Stop saying yes: Bright-siding

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

David Spratt at the blog Climate Code Red has recently spoken out against what he calls “bright-siding”: a misguided tendency for climate activists (and governments) to campaign on the arguable side-benefits of climate policies (eg. green jobs), rather than explain the urgent necessity of phasing out fossil fuels to avoid dangerous global warming. I generally agree with Spratt’s arguments, which are worth reading in full.

Spratt suggests the motivations for bright-siding include beliefs that people will respond best to messages about clean energy, climate change science is too depressing, and/or positive thinking is inherently beneficial. There is a misconception that dire warnings about climate turn off listeners, but this is based on one small study which has been misinterpreted (in fact, the message which didn’t work was that global warming is dire and unsolvable, and the message which did work was that global warming is dire but solvable). A related idea is that the public is constantly exposed to negative messages about climate change, but this is a myth.

A recent overseas study concluded “media coverage of climate change and elite cues from politicians and advocacy groups are among the most prominent drivers of the [US] public perception of the threat associated with climate change”. Astoundingly, US media coverage of climate change peaked in 2007 (following the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the IPCC AR4). Anecdotally, as media coverage has declined in amount it also became less negative. Americans’ concern about climate change has declined accordingly (though it is now rebounding). In an Australian context, the number of Australians who agree with the statement, “Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs”, has fallen from 68% in 2006 to 36% today.

As climate competes with short-term issues, those who fail to talk about the scientific basis for drastic action on climate change are implicitly telling the public it is not a serious problem. Offenders include the Australian Government, who no longer mention climate change at all, and whose main selling point for its carbon price is that it’s associated with compensation, which voters reasonably suspect will counteract the very purpose of the policy. Climate activists who fail to advocate serious action are making a similar mistake: if we don’t convey what is necessary, then who will?

It is vital that we explain the urgency of the climate crisis and expose government greenwash so the public understands what is truly necessary. The people will not support a solution if they are not aware of the problem. Nobody will support action on the basis that it might not be bad for the economy; they must understand the real reason and urgency. As Al Gore said recently: “The scale and magnitude of the changes that are necessary to solve the climate crisis mean that all of the collateral reasons for taking these steps will not get us to where we need to go without a clear understanding of what we’re facing if we don’t act.”

Negative emotions are a rational response to the situation in which we find ourselves, and furthermore serve an important function. It is perhaps obvious that conservatives are generally motivated by insecurities, but it could be argued most people tend to be more galvanized by negative thoughts than inspired by positive ones: consider left-wing campaigns against wars, or against immigration detention, or against coal seam gas. Fear in particular is a powerful political motivator. Currently fear – irrational fear about electricity prices and so on – is leading us to stay on the fossil-fuelled Titanic. Only fear – rationally justified fear of losing the security of our stable, hospitable climate – will compel us into the 100%-renewable-powered lifeboats.

We should not make economics the main argument, because it carries no particular urgency, and short-termist economic arguments can also be made for choices which are very bad for the climate. The ethical, science-based argument for action is far stronger. While we do need to paint a positive vision of a renewable energy economy, it is less than half of the full story. To bring the majority onside, we must tell it as it is, contrasting the nightmare of a destabilized climate with the dream of a clean energy economy, with the outcome dependent on the choices we must make now.

Spratt summarizes the situation we face:

Even taking into account the emissions reduction target in the Australian federal carbon package and other nations’ commitments, the world is on track for 4 degrees or more of warming this century. At 4 degrees, the world would be warmer than during any part of the period in which modern humans evolved, and the rate of climate change would be faster than any previously experienced by humans. The world’s sixth mass extinction would be in full swing. In the oceans, acidification would have rendered many calcium-shelled organisms such as coral, and many at the base of the ocean food chain, artefacts of history. Ocean ecosystems and food chains would collapse. Half of the world would be uninhabitable. […]

None of the big eNGOs want to say in public that global emissions need to drop six per cent annually to restrict warming to less than 1.5C, nor that achieving this will require fossil fuel infrastructure to be abandoned and drastic changes in the ways we use energy, live and work. It’s not exactly out of the bright-siding handbook. It may well be beyond the scope of what is politically acceptable, but it is the new inconvenient truth. The failure to acknowledge, let alone construct, a strategy to achieve a six per cent annual reduction, makes that task impossible, so that in another eight years, six percent a year will have become 15 percent a year.

In Part 5, I talk about “political reality”.

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