Looking for a Good Day to Publish Bad News

While attention has been focused on British bombers on runways in Cyprus waiting to take off and bomb Syria and on the premature attempt to launch Bomber Benn’s campaign to become Labour Leader – unlike the actual bombers, it stalled on the runway following the Oldham West and Royton by election – another runway event has gone extraordinarily quiet. This is the announcement of the government’s decision on the third London runway. Presumably the government has concluded that announcing such an environmental catastrophe while the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris is still meeting would be hard sell even with the capitalist press and the BBC in their pocket. We must presumably await another headline grabbing distraction before the government will announce its decision.

Another environmental catastrophe continues, however, to simmer away without attracting any attention at all – except, that is, in the small circulation literary magazine, Granta. In the current edition, Number 133, entitled What Have We Done, there is a splendid article by Fred Pearce on Sellafield. Splendid? Perhaps I mean ‘terrifying’. Fred Pearce is an environment consultant and former editor of New Scientist. In the article he recounts the history of Sellafield, formerly Windscale, and describes what Sellafield’s managers call its ‘legacy’ problem – the lamentable history of management failures that created and continues to create a backlog of radioactive waste and allows it to accumulate in unsafe conditions. This waste will be around on a geological timescale, i.e. for longer than human social and organisational structures have so far existed. Its accumulation under a care and maintenance regime is inconsistent with the fragility of the capitalist system that created it.

Sellafield currently has 240 radioactive buildings awaiting decommissioning, including the pile that caught fire almost 60 years ago – an event that was largely hushed up at the time. This pile comprising the core and an estimated fifteen tons of buckled uranium fuel has been left alone lest it catches fire again or even explodes. Yet, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, there are four other silos at Sellafield considered to be in even more urgent need of being ’made safe’. This should have been done decades ago but these radioactive dumps were abandoned and now represent, in Fred Pearce’s words, “the dark hearts of Sellafield, the radioactive reminders of past follies”. The tragedy is that we were not forced into these follies by the need to reduce consumption of fossil fuel – something we may, arguably, have to face up to in future. The primary motive was the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. And so the folly continues.

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Responses to Paris

In the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, 30 November to 11 December, the BBC is today heavily spinning some survey findings it has commissioned from the Research Group Globe Scan indicating that only  just under half of all those surveyed across 20 countries viewed climate change as a “very serious” problem, compared with 63% in 2009. Despite this spin, the report concedes that a majority in the UK still consider it “very serious”.

One must question why a supposedly cash strapped BBC has commissioned this survey and why it has given it such a negative spin. Could it be that it is seeking to curry favour with its paymaster, the one-time “greenest government ever” when it is about to sell out in Paris?

Opinion surveys are, of course, very dependent on the questions asked. Other recent research has drawn very different conclusions. For example, that published last month by the Pew Research Center, identified climate change as the biggest concern of peoples across the globe, far more serious than global economic instability or the threat of ISIS. While in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris this may not currently be the majority view in the UK, it must surely be the rational one after considered reflection. ISIS could murder thousands of people in the UK over the next few years. Unchecked global warming has the potential to extinguish all human life in a few generations.

The responses of our government to terrorism and to global warming are indeed very different. The response to terrorism is “something must be done” while taking the opportunity provided to effect largely unrelated but advantageous “regime change”. 9/11 was a horrific crime but declaring a “war on terror” and going on to invade Afghanistan and Iraq was such a response. Had President Bush simply called in the FBI to identify and arrest the culprits, we would not now be confronting ISIS and mass migrations of people from the Middle East. The wish to bomb Syria is also motivated by the “something must be done” principle and a scarcely concealed wish to topple President Assad of Syria. Both are consistent with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing something over and over again and each time expecting a different result. The response to global warming, on the other hand, is to try to spin the problem away. This is criminally inadequate but so would be “something must be done”. Real action to curb CO2 emissions has to be negotiated in Paris and then implemented or humanity is in deep, deep trouble. Furthermore, unlike meddling in the Middle East, there really is a regime change that would help: ending capitalism!