Even after Trump pledged to pull out of the Paris Agreement in his election manifesto, I was still hoping that sense would prevail whether that was thanks to the Pope, G7 leaders, Elon Musk, his daughter, or anyone else… But no, true to his word, the US President pressed the eject button.

In my rational mind I know this isn’t the end of the world. China and India look set to take over as global climate leaders alongside the EU, and many US cities and states will step up to the plate. So even though I know there is no stopping the renewable revolution, my emotional mind feels somewhat bereft and worried that this is exactly the backwards step the world can’t afford.

For me Paris wasn’t a success in terms of policy mechanisms or even targets. The exciting element was that it was a global declaration that signalled that climate change was no longer something to debate or procrastinate over. At last it was clear we all had to act. Indeed as a non-binding agreement the real power of Paris, as David Roberts highlighted, was to “use the power of public commitment and accountability. The idea is that, by publicly stating targets and reporting transparently on progress, participants will be driven by pride, peer pressure, and internal politics to meet those targets”.

So if the US is prepared to duck out of its public commitment so easily, where does that leave us?

Shout louder, or change the voices?  

An understandable reaction is to decry Trump, to highlight his irrationality and that of his supporters. But is it time to explore a new approach?

What if instead of just rallying our own troops to speak up, we focused on reaching out to new voices, to audiences who we don’t feel comfortable with? Public accountability is only effective if politicians listen to the public holding them to account and like it or not, Trump believes that the public largely supports his decision. It is unlikely that any high tech CEO, European leader or liberal celebrity is likely to change his mind – they represent the establishment he campaigned against.

Trump’s pull to his supporter base has been as much about what (and who) he stands against as much as what he stands for. Is Trump worried that the EU and China are decrying his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement? I doubt it; indeed their outraged tone is more likely to confirm his beliefs – they are the ‘out’ group on which he has galvanised his ‘in’ group. Not only that but they are protesting about an issue that represents the cause Trump supporters most stand against. In the US, climate change is the most divisive political issue, ahead of even abortion and gun control in terms of representing political identity.  

So in a political landscape overwhelmingly dominated by tribalism, climate change advocates have a choice – do we double down on our tribalism in the hope that we will prevail or alternatively, do we recognise and try and overcome this tribalism? Recent history would suggest the former hasn’t delivered, so could it be we need to try the latter?  

Start listening, start connecting

Ultimately values underpin decision making – not science or economics – and so we need to find the shared values that unite us rather than build the walls between our tribes higher.

This is particularly vital for climate change, an issue that requires wholescale transformation of society and therefore sustained cross-societal support. But without deep listening to identify and relate to shared values, being able to raise the voices of non-traditional climate change champions is neither effective nor anything more than tokenistic.

Public engagement is at last moving up the agenda for many in the climate sector but effective communication involves listening as well as speaking. Do we dare have a two way conversation with people outside of our tribe? If the answer is yes, my colleagues and I have mapped out a set of principles to act as a starting point.

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