Where Placards Fail… Personal Responsibility And Climate Change

As talks at COP26 come to a close, a draft deal has been published, committing to ending coal and fossil fuel use, aid to vulnerable nations, as well as a stipulation that all countries submit long-term strategies to reach net-zero carbon emissions by early next year. A final deal, however, is yet to be passed, with talks continuing into Friday night. Concerns are being raised as to whether these measures will prove sufficient, or whether, COP26 is, in the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg, a “failure” in which politicians are only “pretending to take our futures seriously.”

Chants, striking banners and cardboard signs of “The blood of the world is on your hands,” megaphones blaring, fists punched vehemently into the air, people glued obstinately to walls and roads. But enter the doors of Glasgow’s SEC (Scottish Event Campus) and we find PM Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden slowly dropping off to sleep. Whilst some may well consider themselves as being part of the vociferous band of “social justice warriors,” seeing this, I would prefer to consider myself a social justice worrier. For the more the people shout, the less the leaders seem to hear.

There is no doubt that protests can be unfathomably powerful and have long-lasting and far-reaching impacts. Take Mahatma Ghandi, an anti-colonial nationalist and political ethicist who employed nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule, or Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary in South Africa. But now, it seems that division, dissension, rage, resentment, hostility, a toxic with-us-or-against-us binary mentality, insurrection and inquisition have become the most suitable words to describe our time. And yet none of these produce change, rather inertia if not a tendency towards backlash. Instead of rational dialogue for the betterment of culture and environment, the political “left” and “right” have become explosive terms, where neither, on either side, can hear a word the other shrieks, and nor do they want to, because people would prefer to be right than to be effective.

Protests have therefore become a cathartic uplift of sympathy and public righteousness that fail to do much more than provide entertainment and news bulletins. Indeed, not since the Arab Spring ten years ago have we seen such anger and frustration from activists and division between rulers and people. Brexit, the 2020 U.S. election and storming of the capitol, the BlackLivesMatter movement and its repercussions, and now climate activists all fighting for that quasi-mystical, utopian word: change. Even when, or rather if, protests do work, it must eventually come to a stage of negotiation and compromise, as the status quo cannot simply be dispensed with overnight. That means working within existing structures as well as discussing alternatives. At COP26, delegates have been seen abandoning talks and joining protestors on the streets: it seems politics has become a pastime, a day out rather than a means for creating real, substantive change.

When a vitriolic placard or doomsday-phrasing is used for the sake of impact and drama (the clickbait-hype under another guise), it fails in its lack of nuance. For example, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson claimed that climate change has resulted in “mass migration around the world already taking place due to prolonged drought in countries, particularly in South Asia.” The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), however, has said that “there is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide, but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause.” The key word, here, is “direct,” for it may be that climate change is affecting these occurrences, but to state them unequivocally as mass existential threats is specious and misleading. Furthermore, in 1931, 3.7 million people died from natural disasters. In 2018, just 11,000 did. And that decline occurred over a period when the global population quadrupled. Does this mean we should not worry about climate change? Not at all. But there is good evidence that the catastrophist framing of climate change is counterproductive because it alienates and polarizes those who read it (a feeling of “we’re too far gone to stop it” or “shouting at me will get you nowhere”). Exaggerating climate change risks distracting us from the alterations we can and should make.

Nor does this vindicate politicians for their lack of action or their unacceptable mid-summit naps, but it is merely an attempt to question a movement that is terribly afraid of the shadow of any structure, and that automatically conflates leadership with corruption and tyranny. Climate change is indeed one of the greatest challenges of our time. But if we want to save endangered species, limit global warming, prevent the destruction of habitats and nature, we need to do so because we care about wildlife for spiritual, ethical, or aesthetic reasons, not for the sake of proving politicians wrong or to destroy what is purportedly a corrupt system. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Mandela ostensibly freed himself from narrow ideology and racial hostility, allowing him to seek the national reconciliation that led to a greater liberty for all the citizens of South Africa, no matter the colour of their skin. We must escape the overly simplistic and even false ideology that prevents any implementation of the change it claims to be and, in so doing, become more nuanced thinkers that improving the world necessitates. That is the responsibility of our generation.

Down between the space of the culture wars, the regular people, you and I, are left wondering what on earth we ought to do, or rather, what on earth we can do. Of course, protests remain a civil liberty, but it is our behaviour and ideas which set the parameters for politics, not the slogans on our placards. The protests over the Iraq War in the UK in 2003 drew over a million people. They were the largest demonstrations in years, but it was not enough to change the position of the Blair government. Part of the reason was the lack of cogent political advocacy to engage with the government once the antagonism had arisen. On the other hand, Britain banned smoking in pubs once a large majority no longer smoked. It banned the use of wild animals in circuses once almost no one went to such circuses and only a few dozen animals were left. Such is now happening in Denmark, a frontrunner in terms of its climate goals, where popular support and behaviour, rather than exaggerated bitterness, has fuelled climate consensus across political parties and is now being put into law.

Government policies often follow our actions, rather than driving them, and that is why changing one’s own behaviour is the first step to helping reduce climate change. It requires an honesty and candidness that we seem to have lost in shouts and expletives, expressions of concern and suggestions for improvement rather than instilling existential fear in the public, and a desire to make small changes on a day-to-day basis. Whilst boring in comparison to rallying stridently in the streets, those who wish to further the climate cause should vote, learn, join political parties, comment, debate, improve one’s own actions, and, above all, encourage and remain hopeful.

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