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Climate activists now urgently need to reach out... to the centre-right!

We must bridge the political divide if we're to tackle climate change, argues George Marshall

2008 photo of re-elected Conservative MP, and former Ecologist editor,
Zac Goldsmith, who was at the launch of COIN’s report on the centre-right in 2013. Photo: Annie Mole

The UK election results on 7 May have left many climate activists dejected as they had pinned their hopes on the Labour party championing climate action over the next five years. But what should they do now?

Climate activists have traditionally been radically-minded, focused on the transformations needed to deliver a low-carbon society. But now one of the most radical things that climate advocates can do is to break out of the safety zone of left/liberal environmentalism and actively engage with centre-right audiences.

At COIN (the Climate Outreach and Information Network), we believe strongly that the crisis of climate change requires systemic changes rather than tinkering around the edges. We make no apology for this and are utterly convinced, from our reading of history, that these changes will only emerge from strong and outspoken political movements.

But no movement will win unless it has strength of numbers and influence. We should not delude ourselves that a highly motivated minority – what Marxists used to call the vanguard – can ever win this. This issue is far too large to be overcome without a near total commitment across society.

Yet, throughout the Anglophone world, there is a dangerous political polarisation around climate change.

In one particularly disturbing US poll, attitudes to climate change were a better predictor of respondents’ political orientation than any other issue – including gun control, abortion and capital punishment. Scepticism of climate change is not just an opinion, it has become a dominant mark of people’s political identity.

This is no small problem. People with ‘conservative’ values (some of whom may also vote for centre-left parties) constitute the majority in almost all countries.

Persuasive stories

Climate change exists for us in the form of socially-constructed stories or narratives built upon our values and identity. It is these narratives – not the underlying science or even the evidence of our own eyes – that leads us to accept or reject the issue.

Unfortunately, one of the dominant values in the climate movement is a disregard, if not outright contempt, for the right-leaning mainstream and their concerns. Activists often talk with disgust of the selfishness, greed and stupidity of conservatives. Does this signify a tolerance and openness?

The denigration conveniently ignores the diversity of opinion and life experience among small ‘c’ conservatives. A struggling rural family, an elderly Christian on a small pension, a community shopkeeper and a Wall Street banker are combined into one faceless enemy.

More often, though, people with centre-right values are just ignored. Few people in the climate movement want to deal with them, talk to them, or find out more about them. They simply don’t exist.

In early May, COIN led a communications workshop in Brussels for one of the largest international environmental networks – one we respect and have worked with for many years. We asked them: ‘Do you think that the climate change movement has a problem with its diversity?’ Absolutely, they replied, it’s too dominated by middle-aged men, too white, too middle-class, not enough involvement from minorities or indigenous peoples, not many disabled people.

Nobody mentioned the absence of centre-right voices, and certainly no-one in the room was admitting to being one.

Reaching out

Diversity is a powerful frame for progressives but its components have been (understandably) entirely defined by the struggles of marginalised groups for representation. As a result, we have ignored our own failure to involve the majority of our fellow citizens when we need to – and we need to with climate change.

Ironically, we know how to change this. We need to build bridges across society, not burn them down, we need to constructively engage people through their values, not just politicians. We need to create a social consensus that climate change is the defining challenge of the 21st century, which every member of society has a stake in.

Small ‘c’ conservatives aren’t the only ones, we need a far wider and genuine social and cultural movement than currently exists. But the centre-right matters.

In reaching out beyond the usual suspects, we don’t need to take on others’ values or condone them but we do need to have two-way conversations which allow those on the centre-right to see that climate change is an issue for them too, as we’ve set out in some of our recent work.

Conversations need to focus on centre-right values such as desire for safety and security, and the protection of the ‘green and pleasant land’, and the notion of building a better future.

As well as new messages, we need new messengers, voices that reach across the political polarisation and champion the shared values necessary for sustained climate action.

The process by which we respond to climate change creates the tramlines for our future strategies. If we use it to build a narrative around our interconnectedness and shared humanity, then we stand a good chance of pulling through, just as divided communities can settle their differences to pull together after a hurricane.

If we build our movement through distrust and division, we create the preconditions for future in-fighting, blame and scapegoating.

So the challenge to all people concerned about climate change is this: when are we going to accept the challenge of reaching across partisan boundaries and building a broad social consensus for action?

We do not even have to agree about the details of the solutions – indeed we need to maintain a strong debate. But surely we can come together in the recognition that dealing with climate change is the greatest calling of our age?

This article is an updated version of a blog posting by George Marshall, COIN’s director of projects, that was originally posted on his blog:

COIN is a Think and Do tank striving to create a society where climate change and its human impacts are widely accepted by the public and policy makers. Its practical guide to talking climate change with the centre-right is available on the COIN website:

Topics: Climate Change