How can we make the global warming movement relevant again?


In 2009 as the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Government of Sri Lanka was reaching its bloody climax, some of their supporters in Toronto, Canada strolled onto the exit ramp of a critical expressway – the Gardiner Expressway – and started protesting right in the middle of the road. It shut down the highway for about 5 hours. For all intents and purposes the protests were quite peaceful(the protestors are even reported to have offered to clean up after themselves), and it was perhaps the biggest and most substantial protest yet. Yet it also marked the end of the pro-LTTE protest movement as a serious political force in Canada(at least for the duration of the civil war). As one Canadian Radio DJ tweeted “I officialy(sic) don’t care about the Tamil war how can these fuckers shut down one of the main highways into downtown toronto with their protest”. I fear that the global warming movement may be in danger of going down the same path.

You can see how the Tamils thought their protest as justified. They had been protesting outside parliament and in public places about the war in Sri Lanka for many years without eliciting much complaint. So when the war suddenly started getting more serious it was only natural that their tactics needed to be stepped up. The thing was, from the perspective of the average Canadian, these guys had just suddenly walked onto a highway and shutdown traffic for 5 hours for no good reason. Because for all those years that the Tamil activists had been protesting, everybody had just learned to ignore them, they had grown to learn how not to notice any of their protests. A bit like how life goes on in places like Israel – even with the threat of bombs – or in Somalia with the threat of everything that happened in that Black Hawk Down movie, or even in a bad neighbourhood with the omnipresent threat of meeting some guy on the street whose just gotten a little too tipsy. You block out the stuff you just can’t bear to see, or you can’t really do anything about.

So we have all learned to do this with the global warming movement. Never have there been so many NGOs and tweeters out there interested in retweeting or creating press releases on this issue. Yet it’s arguable that the climate – in global warming terms anyway – has never been in a worse position than it is today. I’ll save my rant on the wannabe climate change NGOs for another day (I have concerns about young middle-class wastrels playing dress-up with suits and giving themselves ludicrously over-the-top corporate titles like ‘CEO’), but for now it’s enough to say that they have been spectacularly ineffective, and to the extent that they’ve encouraged ‘awareness’ that awareness has done even less for the cause of climate change than our previous ignorance had.

Even those on the Left appear to be growing tired of this issue. Witness recent moves in New Zealand towards the Left supporting parties not so tied to environmental issues – such as the Mana/Internet Parties, or even moves within NZ Labour to move it away from environmental activism.

The temptation is to shout louder. Obviously, after all, if people aren’t hearing the message then it’s because it’s not being broadcast loudly enough. That is not the solution however, in fact that’s the kind of thinking that will just cause somebody in the movement to overshoot and shutdown a highway somewhere. The answer has to lie in changing both the message and the messengers.

The messengers are problematic because in the political sphere – in New Zealand anyway – the main party advocating on this issue is effectively unable to work with half the parties in parliament, and in the non-governmental sphere the main organisation advocating on this issue appears to be a group of privileged manchildren. People have stopped listening to them, and in the case of Manchildren Ltd people had barely even bothered to start listening to them in the first place. The message itself is problematic because it is one of austerity when we are slowly edging towards times of plenty again.

We need to reimagine the global warming movement – and its messaging – into something more positive. Something that’s a bit more ‘and-and’ than ‘don’t fart’. Instead of making people cut down on private transportation we need to allow them more of it – but in a way that results in less net carbon emissions. Instead of making people feel guilty for running a farm full of cows we need to be leading a movement that allows them to make more money from agriculture AND save the climate. Of course there are trade-offs with all of these things, and making changes in the ways above will result in a lesser amount of emissions reductions than would be achieved if many of these groups were granted all of their wishes by a future Government of the day. However, what these policy compromises will ensure is momentum, and – more importantly – they will get people listening again.

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