As Washington swirls with the drama and intricacies of the impeachment enquiry, spare a thought for climate. Yes, our climate.
Much was written in Europe, and elsewhere, about the remarkable Greta Thurnberg. The effectiveness of her singular obsession with the issue – seemingly aided by an Asperger’s condition that leaves her unaffected by social cues that would deter most of us – caused a storm. She was honest, impassioned, and right about the dire consequences awaiting our planet if we fail to take action. Yet, her message was also largely ineffective this side of the pond.
Not that she was a hypocrite, having made her way to the US on a solar-powered sailing boat. Everyone remembers Al Gore’s huge mansion powered by low wattage light bulbs.
Just last month, the rich and famous made their way to Sicily by way of private jet and luxury yacht to discuss climate change. Really. It made for great headlines here in America: ‘further evidence of the liberal elite telling ‘us’ what to do, while abiding by a different set of rules…’
For the host, Google, being tone-deaf in the climate debate counted for little. It was a lobbying effort. Besides, compared to the Exxon Mobile’s of the world, at least they’re trying to do something.
Even in America it’s apparent that the climate is accelerating faster than expected. Anecdotal evidence is piling up. In cities like Houston, Miami, Charleston, and San Francisco, historic rains, drought and storms are starting to sway public opinion.
In Atlanta this September more heat records were broken than any ever before. Even some Republicans – accustomed to towing the party line of sowing seeds of doubt about the cause of climate change – are beginning to acknowledge the changing conditions.
This is a first step. As one ardent Trump supporter, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, put it bluntly: ‘I didn’t come to Congress to argue with a thermometer.’[i]
Whether Republicans are prepared for real measures is another matter as, for many Americans, taking away an automatic right to a supercharged engine is akin to taking away their guns – not on your life.
In this context, let’s examine how Greta was received in the US. While many praised her direct message and blunt language, not a single person we spoke to had actually changed their mind; while Fox News’s depiction – satirizing a Stephen King novel ‘children of the climate’ – generated lots of laughter, regardless of political conviction.
Also, Greta Thunberg’s angry accusations against politicians, paradoxically, made them seem sympathetic by comparison. In America even a dagger to the back is often accompanied with a smile; in the political culture and day-to-day-life outward politeness is a constant, especially in the South, which is where most people need convincing about the human impact of climate change.
Maybe Greta’s speech at the UN swayed some young people, and gave momentum to environmentalists. But it did little to sway public opinion, define a clear strategy, or mark a way forward.
So, with the oxygen sucked from the pages of the news by impeachment, how can real change be inspired in America?
For America to take a leadership role on climate two things need to occur. First, Republicans, who make 30-40% of the national electorate, need to be convinced that this is an urgent priority. Currently a majority either think it’s a non-issue (outright denial), or that it should not be a priority.
Secondly, the issue needs to be reframed into one of opportunity, rather than as a daunting problem because of our past and current habits. This last point is often missed. America has thrived on being a nation of opportunity. Obama got elected on the back of a message of hope; Trump on a ticket of change to the status quo.
When it comes to climate, we are far more adept at talking in terms of catastrophes than we are at talking up opportunities. Perhaps it is because obvious solutions simply don’t exist, or perhaps it’s the size of the task appearing too big.
Yet for there to be real action this issue needs to be reframed. Environmentalists should stop trying to inspire fear, and instead talk in terms of opportunity, disruption, innovation, the American Dream, leadership – appeal to America’s pride rather than guilt. And perhaps remember that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as opportunity! Taking on board this message is key to winning the next election.
[i] Rebecca Beitsch and Miranda Green, ‘GOP lawmaker parodies Green New Deal in new climate bill’April 4th, 2019, The Hill, https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/437244-gop-lawmaker-introduces-viable-alternative-to-green-new-deal