The Big Questions that Irish broadcasters shy away from

Other than on the very odd news bulletin wearing my An Taisce hat, I very rarely appear on Irish TV talking about climate change. Much as I might like to paint this as some sinister conspiracy against me personally, the facts are that nobody else does either. Neither RTE television nor TV3 touch serious environmental or climate issues from one end of the year to the other.

And, as recently reported here, RTE’s rare forays into the field are not, let’s just say, universally successful (please let’s not mention the otherwise excellent PrimeTime and its wojus, cack-handed attempts at ‘ studio debates’ on climate). As I reported here recently, Derek Mooney’s woeful ‘Turf Life‘ documentary (covertly sponsored by Bord Na Móna) would suggest that the best thing the national broadcaster can do is to just keep avoiding the subject.

Prior to that, I have to go back almost two full years, to August 2016, when TV3 decided to dedicate nearly an hour on its ‘Tonight’ programme to a pointless ‘Climate Debate‘. Myself, Cara Augustenborg and Eamon Ryan were put in to pitch for ‘science’ and the dreaded consensus, while serial looper, John McGuirk (he who went on to front the PR for the disastrous ‘Save the Eighth Amendment’ campaign earlier this year) found himself in the happy position of cranking up the Fake News machine to full tilt.

He had good reason to be confident in believing that presenter, Charlie Bird, would be absolutely unable to stem the torrents of bullshit spewed that night by McGuirk. I’d like to say these two programmes are the exceptions in terms of Irish TV coverage, but this is simply not the case.

So much for the Irish media then. I was delighted to be invited by the BBC in March 2017 to travel to Newcastle to appear on the panel of its live Sunday morning current affairs show, ‘The Big Questions‘, and took the opportunity to get across my 2 cents on the environmental dimension to the global population debate. OK, I did perhaps have to sneak it in a bit, but presenter Nicky Campbell was both knowledgeable and supportive, on and off camera, which I can honestly say is a first in my limited experience of doing TV.

A year and more passed since then, and….well, nothing much to report really when it comes to Irish broadcasters and climate/environmental coverage. In early June of this year, I got the call once more from the BBC, this time to travel to London to do a pre-record of a one hour special edition of ‘The Big Questions’, this time with a single topic for the show: ‘Is the liberal world order in crisis’?

BBC TBQ 10-6-18 clip 1 from MedMedia Group on Vimeo.

While the show ranged widely over geopolitics, Brexit, etc. Nicky Campbell once again left room to broaden the debate and gave me space to try to place these tumultuous times in a wider environmental context. He opened my segment as follows: “I wake up every morning and listen on 5Live to the excellent ‘Wake Up To Money’ show, and its all about growth, growth here, growth there, that China’s growth is such and such, we’re very worried that growth is down…I’m thinking to myself, is it sustainable for the planet?”

This was the perfect set-up, which I gratefully accepted, as follows: “All these systems, whether it’s the Chinese, the US or European systems, all are predicated on and completely depend on a growth model. The problem with a growth model, on a finite and declining planet and a damaged biosphere, is that we are basically eating into the seed corn of the next generation and the generation after that.

“Killer statistics were mentioned a couple of minutes ago – I’d like to offer one or two: between 1970 and today, global population doubled, the global economy quadrupled, possibly quintupled, but in the same period, between 60-67% of all vertebrate life on Earth, other than humans, disappeared. This is 500 million years of evolutionary history wiped out, since the time I was in primary school. Now, my kids ask me the question: if we continue on this growth, growth – whatever flavour you wish – trajectory, what is going to be left of the remaining 40% of the natural world by the time they are adults? I don’t have an answer to that question, and I haven’t heard anyone even begin to address it”.

At this point, Campbell interacted: “And it’s their planet too (our fellow creatures)”. I replied: “Even the phrase ‘planet’ makes it sound like it’s somewhere else – this is where we live. When we talk about the planet and polar bears, we almost dematerialise the crisis. This is a human crisis, a crisis caused by humans, and ultimately a crisis that will bring down our version of civilisation, and in a remarkably short period of time.

“I really wish our economists, our intellectuals, would begin to get their heads around this; this is not some environmental niche discussion, this isn’t ‘oh well, that’s what the greens say, this is based on the hardest physical science. We are coming up against physical limits, all over the place. The ability of the atmosphere to absorb our carbon wastes, the ability of the oceans to absorb more carbon, the ability of other systems to cope with the amount of pollution that is being generated by a careless capitalism, a capitalism that simply produces, and ejects, a non-circular system.

“And irrespective of your ideology, we’re all humans, we share the planet with everything else, and our stewardship to date has been disgraceful”. {Cue, ahem, thunderous applause}. After a nice pause, Campbell added drily: “Should we just leave it there?”

Irish broadcasters, please take note: there are great environmental and climate stories to be told, and plenty of people willing both to tell them – and to listen. They don’t have to be happy clappy PR nonsense like ‘Turf Life’; programme makers really don’t have to assume their audience are eejits. Nor is there any need whatever for broadcasters to ‘balance’ hard facts with loose opinions.

It does, however, require that your presenters (like Nicky Campbell) actually have a firm grasp of ecological reality, and therefore avoid turning broadcasts into a pointless he-said-she-said talking heads show, where the audience is presented with two completely conflicting sets of opinions and no clear guidance from the show as to which represents reality – and which is just blagging.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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