In September 1989, Guardian editor Peter Preston took me to one side. “Environment? Your idea. You do it,” he said. I was on the arts desk and had quite forgotten that, two years earlier, I had proposed that we cover this fast-emerging issue in more depth and with new pages.
We had a great correspondent in Paul Brown, but no single journalist could keep up with events. This was the height of Thatcherism, the old Soviet Union was collapsing in ecological ruin, and there had been serious nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. That year, more than two million people in Britain had voted Green in the European parliament elections.
If that wasn’t enough, the Great Storm had just blown down 15m trees in southern England, the Exxon Valdez had spilt 11m gallons of crude oil off Alaska, and the French government had blown up Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbour.
In such tumultuous times, few people paid much attention to Nasa scientist James Hansen when he warned the US Congress, in that same year, about the consequences of something called global warming. Instead, the debate was about nuclear power, population, EU butter mountains, the limits to growth, lead in petrol and the car economy.
I suggested to Preston that I was ill-equipped to cover this vast, contentious area and was quite happy to continue covering the arts. No chance. “Four pages. Starting in two weeks,” he said.
With hindsight, the Guardian had accurately foreseen a shift of the global, social and scientific tectonic plates, and the arrival of an era of ecological politics. The lids on those boxes that had long separated human rights, science, nature, economics, politics and rich and poor countries had been blown off. The debate was now both global and local, personal and corporate, and it questioned the tarnished dreams of both capitalism and socialism. This was theatre on the world stage.
In those early days, two very different women and two giant corporations came to define the frontlines of the battle for the natural world. Melanie Phillips was a senior Guardian editor when, around 1990, at the paper’s morning conference meeting, she questioned a major scientific report that suggested that mankind was partly responsible for global warming.
Phillips was adamant that warming was neither happening nor possible, and that this study showed the descent of science from the pursuit of truth into politicised propaganda. Most of the journalists present were surprised at her disavowal of science, but the Guardian’s science editor was called in to offer another view. Phillips left soon after that, and became a leading climate sceptic.
It was an early warning that the “culture wars” , or the polarisation of conservative and liberal values, had begun in earnest. Within a decade, the US neocons had identified environmentalism as the leading intellectual opposition to conservatism, and were trashing climate science, Europe, the precautionary principle and anyone they thought stood for regulation or against the free market…
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