Analysis: Why climate activists have to take politics as seriously as science to win

As 1000 people kick-off an “extinction rebellion” in London, CommonSpace editor Ben Wray says Trumpian politics is currently benefiting most from the climate change epoch - if climate activists are to win, they need a plan to win over the majority

HOW do we stop rises in global temperatures which will devastate the natural habitat, and thus imperil life on earth?

There’s two answers to this question, one technical/economic and one political.

The technical/economic answer is now pretty clear. We need to reduce man-made carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, and by 100 per cent by about 2045. Even this will still see extraordinarily damaging levels of climate change, but not existential. That’s the basic message of the IPCC report.

That’s the technical part, the economic is slightly more complex but an increasing degree of consensus is developing here as well. It’s clear that we need to reduce energy demand in the global economy and at the same switch rapidly from fossil fuel based energies to renewables, as well as decarbonising on mass transport, buildings and agriculture.

It’s increasingly obvious that corporations - the top 100 of which are responsible for 71 per cent of global emissions - need to either be legally compelled to re-direct investment towards zero carbon goals, or states have to take the control entirely out of corporations hands altogether. A draft paper for the UN Sustainable Development 2019 report published early this year by Finnish academics clearly articulates what needs to be done for a rapid green transition to happen in the global economy.

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The big challenge is not technical/economic, it is political. We know what needs to be done, but we don’t know how to win control over the resources needed to do it.

Climate politics is difficult, because politics generally operates to a set of laws of motion which climate change doesn’t really fit into. Politics is short-term, climate change is long-term. Politics is local and national, climate change is global. Political consciousness is situated around phenomena that everyone can see and feel - cause and effect are closely related - whereas climate change has a huge disjuncture between action and reaction.

Think about the politics of climate change compared to the politics of hate crime. A hate crime is immediate, it is directly attributable to a person and has a direct impact on another person. Of course there is lots of complexity to the politics of hate crime, but the core features of it are both easy to understand and, crucially, relatable.

The disparity between this and climate politics was hit home to me in an article in The Guardian this week about the migrant caravan making its way from Central America to the US border. Climate change has been a determining factor in driving people, especially farmers, to desert their barren lands and emigrate. But farmers themselves who spoke to The Guardian did not articulate the problem through a climate politics lens. The focus of what had been driving the migrant caravan had been violence - immediate, relatable - not climate change.

The distance between cause and effect means political phenomena other than climate politics, like Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant nationalism, routinely win out in circumstances being driven by climate change, a phenomenon Trump is not even willing to accept is happening. The migrant caravan is like a gift from above for Trump just a week out from the mid-term elections. How many US voters next Tuesday are going to be thinking about the migrant caravan and the displacement of climate change, and how many are going to be thinking about the migrant caravan and Trump’s promises to stop them at the border? The question answers itself.

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There is no good reason why this problem of climate politics - where root causes are identified in political consciousness through their epiphenomena (migration, war, violence, etc) - will become any less of an issue for climate activists the more climate catastrophe becomes apparent. There will not be a eureka moment, in fact there’s good reason to believe that the more desperate people become the less likely they are to look towards universalist solutions and the more likely they are to bunch together in tribes that are familiar to them and against the other. We are already seeing that with the migrant caravan and the European refugee crisis (which scientists have also linked back to climate change). If we have entered the era of climate change already, it is being won politically by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Matteo Salvini.

So how do those of us who want to stop climate change start winning? One response is to reject the levers of representative democracy under capitalism and instead opt for direct action. Climate activists in Germany were successful at the weekend in shutting down a mining operation through civil disobedience. Today [31 October], a new group in the UK called Extinction Rebellion established itself as a climate direct action movement that hopes to become part of an international wave of resistance to the fossil fuel industry and its lackies in politics.

Around 1000 people held a sit-in on Parliament Square and issued their ‘declaration of rebellion’ against the UK Government for its climate inaction, and said that if it did not receive a response to its Declaration by 12 November “civil disobedience would commence”.

George Monbiot, one of those participating in the Extinction Rebellion, said “we are going to build, and build, and build, until the scale of the rebellion is commensurate with the scale of the problem…a existential predicament requires a universal response.” His column in The Guardian earlier in this week explored why governments could no longer be trusted with the planet.

Monbiot wrote: “With the exception of Costa Rica, no government has the policies required to prevent more than 2C of global warming, let alone 1.5C. Most, like the UK, Germany, the US and Australia, push us towards the brink on behalf of their friends. So what do we do, when our own representatives have abandoned public service for private service?”

This direct action politics is admirable and necessary. Direct action has been a potent force for change in the past and can be again in the future. It can help keep the issue in public consciousness. But we need to be aware of its inherent limitations as an effective form of climate politics - it is minoritarian, in the context of a crisis that requires majoritarian solutions.

The long and short of climate politics is that those serious about the sort of radical green transition the world requires need to win political power – the representatives which, as Monbiot correctly argues, have abandoned public service for private service need to be overthrown. To do that we need to command majorities. To command majorities we need to speak to the immediate concerns of the majority of people and win them over to our vision of the future. That means jobs, wages, housing, community, identity, dignity, and all the other political factors and emotions which drive most people’s political choices. This is the terrain the climate denial Right – with the help of centuries of prejudice and billions from corporations - are currently occupying better than we are.

The point here is not to say that to address climate change we shouldn’t talk about the issue of climate change. It is to say that climate activists need to be as serious about the politics as they are about the science, to give strategy equal primacy with the technical/economic answers. Just as those who deny climate change cannot disprove science, climate activists moral reason cannot over-ride politics. A green revolution can be won, but it will be with the majority behind us or not at all.

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