Why aren’t there more right-wing climate activists?

Updated: Apr 20

As part of my work for Worldward I’ve spoken to and worked with some of the most amazing and inspiring individuals and organisations; and in general, I love being a part of the wider climate activist community. Don’t get me wrong – I love the cause and the people devoting so much to it – but, like anything, it isn’t perfect. And having properly been in this community for just over two years now, there’s one issue that comes back to me over and over again: the deficit of right-wing voices in the space.

Now, of course, there is some right-wing support for our cause; I know of several wonderful right-wing climate organisations out there. Indeed it was none other than the UK Conservative party which enshrined 2050 as a net-zero date into law. Yet when the main players in the field are the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace - the former renouncing capitalism on its website; the latter renowned for its anti-technology views - a clear trend starts to emerge.

Now, it is very easy to characterise those on the right as uncaring and indifferent to social and moral issues; aside from this being, in my view, an unfair criticism anyway, I believe it cannot explain why the climate crisis is largely seen as a cause of the left.

Hear me out here. The political right is traditionally characterised by a desire for the status quo, and a general wariness of change due to the unpredictability it may bring. This is of course an oversimplification, and I do not mean to characterise all on the right as holding such views, nor none on the left. In an increasingly fractured and atomised society it is hard to assert a set of views held entirely by a large sect of people. You will, however, appreciate the general thrust of this characterisation: it is not a controversial one.

Many right-wing politicians have built their careers on opposing change. There are no shortages of examples in the US, for instance, with Senators – almost always Republican – such as Mitch McConnell gaining reputations as obstructionists intent on uprooting a host of social, fiscal and welfare packages and reforms. Whilst much of this Republican obstructionism took place during Obama’s two terms and could almost certainly be attributed to partisanship, it is clear that many of the US’ – and indeed the world’s – most Conservative figureheads have built careers on opposing change, at all cost.

The climate crisis fundamentally threatens the status quo. Just look at the foreseeable consequences alone: increased drought, wildfires, extreme weather occurrences and rising sea levels, as well as much more. These impacts are the epitome of uncertainty; and they most certainly will bring much economic instability too. We have already seen this in how nations today, even in the developed world, struggle to respond to natural disasters: just turn to Florida during Hurricane Dorian and the immense struggles they faced in the aftermath. Yet it is with the unforeseeable consequences the real uncertainty lies; where are the tipping points? What consequences will their breaching have? Supporting measures to mitigate these impacts surely fundamentally ought to appeal the Conservative instinct. No less a figure than Donald Trump, in 2009, recognised this and signed a full-page New York Times advertisement, along with many other business leaders, expressing his support for more climate legislation.

So, the question is – what went wrong? Why is it that those from anti-change political factions – indeed, very often the same people – are most associated with, at best, indifference to the climate situation; and, at worse, blatant denial? What turned Trump from a climate lobbyist to someone who claims the crisis was ‘Created by and for the Chinese’?

The words we use are important. They possess the power to persuade – and dissuade – swathes of people to and from a cause. It can often fall down to the phrasing – and the framing – of an issue by a group to shape how it is perceived by the public. This is why the climate community need to stop and think about how they present the issues to the general public. Climate change should not be roped with other social issues, like LGBT rights or racial equality, which, whilst important in their own right, simply dilute the climate message (I should add that activist organisations for these other causes needn’t, and often don’t, adopt stances on climate change).

Why so? Most people are not activist; and being surrounded by young people on Twitter and in Universities, as many of us are, it may be hard to appreciate this. Most people do not wish to be lectured on how they should think or live their lives, nor should they expect it. If people wish to support the climate cause, they shouldn’t feel obligated to sign up to a whole host of radical left-wing ideologies.

Yet that precisely is what has happened. Fridays4Future protests (before lockdown), the most mainstream manifestation of climate activism in the UK, became littered with flags and slogans for a host of other social issues. Acceptance of these other causes has become something of a necessary prerequisite for integration into even the most mainstream climate movement.

This is my theory for the lack of right-wing support for the climate movement. It has been turned into simply another part of the far-left canon and a proxy for other social issues, which are creeping into regular climate discourse and ultimately muddling in a cause which should be genuinely non-partisan; and, as I have explained above, if anything, should actually appeal to the Conservative instinct.

This is the case not just on the individual level, but on the political level too. It was partisanship that changed Donald Trump from a business leader rightly concerned with the impacts climate change may have on economic certainty to someone who called the crisis ‘an expensive hoax’; partisanship which moved the entire Republican party from supporting business-based solutions to climate change under John McCain to the effective climate denialist caucus we see today; partisanship the Democrats are almost certainly responsible for. Yet this goes wider than the Democrat-Republican divide. This is about how left-wing and right-wing politics across the world interact.

Those directly embedded within a cause have much power to shape the narrative surrounding it. Therefore, I call directly to fellow activists: listen to those with whom you may disagree. We can bridge the divide, though it’ll take time, something we don’t have an awful lot of.

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