Kicking up a stink

Climate change and pollution denial are burning issues

In the best-known words of Alfred Pennyworth, as played by Michael Caine in the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’. It’s quoted all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Especially now, especially given that the person Pennyworth had in mind was The Joker. Imagine someone with enormous power and limitless weaponry but no sense of responsibility! 

On a recent sunny, breezy Sunday, with our wind turbines spinning and solar farms soaking up the rays, the UK hit a moment when 40% of all the electricity being used came from just those two sources. Coal-fired power stations were turned off, as were many gas-powered stations and wood-pellet burners. Even our reduced and ageing nuclear power stations, which normally run at full pitch continuously, took some maintenance downtime. 

In the right conditions, that percentage can increase and with more solar and wind-generating capacity still being added despite the reduction or removal of tax incentives, it will anyway. We have a way to go before we hit the situation that Germany now occasionally finds itself in – of having more renewable power than it needs. Of course such cheerful figures need context – on such a warm spring weekend, demand for power is low. Crunch time for power generation is a gloomy, windless day in the deep mid-winter. Even so, hurrah!

Imagine someone with enormous power and limitless weaponry but no sense of responsibility!

I thought of Pennyworth’s line because of the obvious thing now back on the agenda – climate change denial, and the raft of political anti-environmental moves associated with that, especially in the US but increasingly in the UK too. We are in the world of utter short-termism. Pump the oil, frack the gas, burn the gasoline, clear the rainforests, and to hell with tomorrow. This is a world where a contrarian dogma can count for more than the findings of most of the world’s climate scientists. For these people, the more CO2 the better. Look! Those Pacific coral atolls haven’t submerged yet! It still snows sometimes! Where’s the problem? There is no problem! 

Along with climate change denial, comes its yet more sinister sibling: pollution denial. Here political dogma starts to verge on actual evil. In this ideology all industry is good, and if it pollutes the air we breathe with a cocktail of toxins, that’s fine too. While climate change deniers dismiss majority scientific findings because they don’t suit them, pollution deniers question the methodologies used to calculate the numbers of deaths caused by filthy, particulate-laden air. Because it is hard to conclusively prove exact correlations (‘air pollution’ is never a cause on a death certificate), the whole evidence base is casually rejected. 

It is said of the four days of the great London smog of 1952 that 12,000 people died as a consequence. I remember my father saying how truly terrible it was: the feel, taste, colour of it, the sensation of choking. That smog led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 and its successors. But if today’s pollution deniers had been around back then, they’d have found a perverted reason to glory in that smog. Some men (and they mostly seem to be men) just want to watch the world burn. Do not believe them.