One way to look at the climate crisis is that we have a 60% problem. We don't have a solid coalition of 60% of voters who will vote for bold policies to tackle it. Right now that is small enough that any bold – or even mild progress like the Paris Agreement – can be reversed at the next election. So how do we get there?
I've been a part of this movement for nearly two decades. I went to G20 protests decades ago, to Climate in 2007 and numerous other events. In those days it was barely on the political radar. The focus was on the War on Terror and Iraq, even on the Left. President Obama made some progress but it wasn’t his key priority.
That has changed. Over the last five years it has become a rallying cry across the Left like never before. As an environmentalist I'm thankful more people are taking it seriously. But a huge challenge remains: winning over ‘non-political’ people, who sit roughly in the centre, with a bold agenda. Without them we don't get to 60%.
Some, including Extinction Rebellion, may argue they only need a small number of committed activists to spur change, but this is a comforting fantasy. Far larger protests against austerity and Brexit made little difference. We need a solid electoral majority.
Many assume that as the climate crisis becomes more apparent and we educate people, we will make progress. But the pandemic has shown that to be untrue. If an issue becomes part of the culture wars, people will buy any excuse to delay action. People happily deny facts and evidence to protect tribal identity.
The Right has a simple message. They tell people the Left hates them and wants to use climate change as an excuse to raise taxes. They constantly see people fitting that stereotype in right-wing media. So those in the centre will accept the lie it is a scam. Or that enough is already being done. Or we have plenty of time. Or that it won’t be as bad as we say. Or even that it’s too late! We are all seduced by convenient lies over uncomfortable truths.
So here are my suggestions.
Environmentalism cannot be a socialist movement
I'm not saying socialists should not make their case. They have a right to and they should keep making the case for bold action. But the climate movement is not the same as the socialist movement.
Environmentalists have to speak to non-socialists too. We have to show them how the climate crisis will affect issues they care about as fellow citizens and engage them. So, Extinction Rebellion was absolutely right to say it’s not a socialist movement. It should be full of socialists, centrists and right-wingers. It should be full of people who pay little attention to politics. It should reflect the country.
In his seminal book ‘Rules for Radicals’, Saul Alinsky stresses one point over all others: you cannot organise people unless you meet them where they live and address the world as they see it. This requires us to step outside our comfort zone.
It cannot become part of the culture wars
It would be an even bigger mistake to fold the climate crisis into our culture wars. If our message is that to tackle the climate crisis we also need to tackle numerous other issues such as racial justice, patriarchy, homelessness and poverty – as the proposed US Green New Deal does – it will delay progress for decades. Too many people will take death and destruction over changing their minds on these issues.
Here’s the problem. ‘Culture wars’ force people to flatten their identities. People on the Left adopt a set of economic and cultural values that don’t differ as much as they used to. Conservatives opposed to abortion or gay rights stop identifying with the left for example. Similarly, the Right has started to adopt values in opposition to the Left and thrown out people who don’t fit. Surveys show people in the US are further apart on many issues than ever before. A similar polarisation is taking place in the UK. If denying climate change becomes a core conservative value, we won’t get to 60% support for change.
So we have to decide: either stick to the most popular ideas or wait around for much longer. Most of these problems have been around for longer than capitalism: India’s caste system is over 2000 years old, for example. Patriarchy has been around for even longer. We cannot change minds overnight.
The climate crisis has to transcend the polarised climate we increasingly live in.
First we have to win trust
It's human nature: we don't believe people we don’t trust. We are trying to win them not scare them into submission. Otherwise they will just vote for others who offer convenient lies. Last week David Attenborough urged Sun readers to take climate change seriously. A man the newspaper called “a national treasure” said he supported Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. An article like that is worth a hundred in The Guardian. We need far more of them.
Conservatives aren’t oblivious to the environment– they’re more likely to live in rural areas, closer to nature. We need to engage them through groups such as the Countryside Alliance and the National Trust. We need local churches and parishes to talk about the climate crisis as a moral failing.
Too many on the Left think reaching out or engaging with centrists or centre-Right people will require us to ditch our principles. I strongly disagree. We can push for bolder ideas and faster action to tackle this crisis, but people will only listen to us if we treat them with respect and start with common ground. This isn’t necessarily an argument about policy. The Conservative Party has been willing to adopt left-wing policies and ideas when needed. But voters still trust them to carry them out. This is about who people trust to deal with problems.
Is it impossible? No. Humanity came together to tackle the ozone layer problem, and we're making bipartisan progress on plastic pollution. It's been done before and we can do it again.
But this pandemic has shown that tribal loyalty will get people to justify death even if it’s staring them in the face. If we wait for the penny to drop it will be too late.