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If only there was a way to take the burning outrage that a new Channel 4 documentary about disruptive climate activism is likely to generate and use it as a source of renewable green energy. In Chris Packham: Is it Time to Break the Law?, the broadcaster and conservationist asks whether illegal acts of civil disobedience are justified in the face of the ever-worsening environmental crisis. With last year making a high point for worldwide CO₂ emissions — and the UK government granting 100 oil and gas licences in the North Sea just this summer — eco-conscious campaigners such as Packham are being disabused of the notion that meaningful change can be enacted through traditional political channels.
Packham’s unstinting sympathy and support for divisive protest groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion — whom he follows on road-closing marches and targeted strikes of vandalism — seem primed to invite a backlash. But this isn’t a one-sided recruitment drive for those movements. In a conversation that tacitly refutes the idea that environmentalism is a preserve of the left, the Conservative former chair of the Climate Change Committee, Lord John Deben, makes a case that disruptive protests only undermine the cause and provoke the public. The Swedish activist Andreas Malm — author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which was recently made into a film — calls for direct, destructive action against the oil industry.
Interviews with Malm — as well as Greta Thunberg and XR co-founder Roger Hallam — largely dispense with sensationalism and include probing questions. Packham gives a right of reply to those dismissive of environmental action, though his meeting with “climate lukewarmer” Lord Peter Lilley eventually reduces him to tears.
Packham is clearly consumed by the question of what he personally and we as a society should do to protect the planet. But there’s also a slightly performative, sentimental element to his ethical conflict. At one point we see him tearing his hair and rubbing his temples as he tries to settle the titular debate.
Ultimately a one-off, one-hour film is insufficient time to help viewers reach a concrete conclusion, but it should spark conversations and considerations among those who watch — and furore among those who inevitably refuse to.
On Channel 4 on September 20 at 9pm