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Activists should make fighting climate change a right-wing cause
There is no alternative.
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BONUS WRITING: I’ve written a couple of essays for TechFinitive about why I think it’s not completely crazy to believe in the ‘Metaverse’, and why Elon Musk’s closed approach to Twitter is terrible.
Remember when Extinction Rebellion used to be about climate change? Or when the PCS Union was about workers rights? Or when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament used to be about… nuclear disarmament?
Neither do they, apparently.
Next month a “groundbreaking alliance” of pretty much every do-gooding organisation you can think of will be descending on Parliament for a big climate protest that Extinction Rebellion has named “The Big One”.
The guest list really is a laundry list of righteous names. Alongside XR, PCS and CND will be NHS Workers Say No, Black Lives Matter (Merseyside branch), Catholic aid charity CAFOD, Fuel Poverty Action, Global Justice Now, and Women Against Rape amongst many others.
There will apparently be four days of “speakers, performers and interactive workshops" that will be “demanding systemic change to tackle the interconnected crises of climate, cost of living, and politics.”
And all of their hard work will, almost certainly, make absolutely no difference. The only “Net-Zero” the march will achieve will be be in terms of effort-to-reward.
I admit, I am being a little mean deliberately to draw you into reading on. I wish I could be sincerely enthusiastic about the march given that I strongly agree with the inevitable thousands of attendees that climate change is a really important issue that the government should be doing more on. And unlike me, they will be putting their time and effort into actually doing something, and going down to Westminster to fight for the cause.
But this is why I find it so frustrating and have decided to piss on their bonfire, from behind the safety of my keyboard. Because I fear “The Big One” is a textbook example of poorly optimised campaign tactics, which will make the political fight for climate action that little bit harder.
That’s right folks, I’m writing about why That Thing That Is Good Is Actually Bad again. If you like this, you may also enjoy reading me stick it to the Green Party, or pointing out that Extinction Rebellion’s big demand is incredibly stupid. And be sure to subscribe (for free!) to get more of This Sort Of Thing in your inbox.
Theory of Change
I’ve written about my beef with the activists on this issue before.
But it’s worth repeating, because I think “climate justice” is one of the most inadvertently pernicious ideas to have gained traction in recent years, just as climate change has become a mainstream, vote-moving issue.
On paper, the idea is perfectly noble: Climate is not an isolated issue, so as we transition to renewables, we should also worry about inequalities and other injustices in society, which may or may not be a direct downstream consequence of climate change mitigation. It’s an idea so mainstream that big institutions like Unicef take it seriously and talk of a need for “systems transformation”.
But however worthy this is, I fear the functional outcome of the “climate justice” frame is that it makes any meaningful political action on climate harder.
This is because it inflates the scale of the challenge from “We need to reduce carbon emissions” to “We need to reduce carbon emissions and solve all of these other intractable problems”. And because it conflates climate action with a wider set of more contentious political ideas, which will only reduce the size of the coalition of people who will sign on to support it.
So what depresses me about “The Big One” is that it is leaning into this latter destructive tendency, deliberately blurring the distinction between climate and a broader swamp of activist groups in a way that is incredibly unhelpful to the climate cause.
Imagine, for example, if a big fat, cigar-chomping banker were told that the only way to tackle climate change is to do a bunch of things that trade unions want. Is that really going to win him over to the bigger cause? Or if we make climate change contingent of a vast redistribution of wealth, how can we expect Conservative MPs to go along with voting for new climate measures?
I think this way of looking at the issue is destructive on the left too. Conflating climate with other equally difficult issues is a recipe for defeatism. We already know that reducing economic and gender inequality is hard – and making doing so a prerequisite of any climate action is not going to make the climate issue any easier1.
It’s like if you told me that I needed to lose 10kg, I might get on a treadmill and give it a go. But if you told me that I needed to win an Olympic medal, then realistically I’m not going to bother getting out of bed as however much we might both pretend that it is possible, we both know it’s never going to happen.
Now I know what you’re thinking: But don’t we need to do all of this other stuff to beat climate change anyway? Why am I throwing all of these worthy causes under the (electric) bus?2 Doesn’t climate action require us to meet the laundry list of other ideological demands?
Bluntly, I don’t think it does. I think that from a serious political perspective, if we actually want to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere before it is too late, we need to treat decarbonisation as the technocratic issue of regulation, business models and incentives that it is, and not as a Christmas tree on which to hang our every pet cause3.
Change the political climate
Now here’s the massive irony. Though, for the reasons outlined above, I am not convinced that “The Big One” will actually achieve anything, I do think something similar could: A “groundbreaking alliance” on the right.
Imagine, for a moment if instead of the political coalition consisting of basically all of the usual suspects, if the tent was expanded to include every pantomime villain right-wing think-tank and pressure group you can imagine: The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Countryside Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Migration Watch UK, for example.
These are not groups that are perhaps naturally predisposed to supporting action on climate change4. But even if you can't win over the specific ideologues in charge of them, it is still possible for activists to reach out to the sorts of people on the right who support their causes.
How? By reframing climate change as an issue on their terms.
For example, you could appeal to people who are sceptical of migration that if we don’t do something about the climate, there will be countless more ‘climate refugees’ in the future.
Perhaps ‘small state’ libertarian, TPA-types might listen if adverse weather events are framed as another burden the state will have to pay for. If we want to have robust economic growth and avoid having to pay for flood barriers and other expensive infrastructure in the future, it’s better to do something to head-off the problem now.
Connected to this, appealing to free-market fundamentalist types on economic grounds should be straightforward too. Building out the solar panels, wind farms, electric cars and other infrastructure we need is an enormous, and potentially lucrative opportunity for big business – that’s why Tesla is the most valuable car company in the world. And many of the measures to actually deploy renewables can be framed as deregulation, like freeing up businesses to innovate with small modular nuclear reactors, or changing planning rules to be less restrictive.
The easiest reach should be to right-wing conservationist groups like the Countryside Alliance. By caring about the natural world5, they’re already half way there. Environmental appeals do work on the right – hence the surprising success of the Green Party in traditionally Conservative areas in recent years. So all we need to do is persuade rural right wingers to avoid conflating conservationism with environmentalism – and instead recognise that if we build solar farms and high speed rail in some places, we can protect nature everywhere else.
If these sorts of voters can be peeled off and brought into the climate tent, unlike mobilising the same old left wing activists who turn up for everything, it would actually expand the coalition of people who want to do something about climate change.
And don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to like their reasons for supporting climate action or agree with their politics. That’s why I have a monthly recurring donation to Kent Refugee Action Network and write long screeds about why we should concrete over England’s green and pleasant land.
But if we actually want politicians to continue taking steps to mitigate climate change, we need to build a durable coalition in favour of achieving Net Zero, rolling out more nuclear, building on-shore wind-farms, and all of the other interventions that are going to be necessary. And this means persuading people on the right that climate action isn’t a trojan horse for a bunch of unrelated lefty policies, but is something that is important in its own right.
There is evidence that this approach can work. Careful framing is how political battles and elections are won – from Blair outflanking the Tories on crime, to Cameron's “Hug a Husky”6, to Keir Starmer having a Union Jack permanently stapled just behind his shoulder to reassure swing voters he’s not like the previous guy.
And we can even see how reframing has already had successes on climate change politics.
Look at what galvanised political efforts to legalise on-shore wind7 and commit to more nuclear power. It wasn’t banging on about “climate justice”, or appeals to the impact climate change will have on the developing world. It was the war in Ukraine, which overnight made the issue one of energy security – an issue that Tories and right-wingers can get behind, even if they secretly think that worrying about climate change on its own terms is for namby-pamby, sandal-wearing hippies.
As I have written before, arguably Boris Johnson’s signature achievement in office was in maintaining a broad, cross-party consensus that we need to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Whether or not he was motivated by the desire to the right thing, or – if you can possibly imagine it – for cynical political reasons doesn’t matter. He broadly continued nudging policy mostly in the right direction (even if it didn’t go far enough), and largely kept the climate crazies in his party muzzled. This would have been much harder if the “climate justice” frame was the dominant one.
So my point is simple. It is good and desirable to have the political right on board if we actually want to actually do anything to mitigate against climate change.
However, there is also an obvious cynical counterpoint to all of this: What if you think that the sort of right wingers I describe are operating in ‘bad faith’8?
Unfortunately, I don’t really think this matters because, to borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative.
Even if Labour (inshallah) win a huge majority at the next election, it’s very likely that between now and our Net Zero deadline of 2050, that the Conservative Party and the political right will, at some point in the future, be in the ascendent once again. Because that’s how politics works.
So my advice for climate activists from behind my keyboard is simple: Take the politics of climate change seriously. Get out of your comfort zone and make friends with some awful Tories. Let’s make sure “The Big One” isn’t, ironically, just wasted energy.
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A crucial part of understanding this, I think, is that though it is bad for actual climate action, framing whatever your cause is as a facet of climate change is a politically useful in intra-left politics, because climate is taken seriously by nearly everyone. So the more you can glue your niche cause to the mainstream one people are already sympathetic to, the better.
It’s weird how no one demands “postcode justice”, and argues that we need to solve poverty before we can liberate the Postcode Address File.
I may have said this somewhere before, but I think the challenge for climate activists is that they’ve already won the argument. Most serious people think climate change is an important issue, so banging the drum calling for politicians to do “something” is less important than engaging with the actual technical questions of transition. Now the challenge is engaging with trade-offs and designing policy interventions that keep people on board.
Not least because several of them are colocated in the infamous building in Tufton Street with the so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation, which in a Ministry-of-Love type naming scheme actually opposes climate measures.
Or at least, the aesthetic of the natural world. They seem less keen on the animals in it judging by how many they shoot.
I regret to inform you that the husky thing is in reference to something that happened seventeen years ago. Back when you were young and you had a full head of hair.
As an aside, how completely and utterly mental was it that on-shore wind was effectively banned in the first place?!
One of my worst opinions is that I think we’ve over-indexed on “bad faith” critiques in recent years. Though it does happen and is often the case, it’s also a very easy accusation to throw around, implying your opponent is not merely wrong, but their motivations are bad and underhand too. I think we underrate that sometimes people really do just sincerely think different things.