Climate Change Should be Political but not Partisan

November 14, 2018

It’s pretty common to hear people deriding the fact that climate change is a political issue, or asserting that in fact it isn’t. I see this most in the American context, but over in my neck of the global woods too. And this view is even espoused by some people that I have a lot of respect for.

To take just one example:

Yet I disagree.

I strongly think that climate change is, and should be seen as, a political issue.

But I don’t mean what you probably think I mean.

I certainly do not mean that it should be something the left wing parties champion and is denied by the right. That is sadly the situation in the US at the moment, and it is a very bad situation. I definitely don’t think it should be a partisan issue.

Why we should view climate change as a political issue

No, I’m using the term ‘political’ in its much broader sense, to mean not just about political parties but about power relations. That’s what I mean when I say this is a blog about climate politics. Not just the UN climate negotiations or national party policy, or even activist campaigns for policy changes, but all the ways in which climate and power interplay.

In this sense, climate change is intensely and intimately political. The first ever post on this blog was showing how climate change is a matter of human rights, politics and justice. In that post I outlined three core points:

  • Responsibility for climate change, its impacts and the capacity to adapt to it are unequal
  • Climate change deepens every existing social inequality
  • Climate action has huge potential to enhance equality and human rights

In Jason Hickel’s excellent book The Divide, (affiliate link) he contextualises climate change as another wave of injustice wrought by the rich countries against the poor countries, in an onslaught over the last few hundred years which has included structural adjustments, violent coups, unequal treaties, colonialism and slavery.

You can look at this within countries as well as between them. If you’re that way inclined, you could view climate change as a structural injustice by the rich ruling classes against the working class and the poor.

On an individual level, the richer someone is, the bigger their personal carbon footprint is likely to be. And the richer someone is, the more power they have to influence the economic and political system.

The fact that climate change is mostly caused by the rich and yet the poorest, who have done least to cause it and have the least resources to respond, will be hit most seriously by the damaging impacts – is uncomfortable. But it is important.

This girl walking through a flood in Bangladesh is one of the people hurt by climate injustice. Photo credit: DFID / Flickr, BY-SA 2.0

You can also look at this from the perspective of companies, not countries. The peer-reviewed 2017 carbon majors study traced two thirds of industrial emissions to just 90 companies.

It’s now well known that oil majors such as Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change and not only continued to produce and sell the oil they knew would cause dangerous climate change, but used their power to hide their research from the public, spread misinformation and doubt about the emerging science and lobby governments to support fossil fuels even more. This didn’t just naturally happen – powerful individuals made choices that resulted in this injustice.

Despite all of this, lots of people still insist on framing climate change in an apolitical way – meaning a way that strips out the political causes and implications of the issue. But the politics is still there – it’s just obscured.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
– Desmond Tutu

As I described in my post on why we can’t rely on individuals to solve climate change, the dominant view of climate change is an apolitical one which is really a neoliberal framing. It suggests that everyone is responsible for climate change because of our use of fossil fuels, and we can solve it if we all make small changes in our shopping and lifestyle habits, such as by sporting reusable coffee cups, energy efficient light bulbs and canvas totes.

Such a framing is problematic. Not because it’s wrong – after all we are all implicated in climate change and we can make a big impact by making changes to live more sustainable lifestyles.

The problem is that it totally obscures the power relations we’ve been talking about in this post, implying that we’re all equally to blame and have equal power to fix the problem.

It lets fossil fuel companies like Exxon, historically high-emitting countries like the US and UK and powerful individuals totally off the hook for their outsize parts in this crisis. And it obscures how the economic system itself is geared towards automatically creating environmental damage – but that’s a topic for another post.

Only by recognising the power relations and injustices inherent in climate change can we:

  • Understand the causes properly, helping us fight climate change more effectively
  • Avoid recreating these same power relations and injustices in our response

So that’s why I think we need to see climate change as a political issue – using ‘political’ in its broader sense to mean about power.

Why we should not view climate change as partisan

As I mentioned at the start of this post, having climate change as a highly partisan issue, like abortion or gun rights or whatever, is a big problem in the US.

It’s such a problem because the Republican position is such a ridiculous one. It’s pretty mainstream on the American Right to believe that climate change is not real, or is not caused by humans putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and therefore we should do nothing about it.

It would be much better (and perfectly plausible) if the Republican position was that we should deal with human caused climate change with market-based solutions and that companies and investors can lead on this issue. There is some small but hopeful signs of movement towards this line of thinking.

If that was the case, we could argue over the most effective forms of climate action, with consensus on action of some sort being needed. That would be a hell of a lot better.

But as climate change is now so urgent, with all scenarios for keeping under the magical 2C line (let alone 1.5C) requiring extremely deep and rapid cuts in emissions, it looks like this can only be done with concerted radical action, not gentle market nudges.

Many have made comparisons to the war effort, where the US government re-orientated the whole economy to rise to this one challenge. The Right didn’t have a problem with ‘government intervention in the economy’ then, because winning the war mattered way more than ideological rules.

The longer we leave it before making the cuts to emissions we need to see, the more radical the action will have to be. It’s quite likely that by the time we get around to taking this seriously, we will need to be quite single minded about the challenge and do whatever science shows to be most effective at cutting emissions and storing carbon – never mind if the solutions are more ideologically aligned with the Right or the Left.

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As I’m firmly on the Left, I very strongly want to see a left-wing response to climate change, that rebuilds our economy not just to be low-carbon, but also to be more equitable and more fair, prioritising wellbeing and human rights over profit. That’s what this blog is about.

And you know what? I even more strongly want to live on a planet hospitable to human life.

Those two are fully aligned in my eyes.

But taking a step back, I recognise that the struggle between the Right and Left is not going to resolve itself, and when it comes to it we have to prioritise a safe climate and work together across the political divides to achieve that.

Of course we are going to argue over what forms of climate action are best. That’s fine. But we should not have our political parties so entrenched in their ways that it creates political deadlock and stifles creative solutions.

That’s why climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Some of the people who proclaim climate shouldn’t be political actually mean it shouldn’t be partisan, and so would agree with me.

Some people though, don’t want climate to be seen as a political in the broader sense either, because they have a stake in the status quo and don’t want the power structures to be challenged.

Well, I say we challenge them.

Featured image credit: Illustration by DonkeyHotey posted to Flickr with  CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons license.

Tegan Tallulah

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and digital marketer. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos.

Tags: American politics, building resilient societies, climate change, Politics, social inequality