One of the men who drove the campaigns to abolish slavery in the British Empire was the brother of an ancestor of mine. His name was Thomas Clarkson.
He spent huge amounts of time gathering evidence on the brutality of the slave trade and presenting it to British politicians and the public. You’ve probably seen the drawing he commissioned of the layout of a slave ship. But no matter how much evidence he gathered, there were always people who didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to see for economic reasons, ideological reasons, and because it affected distant people they didn’t relate to. So it took the British abolitionists decades to achieve their ultimate goal of ending slavery in the Empire.
To our eyes, the moral short-sightedness is incredible, but the truth is that human history is full of such moments where what should be morally self-evident has to be doggedly fought for by determined people against an apparent brick wall of self-interest and wilful blindness. I’m sorry to say we are living through such a time now.
It is a fact that certain gases trap heat in the atmosphere. If a large quantity of them are added to the atmosphere then the world gets warmer on average and the climate changes. This is happening now. It will destroy many lives, livelihoods, homes, businesses and communities throughout the world. This will cause widespread human suffering, displace people and make our world more unstable and less safe.
It is not going to get better on its own and it is not going to go away. All we can do is make sure our governments take practical steps to prevent it getting much, much worse than it has to be, and help us to adapt. No matter how overwhelming the task seems, human ingenuity has already showed itself to be incredible in responding to this challenge. We can tackle it, and we have to try.
Unfortunately, the most powerful country in the world is currently lead by people who don’t want to see. They don’t want to see for economic reasons and for ideological reasons. Possibly they don’t want to see because they think it will only affect distant people they don’t relate to – people in other countries, or far in the future.
That is mistaken. There are already plans being drawn up to relocate a handful of American communities because of the climate change-related problems they are facing. The US military warn that climate change is already affecting the ability of your biggest naval base in Virginia to protect America. California experienced five of its top 20 most destructive wildfires on record in 2017. And the three main newspapers of South Florida have teamed up to demand politicians pay attention to the sea level rise people in their area are already experiencing.
But will they? Currently, your country is entering a new and uncertain chapter of human history with no federal leadership regarding what your society, or the world, needs to do to prepare for its challenges. Your country is lead by people who prefer to patronise their citizens by acting like it’s nothing to worry about, or even worse, with stupid nonsense that it will make them better off.
It is a profound moral abdication by people whose job it is to safeguard their fellow citizens’ interests. And naturally, if they’re not looking out for the problems it will cause you, they’re not looking out for the problems it will cause the rest of us either.
Last year a delegation of US military men came to talk to British politicians about the direct threat climate change poses to our mutual national security interests. It’s not difficult to see why. Less secure water supplies will inflame tensions in countries which are already hot, dry and unstable. Churchill’s grandson, the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, wrote: “when US top brass links climate change to political instability, the world needs to listen”. Well, we are listening to your top brass – why isn’t everyone involved in governing your country also listening?
In the outside world, all we can see from America is wilful blindness where leadership should be. There are people in the Pacific who don’t even know whether they’ll have a country in 40 years’ time. Where are they going to go? India is facing the worst water crisis in its history, partly because of population growth and mismanagement, but partly because of changing weather patterns. Millions will be affected. These are the kinds of enormous problems the world needs to confront. We would like to confront them with a pro-active, humane America on our side. What we have is a US President who says foreigners are asking America to be part of the solution because they have a hidden agenda to do it down. That is a disgrace.
Trump has told you that the Paris Agreement is a bad deal for America, but the reality is he doesn’t have a grasp of how it works or a better way forward of any kind. Let’s be very clear what the position of the Trump administration is on climate change – it is wilful blindness, total indifference, no grasp of the issues, and no plan.
If the world followed the Trump administration lead on climate change, this is what the future would look like. The world’s biggest contributors to the problem make only the most token attempts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Temperatures continue to rise unabated with all the problems, such as drought and extreme weather, associated with them. Ideological objections mean actions which could help people adapt and prepare aren’t taken. The vulnerable suffer what they must from drought, displacement and extreme weather with little support. Callous, wilfully blind self-interest rules when outsiders with shattered lives ask the strong for help.
When those who have done most to contribute to an enormous, permanent, global problem turn their backs on those who have done least, and leave them to suffer the consequences, a more profound, indeed biblical injustice, is hard to imagine. It is very basic: those who have contributed most to climate change have a moral obligation to help others. In Britain, we recognise that.
Some Trump supporters will tell you climate change was invented by leftists, liberals, greens, the Chinese, the global elite or experts as a conspiracy against ordinary people to control them. This is garbage. It is ordinary people – in America and elsewhere – who will face the problems caused by climate change in their lives. It’s ordinary people who will lose their homes and see their animals suffer in wildfires, ordinary people who will be flooded, ordinary people who will need to learn to manage their land differently, ordinary people whose businesses and family lives will be disrupted, ordinary people whose communities have to relocate because they can no longer keep back the sea.
Many ordinary people in the USA already have a sense of this because they’ve noticed the weather and tides changing where they live. It is important that we assess whether this is due to climate change scientifically and impartially.
But it’s also important ordinary people communicate their experiences and concerns to get politicians to react. Don’t leave it up to the experts. As Bob Dylan nearly said, sometimes you don’t need a meteorologist to know which way the wind blows. Many politicians are much, much more likely to listen to a voter saying “My family have lived here for generations and we’ve never seen floods like this. What are you going to do to protect our property?” than they are to experts. If this is you, please speak up. When those in power don’t want to see, it is up to us to make them look.
The British abolitionists faced huge vested interests. Britain was the biggest slave-trading nation in the world and slavery was considered essential to the Empire’s economy. It must have seemed overwhelming. But, eventually, they won. They won because they found and connected the people from different walks of life, denominations and political parties who agreed with them. And the people who said Britain would be a lesser nation if it abolished slavery were wrong. Their courage and determination was incredible. They changed the course of history.
The British abolitionists were not motivated by ideology, but by faith and common humanity. They were lead by men of differing political opinions. Similarly, climate change is not the agenda of one political side. Don’t let anyone tell you it is. Personally, I tend to vote Conservative.
I am writing this, and protesting, not because I am “left-wing” (as some will say of all this week’s protestors) but because it is a very real outrage that the most powerful man in the world is dealing in tribalism, ignorance, paranoia and conspiracy theories – not practicalities – on one of the most serious threats humanity has ever faced. Because when powerful nations sow such utter disregard for human welfare into the world, we all reap it. Because I am tired of picking up my daughter from school every day worried about what kind of mess of a world she is going to live in.
Justice, compassion, common humanity, truth – these things wither and die when a society veers towards the far right. When a leader gives every impression of not understanding or respecting these values they must be stood up to.
You will have gathered, I don’t like Trump. I think he’s a danger to your country and the world and certainly I hope you will vote him out or impeach him. But as a foreigner I know far, far better than to ask you to vote for a particular party in general, or adopt a particular course of action when it comes to climate change.
I ask simply this: for your own sake, your children’s sake, and on behalf of those of us who cannot vote in the world’s most powerful country, please tell your leaders that when confronted by a great challenge you expect to see from them the response of a great nation – not pitiful indifference and ignorance. And please demand of your leaders – whether Republican, Democrat or other – that they show themselves fit to lead by treating this momentous global problem with the utmost moral seriousness it deserves. Future generations will judge them if they don’t. For the love of God, enough not wanting to see. Time for some Amazing Grace.
Thank you for your attention.