Opinion

Seven Points on Climate Change and Climate Politics

David provides seven key points to consider when thinking about climate change and climate politics.

This blog is a summarised version of a talk given by David Ritter, for the Climate Change and Climate Politics Workshop, co-hosted by SEI and The Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN).

  1. It’s Not All About Paris

There is going to be a lot of attention on whether or not the U.S. pull out of the Paris Agreement, but domestic political economy has always defined the approach that nations take to participating in global governance. It has always been about domestic political struggles and how they manifest themselves in national attitudes to global processes.  The road to effective action on global warming was always going to be through Paris, not to Paris; the COP was an important milestone, but not a destination.

It is also important to appreciate that not everything is about the nation state. We are already seeing movements by sub-national authorities, provinces, states, cities and so on, within the limits of their authority. This is not to say that nation states aren’t crucial actors: but they are not the beginning and the end.

  1. We Have to Start Talking about the Class Base of Electoral Climate Denialism

In Washington, we have seen a takeover by politicians who are deeply connected with the fossil fuel industry.  We have also heard a lot of commentary about the anger of those disenfranchised by globalisation, driving a popular protest vote – or the refusal to turn out to vote.

In this context, we must ask, who are the people that will suffer first and worst from changes in climate? Is it people living in harbourside mansions, for example, who will be impacted first and worst, or will it be people who are living in those parts of cities where the jobs have gone and social infrastructure is sub-standard? We need to talk about how, in some cases, the votes of those who are going to be first and worst affected by global warming are somehow going to candidates who either actively deny global warming or are advocating for inaction and continuing support for the fossil fuel industry.  We can only do this by addressing the socio-economic anxieties – the base line inequalities – that are associated with electoral climate denialism.

  1. This is Fundamentally about Collaboration

We sometimes talk contemptuously about ‘politics’ as if it is a problem, but in truth politics is the only solution we have.  Politics means working together across issues and organisations to achieve collective solutions. There is no individualist path to saving our civilisation from climate change. We must stand together and act collaboratively, and meaningfully and purposively engage in the project of political collaboration. And any collaboration in and of climate change must acknowledge that issues of inequality are fundamental to achieving solutions.

  1. Institutions are Fundamental

Institutions are the means by which we safeguard the collective good. One of the things we have seen in the course of the war against science and the political efforts to prevent meaningful action against climate change is an attack on institutions. If institutions are broadly democratic and are interested in things such as science and the common good, they will move towards interests that do not support the fossil fuel industry. This is one reason we have seen such a sustained attack on institutions. The wholesale traducing of universities, public education, and public broadcasting and other institutions for the common good has not happened by accident. It has happened in part because it reflects the business interests of certain large scale industries and corporations who have followed it through as an element of their business strategy. We must defend institutions, believe in institutions, and have the heart to take a more optimistic view of human nature which believes in the public good.

  1. We need a ‘White Feather’ Moment

In the Great War, young men were shamed into going off and fighting by members of the community giving them white feathers. It should be a matter of shame to be profiting from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef – and the destabilisation of the climate more generally. In this country, it is still acceptable to earn a living destroying the Great Barrier Reef. Here, we should not just focus on the work of coal companies, but the whole economic complex of interests that is causing and profiting from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. What about the lawyers who write the contracts? What about the advertising firms that handle the PR?  What about the construction companies, the finance companies, the insurers, the numerous contractors?

What is needed now is a movement of conscientious objectors inside business and government who are prepared to walk away from these things. We need lawyers, for example, who are walking into their managing partners and saying ‘I will not write a contract for a coal company,’ ‘I will not do it because I do not want it on my conscience.’

  1. The Climate of False-equivalence

You hear people say, ‘but doesn’t every little bit count?’ The answer is no – or at least not every action is of equal value and it is important not to allow a sense of false-equivalence to develop.  A similar dynamic applies to the allocation of resources to issues.  Global warming is an existential issue for civilisation; economic inequality is an existential issue for the billions for whom life is a struggle.  Not every issue is in these categories. For every individual and organisation and the climate movement as a whole, there needs to be bold prioritisation, and a willingness to make allocate resources on the basis of that prioritisation. Not all issues and actions are equal.

  1. Hope and Resilience

As it stands, the present impacts of climate change are very serious. We tend to think of climate change almost like a sporting contest, that is won or lost in absolute terms.  It is not so.  Already there are terrible losses…There are villages in Africa that don’t exist anymore; species that have become extinct; communities that are gone forever. In terms of the Great Barrier Reef, much that has already been lost and much more that will likely be lost. However, there is still so much to fight for and so much to save. The poet Judith Wright once said that the Great Barrier Reef was the closest thing we have to Eden on Earth. Imagine if there was only one percent of the Great Barrier Reef that remained, wouldn’t the protection of that one percent of Eden be worth every sinew of our energy to campaign for, to live for, to strive for? This applies to all that is great about civilisation, and all that is beautiful in our planet; to all about our country and our community that we love. We need to learn to live with loss and live with hope, simultaneously and to be resilient in the course of what lies ahead, sure in the conviction that we will make the transition to a post-carbon world that is also fairer and more just.

See David’s entire presentation at the Climate Change and Climate Politics Workshop, below or go to SEI’s Youtube channel.


David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.  He has been with Greenpeace for nine years, campaigning to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all its amazing diversity. He is an affiliate of both the Sydney Environment Institute and the Sydney Democracy Network.

Top Image: Andrew Stawarz ‘White Feather’ – FlickrCommons