“This Is Oil Country!”: Climate Protests and the Left

The left has a dark secret that is becoming ever harder to ignore: it is riddled with climate scepticism, indifference and denial.

Pick your favourite left-progressive writers, check their Twitter timelines and published work for mentions of the climate crisis. Check their level of support for protesters who, despite being arrested and beaten, have finally forced the issue into ‘mainstream’ political awareness after thirty years of fatal indifference and hostility.

This week, a Canadian fossil-fuel enthusiast defaced a mural of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, painting these words over her face:

Stop the Lies. This is Oil Country!!!

Remarkably, when it comes to their understanding of the climate issue, much of the left has long lived in ‘oil country’. Dissidents who exposed the West’s ‘humanitarian interventions’ in Iraq and Libya as oil grabs have themselves unwittingly been captured by oil industry propaganda presenting climate concern as a scam by money-grubbing scientists seeking research funds and ‘bourgeois’ cynics seeking new ways to exploit honest working people.

Last week, Julia Steinberger, Professor of Social Ecology and Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds, tweeted:

Yesterday morning, and during the whole day, #ExtinctionRebellion faced the City of London: the banks who are bankrolling and profiting from fossil industries and planetary devastation.

Yesterday evening, the human right of freedom of assembly was suspended in all of London.

As Steinberger added:

Yesterday’s action and reaction are not coincidental: this is what happens when people go up against power.

And the City of London, indeed, is the locus of corporate power in the UK. Journalist Jonathan Cook describes it as ‘a tiny, secretive enclave within Britain, a state within a state’. The protest ban signalled both the real power behind the parliamentary throne, and the depth of corporate opposition to the protests, giving the lie to the claim that they are the plaything of corporate marketing.

Leftists have been misled by a clear surge in media reporting of protests that are obviously hard to ignore (1.4 million protesters in Germany alone on a single day), and by unlikely support from some corporate media. This, it is claimed, indicates a hidden corporate agenda. The leftist website, OffGuardian, which hosts extreme climate denial (see here, here and here), commented this month:

Remember – when the MSM don’t want you to support a protest movement they just don’t tell you about it. Think #giletsjaune.

#ExtinctionRebellion is theatre – we’re invited to take sides, polarise, but never question what actually lies behind the movement

Ironically, this favoured left take is also popular with hard-right corporate media. A recent comment piece in the Telegraph was titled:

Extinction Rebellion exposes Left-wing activism as a global elite sham

In reality, ‘mainstream’ support for the protests is offset by fierce hostility from many media corporations and should be viewed in the context of decades of extreme media and political opposition. As recently as April 2019, even after the start of the mass climate protests one year ago, Colombia Journalism Review reported:

Yet at a time when civilization is accelerating toward disaster, climate silence continues to reign across the bulk of the US news media. Especially on television, where most Americans still get their news… Many newspapers, too, are failing the climate test. Last October, the scientists of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report, warning that humanity had a mere 12 years to radically slash greenhouse-gas emissions or face a calamitous future in which hundreds of millions of people worldwide would go hungry or homeless or worse. Only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in the United States covered that report.

As we have documented for a quarter of century, this is very much the long-term trend. In 2017, Media Matters found that US news networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS had collectively given coverage to climate change that totalled just 260 minutes in the entire year. Of this, 79 per cent, or 205 minutes, was focused on actions or statements by the Trump administration, rather than on climate change itself.

Noam Chomsky has accurately described the ‘schizophrenic’ nature of ‘mainstream’ coverage:

So, it’s as if on the one hand, there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying look, “this is a catastrophe,” but then the regular coverage simply disregards it, and says [of fracking], “well, isn’t this wonderful, we won’t have to import oil, we’ll be more powerful,” and so on.

Chomsky added:

It’s a kind of schizophrenia, and it runs right through society. Take the big banks, JP Morgan Chase, for example. They’re the biggest bank and CEO Jamie Dimon is an intelligent man. I’m sure he knows the basic facts about the dire threat of global warming, yet at the same time they’re pouring investments into fossil fuel extraction, because that’s the business model. They have to make a profit tomorrow.

The facts, then, do not indicate deep corporate support for climate activism, but patchy support by less fundamentalist individuals and corporations within a system that is designed down to the last nut and bolt to generate maximum profits in minimum time.

The left-sceptic take on the climate protests is as deluded as any notion that the West was ‘fighting for democracy’ in Libya, or acting to ‘liberate’ Iraq. It is an example of why environmentalists have long lumped left and right together as ‘grey politics’ subordinating the planet to fantasies of endless industrial ‘progress’ and ‘growth’. Consider, for example, the terrible record of the Labour Party on climate change until very recently. The truth is that, with honourable exceptions, the left has never had a problem with the concept of infinite growth on a finite planet, only with how the fruits of that growth are distributed. Along with the right, it has struggled mightily to abandon this article of faith, this now completely discredited conceit of ‘manifest destiny’ (see here for further discussion).

This week, Extinction Rebellion (XR) commented:

Total silence from the Government since Parliament’s declaration of an environment and climate emergency in May. ((XR, emailed press release, 22 October 2019.))

The Tory Party is the party of corporate power, and this is where Big Business currently is on climate – it wants to make cosmetic changes, pretend nothing is happening and carry on regardless.

If we are able to maintain a finger-hold on reality, then we have to accept that climate science, based on elementary principles of physics, is not part of a corporate conspiracy, is not effete ‘middle class’ paranoia, and is not designed to exploit the public. At time of writing, more than 1,100 scientists have signed the ‘Scientists’ Declaration of Support for Non-Violent Direct Action Against Government Inaction Over the Climate and Ecological Emergency.’

This support for the protests, not positive comments from the Guardian, is what matters.

Message To The ‘Eco-Zealots’ – ‘We’ll Take You Down!’

On October 17, video footage emerged of a mob endangering the life of a peaceful XR climate protester by throwing him off the roof of a London tube train to the ground where he was then punched and kicked on the ground.

ITV showed additional footage of an XR camera team filming the same protest at London’s Canning Town station being punched and kicked on the ground by the mob. The Telegraph reported that people on the platform who ‘took matters into their own hands’ could be investigated by police, who said their actions were ‘unacceptable’. The protesters had held up the train for ‘a few seconds’ before they were attacked. XR responded:

The people involved today did not take this action lightly. They were a grandfather, an ex-buddhist teacher, a vicar and a former GP among others who acted out of rational fear for the future as this crisis deepens.

The Telegraph reported that one of the two activists who climbed on top of the train was 36-year-old Mark Ovland, who gave up his Buddhist studies to devote himself to climate change action. In a blogpost before the Canning Town action, Ovland wrote:

… sometimes the actions I choose to take part in won’t be popular, I know that. But I’m really not in this to be popular.

I’m in this because I love life so, so much, and I want it to continue and I don’t know what else to do. I’m wanting to help raise an alarm so loud that no one can ignore it.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza, Editor-in-Chief of The Canary, a leftist website that has strongly supported the protests, responded to the incident:

The XR stunt shows what happens when a movement for all gets dominated by middle class whiteness.

We’ve been raising these concerns for a while, and it’s overdue they be heard and acted upon. Precisely because the cause is so important and urgent. In solidarity

We responded on Twitter:

That’s a huge leap. People of all classes and colours are protesting and disrupting in numerous non-violent ways around the planet. This “stunt” delayed commuters for a short period of time. It’s a big deal because the protester was violently attacked – that’s what matters.

Mendoza replied:

I’d already posted about the violence being a) unacceptable, and b) not about a train delay, but a mob mentality that no one should be praising. I can do that, and raise an issue about how XR operates.

In fact, Mendoza’s first response to the sight of peaceful protesters being beaten and kicked was to blame the victims:

What a mess! A tone deaf move borne of XR’s blindspots on race & class.

As for the mob violence: ‘That’s not to be admired.’

Mendoza’s condemnation was entirely reserved for the protesters, describing them as ‘silly buggers [who] ended up blocking an electric train, in a working class community, and pissing off nearly everyone. The arrogance of privilege’.

The peaceful protesters, then, were ‘silly buggers’, the mob a ‘working class community’. Mendoza added of the people who had been attacked that they were ‘tone deaf middle class activists’ who were ‘stupid’.

The Canary published a report by Ed Sykes on the Canning Town incident, ‘which revealed an apparent disconnect between the movement and ordinary working-class communities’. Even BBC articles like to make some gesture in the direction of balance, but Sykes gave exactly one point of view over and over again –  XR’s ‘own goal’ had been foolish, risible: ‘the action had “alienated” working-class people… activists should focus their efforts “on politicians & the top of big corporations & banks”.’

By contrast, Jasper Jackson noted in the New Statesman that much of the criticism of the action had simply misunderstood the purpose of the protests:

Extinction Rebellion has been clear that its primary goal is not to secure majority support for taking the necessary action to tackle climate change.

There is good reason for this. Decades of campaigning have not thrust climate change to the forefront of political consciousness. People care about the environment and are worried about a warming planet, but not enough for most to make it the deciding factor in which way they vote.

Instead, XR’s goal is to cause enough disruption to the economy and the functioning of society that governments are forced to do what is needed to make a dent in global warming. If the cost of their protests and direct action outweighs the investment needed to turn us into a zero-carbon economy, the economic arguments should succeed where the existential and moral ones haven’t.

The campaign is based on research that suggests that mobilising just 3.5 per cent of the population can be enough for a movement to succeed – the ‘distracted and apathetic’ majority is not the target audience. The simple fact is that 30 years of effort has failed totally, so XR is trying something different. As Jackson concluded:

That is going to mean pissing a lot of people off. Going by recent history, their approach may be the only option left.

In 2014, ‘mainstream’ media responded with grim indifference after left-wing MP George Galloway was hospitalised by a brutal, politically motivated street attack. Remarkably, last week, Galloway retweeted an article celebrating the mob attack on the climate protesters published in The Sun by the infamous climate denier Mick Hume, who wrote:

And like those other passengers packed on the platform, Londoners were cheering the working-class commuters who showed the amazed eco-zealots exactly what we thought of their attempts to bring the Tube to a halt.

Hume, formerly editor of Living Marxism, newspaper of the now-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party, added:

The message from the rebelling masses was clear: Protest all you like — but try to mess with our grim morning slog to work and we’ll take you down!

Under a picture of an activist being dragged along the ground, a Sun caption read:

By targeting Canning Town, the middle-class activists demonstrated that their arrogance is only exceeded by their ignorance.

It goes without saying that this was poisonous propaganda likely to fuel further hatred for the protesters.

Above a video of the tube station violence, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood tweeted:

This response in London today has my full support.

Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said it was good to see ‘working class Londoners… standing up’ for themselves. Kibasi later tweeted:

I regret tweeting in haste earlier this morning and went too far.

In the Telegraph, Charlotte Gill stuck her own boot into the victims of the attack:

Through their increasingly deranged requests, and middle-class obsession with their grandchildren’s futures, Extinction rebels have achieved something utterly extraordinary: they have turned climate change into a class war.

As this makes clear, the issue of class is a major line of attack for corporate media – aided, it seems, by many on the left – seeking to turn the public against the protests. Thus, Gill added:

Overwhelmingly, there’s a whiff of economic superiority about XR, expanded upon over the weekend when the Mail on Sunday revealed that activists have been paid up to £400-a-week for inflicting misery on Londoners. Rebels have become the darlings of the rich and famous, with oil heiress Aileen Getty giving them £500,000 in donations and 100 celebrities, including Lily Cole and Steve Coogan, signing an open letter (urgh!) urging the public to “educate” themselves on climate change.

Why don’t these self-regarding twerps “educate” themselves on what it’s like to be on the national living wage?

In the Independent, celebrity broadcaster and commentator Janet Street-Porter wrote under the following title, apparently without irony: ‘Pity the poor carbon-chomping celebrities who think they’re “just like us”‘. Street-Porter added:

You can’t help wondering if this is a demo dominated by the middle class.

In the Telegraph, Julie Burchill lamented hearing ‘the over-privileged and under-productive half-wits of Extinction Rebellion talk about economic growth as if it was child abuse’, revealing XR’s ‘contempt’ for working people.

The Evening Standard, a latter-day ‘penny dreadful’ distributed free to Londoners, opined:

A small number of idiots, claiming to protest on behalf of Extinction Rebellion, climbed on Tube trains and the DLR this morning in east London to stop people getting to work. It was risky, selfish and stupid and they deserved the contempt now being poured on them.

Yes, the reaction of some passengers at Canning Town, who dragged them off the top of Jubilee line carriages and began a fight, was contemptible too — brave station staff did their best to keep order. But it’s no wonder passengers were angry.

This did not vindicate the violence but affirmed the righteousness of the anger, which is bad enough.

More generally, the promotion of hatred of climate protesters is a primitive but popular theme in ‘mainstream’ discourse. Ezra Levant of Rebel News described Greta Thunberg as ‘a circus freak’ who had been ordered by her mother ‘to infect other children with terror & depression’.

British businessman and Brexit bankroller Arron Banks responded to news that Thunberg was sailing to the US to attend the UN Climate Action Summit, tweeting:

Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…

Matt Baish, a US teacher, said he would not attend a rally featuring Thunberg because he didn’t ‘have my sniper rifle’.

Fox News contributor Steve Milloy described Thunberg as a ‘teenage puppet’, adding: ‘Climate bedwetters… the world laughs at this Greta charade.’

All of this, remember, directed at a 16-year-old child.

The Moral Balance – What Action Is Legitimate?

So what rights do climate protesters have in seeking to avert the near-term extinction of all human and most other life on earth?

In wartime, states have, of course, repeatedly bombed, indeed nuked, whole civilian cities in the cause of ‘national defence’. When US leaders obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they did so on the declared, highly questionable pretext that incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians was necessary to preserve the lives of US soldiers who would otherwise be killed invading Japan. At the time, the US mainland was facing no threat even of attack, much less of destruction and defeat. Millions of US citizens then (as now) considered these atrocities entirely justifiable. In our own time, consistently large numbers of British and US people express few or no qualms when their governments decide to bomb one more country in the Middle East.

A key reason for this complacency is that modern citizens have been persuaded to perceive the state as a uniquely qualified moral actor to which we should defer, with the military and political leadership (even Trump!) often deemed completely beyond reproach when war is waged. There is no rational basis for this exalted view of the state. Britain and the US, for example, have an appalling record in greed-driven mass murder and exploitation. These systems of power have far less moral credibility, far less right to act, than the average, non-psychopathic individual – all of us paragons of virtue by comparison.

Given that we really are facing extinction – the death of everyone we know and love, ourselves included – and given that, over the last thirty years, governments and corporations have completely ignored the entreaties of climate scientists and activists by powerfully accelerating, not restraining, the runaway corporate capitalist machine – then, adopting ‘mainstream’ standards, activists must be morally entitled to use violence, even extreme violence, in trying to prevent the elimination of life on earth. After all, people are already dying in large numbers. Misha Coleman, one of the authors of a study by Australia’s Monash University, commented last July:

There are absolutely people dying climate-related deaths, [especially due to] heat stress right now.

During the Black Saturday fires [in Victoria, Australia, in 2009] for example, we know that people were directly killed by the fires, but there were nearly 400 additional deaths in those hot days from heat stress and heatstroke.

There are numerous similar examples, but these deaths are tiny specks compared to what lies ahead. A 2018 report from the World Health Organisation predicted that between 2030 and 2050, climate change would cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year, some 5 million in total. But Frank Fenner, Emeritus Professor in Microbiology at the Australian National University and an authority on extinction, went much further when he predicted literally billions of deaths in an interview with the Australian newspaper in 2010:

We’re going to become extinct. Whatever we do now is too late. Climate change is just at the very beginning… Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years… I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people here already.

We abhor violence and are convinced that a resort to violence in the name of climate action would quickly alienate the public and generate a fascistic state backlash that would destroy any remaining hope of positive government action. It is absolutely not the answer. But the fact remains that all peaceful, non-violent actions must be deemed legitimate insofar as they obstruct the extinction of life on earth.

Climate science is not a class, race or gender issue. The idea that some kind of bogus class analysis can declare protesters ‘stupid’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘immoral’ for inconveniencing commuters, for costing working class people money, and even their jobs, is absurd. In fact, it is simply surreal, if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – we are able to grasp the almost unimaginable and imminent nature of the climate threat, and to weigh the merits of the competing moral claims, as we do in wartime. Millions of people cannot accept the need to kill and be killed in the hundreds of thousands, or millions, in defence of the nation, and then rail at the obstruction of public transport in the defence of all humanity. Of course, we can argue that protesters were naïve to risk their safety by provoking commuters in London’s notoriously tough East End, but that is not an argument about the ethics of the protest.

We understand that the people punching and kicking protesters in Canning Town likely had little understanding of the truth of our situation – dumbed-down state education, media distraction and a very real corporate conspiracy to deceive the public have seen to that. We understand that they would find our positing of the moral balance in these terms hysterical and absurd, perhaps a ‘middle class fantasy’. But, as ever, ignorance does not help them or us, and is no defence.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.