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Kathy Sheridan: Protesting works as we reach peak climate anxiety

Public pressure has already resulted in substantial levels of movement

Thoughts and prayers for the world leaders in the One Minute to Midnight saloon striving to hit the right tone between “blah blah blah” (copyright Mary Robinson/Greta Thunberg), “the trend is positive” (through pained smile), and apocalyptic doom.

As a child of the Cuban nuclear missile crisis days – when a teacher suggested the fireball would have us dead before we knew it – and visitor to Chernobyl, where wild boars cantered down the streets and Geiger counters surged two decades after the 1986 nuclear catastrophe, I’m more of an apocalyptic woman myself.

Anxiety levels rocketed amid Cop26 opening scenes of a maskless, sleeping Boris Johnson scrunched up beside a masked and vulnerable 95-year-old David Attenborough, as Glasgow side streets choked up with massive black limos before endless motorcades whisked 120 would-be climate saviours off to Monday's "VVIP" reception in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, where protest art featured faces half buried in black paint.

So the BBC World Service’s quirky decision to bring a psychologist onto its business show that night was appreciated. Any hope that she might double as a sleep aid vanished, however, with her assurance that rampant anxiety is perfectly rational because this is nothing like we’ve seen before. Aim for somewhere between naive optimism and doom, she suggested.

No improvement

Cop26 proceedings were kicked off by UN secretary general António – "we are digging our own grave . . . treating nature like a toilet" – Guterres, dashing any suggestion of improvement. All those pitched battles over plastic straws and coffee cups shot into context. They may help to alter individual mindsets but the real enemies are monstrous: the short-termist governments, banks, company leaders, the wealth-obsessed super-rich and powerful disinformation-peddling billionaires like Rupert Murdoch with his many useful idiots, lolling in their self-celebratory contrarianism.

What more literally bloody evidence do they need? Against a background of soaring global temperatures, melting glaciers, drowning islands and coastlines and drought, calamitous floods and wildfires are hitting areas like Vancouver, New York, and Murdoch's native Australia, rendering properties uninsurable. Just two years ago in southeastern Australia as many as 3 billion creatures were displaced or died agonising deaths and one-fifth of the country's temperate forest was devoured due to the megafires across 10 million hectares.

We have to hope. We learn, for example, that some 300 powerful banks have agreed to phase out funding for fossil fuels exploration

Not enough. "Wildfires aren't as bad as you think," went the chirpy headline over a column by Bjorn Lomborg in last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, a money-spinning piece of Murdoch's empire and reputedly the first paper he reads in the morning. In another screed in the billionaire-owned Daily Mail, Lomborg dismissed renewables as useless. His big shot? Fund research. "If we innovate to the point where the price of efficient green energy drops below fossil fuels, everyone will switch." No s**t, Sherlock. And when might that be? In the US, a hugely ambitious Joe Biden climate programme is being stymied by a single Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, with head-melting conflicts of interest.

Grounds for hope

But we have to hope. We learn, for example, that some 300 powerful banks have agreed to phase out funding for fossil fuels exploration. And there is the deal on deforestation.

It's something. At times like these my thoughts wander to the Greens and those pockets of gritty, painfully honest visionaries who were fighting for change at a time when they were laughed at and perceived as a bit woo-woo. Where would the world be now without them and their resister-evangelist compadres – Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Greta, Extinction Rebellion (XR), to mention a few?

Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England turned UN special envoy for climate and finance, acknowledged as much in Glasgow when asked about the big banks' addiction to Big Oil.

Countries had made commitments in 2016 which they had failed to act on, he told Channel 4, and banks merely followed what the countries did or didn’t do. “But in the past 18 months, there’s been movement,” he added confidently. What had forced the banks’ hand? “Probably the pressure from people like your viewers who wanted it dealt with. Countries started to move, policies are changing, it’s bad business to continue lending to Big Energy, a sector with huge emissions. But also their clientele [made them move] . . . Their employees want them to move.”

Importance of protest

Protests work.

Sure, the red paint sloshed over the entrance to a Standard Chartered building in London after an onslaught by XR had to be scraped off by somebody and the smashed glass doors at a JP Morgan premises replaced, and there were times when XR needed a serious chat with themselves, such as when they idiotically stuck themselves to a low-carbon Tube train. But a review of any great movement reveals that a vital element is always that loud, insistent little wasp swarm that irritates, intrudes, breaks things and keeps attention levels at peak.

We should probably take our cue from the former Bank of England governor (with the Irish passport). Is he optimistic? “I wake up pessimistic but over the day my optimism grows because I see the scale of movement that we’re seeing in the private sector, in finance, in business – and underpinning it all is enormous public pressure and that pressure is absolutely right and spurs it on.”

He said it. We are not powerless. Greta works. Pressure works.