The great Clive James died on the same day as the great Jonathan Miller but I know which one I admire more. Anyone can be born a poly-math genius. But it takes special moral courage to stray outside your celebrity comfort zone and stand up for a noble cause so unfashionable that it earns you little but opprobrium and the contempt of your peers.
One such cause is climate change scepticism and you can count on the fingers of a saw miller’s hand the number of celebrities who’ve ever dared speak up for it. I can only think of about three: former BBC Children’s TV presenter Johnny Ball; former BBC TV botanist David Bellamy; and the heroic late Aussie poet, broadcaster and man-of-letters Clive James.
I remember exactly how it felt when James outed himself as a sceptic a few years back: like Wellington did when Blücher turned up at Waterloo. Of course we’ve always had plenty of good people on the sceptical side of the argument – in Oz, they include scientists like Peter Ridd, Ian Plimer and the late, much missed, Bob Carter; broadcasters like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones; politicians like Tony Abbott and Malcolm Roberts; blogger Jo Nova – but, then, it’s their job. What’s much more unusual – and gratifying – is when a civilian like James enters the fray.
As an established literary and TV talent, with plenty of hinterland and more than enough fame, James really had no need to stick his head above the parapet on perhaps the most contentious issue of our age. Yet still he went ahead and did it with a number of pieces, including a poem for the Times (of London) which began ‘The imminent catastrophe goes on/Not showing many signs of happening’ and an essay, published in the Institute of Public Affairs’s Climate Change: The Facts 2017 titled ‘Mass Death Dies Hard’.
His essay poured scorn on professional alarmists like the ‘conspicuous if ludicrous case’ of Tim Flannery; rejected the notion that the Great Barrier Reef ‘would be dead in six months’ (as the Sydney Morning Herald had reported on 3 August 1971); mocked the doomed ‘ship of fools’ expedition to Antarctica, when a climate trip led by Aussie professor Chris Turney got stuck in unexpectedly thick ice; and lamented the decline in journalism whereby so few environment and science reporters now appear capable of doing their job.
‘Back in the day, when I was starting off in journalism – on the Sydney Morning Herald, as it happens – the one thing we all learned early from our veteran colleagues was never to improve the truth for the sake of the story. If they caught us doing so, it was the end of the world. But here we are, and the world hasn’t ended after all.’
The response to these inconvenient truths was all too predictable. ‘Saturday cycle: Clive James trending=> Oh No, he’s died?=> No, he’s written Climate Denial essay=> Read it => Maybe first thought was better,’ said one, characteristically warm and caring Greenie on Twitter. ‘1950’s Australians like James, Humphries and Harris are a national embarrassment, haven’t lived here for decades so they’re not relevant,’ said another. ‘What intellect? Clive James always a ridiculous poseur. Career highlight showing reruns of Japan gameshow,’ said a third.
James was well into his seventies by then and battling with leukaemia. Really, the very last thing he needed, you might have thought, would be to blot his escutcheon in his twilight years by championing such a divisive cause. But James clearly preferred the harder path of intellectual integrity to the easier one of go-along-to-get-along; the red pill rather than the blue pill.
It requires courage to defy the climate alarmist establishment because the penalties for dissent are so great. If you’re a scientist – as we learned from the Climategate emails – it means being bullied and ridiculed by your peers, denied promotion or tenure, shut out of journals or, as in the case of Professor Peter Ridd at James Cook University, sacked on trumped up charges of ‘academic misconduct’. But if you’re a celebrity dependent on the goodwill of the luvvie establishment it can mean the end of your career.
This is what happened to Johnny Ball and David Bellamy. In the Seventies and Eighties, both were regular fixtures on BBC children’s TV and might well have ended up today as national treasures in the manner of David Attenborough had they not made one fatal mistake: both spoke out against the supposed ‘consensus’ on climate change.
Not only did their TV work dry up almost completely – like the ABC, the BBC has a zero tolerance policy towards climate sceptics – but they fell victim to vicious harassment campaigns. Ball found that websites containing pornographic images had been set up in his name, while bloggers warned that he, a children’s entertainer, was not safe to be let near kids; Bellamy was sacked as president of the Wildlife Trusts.
Perhaps the saintly Attenborough himself might not be so revered if, having flirted briefly with scepticism, he had not transformed himself into one of the world’s most ardent climate crusaders. Today he barely lets one second of his nature documentaries pass by without some breathy warning about the dire perils caused to the planet by man-made global warming.
Whatever the reason for Attenborough’s embrace of the great green scare narrative, it’s certainly the case that there’s money, social acceptance and paraded virtue in being an ostentatious climate believer; but little except anathematisation for those who dare to question the green religion.
Even the mighty Jeremy Clarkson has surrendered, recently telling a newspaper that he now believes in climate change because – ‘Only an idiot doesn’t change their mind when faced with irrefutable evidence’ – he encountered a dried up river while filming The Grand Tour in Vietnam.
Never mind that the real reason it has dried up was because a dam has been built up stream: the king of petrol-heads had paid due obeisance to the green goddess and that’s all that mattered.
Clive James, though, was made of sterner stuff – refusing to cave in to green groupthink, no matter what the cost.
And his poetry wasn’t bad, either…