Chris Packham: Is It Time to Break the Law? review: this desperate plea was uncomfortable viewing

Chris Packham with activist Andreas Malm
Chris Packham with activist Andreas Malm - Channel 4

Chris Packham cares about the environment. That fact is undeniable, whether you love him or hate him. Actually, if you hate him, you probably didn’t watch Chris Packham: Is It Time to Break the Law? (Channel 4). It was aimed wholly at people who support climate-change activism. “Tell me that you can’t summon sympathy for that young woman who can’t imagine a future,” he said of a sobbing girl who had filmed herself on a gantry above the M25, a stunt that had closed the motorway.

Packham was not here to ask whether climate change activists should do their thing, but to debate what that thing should be. Just Stop Oil stunts aren’t likely to change government policy or garner much public sympathy, Packham said. Watching two gauche kids throw paint at the doors of the Policy Exchange in front of an audience of no one, then wait meekly to be arrested, he spoke kindly of them but described it as “somewhat childish vandalism”. Observing a slow march that held up traffic, he said that inconveniencing drivers was “absolutely meaningless” in a country where roadworks and traffic measures do that anyway.

So off he went to Sweden to meet Andreas Malm, who has written a book called How to Blow Up a Pipeline. He agreed that disrupting the lives of ordinary people in low-level ways was not helpful, and suggested more aggressive forms of protest. But Packham also met Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, who remains convinced that those groups will sway public opinion.

Is Packham dangerous or naïve, using his platform to suggest the possibility of violent action? He’s certainly ignoring the BBC’s directive that stars associated with its shows – he has been the face of Springwatch for years – should be cautious about expressing political opinions. There was a desperation to him that felt slightly uncomfortable to watch. Some of it was carefully framed for the cameras – a shot of him with head in hands, despairing after an interview with Lord Lilley, who challenged his claims about rising global temperatures.

Elsewhere he spoke of an overwhelming sense of guilt at failing to conserve the environment; his partner spoke of him feeling obligated to make a difference to the planet and “with obligation often comes personal sacrifice and pain and suffering, but what’s the alternative? It consumes him”. That sounds unhealthy.

The programme ended with Packham saying that he now believed radical protest to be “the ethically responsible thing to do”. He offered no insight into what his next move might be; he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about Hallam’s suggestion that Packham martyr himself for the cause by doing something serious enough to go to prison. But watch this space.