Climate change is featuring in this UK election like it has never featured in any before. Barely mentioned in previous election cycles, this year we have seen it front and centre of manifesto pledges, and Channel 4 hosting a climate debate for the first time. Awareness and concern about climate change is at an all time high, and we are at a critical fork in the road: we vote for a government that will act on climate change, or we don’t and face the consequences.
For many campaigners, this is also a critical moment to make sure we are talking about climate change in the right way. Specifically, it’s about putting global justice into our frames, and not allowing the debate to focus so narrowly on emissions targets. It’s about framing climate change with reference to historical injustices, such as colonialism, acknowledging that those who are most affected around the world are the least responsible, and advocating solutions that redistribute power and centre the communities on the frontline.
But it’s not necessarily straightforward to talk about climate change in this way.
When Jeremy Corbyn was asked about climate change in the leaders debate, he didn’t even make it half way through the sentence “When the poorest people in the poorest countries lose out because of flooding and unusual weather patterns”, before being heckled: “Oh, here we go!” Possibly as a result of this reaction, global climate justice didn’t make it on the agenda at all in the climate debates last week, with each leader sticking closely to the territory of UK targets and election promises.
Talking about climate justice can be challenging because it brings together concepts that are not normally linked in people’s minds – climate change and colonialism, climate change and capitalism – because it can be uncomfortable to raise the spectre of our nation’s historical responsibility, and to hear about impacts on faraway people in faraway places when we have climate impacts happening here, right now.
For the past year we have been working with 350.org, NEON and an amazing group of 26 campaigners and activists on a Framing Climate Justice project. We’ve run focus groups to try and understand how people in Britain think about climate justice and now we’ve developed some new frame ideas which we will test over the next couple of months. We are excited to share those results, and we will do so in the Spring!
For now, though, we want to share some of the key, emerging insights we have about communicating climate justice in the run-up to the election.
When talking about the causes of climate change, introduce system design. 1
We found in our focus groups that many people subscribe to the idea of “innocent industrialisation”. That is, the idea that climate change is an unfortunate and unintentional consequence of necessary economic development. Beliefs like: “The nations who spearheaded the industrial revolution didn’t know the consequences of burning fossil fuels.” “The nations who are industrialising now can’t really be blamed for doing what we did.”
If we want to talk about capitalism and colonialism as root causes of climate change, we can start doing this by pointing to examples of how our global economy is set up to extract, exploit and pollute. Talking about global consumerism – for instance, the textile industry – might be an accessible way to start discussions about systems. People readily understand that the cheap clothes on UK highstreets rely on environmental destruction and social exploitation elsewhere.
We can use examples like this to talk about how our economy has been running on similar destructive design principles for hundreds of years. The problem is in the mindset of colonialism and capitalism, which relies on sacrificing people, water and land in some places for profit and comfort in other places.
What we need to emphasise is that climate change is a result of how we’ve designed the economy, and can therefore be approached with a new mindset and an ambitious redesign. In our past research on framing the economy, with NEF, NEON and the FrameWorks Institute, we recommended using the metaphor of ‘reprogramming’ to talk effectively about economic redesign.
Talk about the need for solutions that are proportionate to the scale of the problem. 2
As the consequences of climate change are increasingly being felt in the UK, people are sceptical of piecemeal solutions. In our research we also found that people don’t buy the idea (which George Monbiot argues was sold to us by the oil and gas industry) that blame and responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of individual consumers.
We can talk about how responsibility for climate change lies at every level, but how it is also correlated with past culpability, and influence to effect change.
We can also frame proposals that ignore climate justice (which many market strategies and technological fixes do) as being piecemeal and inadequate ways to respond. We can instead advocate large-scale economic transformations as being the kind of solutions that are up to the task.
Reassure people about the need for local solutions for climate change, when talking about global solutions. 3
In our focus groups, many participants agreed that people in “the third world” were the hardest hit by climate change, and had less resources to respond. However, it was much harder to find consensus for the UK’s role in supporting solutions to climate change in the Global South, because this came up against opinions like “we’ve got enough of our own problems to deal with here.”
When talking about impacts in the Global South, it helps to connect them with local impacts. A simple communication mantra for this would be: start local, end global, connect the two.
One way to connect local and global is to emphasise that the principle “those most affected are the least responsible” applies at home and abroad. Everywhere in the world, it is the people who are already at the sharp end (the poorest, the most marginalised) who will feel the brunt of climate change, because, for instance, they have less choice about where they live, can’t afford home insurance or have to work jobs that expose them to polluted, toxic environments. It is these same people who have the least power and resources to respond to climate change, and who tend to have less of a say in decisions that affect them.
People need help seeing that it’s not a zero sum game – that we can support global solutions at the same time as doing what is needed here. As above, we can do this by advocating big, economic and societal transformations that promise a shift away from fossil fuels in the UK as well as playing our part in international pledges to support countries worst affected.
Address fatalism with messages of hope, and examples of big changes. 4
At PIRC, we’ve written previously about the need for campaigners to use frames that show change is possible, and this is crucially important for communicating about climate justice. Our focus groups showed that most people were aware of the horrors of climate change, but were deeply sceptical that enough could be done, and quickly enough. It can be tempting for climate campaigners to use frames that emphasise urgency and emergency, but there is a risk with this strategy that it ends up reinforcing cynicism: “well, we’re already epically doomed, what is the point in trying to do anything now?”
What we can do is to be specific about the types of solutions that are needed, and then give examples of these solutions working in the past. At the moment, we’re trialling whether the NHS is an inspiring example of redistributing power and resources for the public good, and whether equal marriage and apartheid help us talk about marginalised communities advocating for their emancipation. Perhaps a good environmental example is the recent fracking ban, which was a triumph of local communities having influence over decisions that affected them. In any case, we need to think about what inspires us that climate justice is possible, and then pass this on in our frames.
Advocating for climate justice presents framing challenges, but now is the moment for campaigners to put it firmly on the political agenda. We hope these insights can help to do that.