The Rhetoric of Reaction: Polarisation or Consensus?

Jude Wilkinson discusses consensus-building vs polarisation as two distinct methods of political change with regards to the climate crisis.

In the years following the financial crisis, David Cameron promised to lead the ‘greenest government ever’. The result was decidedly mixed. Increasingly dependent on the Conservative right, Cameron appointed Owen Paterson - considered by many a climate sceptic - to head up the government’s response to the climate crisis. After the 2015 election, the requirement for homes to be ‘zero carbon’ was removed, while start-up renewable energy companies went bust as the government scrapped solar and wind subsidy schemes.

Rhetoric stretched thin as the few achievements of the coalition years were undone. A chasm formed between actions and words. The 2015 Conservative manifesto promised (albeit rather vaguely) spending of £3 billion on ‘the environment’, but polling from 2014 found that only one in three Conservative MPs thought man-made climate change was an established fact.

And as the climate crisis exploded into the public consciousness in late 2018, many of us believed - or rather hoped - that this wouldn’t be a lost decade for the environment. An outpouring of hope, fused with a sense of indignation and rage, transformed political dialogue.

The pressure put on the government, though mediated by the counter-narratives that emerged, forced them to accept much of the logic that underpinned the protests: indifference was no longer acceptable, and outright scepticism was confined to the furthest backbenches. Those responding to the protests no longer took issue with the necessity of taking action on the climate crisis, but with how the protests were being carried out, or the extent of the reforms being demanded. This increasingly equivocal and untenable narrative forced critical commentators to tread a thin line: claiming to be just as ambitious as the protesters in their desire to see action taken on the climate crisis, whilst taking aim at the style of the protests. And when the government compromised on several demands, including the ratification of the ‘net-zero by 2050’ ambition, they inferred that they had been eager to reform all along, heralding themselves as ‘pioneers’.

At the same time, a minority of politician pundits simply rejected the central premise of protests that man-made climate change was real. Climate sceptics debased themselves by smearing and patronising then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg. Andrew Bolt, an Australian columnist, labelled the campaigner ‘deeply disturbed’, whilst former President Trump sarcastically said she needed to ‘chill’. Other commentators took a more moderate approach, adopting the line that Thunberg was ‘damaging’ the education of her peers through encouraging them to strike. The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s famous civil rights ballad took on a new relevance: ‘your old road is rapidly agin’/ please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/ for the times they are a-changin’.

Ironically, that pundits felt the need to gaslight a 15-year-old illustrates the remarkable success of the climate protests in seizing the centre-ground of discourse. That the protests did this through largely polarising tactics is even more remarkable, and disrupts the grain of conventional political logic. The consensus-building approach absolutely can work, and remains a predictable path to power (as recent events attest to), but the policy of non-violent disruption delivered incredible success and effectively adapted to a changing media landscape.

This is partly reflective of how the content of coverage is increasingly irrelevant: the presence of it is what matters. Even disproportionately negative reporting does not necessarily destroy individuals or movements in politics. In this way, the protesters’ bizarre displays of dancing, and their occupation of bridges in London City Centre, dominated the political landscape and brought a totally unprecedented salience to the climate crisis. Against this salience, counter-narratives emerged, some along the lines of the perversity thesis as characterised in Alfred Hirschmann’s ‘the Rhetoric of Reaction’. Tackling climate change - so the argument ran - is dependent upon technological innovation, which can only arise if the private sector is empowered to innovate. Radical action by the government, in other words, would achieve precisely the opposite of what was being intended.

Irrespective of the truth of the perversity argument, it is self-evident in its deployment that the debate was held, and continues to be held, on the terms of the protesters, and that is surely one of the greatest victories of the climate movement. But if the climate movement is to build on its successes, it must deal with the dissonance at the heart of the climate debate: that the very notion of the ‘climate’ is still too intangible.

I would therefore argue that the way to build on the legacy of the climate movement is to pursue a policy of polarisation. The climate crisis uproots conventional political logic to the extent that unthinkably radical direct action has had remarkable success in shifting the narrative and creating substantive legislative change. Consensus-building, I would argue, cannot be applied as effectively. Rather, the climate movement should bring attention to the gap between ‘actions and words’, highlighting an establishment bent on its own preservation at the expense of future generations. It is the climate which ought to predominate in the post-COVID era, and for the sake of our future further reform must be forthcoming.


Jude is studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick. 
He Tweets at @judefkwilkinson.
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