How did an apparently settled cross-party consensus on net zero give way this suddenly to both Labour and the Conservatives backing away from their climate commitments? And what can climate campaigners do about it?
First and most obviously, we – the ‘climate sector’ – need to stop kidding ourselves that our issue is immune to polarisation.
We have been incredibly complacent about this, pointing again and again to the Ipsos and YouGov polling numbers, assuming that Nigel Farage and Steve Baker were doomed to fail in their attempts to create a net zero culture war, and refusing to see the risks in how suddenly polarisation kicked in in the US with the Tea Party in 2008-9 or in Germany with boilers in 2022-3.
Janan Ganesh’s column in the FT yesterday is an essential corrective to all this: why we should have taken those polling numbers with more than a pinch of salt, how ULEZ and LTNs lit the fuse, why the Conservatives will now do everything to make this a culture war issue, and why Labour is already backing away on net zero (and why, by extension, climate campaigners can’t assume that Tory electoral obliteration makes all our problems go away).
So – what do we do about this?
The single best playbook for what to do when populists try to ignite a culture war in an election campaign remains the Radical Love campaign that Turkey’s CHP used in the re-run Istanbul mayoral election in 2019. That strategy is broken down in a Twitter thread I did at the time here, but for our purposes a few key lessons stand out.
First and most fundamentally, we must not take the bait. In 2019 Erdogan wanted the CHP to polarise against him, because he’s a divisive politician who thrives in conditions of division, and because it would turbocharge his base. That’s likewise why Farage and Cummings wanted polarisation over Brexit, or why Steve Bannon wanted to infuriate liberals with Trump’s Muslim ban.
Same story here: the sceptics want climate to be polarised. That’s why Just Stop Oil is such a huge gift to them; why else would right wing media outlets be so keen to talk about JSO, or to link JSO to Labour?
(I would argue that Green New Deal Rising’s strategy is similarly problematic too, in the Labour context. GND are slating Starmer for postponing Labour’s promised £28bn of climate spending. But given that they gave him zero credit for it before he postponed it, the incentives are for Starmer’s team to conclude that they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.)
By the same token, we need to be so careful about messaging on climate justice, loss and damage and so on. These areas are crucial, and we need to stand our ground on them. But people on the right will be actively looking for ways to make us sound hard left, and it’s perhaps here that we’re most vulnerable.
If we fall into the trap of badging loss and damage as a form of reparations, for example, that will provide a huge gift to climate sceptics who will duly use it as evidence for climate action being part of a ‘woke’ agenda rather than a common sense agenda that everyone should get behind.
Polarisation has electoral risks, too. As the big parties back away on net zero, lots of people will express their frustration by voting Green or Climate Party. This too will give climate sceptics a huge free gift – by splitting the progressive vote. That’s what just happened in Uxbridge (where votes for Greens and Climate Party were enough to tip the election), just like it happened in the US election in 2000 (where Ralph Nader’s campaign meant Al Gore lost and George W Bush won).
Electoral reform and tactical voting: great idea. Splitting the progressive vote: catastrophic idea.
Second, emphasise shared values and shared action. This is something Radical Love did incredibly well: not just talking about shared identity in a more-in-common sort of way, but demonstrating it at every opportunity (their candidate was literally going around giving hugs to Erdogan supporters).
Their messaging was also explicit in naming the game that the populists were playing and the trap they wanted everyone to fall into – and successfully brought people together around a message that “They want conflict from us. But we, the people who do not want this nation to fight, we will insist upon embracing each other”.
In the context of UK climate policy, we need messages around three pillars.
(1) Climate change is clearly kicking in and we all know it (e.g. the Rhodes fires). The key here though is to stop short of taking people past their fight-flight-freeze overwhelm point, beyond which they just tune us out (always the risk with XR’s relentless focus on “sounding the alarm”).
(2) This is a pivotal moment in history and we all need to rise (think Churchill’s finest hour speech). This is about the future we’re handing down to our kids and grandkids, and they to their kids and grandkids; this is our “what did you do in the war daddy” moment.
(3) Taking the global equity argument head on. Yes, China is the biggest emitters. And that’s exactly why it’s so crucial that we do our part, because if we – the richest countries – don’t, despite our far higher per capita emissions, then they clearly won’t. (This is the one bit of Janan Ganesh’s FT piece that I disagree with: China and India will absolutely notice and use it against us if we’re not doing our part.)
Across all three pillars, we need to tell a story – an emotive, inspiring, gut-grabbing personal story – rather than fall into our usual trap of besieging people with facts and numbers and then wondering why their eyes have glazed over.
(I am also sceptical of green jobs as a top line message. Of course it’s crucial that we address energy intensive sector workers’ absolutely legitimate fear that they’ll be left for dead on the roadside the way the miners were in the 1980s – but for now, “green jobs” just feels too remote and abstract to win the argument without an appeal to deeper, more intrinsic values.)
Third, build a different climate movement. Regular readers will already know that we’re thinking a lot at Larger Us about climate conversations, which I think have vast potential as a way of engaging people who (a) aren’t talking about climate and (b) are looking for ways to have agency on the issue but don’t want to glue themselves to the road.
I am obsessed with the More In Common polling finding that the UK has highest majority of people anywhere in Europe who agree “the climate movement isn’t welcoming to people like me”: the movement we need has to be fun, welcoming, and hopeful rather than preachy, holier than thou and doom-laden.
The bit we still need to figure out next year, assuming our climate conversation pilots this year go well (which I think they will, in terms of getting people talking and giving people a great experience), is how to translate conversations into political impact.
As I said in a blog post last month, I don’t think conversations are a good way to build salience; ‘air war’ strategic comms approaches will always be better suited for that. I can imagine conversations enlisting people in a different kind of climate movement – but that still begs the question of what that movement will actually do, if not glue itself to the road.
Something we talk about a lot in our training programmes and that may be relevant here is the idea of actions at the three distinct levels of I, We, and World (shout out to The Alternative for this always helpful typology). What could that look like here, in the context of a new and more welcoming climate movement?
The I level, obviously, is about personal actions (eat less meat, insulate your loft, divest your pension). No, these don’t add up to systemic change and no, they’re not enough on their own – but they’re still essential as ‘starter actions’ that get people engaged, begin to build a sense of agency rather than overwhelm, and (crucially) demonstrate serious intent, and that we’re walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.
The We level can be about both having the conversations, and community organising in local groups. The climate front line is getting steadily more local after all (heaven knows ULEZ and LTNs prove that point), and there is a tonne we can achieve just by turning up to council meetings or writing joint letters to councils signed by thousands of residents.
But then what about World level? For me this is about building political power – power beyond our usual base – and then using it to
(a) Show politicians there are serious votes to be gained here – an argument we absolutely have not won, opinion polls notwithstanding. I still really like the idea of voters signing a pledge to vote on the basis of climate, that can then be aggregated into big numbers at both constituency and national level and then used as the basis for a big push on parties to raise their offer (The Commitment are starting to do this, but at very small scale).
(b) Hold politicians to account in office. Something that organisers like Citizens UK or the Civic Power Fund know well is that it’s not enough to just mobilise people to vote a certain way once every 5 years – the pressure has to be constant. And the flipside applies too: we also need to campaign for politicians when they get stuff right (green groups have often been so bad at this).
Another key area for action is that we need to build coalitions of unusual suspects like there’s no tomorrow. Green groups alone aren’t enough. Nor are green groups + development NGOs. Nor are green groups + development NGOs + other charities: still too homogenous, still too leftie.
The messengers we need right now are those who are uninterested in or uneasy about climate action, or – best of all – who’ve been actively hostile to it in the past (here’s looking at you, Jeremy Clarkson). Messengers who can tell a different story, bring in different partners, reach a different audience by talking to the things they care about.
Lawrence Weston in Bristol is a terrific example, and also proof that you don’t have to talk about climate in order to make big progess on climate. Platform’s work with oil workers is another (and we’ll be publishing a case study on that very soon). We need loads more examples like this, and then we need to hire really top drawer PR agencies to message them like hell – with our eco-brands nowhere in sight.
Fourth, be ruthless in junking messages that imply costs to voters. I know, ULEZ had a scrappage subsidy scheme for inner London; I know, ULEZ is an outlier in that while most voters oppose clean air zones, they support most other climate policies, including onshore wind.
But those messages are not cutting through, and the risk is we now lose the broader argument that climate policies save you money rather than costing it. (We’ve been relying on Labour to do a lot of the heavy lifting on making this case, but again, now that Labour is backing away, we can’t rely on that.) Losing this argument has been central to the clusterfuck around boilers in Germany, and we simply can’t afford to make the same mistake.
Again, I think this is an area where there’s really not much we can do with green brands at the forefront; there’s just too much risk of “well they would say that, wouldn’t they” (a problem that ultimately still applies to the Warm This Winter campaign, as helpful and constructive as it was).
Instead, we should be working to put together a coalition fronted by – say – trusted people who know about money (think Richard Branson, Karen Brady from The Apprentice, Martin Lewis of course, plus big trusted brand companies like M&S or John Lewis). People who can argue for a both/and on tackling climate and tackling cost of living, in part by defining themselves in opposition to green groups.
This isn’t about going on the attack against greens for the sake of it (and still less about trying to encourage polarisation), but is rather to make it impossible for climate sceptics to label the messengers as hairshirt treehugger woke dogooders. The political arguments here should be that:
(a) it’s totally irresponsible to attack net zero when everything is literally on fire
(b) but this is too important to be left to the greens
(c) people are really hurting financially and everything has to help them, not make their lives harder
(d) rather than new taxes / costs, we need to reduce costs – cheaper home insulation, cheaper heat pumps, cheaper renewable energy, cheaper EVs, cheaper training for green jobs
(e) and that needs to be the pole star for climate policy – which is why Labour was right to set the £28bn pledge (and must not postpone it), and why it was a disaster that the Conservatives have cut so many things that helped voters to do e.g. energy efficiency, solar, EVs etc.
Overall, the thing we need to face up to now is that everything has changed.
The bad news: the consensus we thought was a consensus was actually no more than a “thin yes” – one that has has now become spilt milk, under the bridge.
The good news: there’s a lot we can do about it, if we’re able to adapt. Now, our challenge is to to focus relentlessly on people who are persuadable rather than already convinced, to start where they are rather than where we are, and above all to prioritise winning over being right or who gets the credit.