing buildings, to create new ones for profit alone. But what about if we cut seven percent off all the activities that are killing us — meat production, travel using fossil fuels, the creation of plastics and all the other aspects of our daily lives that rely on oil? We could do it, and it would be an inspiring journey, but to do so we would need to arrest capitalism and its prime directive, the one that has got us into this mess in the first place: endless growth, meaning ever-growing profits for investors and shareholders, regardless of the damage that causes to the very planet that we rely on to sustain us.

The irony, of course, is that the pandemic, and the response it it, have shown us that, if a situation is regarded as serious enough, the majority of people are prepared to make massive changes to the way they live. With Covid, this was possible because people believed in an imminent threat to themselves and their loved ones, but somehow the reality of catastrophic climate change lacks that sense of urgency outside of the places most affected.

Many of these are in the Global South, typically ignored by the planet’s wealthier countries, but 2021 saw the realities of catastrophic climate change brought home to the countries most responsible for it — via unprecedented fires in the US and Australia, for example, and via flooding caused by unprecedented rainfall in various European countries. More and more people are waking up to the realization that catastrophic climate change is not only real, but is happening now, and it is a safe bet that, in 2022, many parts of the world will become less supportive of human existence than they were in 2021.

‘Don’t Look Up’

I recently watched ‘Don’t Look Up’, a powerful satirical film directed by Adam McKay, in which the impending arrival of a comet that will destroy all life on earth is used as an allegory for climate change denial. The film skewers self-interested politicians, and a shallow media obsessed with ratings and celebrity inanity, but the comet, it turns out, stands best as a metaphor for Covid, not for catastrophic climate change.

In the film, most people only realize what is happening when it is too late, when the comet is visibly approaching earth, just hours before the repercussions of its impact wipe out all life on the planet. Despite the fires, despite the flooding, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, most people continue to live their lives in denial, rather than all of us stopping what we’re doing  and precipitating a global velvet revolution in which we could immediately do what is required: cutting emissions by seven percent a year to have a chance of keeping the planet habitable.

Sadly, however, imminent velvet revolutions look unlikely. In true millennial “end times” fashion, a disturbingly high proportion of the populations of the world’s wealthier countries have decided that Covid is a pretext for enslavement of humanity, and are ignoring the rather more pressing concerns presented by the climate crisis. Politicians, meanwhile, have become adept at saying what needs to be said, but not doing anything about it — and we are going to continue to need to find ways to get them to take it seriously.

One way is to put unrelenting pressure on the banks that support the fossil fuel industries, and other dirty extractive industrial processes, but another involves us coming together to protest — and in the UK, in particular, our addled government, mired in Covid corruption scandals involving cronyism, abdicating real leadership for endless lies about the benefits of the patently ruinous isolation and economic ruin caused by Brexit, has handed law and order to an extraordinarily authoritarian bigot in the form of Priti Patel, whose Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, seeks to make any kind of effective protest illegal (as well as criminalizing the very existence of Gypsies and travellers).

It would be nice to think that the British people could come together to resist the criminalisation of protest — as that is one of the first steps towards the creation of truly authoritarian states — but at present that seems unlikely, when so many of those who should be able to recognise a true threat are too busy inventing conspiracies instead.

In conclusion, then, 2022 doesn’t look great, but I’m never one to give up on hope, and what can be achieved by those who hold it in their hearts, and, despite all of the above, it remains apparent to me that millions of people recognize the gravity of the existential threat we face, and are prepared to change their lives in an appropriate manner, however many inconveniences that might involve, if only we could locate leaders able to act on it.

In their absence, I suggest that it’s up to all of us who are awake to commit as much of our time, money and resources as we can manage to amplifying the message that we need an immediate end to the vacillating and dissembling that has typified the response to the climate crisis to date by those in positions of power and responsibility.

We need seven percent emissions cuts every year, and we need to start them now. Shut down the funders of planetary destruction, and envisage a new world in which we all take responsibility — for the planet, and for each other. It will involve some sacrifices, yes, but it will actually be a better life than the one we’ve been living in for decades — of buying into our allotted role as defenders of the planet’s rapists by admiring the greedy, and distracting ourselves with endless diversionary pointlessness that doesn’t actually make us happy.

The struggle is all, and through the struggle we can not only avoid extinction but also reclaim our essential humanity.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, my first this year, looking back on the key events of 2021, in which I assess the last 12 months regarding Covid, corrupt governments, and, overshadowing it all, the climate crisis, the gravest existential threat in our lifetimes.

    I also make reference to Adam McKay’s compelling climate denial satire ‘Don’t Look Up’, and I hope that this New Year’s post is something of a call to action. Although we’re being failed by our governments and by the mainstream media, as ‘Don’t Look Up’ makes clear, it seems apparent that we must do all we can to focus on the need for unprecedented action to combat climate change in 2022 – by, for example, refusing to stay silent about our leaders’ failure to demonstrate how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by seven percent a year every year until the end of the decade, to stand a chance of keeping the increase in global warming since the start of the industrial era to below 1.5°C.

    There is no mission more important than this, and yet our leaders and our media are endlessly deferring responsibility for addressing the crisis, even though doing so is, simply, suicidal. In the absence of leadership, it’s up to us to provide it, which we can honestly only do if enough of us take it seriously – as though, in fact, our lives depend on it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Ruth Gilburt wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. No other words, really x

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Ruth. I can’t really see anything else on the horizon but the need for recognition of the scale of the crisis and demands for urgent change to the entire way we operate.

    Lockdowns may have been a horrendously blunt instrument for dealing with the pandemic, but, as I noted in the article, they have shown us that the majority of people can, and will change their behaviour if they’re convinced that it is necessary – essentially for the common good. We should take hope from that, and try to find ways of targeting what we might call the ‘obedient centre’ of society when it comes to climate change.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Wonderful important work you have done over many years and continue to do Andy👍💚 xxx

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lindis. Great to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    Andy we are way past 1.5C when using 1750 as a baseline, Sam Carana from the Arctic News Blog and Dr Andrew Glikson from the Australian National University both have us at over 2C of anthropogenic emissions, not just industrial emissions but all human disruption.

    The reality is that 10C is baked in; https://kevinhester.live/2021/12/30/not-1-5c-not-2c-a-10c-temperature-increase-is-baked-in/

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I defer to your considerable knowledge, Kevin, but it seems to me that the message to humanity – of embracing the need for radical change to the way we exist, continuing to pump out greenhouses gases with no regard for the future – is best achieved by suggesting that there is hope, rather than pointing out that it’s already too late, and we’re all doomed.

    That way, it seems to me, will lead to a dangerous nihilism, while the hope that we can embrace a 50% reduction in emissions over the rest of the decade, which, if triggered, will then have to become quicker and more all-embracing, as the damage becomes ever clearer with each passing day, at least provides people with hope.

    Do you have an opinion as to why the UN has chosen to serious underplay the gravity of the crisis? Do you think it also has something to do with a perception of what is achievable, as opposed to the perilous route of conceding that it is already too late?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Shane Collins wrote:

    Great article, Andy. I despair, Kevin Hester analysis above is horribly correct and well worth a read, esp Peter Wadhams quotes. Summer arctic ice sheet gone in the 2030’s, rapid temp increases and the four horsemen gallop in. Still, pessimism of the mind, optimism of the action, lots of XR and a new ‘Just Stop Oil’ campaign coming up in the Spring. I guess the best we can aim for is less fecked slowly, but there is no chance of Bojo and the clowns effecting a 7% annual decrease in C02 to have any chance of keeping below 2oC. I look forward to reading your review of 2022 and thanks for this one. Hopefully we might actually meet this year. Come and do something at the The Green Gathering 2022 4-7 August.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Shane – and I’d love to do something at the Green Gathering. Please count me in!

    I look forward to forthcoming actions – and I do think that flagging up 7% cuts a year has something to recommend it as a selling point to a stubborn public, as well as those who want to have something achievable to aim for.

    The ‘Just Stop Oil’ campaign also sounds very interesting, as the fossil fuel companies – and their backers – are clearly the worst offenders, although I’d also like to see campaigning stepped up when it comes to the construction industry, and architects in particular. The Architects’ Journal’s RetroFirst campaign could do with a boost, and some commitment to action rather than just gestures, and we need to be thinking about highlighting the irresponsibility of new construction sites, and ending the use of concrete. https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/retrofirst

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil Goodwin wrote:

    It’s pretty obvious that the policy of the politicians, media and industry is just to ride climate change out, because to tackle it in any meaningful way is anathema to their values, lifestyle and profit. I have a sneaking suspicion that the 1% have realised that starvation is a great way to control the masses, countries and even entire regions, but obviously this authoritarian wet dream will be short lived, as in a fraction of a blink of an eye we are already gone as a species. The only positive to come out of it is that we never quite got to tackle space travel. That’s as dark and negative and bitter as it gets, prompted in part by my memories of Newbury, where we told the world the truth, over 25 years ago, built on the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ 20 years before that. ‘Don’t Look Anywhere … except where we tell you to look’ is the sequel – the strap line … ‘We are already f***ing dead!’ of course isn’t helpful, but in planetary terms is most accurate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPVf-ClHw2Q&t=1363s

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Neil, and thanks for the link to your Newbury film, and your reflections on how the anti-roads movement of the ’90s was both visionary and showed 100% commitment to environmental issues from a significant number of people. That work continues via the HS2 protestors, of course, but, as with so much of great importance these days, those brave and committed eco-warriors are almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media.

    The 1%, meanwhile, can plan all they want, but their wealth will be as useless as all the other baubles on a dead planet. It may shield them for some small amount of time, in their bunkers and the fortified compounds they’re presumably already establishing (now that their private islands have been revealed to be extremely susceptible to catastrophic climate change), but in the end an inhospitable planet won’t discriminate on the basis of grotesque wealth.

    I do feel that 2022 will be the year that demonstrates to us that there is no hiding from the fruits of our collective orgy of consumption over the last 40 years; the big question is how people will respond, and if enough of them – us – can overcome the inertia of denial to recognise that wishful thinking, or simply switching off, simply won’t work. Every day spent in denial only means that tomorrow will be worse.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone taking an interest in this article. I think it’s a sign of how marginalised the climate crisis has become since COP26 that the news, a week before Christmas, that “great cracks and fissures had opened up both on top of and underneath the Thwaites glacier” in Antarctica was largely ignored, even though, as the Guardian explained, the Thwaites glacier is “about the size of Britain, and contains enough water on its own to raise sea levels worldwide by more than half a metre.” As the Guardian also explained, “It contributes about 4% of annual global sea level rise and has been called the most important glacier in the world, even the ‘doomsday’ glacier.” In addition, “Satellite studies show it is melting far faster than it did in the 1990s.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/18/scientists-watch-giant-doomsday-glacier-in-antarctica-with-concern

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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