We live in a binary age, where fomented culture war pushes each of us to the furthest edge of our demographic camp. The good old days when elections were won in the centre ground are gone now that both major parties feel their fortunes lie with an appeal to the narrow wedge of the far right who now act as kingmakers.
But much as I long for a return to the Hegelian historical paradigm of thesis, antithesis and synthesis as the civilised path to political consensus, there is one fly in the ointment.
The one area that is not up for debate is the climate emergency, and those who continue to say that the jury is out, that debate is still to be had, are not the blessed peacemakers. As Zadie Smith pronounced in her speech outside 55 Tufton Street, home of neoliberal climate ‘delayism’, they are quite the contrary:
“Evil is not a word I use often – or lightly – but I believe the kind of pragmatism practised on this street falls within that category. No-one’s in denial on Tufton Street. Quite the opposite. They know the science is real. They know whose money they’re taking. They’re not lying to themselves. They’re lying to us.”
Technology will not save us
These supposed pragmatists cynically pose as a reasonable centre ground, but they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
By framing delay as a pragmatic issue of affordability, they feign concern for the common people while shilling for their funders from the fossil fuel industries. While downplaying the need for urgent action as CO2 levels continue to rise, they blind with science yet untested.
The neoliberal answer to calls for mitigation is that technology will save us, whether carbon capture (in its infancy and unscalable in time) or nuclear fusion (still a pipe dream) or solar radiation management (SRM), a potentially suicidal process that involves injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect radiation. Indeed, measures such as SRM have no off-switch. If they fail, we merely increase the speed of breakdown: Russian roulette with most barrels loaded.
There are no pragmatic solutions to climate change beyond immediate decarbonisation. Bar one year of Covid lockdown, despite government claims of world-beating action, global carbon emissions have continued to rise unabated, inexorably, and exponentially.
There is no middle ground. In the case of climate breakdown, a little bit of compromise is like being a little bit dead.
We face a dichotomy
There are different kinds of science denier. From the spittle-flecked ideologues, blind to the very existence of climate breakdown, to the cynical technical optimists, emollient in tone and seemingly reasonable in debate. Disingenuous deniers of the urgency rather than of the science, they agree that climate change is real. They claim to be on board yet will distract with assurances that man’s ingenuity will save us. This is a cynical way of kicking the can down the road to allow a continuation of business as usual.
But it is not just the cynical, self-serving, or dishonest who hide behind a veil of compromise, it is all of us who, to a greater or lesser degree, deny the seriousness, whether through refusal to engage, or for our own mental health: we cannot be terrified 24/7. But we should heed Martin Luther King’s warning: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
That silence is most alarming when it comes to reporting. During ‘the Big One’, the recent massed climate protest in Westminster, in spite of record-breaking numbers, organisers were informed by journalists on the ground that they had been told by BBC editors not to cover the event unless there was disruption. It seems activists are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
On a larger scale, there was a ground-breaking event in the EU parliament which hosted thousands of scientists and policy makers to chart a future beyond growth. Professor Julia Steinberger reported that, “thousands attended, thousands more followed online. Topics covered planetary boundaries, trade, finance, fiscal policy, global South, decolonisation, gender, justice, wellbeing, social policies. Every panel included major advances in understanding. Together, the conference represents a monumental coming of age of post-growth”.
However, despite its signposting of a way forward and the presence of global news outlets, no media covered the event. Journalists that she spoke to said that editors would spike any story that criticised economic growth. Many of these media outlets will no doubt say they accept that climate change is real. They may even have campaigned for the elimination of plastic straws. But the pragmatic approach is not to rock the boat.
Indeed, this post-truth fence-sitting in the service of ‘business as usual’ is particularly apparent at the BBC.
Since the new brooms of Tim Davie as director general and his in-house government enforcer Robbie Gibb have been embedded, the corporation has returned to the days of false equivalence where settled science is routinely rebutted by someone with a vested interest in a fossil fuel economy but whose provenance is never revealed.
Of course, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards David Jordan would have it that the invitation to the table of those outliers to whom he refers as “flat earthers” is admirably inclusive. But this welcome means former climate deniers become validated as “reasonable” mitigation delayers and the perception of a happy compromise is achieved.
And delayers will assert that baby steps towards a sustainable future, such as hydrogen fuel cell storage or electric vehicles, are not economically viable because they are not yet as efficient as they might eventually be; that we should wait for something better. For them, tomorrow never comes and neither, intentionally, does climate action.
But we must not let the best be the enemy of the good.
Martin Luther King recognised and called out the same attitude in those who attempted to block the advancement of educational equal opportunities for black students by feigning recognition of their case but voicing the cod concern that, “it would take some time before they were able to compete with white children in the same classroom”.
However, he reserved his greatest admonition to those who procrastinated:
“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
Nonetheless, the danger of insisting that action is a binary choice risks triggering the backfire effect, the cognitive bias that causes people who encounter evidence that challenges their beliefs to strengthen belief in their original stance. This is, of course, exacerbated by culture war silos and the suspicions stirred up by the press who have a vested interest in the status quo.
Framing the argument
So, we are left with the question. Will we engage the credulous more successfully if we initially meet them on their ground or must we hold the line of what we know is true and urgent?
I would suggest that the answer is tailored engagement: one size does not fit all when it comes to climate messaging.
A report by the group Climate Outreach has usefully identified seven demographic groupings which span the political spectrum, all of whom, they contend, are persuadable in different ways. Their research has identified key concerns for each group and those best placed to convey solutions. Those who might broadly be considered progressives will base their climate fears on the science, while framing the issue in terms of climate justice. However, this does not mean that those of the right that the report labels ‘Backbone Conservatives’ and ‘Loyal Nationals’ cannot be influenced.
Those at this end of the political spectrum regard themselves as patriotic and optimistic with an intergenerational duty, taking pride in the label ‘global leaders’. They are also the demographic group that cares most about farming and the rural economy and consequently climate-related environmental damage.
For these categories, the advice is to remove the party politics from the conversation. Environmentalism for some is perceived as a left-wing concern. Climate Outreach argues that:
“Backbone Conservatives are not sceptical about climate change or other risks to the natural environment, but they are very sceptical of typical ‘environmentalists’ and what they perceive as a ‘worthy’, paternalistic and largely hypocritical worldview.
“Farmers and representatives of rural life, and people who have been impacted by climate change in the UK and have a credible, authentic story to tell, are likely to be more trusted communicators for this constituency. In many ways, it is the messenger rather than the message that Backbone Conservatives are likely to object to.”
Engage where we can; expose when we cannot
One such strictly politically non-aligned pressure group is MP Watch with which I am involved, a network of constituents concerned about their MPs’ commitment to net zero who have had some success engaging constructively with politicians who, maybe in the thrall of the billionaire press who keep them in power, had not thought hard enough about the threat.
But such epiphanies are all too rare.
As Zadie ends her speech:
“It’s hard enough to fight the kind of sincere denial that rises in so many hearts. Hard enough to combat ideologues and sociopaths. But what makes it all immeasurably harder is when a group of greedy, deceitful, contemptuous, cynical, fiscal conservatives with their eye on the main chance, decide to flood and manipulate a political system with lobbyist money, to secure their own livelihoods, in the full knowledge that they do so at the cost of the livelihoods – and actual lives – of millions of people.”
These people are beyond reason, incomprehensibly immoral, narcissistic, sociopathic, and self-interested even at the expense of their children’s lives. They know what they are doing. Their arguments demand full-on, no holds barred, fire and brimstone exposure.