This week Extinction Rebellion have capitalised on a pause in the Brexit drama to seize some news headlines. (My family inadvertently featured in some) It’s been interesting to see how various news outlets have reported on the blockades in London and elsewhere. They tended to divide along fairly predictable lines, but the one that caught my attention was The Times. Their editorial comes closest to what I think the government’s view is.
The piece was called ‘The Times view on climate protestors: Green Growth’. It’s here without the paywall if you want to read it first. It acknowledges that we should “move swiftly to limit carbon emissions”, which is encouraging, but there are several important features to the argument that I wanted to highlight:
- Climate change matters to an increasing number of people. This is a common compromise. Like saying ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ rather than ‘sorry I was offensive’, it recognises the issue without taking responsibility.
- The future is “constrained by population growth and climate change” – in that order, noting that growth is “concentrated in Africa and Asia”. No mention of per capita emissions.
- Britain is a leader in climate change. A very common response in Britain. This is partly true at best, but the high point of Britain’s leadership was the Climate Change Act ten years ago and we’ve been more or less coasting since. I wonder if that moment of decision has almost licensed the neglect that followed.
- It’s China and India’s fault really. The Times suggests XR should protest outside the Chinese embassy, but his ignores per capita emissions, historic emissions, and the fact that China is showing more climate leadership than Britain. The low point of China’s obstruction on this issue was 2009 in Copenhagen, so blaming China is a ten year old excuse that isn’t relevant today.
- Free trade is what matters. This is almost a non-sequitur in the editorial, which ends its hatful of observations on climate protest with a defence of open markets.
- Green growth – it features in the title, and it’s the government’s vital ‘get out of jail free’ card. Their Green GB week, after all, was explicitly a celebration of green growth, not climate action in its own right.
- “No one knows the future pace of global warming, or indeed its precise causes” says The Times right at the end. That’s an extraordinary statement in 2019. It’s false and worthy of a retraction, because we do know perfectly well what causes climate change, however inconvenient it may be.
The Times have hit all the key points there, and I’m not sure you’ll find a better summary of mainstream conservative thinking on climate change. It’s a good reminder that framing matters, and the words and metaphors that we use around the climate should be chosen with care. People don’t make decisions based on facts alone, but through social identities and allegiances. The way an issue is framed can make all the difference.
How do we talk about climate change to Conservatives? Others have written about this more eloquently than I can. The best resource on this is, in my opinion, George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It. His charity Climate Outreach has a variety of tools for communicating climate to different audiences. The Climate Reality Project has done some useful work, and so have Bright Blue – see this report on Conservative attitudes to the environment. The Times recognises that climate action is necessary, and we need patient and constructive engagement to move that forward.
We also need protest, and the Times editorial also shows why Extinction Rebellion has a place. There’s no sense of urgency or importance in establishment thinking on the climate – we probably should do something as ‘an insurance policy’ as the Times puts it, and because it matters to people. But it’s not our fault, the science isn’t conclusive and we certainly shouldn’t trouble the economy or growth. That kind of complacency needs disruption. Environment secretary Michael Gove says the government have “got the message” from Extinction Rebellion, but it will take more than words to call it off. And perhaps XR should protest outside the offices of The Times while we’re at it.
- Update: Here’s Boris Johnson spouting almost exactly the same points in his column for the Telegraph.