A column about Live Earth

I still remember the global excitement over Live Aid when I was a child. It seemed like the entire world really was singing ‘We Are The World’, as for the first time, the reality of poverty and starvation in Africa hit home. Okay, so I was eight years old on 13 July 1985, and nothing is ever exciting nowadays as it was when I was a kid. Honestly, when I discover a new flavour of Paddle Pops or Kit Kats nowadays, I almost don’t even bother to buy them.

But we can see that large-scale charity concerts are subject to the law of diminishing returns even in ratings terms. Since that first massive, global concert that drew 1.5 billion viewers, there have been many other attempts to bring the planet together through the power of rock. Each one seems to be huger in scale than the last, but has less of an impact. Live 8 wasn’t a patch on Live Aid, and Al Gore’s enormous Live Earth event, with its astonishing eleven venues, has been a bit of a damp squib.

In ratings terms, Live Earth hardly set the planet on fire. In the UK, it got less than half the ratings of the Concert For Diana a week earlier. In the US, it was the worst rating show in its timeslot, garnering a mere 2.7 million primetime viewers. And in Australia, it was screened only on Foxtel. The event reached nothing like the “billions” Al Gore promised in his intro. Then again, he’s got a reputation for exaggerating.

It wasn’t a particularly well-conceived event, either. The Australian leg was rife with complaints of the logistics, not to mention the considerable irony in using enormous quantities of electricity to draw awareness to global warming. There have been controversies over some artists’ links with polluting companies, as well – Madonna in particular.

But most problematically, it’s difficult to argue that the event increased awareness of an issue that is already saturating the media. While Gore has obviously done remarkable things to put climate change in the spotlight, Live Earth does not rank as chief among them. If anything, the parade of celebrities serving up tokenistic slogans threatens to undermine the seriousness of the issue, making it seem like a fad for leftie do-gooders rather than a genuine crisis.

Which is why the genuine debate over the ABC’s climate change documentary should be so welcome, and its ratings of 1.1 million are very encouraging. The national broadcaster (for whom I also work, by way of a disclaimer) has been excoriated for screening Martin Durkin’s The Great Global Warming Swindle, and it’s entirely possible that there was improper political pressure for it to do so – we’ll probably never know.

But the way it ultimately chose to present the film, with a follow-up cross-examination of Durkin by Tony Jones and then a discussion by a panel of experts, showed the commitment to genuine debate that makes the ABC such a valuable institution. And if the outcome was inconclusive, and Durkin’s perspective not 100% discredited, then so much the better – Al Gore’s is not the only justifiable position in the debate. Far better for us to devote time to examining the science carefully than to listening to another irritating procession of millionaire rockstars lecturing us on how to spend our lives. Even though Durkin is probably wrong, it’s better to examine his arguments carefully than dismiss because we don’t like his politics.

However, enough scientists agree with Gore’s general thrust (if not every detail) to mandate action. And even if Durkin were right, it’s still sensible to control energy use and CO2 emissions on general principle. We can’t know in advance what the impact of so radically changing the atmosphere will be, so it’s wise for us to leave the lightest footfall possible on the planet. And the most common method of “offsetting” CO2, planting trees, is a worthwhile endeavour whether or not you believe every slide in An Inconvenient Truth.

I’d much rather the Gores of this world exaggerated the scale of the problem and spurred people into inherently worthwhile actions than have the Durkins encouraging people to sit with their heads in the sand. Or underwater, more likely, if the worst-case sea level projections are correct. And please, next time we need to convince the planet of something, let’s do it without the charity concerts. Sting gets put in front of more than enough microphones as it is.