If the politics of climate change end up polarised, is that so bad?
No – it’s disastrous. Or so I’ve long thought.
Look at the US – where climate is even more polarised than abortion. Result: decades of flip flopping. Ambition under Clinton; reversal under Bush. In to the Paris agreement under Obama; out under Trump. Re-engagement under Biden… you get the drift.
These kinds of wild swings are frustrating on any issue, but especially bad on climate given that it gets cumulatively worse the more emissions we put into the air , with the clock now ticking louder than ever.
Now compare the UK – where, as political strategist Steve Akehurst charts, we’re “not really polarised at all”. Cross-party consensus on net zero; emissions down 44% since 1990, more than any other developed country.
So. Don’t polarise climate. Right?
What’s consensus ever done for us?
Wrong, say a growing number of activists.
Britain is failing, they argue. Offshoring polluting industries to China, approving new coal mines, failing to make homes energy efficient, throwing billions at new roads, slashing aid on climate.
Britain’s climate consensus, they continue, is way too cosy. What we really need is clear dividing lines between political parties, with Labour becoming much more ambitious so as to shift the window of the politically possible. And if that means polarising the debate: so be it.
As a result, climate activists are increasingly willing to attack not just right wing climate deniers, but also centre left politicians – based on a sense that while public concern about climate may be spiking, that won’t lead to support for radical policies unless Labour uses its bully pulpit to push for them.
So we find climate activists denouncing the UK Labour leader, Keir Starmer, at public appearances (“you don’t care about our generation!”), accusing him of being “missing in action” for failing to back nationalisation of utilities, or sharing Momentum’s view that “the pledges Starmer was elected on are worthless”.
Or look at the US. Remember how the Tea Party pulled the Republican Party to the right – by firing up a populist base, fielding hardline candidates in primaries, and forcing moderate Republicans to toe the line or face defeat?
Now, progressive activists are at it as well. As this New Yorker piece sets out, a group called Justice Democrats is seeking to pull the Democrats to the left by forcing incumbent candidates to guard against insurgents like AOC. Guess who’s one of its key allies? The climate-focused Sunrise Movement.
The alliance has made its presence felt. Joe Biden may be a centrist, but his election campaign was fought on “the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in the modern history of the party”, as Justice Democrats purred at the time.
On climate, his timetable for 100% clean energy was brought forward by 15 years – delighting AOC and Sunrise. And once in office, the breathtaking sweep of his infrastructure and climate bill astonished many.
Caught between activists and voters
Now, though, storm clouds are gathering. Climate progressives felt badly let down by Biden’s infrastructure plan: as Sunrise commented, “so much more is needed to reach the scale of what is necessary to truly transform this country to stop the climate crisis”.
Centrists, meanwhile, are uneasy about the new Justice Dems / Sunrise playbook. They point out that, by only contesting safe Democrat primaries, these groups can ignore the party’s electability in swing districts – saddling the Democrats with leftist policies like defunding the police that hurt them in 2020 and could cost them dear at the midterms and in 2024.
It’s painfully familiar to anyone who lived through the Corbyn era and its aftermath here in the UK. The progressives see the centrists as sellouts. The centrists see the progressives as more interested in protest than power.
What if they’re both right?
What if it’s essential to have both bold policies and election wins to realise them? What if progressives and moderates – locked in their own form of polarisation – are wrong to assume they have to choose one or the other?
This is what the populist right is so good at, after all, with its knack for blending grassroots networks, advocacy groups, funders, and political parties into a whole that’s far more than the sum of its parts.
Which may be why they keep winning.
A different playbook for climate activism
So how could people who care about climate take a leaf out of their book – and apply it to the context we started with, UK climate policy?
First, accept that we can’t just win this with our core base. We have to win people over from across the political spectrum. As climate expert George Marshall puts it, climate is just “far too large to be solved without a near-total commitment across society”, given the sheer scale of the changes it means for our lifestyles.
Second, recognise there’s a coalition ready to be built here. Climate activists often act as if climate only matters to progressives. In Britain, that’s just not true. As research from Climate Outreach, More In Common and ECF shows, there’s agreement across the political spectrum that climate change is real and needs a global response – one that Britain should lead.
Third, we need to activate potential members of this coalition – from across the political spectrum. Winning them over will entail humility, curiosity, and a ton of active listening: all skills that are central to the campaigning technique known as deep canvassing, but which climate activists have often neglected.
Fourth, be clear that it’s this task – building a coalition that spans the political spectrum – that will really engage political leaders. Denouncing Keir Starmer may feel great, but it also creates a zero sum game which trades metropolitan middle class votes off against Red Wall votes. Doing the work of building up a national movement of voters from left and right who will vote for whoever is most ambitious on climate, on the other hand: real change.
Fifth, we need to remember how easy it is to alienate people outside our in-group, especially in the era of identity politics. Climate activists in the UK will recall how disastrously Extinction Rebellion screwed this up in rush hour protests at Canning Town underground – when it managed to infuriate rather than persuade.
There’s a risk now of repeating that mistake at much larger scale, if climate action is presented as part of a radical left agenda together with dozens of other issues – many of which are, unlike climate, far from being the subject of consensus across the political spectrum.
Last but not least: don’t polarise. The populist right is actively trying to make climate the next culture war. Why? Because they know that, far from building ambition on climate action, polarisation is the fastest and most effective way to destroy it and preserve the status quo. With the UK’s net zero plans in the balance, climate activists need to wise up to the trap being set for them.
Wanted: a partner in power
Much of this would break the habits of a lifetime for climate activism – and it would transform the politics of climate change in the UK. But let’s also be clear: climate activists can’t do this on their own.
They need a real partner who can convert the political space that they create into power.
And if centre left leaders like Keir Starmer want activists to work for them rather than against them, they must show why and how bridge building across political divides leads not to wishy washy, lowest common denominator policies that just split the difference with political opponents – but instead to genuine, long-term transformation.
If they can rise to that challenge, then maybe the left has a real shot at the kind of alliance between grassroots and parties that’s worked so well for the right in recent years – but an alliance that works for a larger us, rather than a them-and-us, and for climate justice rather than climate delay. That would be a prize worth winning.