August 9th 2010

‘Cutting the diamond’ on climate change

green jobs

How to mobilise public support for cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions? This is an issue, a ‘diamond  stone’ – that I and a group of British campaigners have spent a great deal of time analysing –  as we struggle to ‘cut’ or analyse the stone in a way that will reflect and illuminate the issues at the heart of this threat to human security. We need to do that if we are to inspire, unite and mobilise a a wide swathe of human society in support of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The need is urgent.

Global temperatures in the first half of the year have been the highest since records began 130 years ago.  As I write, heat and forest fires consume Russia and double Moscow’s death rate;  the cradle of human civilisation -the Indus Valley–  is ravaged by floods, and many millions are made homeless; floods have devastated Ladakh inKashmir, and a great island of ice breaks free from an Icelandic glacier.  These are, for many scientists and activists, credible and predictable signs of the extreme weather events that are a consequence of rising temperatures caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Wheat, barley and other food prices are rising as Russian crops fail, President Putin imposes a ban on grain exports, and speculators cash in.  The impact will hit consumers and particularly the poor very hard.  Turmoil in Pakistan’s Indus Valley is likely to intensify tensions and social instability there, and to spill over into Afghanistan and Kashmir.

However, despite these threats, talks are stalling at the successor to the UN’s Copenhagen Conference on climate change taking place right now in Bonn, Germany.

One element missing from this toxic mix is a global social movement, uniting people from rich and poor countries and galvanising political action to limit the causes and impacts of climate change.

Here in Britain we continue on our mission to unite trades unionists concerned by the financial crisis and job losses;  community activists, particularly those working in ‘transition towns’ ; and climate change campaigners.

But we are struggling: how to mobilise these quite diverse social forces behind an ‘ask’ that will unite all, build a powerful movement and cut greenhouse gas emissions?

I pulled together a small brainstorming group that included my good friend, Colin Hines and other trade union and climate experts. Out of this session names and campaign ‘asks’ emerged.

There was one that rang true with me, and which I believe could be a winner. Colin must get the credit for it.  He proposed that the movement unite under a banner ‘Alliance for Climate, Food and Job Security’ and suggested a strapline: ‘From Slump to Security’.   Or ‘Moving from Slump to Security’.

The response has been astonishing. ‘Security’ has ‘right-wing overtones’ we were told. Its a word associated with warmongers. Activists  shuddered at the slogan, and rejected it almost outright. ‘Not for us’ they said.

This is a classic example of the Left allowing the Right to co-opt, define and appropriate language. And yet another illustration of Drew Westen’s powerful argument: that those who regard themselves as Left of Centre lack something ‘valued deeply by people in the heartland: an understanding of what they are feeling’. (In ‘The Political Brain’, p. 37)

Soon after this disappointing meeting, a letter appeared in The Guardian. It was from a trade unionist, Diana Holland, who wrote:  ”William Beveridge, a Liberal and the architect of the welfare  state, had a vision of security for all. This new coalition is about the opposite – creating fear.”

Whatever your views of the UK coalition, Ms Holland has a point. We are living in an age of insecurity. Job insecurity. Financial insecurity. Climate insecurity.

A sense of profound insecurity must today  be assailing Pakistanis, Russians and Kashmiris.  It is gnawing away at young people struggling to find work in countries as diverse as the United States, Britain,  Ireland and Hungary.  It is a feeling that will grow as economic ‘austerity’ is synchronised across Europe and the United States, and as extreme weather events intensify.

Until climate change activists begin to listen to the public, to read what Weston calls ‘the emotional pulse’ of the people – and to respect those feelings –  their efforts to ‘cut the diamond’; to ignite public interest, and mobilise widespread public support are sadly, unlikely to succeed.


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