Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

UK election results – climate campaigners need to be more radical

By George Marshall on May 8, 2015

Today’s UK election results have left many climate activists dejected as they had pinned their hopes on the Labour party championing climate action over the next 5 years. But what should they do now?

Climate activists have traditionally been radically minded,  focused on the transformations needed to deliver a low-carbon society. But now one of the most radical things that climate advocates can do is to break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with centre-right audiences.

At COIN we believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes rather than tinkering around the edges. We make no apology for this and are utterly convinced,  from our reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.

But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves  that a highly motivated minority – what Marxists used to call the vanguard- can ever win this. This issue is far too large to be overcome without a near total commitment across society.

Yet, throughout the Anglophone world there is a dangerous political polarisation around climate change. In one particularly disturbing US poll, attitudes to climate change were a better predictor of respondents’ political orientation than any other issue – including gun control, abortion and capital punishment. Scepticism  of climate change is not just an opinion, it has become a dominant mark of people’s political identity.

This is no small problem. People with ‘conservative’ values (some of whom may also vote for centre-left parties) constitute the majority in almost all countries.

Climate change exists for us in the form of socially constructed stories or narratives built upon our values and identity. It is these narratives- not the underlying science or even the evidence of our own eyes- that leads us to accept or reject the issue.

Unfortunately one of the dominant values in the climate movement is a disregard, if not outright contempt, for the right-leaning mainstream and their concerns. Activists often talk with disgust of the selfishness, greed and stupidity of conservatives. Does this signify a tolerance and openness? The denigration conveniently ignores the diversity of opinion and life experience among small c conservatives. A struggling rural family, an elderly Christian on a small pension, a community shopkeeper and a Wall Street Banker are combined into one faceless enemy.

More often, though, people with centre-right values are just ignored. Few people in the climate movement want to deal with them, talk to them, or find out more about them. They simply don’t exist.

Last week COIN led a communications workshop in Brussels for one of the largest international environmental networks: one we respect and have worked with for many years. We asked them “do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?” Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle aged men, too white, too middle-class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people. Nobody mentioned the absence of centre-right voices, and certainly no-one in the room was admitting to being one.

Diversity is a powerful frame for progressives but its components have been (understandably) entirely defined by the struggles of marginalised groups for representation. It makes us blind to our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens when we need to – and we need to with climate change.

Ironically we know how to change this. We need to build bridges across society not burn them down, we need to constructively engage people through their values, not just politicians. We need to create a social consensus that climate change is the defining challenge of the 21st Century, which every member of society has a stake in. Small c conservatives aren’t the only ones, we need a far wider and genuine social and cultural movement than currently exists. But the centre-right matters.

In reaching out beyond the usual suspects, we don’t need to take on other’s values or condone them but we do need to have two way conversations which allow those on the centre-right to see that climate change is an issue for them too, as we’ve set out in some of our recent work. Conversations need to focus on centre-right values such a desire for safety and security and the protection of the ‘green and pleasant land’, and the notion of building a better future. As well as new messages we need new messengers, voices that reach across the political polarisation and champion the shared values necessary for sustained climate action.

The  process by which we respond to climate change creates the tramlines for our future strategies. If we use it to build a narrative around our interconnectedness and shared humanity then we stand a good chance of pulling through, just as divided communities can settle their differences to pull together after a hurricane. If we build our  movement through distrust and division we create the preconditions for future in-fighting, blame and scapegoating.

So the challenge to all people concerned about climate change is this: when are we going to accept the challenge of reaching across partisan boundaries and building a broad social consensus for action? We do not even have to agree about the details of the solutions- indeed we need to maintain a strong debate. But surely we can come together in the recognition that dealing with climate change is the greatest calling of our age?

This is an amended version of a blog posting by George Marshall, COIN’s Director of Projects that was originally posted on his blog

By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

Sign up to our newsletter