This week we hosted Naomi Klein – one of the most influential leftwing voices of our time – in Oxford as she launched her new book, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate’. Having read the book, and listened to her speak, I offer here some personal reflections on why I found the ambition of the book (to radically curb the excesses of ‘extractivist’ growth-based capitalism) compelling, but the means by which these ends could be achieved disappointingly lacking in inspiration.
Klein has built a formidable reputation for taking aim at the most difficult targets – neoliberalism primarily – and fearlessly speaking truth to power. 'This Changes Everything… ' continues in this style and I think the single biggest contribution it will make (as Vivienne Westwood, our celebrity introductory speaker for the evening, pointed out) is making discussion of the ‘c’ word possible again in mainstream climate change circles.
Klein’s take home message is devastatingly simple: we are now in such dire straits that there are no non-radical options left if we want to prevent dangerous and deeply unjust impacts on people and planet. All we have to do if we want to change our world (for the worse) forever is wait: business as usual will deliver the goods.
Most of these arguments will be familiar to those who have followed the arguments of the global ‘climate justice’ movement over the past ten years. They are as legitimate now as they were then. But we have been here before. In the run up to Copenhagen, the idea that any solution to climate change also had to address deep-rooted inequalities was absolutely central. Climate change came of age as an issue inextricably linked to the politics of the left – and understandably so, because the climate challenge is fundamentally one about resource redistribution.
What happened next though should act as a warning for the present day. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, the trumpeting of coalitions of indigenous voices and demands for climate justice, the international political community failed to deliver and the issue began to abruptly polarise along partisan lines in many English speaking nations.
This is not easily attributed to any one factor and the forces of organised climate change denial were operating long before Copenhagen failed to deliver, desperately seeking to turn public and political opinion away from meaningful climate policies that would – by necessity – curb corporate power.
But in the aftermath of Copenhagen, a significant amount of soul-searching (and simultaneously a significant amount of social science research) has taken place, in effect trying to figure out why public engagement with serious solutions to climate change has become so fragile and polarised.
Central to this has been the growing realisation that gaining and keeping widespread public and political support is not going to be achieved by shouting more loudly about solutions that do not yet have widespread public and political support.
We know we need to get from A to B, but restating ‘B’ – which Klein does so passionately and powerfully in her book – is only half the answer. Crucially – and where Klein’s book is surprisingly disengaged with the evidence base – we also need to have a plan for building the widespread public support necessary for getting there in the first place.
Klein is mostly dismissive of work that has sought to ‘reframe’ climate change as something that is more appealing to a wider range of ideological viewpoints. She (correctly in my view) identifies the contradiction in attempting to ‘appease’ the right by dressing climate change up as an opportunity to make more money, or to secure more power through world-altering geoengineering technologies.
But this is now well-understood through the work of people like Tom Crompton (who she compliments in the book), and the rest of the ‘Common Cause’ coalition. We have been steadily producing a growing body of solid social science evidence and research that shows how important it is to ground any message about climate change in ‘intrinsic’ values like altruism, rather than ‘extrinsic’ ones like power or authority. So it is not the case that framing messages about climate change to have wider appeal inevitably leads to 'selling' people what they superficially want to hear.
In fact, our organisation has been working hard to apply this logic to the challenge of engaging the public more widely on climate change, providing recommendations and advice for the Climate Coalition’s ‘For the Love Of’ campaign and even asking how moderate conservatives – the ‘centre-right’ – can be engaged on climate change.
This is not a question of being co-opted by the corporate world, but about finding the common ground between large swathes of society and environmentalism. We believe there is some and that this is crucial territory to explore. In fact, we had better hope that there is scope for bringing the ‘middle ground’ of public opinion on board, because without them, any ‘populist’ climate change movement (which Klein advocates for) is going to be suspiciously lacking in numbers.
To my mind, the central question is not whether we can identify the sorts of climate policies that would keep us within a safe carbon budget (we know what they are, and as Klein shows, they are all radical now). The bigger challenge is how do ‘we’ (i.e., anyone who wants to stay within that safe carbon budget) go about persuading people that policies like these happen.
If – as is clearly the case – there is not yet widespread support for radical climate policies, then re-stating the case for them in ever-more urgent terms is not going to be enough. Instead, we have to step back, think creatively, and be prepared to start from the values and views of an incredibly diverse global population, who will continue – climate change or no climate change – to disagree about fundamental questions that define how they perceive climate policies in the first place.
Our forthcoming series of events with the RSA (the ‘7 dimensions of climate change’) is making a small attempt at achieving this, trying to diversify understandings of climate change in the hope that pluralistic ownership of the issue will breed a messy but ultimately robust sense of societal engagement. The challenge is in widening the social reality of climate change, not presenting a pre-defined version of it to people and cajoling them to buy-in.
So I hope that Klein’s book acts as a kind of reassertion of global policy reality for those in the movement who had either forgotten or become jaded with the overwhelming scale of the challenge. All of the ‘ends’ that she states are fundamentally as right now as they were ten years ago.
But the ‘means’ are lacking: and this is where the effort needs to be put in. Working with diverse social groups and political groupings, understanding climate change from their perspectives and working to build bridges – using carefully tested language and narratives – between these groups and a more sustainable society is crucial.
As the marchers in New York in September said, to ‘Change Everything we Need Everyone’.