Joan Smith: Poisoning the planet is not my idea of sport

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The Independent Online

During George Bush's first year in office, I boarded a boat to visit the Galapagos Islands. An American tourist looked familiar, and I soon realised he was Senator John McCain, who had come to look at one of the world's most fragile habitats. Now McCain is the Republican presidential candidate, and last week he popped in to Downing Street to discuss the world's most urgent problems, including climate change, with Gordon Brown.

On the very day McCain arrived in London, the BBC boasted it had pulled off a broadcasting coup, snatching the television rights to Formula One motor racing from ITV. It quickly emerged that this wasn't such a coup, when ITV revealed it had decided not to bid for the rights to the 2009 season.

The BBC was left with egg on its face after announcing the deal on its news bulletins and website, where former F1 commentator Murray Walker was quoted as saying he "almost fell out of bed" when he heard. So did I, but for different reasons.

At a time when every heavyweight political figure from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to all three US presidential candidates agrees that climate change is the biggest threat facing the human race, why is the BBC promoting this killer (in more senses than one) sport? No less an authority than Sir David Attenborough has highlighted the threat from the petrol engine. "The fact is that we are poisoning the atmosphere and the less fumes we put in it, the better," he has said.

F1 is a paean to speed, a two-fingered riposte to anyone who believes we have a responsibility to change the profligate behaviour which has already done so much damage to wild places. From the standpoint of the 21st century it looks like an aberration, a relic from a time when human beings fell in love with the idea of going ever faster and failed to realise the disastrous effect of the choking pollution that poured out of vehicle exhausts. Donald Campbell's attempts to beat speed records on land and water now seem symptoms of a collective madness which killed him very quickly – his boat flipped over during an attempt to travel at more than 300mph – and is killing the rest of us a bit more slowly.

Ice caps are melting, animals such as the polar bear are under threat, and thousands of people die prematurely in the UK's big cities because their lungs cannot cope with the poisoned air. In this apocalyptic situation, the BBC could easily have announced that it had no interest in F1. Young men need no encouragement to believe that speed is sexy and that green issues are for sissies, a message relentlessly promoted by the petrol-heads of Top Gear.

The decision doesn't even make commercial sense, and I suspect that the chief reason for it is the success of Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is young, British and black, a slight figure with an engaging smile who has single-handedly revived flagging public interest in motor racing – but that doesn't alter the fact that what he is promoting is a dangerous anachronism. The world is being destroyed by our obsession with the car, and the BBC needs to decide where it stands. Right now, it risks becoming the St Augustine of environmental issues: make us green, Lord, but not yet.