To solve climate change, we have to learn to speak to our political opponents
Two weeks ago a brutal murder was carried out on a Labour MP, Jo Cox, as she finished up her surgery in her constituency of Batley and Spen, apparently committed by a man shouting ‘Britain first’: it feels like a lifetime ago. Since that horrendous act we’ve seen the UK inflict grievous economic and political wounds on itself in the name of a narrowly-defined conception of freedom, and hate crimes have risen by up to 57%. We live in a country with deep social and political cracks, with whole sections of society simply unable to understand or communicate with one another.
Many have spoken of the climate of fear and blame that has been stoked up around the EU referendum, of how, if you tell people their jobs, their country, their very way of life, is at risk enough times, someone is going to snap. But few seem to have gone a step further and asked why modern Britain has been ripe for such attempts to succeed. Work by the IPPR, as well as work in the field of political psychology stretching back decades, suggests that fierce opposition to the EU and immigration is prevalent in older, white, working class men because many of them feel left behind by society, threatened by the changes they have witnessed unfold without their input. As trade unions and our industrial powerhouses have declined and left many without secure work, at the same as rapid cultural changes and a more marketised and careerist electoral system have taken root, certain sections of society now feel isolated and neglected by our political elites. Consistent failure by successive governments to invest in communities, housing and public services compounded these effects, and changing cultures and community compositions left some in already fragile communities to feel resentment and distrust.
Whilst such an analysis in no way excuses xenophobia, let alone cold-blooded murder, it does begin to help us understand them, and understand the dangers of a polarised political landscape that neglects certain sections of society and contains extremes that are simply unable to speak to one another.
Like many my age concerned about climate change, Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ played a considerable role in engaging me in the environmental movement. The tale she wove throughout the pages of how indigenous rights, inequality, neoliberalism, democracy and climate change all coalesce together into what is the greatest challenge of our time struck a chord and drove home a transformative point: solving climate change requires us to fundamentally change our economies and politics in line with a more egalitarian, democratic and sustainable way of living. The obsession with growth and the acceptance of power imbalances are fuelling climate chaos: we cannot solve one of these issues without solving the others.
The beauty of this, the light at the end of the drought-ridden, freak-weather-prone, oceanically deluged tunnel is that this now gives the Left a cast-iron case for many of the policies that they have campaigned fruitlessly for for decades. What greater condemnation of neoliberalism could there possibly be than the fact that within less than a century it will have led us to the brink of societal collapse? If growth is finally revealed as the economically illiterate and environmentally disastrous dogma that it always has been, then what choice do we have but to focus on redistributive policies, on paying close attention to how we divide the pie, rather than endlessly seeking to enlarge it? If unabashed corporate greed, particularly but not exclusively in the fossil fuel sector, continues to drive (quite literally) us all towards the cliff edge, what alternative do we have to governmental intervention and regulation, and a more democratic ownership of energy sources?
Yet, paradoxically, the inevitable conclusions to climate change that transform it from our greatest threat to our greatest opportunity might also be the biggest obstacles to halting it. Whilst promising near-utopias for those to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, such solutions to climate change could act as serious barriers to those that are not already on board with a more vertical, egalitarian way of structuring society. Unless we rapidly find ways of engaging those that are not already card-carrying socialists in this movement, we might not make it.
As Klein warns herself, we shouldn’t seek to avoid the difficult political debates that need to happen, and nor should we seek to find compromises that still risk climate chaos or allow injustices to linger. Rather, it means finding common ground with those that disagree with us, something the left, historically, has not excelled at. It means, rather than trying to fundamentally alter the value systems many individuals live under, we instead need to try and find new ways of speaking to people that utilises, rather than offends, these values. This is important not only in tackling climate change in the limited time we have, but also in fostering a more understanding, inclusive and constructive type of politics, as opposed to the tribal and divisive fare we often seem to suffer under.
To do so, however, requires us to go to the root of what drives people’s political beliefs and behaviours. The beginnings of an understanding lies in work by social scientists such as Jonathan Haidt and Dan Westen, who emphasise how emotions and fundamental moral values shape not only individual choices but also the great political cleavage of left and right. Haidt has, through rigorous research, identified 6 universal moral values, 3 of which (authority, loyalty and sanctity) play a bigger role in determining the political decisions of right-wingers, whereas to those of us on the left, they can often seem pretty alien.
Take loyalty. Haidt describes this foundation as stemming from our evolutionary history of being a tribal species- for much of our recent evolution we have formed social groups and relied on these to keep us safe, meaning there was an evolutionary advantage to preferring your own social group and looking after its members. For climate change this could mean highlighting the impacts it will have on British families, British homes and the British economy. For example, it has been estimated that by the end of the century climate change could be costing the UK economy £12 billion a year (a highlight conservative estimate), as well as putting 1 in 8 newly-built homes at risk of flooding.
Some may lament that such appeals are necessary, that we instead need to be arguing for a more internationalist outlook, one where all of humanity is treated equally: yes, let’s make that case, but let’s not pin all our hopes on it. Such value systems have been ingrained over millennia of evolution and a deluge of societal pressures: overriding them would take longer than we have- lets seek to appeal to the best side of these values, rather than ignore them completely.
Other examples could include sanctity-based appeals that emphasise the sacredness of nature, likely to appeal particularly well to religiously-minded individuals, as well as the healthiness of our own bodies, put at risk by air, water and food pollution. Another moral value found fairly equally in both left and right-wing orientated people is that of liberty- the desire for freedom. Emphasising how climate change is already impacting the freedom of many in drought-ridden areas to make a living off their land (also tapping into authority-linked appeals to tradition) and how if left unchecked will reduce individual liberty through food and water shortages and the requirement for more draconian responses in the future, could easily appeal to such a value.
These examples are meant merely to spark ideas of how to reframe conversations in line with values the left doesn’t always recognise, rather than provide a watertight set of arguments for right-wing action on climate change. Reframing these issues won’t make everyone an eco-warrior- for some, the solutions to climate change will be just too much to stomach and reframing them more in-line with some of their values won’t penetrate their opposition. But it will convince some people- certainly more than if we don’t try…we can work with the values people already have and make our arguments for change through the language and emotions that make most sense to them, rather than ignoring and alienating them.
Beyond a chance to restructure society in a fairer, more sustainable way, maybe the solving of climate change has one more opportunity to bestow upon us: the gift of how to talk to each other, to understand one another. Whilst some of the solutions to climate change are inevitably going to lead us towards the kind of society we on the left aspire to anyway, we cannot afford for climate change and the related reforms needed to halt it to be pigeonholed as left-wing politics: they need, desperately, to become mainstream, vote-winning ideas.
Climate change is too important, too all-encompassing and too immediate to fail to engage all of society in tackling it, and our politics has become too polarised and divisive to not try and reach out to one another over this most important of issues. If we try, we might just win ourselves a second chance: at the very least we might begin to foster a more understanding, humane brand of politics, something that recent events show we desperately need.