The last week has seen 3 extraordinary events. Climate Week was preceded by school strikes all over the world in support of Greta Thunberg’s climate campaign. The US House of Representatives declared an official impeachment investigation of the President. The UK Supreme Court found that the decision to prorogue Parliament was unlawful. In isolation, each of these events is significant; together they represent a set of symbols of a climate of change looming in our times. They are symptomatic of the chaotic change foreshadowed in this blog nearly three years ago.
There’s nothing new about 2 of them. Protests about climate change, particularly before a UN Climate event, have been going on for a couple of decades now. Presidents have been under impeachment investigation twice before in my lifetime. But the Supreme Court in the UK was only founded in 2009, replacing the Lord High Privy Council of the House of Lords. It is, in the British context, a new institution. The case was an appeal of a decision in the English High Court that suspending Parliament was not a matter for the courts, after a decision in the Scottish High Court that it was and was judged unlawful.
In all three of these events – children striking, Congress investigating, courts judging – another institution is being held to account for its behaviour. There is a thread going through all of them: the behaviours of these institutions have become intolerable enough to evoke counteraction that matters. Greta Thunberg was a largely unknown schoolgirl a year ago. Today, she’s one of the most recognisable people in the world. Donald Trump has been famous for a long time, notwithstanding his election. Now, he joins a very small number of sitting US Presidents undergoing formal impeachment proceedings. Similarly, Boris Johnson has been well known and controversial for years. Now, as UK PM, he’s broken the law. He’s also under investigation for possible past wrong doings.
There’s also something else going on that’s common between the 3 events: the lead spokesperson in the counteracting side is female. Greta Thunberg, Nancy Pelosi and Lady Hale are an unlikely trio. They are all polarising. A Swedish teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome as a climate crusader, an Italian-American legislator from California as second-time Speaker of the House and a British Jurist sitting as President of the highest court of the land would seem to be very different from each other. Certain men hate Greta with a vitriol that’s astounding. Many US Republicans really don’t like Speaker Pelosi. Lady Hale has become very unpopular in some UK Conservative circles. They are all using their positions to speak truth to power, where that power is largely male-dominated and behaving badly. The UN has not arrested the climate crisis, the President may have committed impeachable offences and the British Prime Minister, only two months in office (and not really in power) has broken the law. It seems these three females have a lot to say about all that and they are being heard.
Both the three incidents and the spokespeople are also extremely different from each other. Thunberg is a debutante social media and old media phenomenon. Pelosi is a long-time political heavyweight and skilled public operator. Lady Hale was largely unknown, outside the UK; not anymore. Reasonable people on either side of each of the issues – climate, impeachment and prorogation – accept or reject the issues in a civil manner. But there are some very unreasonable people in the mix as well. Some climate deniers, many in the Trump base and hardcore Brexiteers are all behaving very badly. So are some of the opposite side. If climate change, Trump and Brexit were divisive and polarising issues before, the last week and these three events have divided and polarised matters all the more. All over the world, the climate crisis is now being perceived as either a climate emergency with apocalyptic consequences or the greatest hoax (and commercial opportunity) ever devised. In the US and elsewhere, Trump is now either a dead-man-walking lame-duck POTUS or certain to win the 2020 Election. In the UK context, Boris is either a buffoon who will certainly lose a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons soon or the saviour of a sovereign Britain crashing out of the EU.
Greta’s address to the UN Climate Summit was extremely impassioned. Trump’s continued denials of wrongdoing similarly appeal to emotion. The language of the Prime Minister and the ensuing spectacle in the House of Commons the day after it was resumed was toxically angry and intemperate. These emotive speeches are also symbols of the Climate of Change. The manner of the message gets a lot of airtime. But the central messages of all three are impactful. Thunberg’s plea is that business as usual will destroy the climate with disastrous consequences, Trump’s denials are now about personal victimisation and Johnson’s outbursts in the Commons are about the will of the people (that Brexit must occur and shortly). Emotional language and delivery gets media and social media attention. Pelosi’s impeachment announcements do too and so do Lady Hale’s judgment proclamations, but they are delivered very calmly. There are other emotional statements too and some others that are not. There are more school strikes this week, but it’s not as heated. Perhaps this coming week, President Trump will calm down too. The Speaker of the House of Commons has explicitly told MPs to do so, and they already seem to be obeying. Former UK PM John Major decried the behaviour publicly (which doesn’t happen very often at all in England).
Whether or not Greta Thunberg’s school strikers can get the UN, national governments and their nations’ societies to more effectively address climate change challenges remains to be seen. I’m optimistic that this is a milestone along the way. The same can be said about the impeachment of President Donald Trump, although I’d prefer he be defeated at the the 2020 election. As for Brexit and UK Parliament, I’m less enthused. As a remainer, I hope for a confirmatory referendum (that votes remain) and a General Election. But I’m nowhere near confident in that outcome at all and quite fearful of the consequences if Britain crashes out. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have disgraced themselves in office. The UN has failed on climate. The people need to act now, as their broken institutions are not working in their interests. That’s probably the biggest issue underlying this Climate of Change.