Imagine that during the London blitz, the British debated whether the country was at war with Germany. Imagine that some peoples’ response was this: “History is full of wars, so this is nothing special. This kind of thing happens all the time.” Imagine others saying: “Sure, a bomb lands from time to time, but these are single, isolated incidents that we don’t need to worry about.” Then imagine those who called for resistance, preparedness and rationing being labelled alarmists who did nothing but discourage and depress the public, and worst of all, scare its children. “Come on,” imagine their opponents saying. “They’re only bombs.”
The scenario is no more grotesque than the way we talk about the climate emergency today.
When New Yorkers stay indoors as the smoke from the historically vast forest fires in Canada fills the skies over a city of millions, many just shrug their shoulders. “Forests have to burn once in a while,” they say. “Isn’t that nature’s way?” While the sea surface temperature around Ireland and the west coast of Scotland jumps to five degrees above normal, the response of many is similar. “Finally, some decent swimming weather. If this is global warming, bring it on.” And when UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that “climate change is now out of control,” many argue, “But it wasn’t that hot where I was. We could have used a little more sun.” And when global CO2 emissions increase yet again, the same attitude was there. “Yes, but we need to enjoy life and eat steak once in a while. Or will climatologists start dictating what we eat? Can we even exist here?”
The last question is actually significant. Because global warming’s message is not up for negotiation. We can’t actually exist here. Not unless we drastically change our way of life.
It is easy to call those who trivialize the effect of rising temperatures reality-deniers. But I call them militantly apathetic, because what is apathy but throwing up your hands, even in the face of imminent danger?
There is a photograph that shows a theatre in which the entire stage, along with the backdrop and back wall, has been torn away. There is no fourth wall in this room. Outside you see collapsed roofs and walls of what was once a city. These ruins are what the audience would see if it was sitting in the destroyed hall. But there’s no-one there. They have either fled or perished. The photograph is of the small town of Mayfield in the US state of Kentucky, after global heating had lent its weight to a spate of local tornadoes in December 2021. This image was taken not by a professional photographer, but by Shawn Triplet, an off-duty US Marine who rushed to Mayfield to help. “I have been in numerous wars,” he said. “I’ve seen what bombs and bullets and other things can do in my years in the Marine Corps. But I have never seen anything with such devastating effects.”
In the West, we almost always see the devastation caused by global warming on a screen.
But the screen can’t protect us. We, too, will be affected. The fourth wall in our house is long gone.
So where does all the apathy and indifference come from? Some of it may be down to an instinctive self-defence mechanism, born of a sense of powerlessness. But the media and politicians bear a huge part of the responsibility. When they talk about the climate and ecological crisis they do so as if it were a manageable crisis along the lines of so many others, subject to negotiation and compromise, rather than as question of life or death for millions of species, including our own.
Many newspapers have skilled, committed climate journalists, but editors and opinion-writers find it difficult to see the big picture. One of Denmark’s Radio’s most talented and popular broadcasters, Iben Maria Zeuthen, recently threw down a public challenge to the Danish equivalent of the BBC. In it, she accused DR and the rest of the media of treating the climate emergency as a self-contained issue on a par with inflation, loneliness or immigration. The climate and ecological crisis “should be our biggest priority, our first and last topic of conversation, and the issue that dictates our approach to every other crisis that haunts us.”
In the run-up to the blitz over London in 1940, Winston Churchill gave a speech which has since gone down in history. “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing strength and confidence in the air…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and the streets …” Winston Churchill was a deeply conservative politician with an unwavering belief in Britain’s God-given right to its still-intact overseas empire, and he invokes that right. But he ends on a revolutionary note: “We will continue the struggle with God on our side until the new world with all its might and power rescues and sets the old free.”
“The new world”? The old world must not only be saved, but finally set free? Such radical words coming from the mouth of a conservative politician? But when the challenge is big enough, even a conservative politician must dare to dream of a new world.
Where is global warming’s Winston Churchill?
Where is the politician who dares address the growth economy that threatens to devastate our civilization, and call for a response to global heating on the scale that’s needed? Where is the politician who speaks of a battle on the seas and oceans and beaches as the water rises? Of a battle in the air, where international air traffic continues unabated? Of a battle in the fields, where monoculture, cattle ranching and huge amounts of artificial fertilizers ramp up the atmosphere’s CO2 and ravage vital biodiversity? Of a battle on the streets, where pollution kills our children? And most of all, of a battle for a new world liberated from the death spiral of never-ending growth?
Is that politician to be found in my home patch of Denmark, in Sweden, in Norway? No. Sorry, Rest of the World, forget that fairy-tale you keep hearing about Scandinavian Utopia. Our politicians, just like yours, are shackled by a thousand daily considerations, many of which involve them hanging on to power. But if no politician has the courage and foresight to invoke the best of Winston Churchill in the face of the titanic challenge ahead, where is the Fourth Estate?
Isn’t its job to take on the fact that we are in a rolling global emergency that threatens us with oblivion?
Until it recognizes that it is, the bombs fall. The climate blitz rages. And there are no shelters.
Carsten Jensen is a Danish novelist, essayist, travel-writer and political commentator. He is the author of two dozen books, including the acclaimed novels We, The Drowned and The First Stone.
Call to action: Challenge your political representative to step up, and call on the media to cover the climate and ecological emergency with the urgency it deserves.