This is a political struggle

The search for the perfect way to talk about climate change might be a fruitless one because we’re not prepared to engage in what is really needed - a political struggle. In this article we explore the search for a silver bullet and analyse the growing phenomenon of Greta Thunberg.

Within the environmental movement there is a desperate desire to find the way to communicate on climate change. Much energy is spent trying to come up with a game-changing way of framing and discussing the issue; a way that will move politicians, businesses and individuals to adopt radical new policies, processes and behaviours.

This manifests itself in debates over:

  • Whether to call it climate breakdown or climate collapse, rather than the more tame climate change.

  • Or, in questions about whether to be positive or negative in opening the conversation.

  • Or, whether it is better to appeal to ration and science or emotion and instinct.

  • We argue too about which values to appeal to, and therefore activate and reinforce.

We even debate whether to talk about climate change at all:

Robert Russell Sassor and Beth Strachan from social change experts, Metropolitan Group argue that traditional climate change communications are having a limited effect:

The [environmental] movement typically relays that we are in crisis mode, and must act immediately to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. But while all these arguments are true, they have largely failed to inspire individual action or widespread change in the United States.

They make the case for a putting a stronger emphasis on air pollution as opposed to climate change as a way to stimulate the desired policies and behaviours.

Their case rests on evidence that narratives relating to personal physical health resonate more strongly in the general population that those relating to the health of the planet or other people. Sassor and Strachan aren’t the first to suggest this approach, whether they are right remains to be seen. What is clear is that we don’t seem to be any closer to finding the silver bullet.

We are failing. Or are we?

Two things are worth asking here:

Firstly, why do we think we are going to succeed? What is it about climate campaigners that makes us think that we can make the breakthrough? Why do we think that a silver bullet does in fact exist? We’ll leave those questions open for now.

Secondly, what if the messages are actually working? Is it possible that there is an upper limit to what can be achieved through messaging alone? It is quite possible that there is and we may already be there.

We would argue that the narrative around climate change is having limited success not because we’re getting the message wrong, but because of the milieu into which it is being communicated.

The reason for this is that while we hear messages about climate change (or air pollution) and say we want things to be done, we also hear thousands more messages that make us want to buy or do other things. Our concern for the environment is therefore crowded out by our concern for other things; we want hospitals, armed forces, schools, police, social services, transport infrastructure, shopping centres, entertainment, etc, etc, on a societal level and no end of clothes, gadgets, foods, drinks, furniture, crockery, etc, etc, on a personal level. The wealthier we get, as individuals and as a society, the more we gain and the more defensive of the status quo we become.

For a long time it was assumed (or hoped) that dangerous climate change could be avoided without having to temper our desire for all the trappings of 21st century living in the developed world. There were, and still are, plenty of environmentalists who would spread this comforting message. Many I’m sure knew it was an illusion, but for one reason or another felt compelled to tell us that we can have our cake and eat it.

The truth is, we have economic and political systems that are dependent on the manufacturing and satisfaction of a desire for endless consumption. While this remains the case, we are going to obliterate more and more wildlife and pollute more and more air. It doesn’t matter how ‘green’ we make ‘green capitalism’ and how skillfully we construct our climate change messages, we’ll do no more than slightly delay the inevitable.

On BBC Newsnight this week, George Monbiot said this:

This is only going to change with a political struggle, it can’t change by just asking nicely, or asking better, or by framing it in a different way, we have to confront those powers that are destroying humanity.

In other words, climate change communications are only going to take us so far, we have to go further.

The ‘powers’ George is talking about are those on display in Davos this week. Above all else, the World Economic Forum focused on perpetuating the existing economic and political system. Why do they want it to perpetuate? If we’re being kind it is because they believe in it’s power to do good; if we’re feeling more skeptical, it is because they will remain powerful so long as there are no dramatic changes.

But, as inequality, climate change and other system failures become apparent, it is becoming harder to sustain the status quo and cling on to power. The Davos elite don’t want to be, but now are, deeply engaged in a political struggle. The great young climate activist Greta Thunberg spelled it out to them in Switzerland:

‘we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.’

That is a rallying cry and we hope climate change communicators are interpreting it correctly, she is saying that it is not possible to prevent dangerous climate change from within the current economic and political system. This is why her quote is so powerful; it has an air of threat about it. It tells the powerful that they can no longer be trusted to deliver for humanity; Greta is not turning to them for help, she is turning away from them because they have let her down.

Greta is vulnerable in all this as are the prospects for the political struggle itself. World leaders will attempt to make Greta their darling; she will be enticed to be the figurehead for all sorts of questionable green growth ‘solutions’ and UN initiatives. They will want to allow her to have a voice, so long as that voice is not overly critical of our current economic paradigm. So many environmentalists and environmental NGOs have fallen into this trap over the years. I hope Greta is being well advised.

Another vulnerability will be pointed out to Greta and to those engaged in the struggle. It is a very real one, for it is not just environmental and social justice campaigners who are seeking to take power away from Neoliberal democracy; others are too. As power slips away from those currently at Davos it is unclear where it will come to rest. Populist leaders will seek any bedfellow to gain the power they crave; Greta et. al., must take great care. Neoliberal democracy may turn out to be a lesser evil.

But our fears must be overcome, we have to find a way to shift power away from the mega rich beneficiaries of Neoliberalism and away from the darkness of the populist right.

As comfortable as it might be in our privileged Western homes, we cannot continue to wallow in the comforts of a broken system that seems incapable of reform.

Footnote for NGOs….

In his book ‘Why we lie about aid’, Pablo Yanguas, explains how genuine change involves backing brave public servants involved in difficult political struggles. Actors in these struggles are navigating messy political systems and ultimately changing them. With enough determination and enough support, it is possible to create lasting systemic change. Corrupt systems can be cleaned up, reform of parliamentary proceedings can be achieved.

Development NGOs like The Glacier Trust have to choose whether to focus only on micro level interventions that enable change in one village at a time. Or, whether to work at macro levels too by supporting campaigners and public servants involved in political struggles. If they can do the latter as well as the former, they have the potential to unlock systemic change that is needed.

Yanguas’ book highlights how it is possible to get involved in the ‘messy politics of development’ while retaining political neutrality as a charity. We are studying it carefully here at TGT as we develop our strategy to enabling climate change adaptation in Nepal.

Watch this space.