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Climate change isn’t ideological, it’s everywhere: right, left and centre

June 13, 2013

In today’s Guardian, under the title “How to get sceptical Tory voters to care about climate change“, Adam Corner writes about COIN  – the Climate Outreach and Information Network – and an initiative it is promoting. Here’s how Adam, who specialises in the psychology of communicating climate change, describes it:

In a new report for the Climate Outreach & Information Network (Coin), launched on Thursday, we argue that there is no inherent reason why climate change and the values of centre-right should be incompatible. However, there is a vacuum where a compelling conservative narrative on climate change should be – something which the report, entitled A new conversation with the centre-right about climate change [links to PDF], takes the first steps towards addressing.

No inherent reason? Perhaps not, but trying to find common ground isn’t quite the same as forming an analysis of why too many on the right of the political spectrum might disagree, albeit for reasons they might not be able to articulate. I want to argue here that the right is suffering from a kind of malaise, and unless we can convince the sceptics of this, they will have no interest in finding anything in common with those they describe compulsively as ‘the left’.

Is that a fair thing to say: that the right’s view is coloured by ideological conflation? It seems so, because so pervasive is this narrative that COIN themselves employ it on their website, where they adopted a strange figure of speech delivered to them in a recent conference, in which an attendee claimed that climate change exists in a ‘left wing ghetto’ (from which it must break out, apparently – more on this momentarily). Bad enough that such hyperbole should not simply be dismissed, let alone adopted by COIN and, by doing so, conferred with some perverse kind of legitimacy.

Adam Corner summarises the COIN report, describing four ‘narratives’ that he thinks will plug in to the conservative world view in a way that previous narratives have failed. You can read the elaborations for yourselves in the COIN report, but they are fairly predictable, almost clichéd, reiterations of what conservatives are supposed to care about: localism; energy security; the green economy/‘new’ environmentalism and the Good Life. What COIN seem to have avoided is mounting any kind of challenge to the process by which conservatives think that climate change is in a ‘left-wing ghetto’, let alone that it needs to break out of it. Finding some less offensive topics to mull over smacks of pandering to ideological, or indeed adversarial, irrationality. What we should be doing is finding ways to get conservatives to stop conflating socialism with climate change and the way we address its challenges. In order to do that, we need to ask why this conflation occurs.

In the article, a single paragraph seemed to encapsulate the problem:

…we know from academic research that what determines perceptions of climate change is not only – not even mostly – people’s knowledge about the science. It is their values and political views that more directly influence their attitudes about climate change and how to respond to it.

Perhaps instead of ducking the issue by finding ‘soft’ subjects that offend less, provoke less, we should ask the harder question: why some people so willingly (or wilfully) conflate the science of climate change with an ideological agenda, particularly those with influence at Westminster, like Nigel Lawson’s GWPF, or the person who dumped climate change into a ‘left-wing ghetto’.

What causes them to do so? Can it be prevented? I think it’s important to address this issue, because finding some neutral topics which we can discuss without invoking polarised ideological posturing isn’t the same as agreeing on what we can do about them. I think the second we talk about solutions, and specifically money, we’re going to be mired in exactly the same arguments we’ve already endured.

******

Climate change science is not conducted, nor couched, within an ideological framework. Science is the same for the left as the right, for men as well as women, for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists; Indians and Chinese, Americans and Greeks…in other words, science has no ideology.

Where climate change inevitably becomes ideological is when we start to discuss what to do about it. That said, I reject the notion that credible political, social or economic responses to climate change are implicitly ‘left-wing’, and they certainly do not exist in any kind of ghetto (an allusion I find rather baffling, actually). However, the remark, and the overall thrust of the article, both imply the question I hope the author and his team will consider: why do the solutions look to the right-wing like socialism? What is it about climate change that makes them draw their swords, thinking the enemy is at the gate? What is it that causes them to reject, on ideological grounds, not only the solutions, but often of the problem itself, and the science that describes it?

I think the problem is that the only meaningful solution to climate change is trans-national.

At no time other than during two world wars have governments across the globe been obliged by an existential threat to cooperate at a level so fundamental that political differences had to be buried, at least until the crisis was over. Climate change is such a threat; even though our attempts to date have been abysmal, at the institutional level it is believed that only by concerted cooperation between all nations can the potential disaster be averted. I’m all for localism actually, but I don’t see it stopping climate change any time soon – and later is, inevitably, too late.

So it’s a trans-national problem, and clearly that requires a trans-national solution. Unfortunately, the distinction between the public’s understanding of government and governance is rather tenuous. Most of us understand the former, but governance is an ambiguous term, depending on how it is both promoted and effected. Some useful synonyms might be ‘management’ or ‘administration’; to the right-wing, another, more unfortunate synonym appears to be ‘world government’.

And now we’re in trouble!

******

Two observations then: first of all, and perhaps stating the obvious, climate change requires us all to work together. If that sounds like socialism, then we’re listening with cloth ears. We seem to be so used to competition, or adversarial antics, at every level of our society, from the individual up to the state, through enterprise and even – stupidly – culture, that many of us cannot but help regarding the kind of collective enterprise we need now as another assault on our freedom by those in love with big government and centralised diktat. Exactly the kind of assault that so many conservatives think they are threatened with, usually by some insidious, conspiratorial form of socialism (and one that aspires to the formation of a world government, I expect).

It is a mistake, and a serious one. What we need is joined up governance on the global scale, free from the bickering and demagoguery that adversarial ideologies engender. Whatever shape you would like to fashion for the world around you, that shape is threatened by climate change, and mistaking the collaborative solutions for an ideological agenda just paralyses us. Look at the US Republicans; in every way, their actions are dictated by their visceral dislike of Democrats, who they think – hilariously from a European perspective – are a bunch of lefties. The same counter-productive motives plague every international conference on climate change, rendering each futile exercise a bloody waste of money, time and media attention.

There are many new narratives we need to open up with the right, but I don’t think we’ll make much headway until conservatives stop being quite so frightened of socialism. The rhetoric is anxious, harking back to ‘reds under the bed’, even as global capitalism has brought China into the fold in such a big, un-ideological way. In truth, socialism isn’t doing very well when all is said and done, yet the rhetoric of the right makes it sound like commie tanks are crossing the Elba as we speak, while the Chinese hack our every communication. (Boy, did the anxious US get that one wrong!)

I said I had two observations. To recap the first: the things we need to do to address climate change may look superficially like socialism, but in reality the actions must be a product of the collective, non-ideological position all governments and institutions are required to adopt if they are to succeed. Collaboration is not a socialist invention.

The other is this: to fear a global administration is actually very foolish, since – at the behest of the right-wing, and their admiration for global economic growth, we’ve already got one. The economies of the world no longer function with any semblance of domestic independence. Ownership is diverse, finance is diverse; we invest in each other, our money travels the globe in seconds, and no government can credibly claim to be in control of its own economy.

What we need now is to find commonality between all ideological positions, drawing on the strengths of a joined-up global economy, and learning from its weaknesses. If economic global governance can be made to work without bringing the entire edifice of democracy crashing down around our ears – and the right seem pretty convinced of it – then let’s do the same for our environment.

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