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The problem with taking politics out of climate change

  • 21 February 2020


‘Get the politics out of climate change.’ It’s a slogan heard almost inevitably whenever discussion turns to the looming environmental catastrophe.

You can understand why, given the paralysis gripping both major parties. If politicians can’t — or won’t — do anything as the natural world falls apart, it’s scarcely surprising that people seek an alternative to them and their politics.

Yet the common-sense enthusiasm for depoliticising environmentalism — voiced most recently in relation to the bill proposed by the conservative independent Zali Steggall — pushes in entirely the wrong direction.

In part, the complexity of carbon modelling encourages a faith in apolitical solutions. Because most of us struggle to read dense mathematical papers about ice flows and atmospheric temperatures, calls to ‘listen to the scientists’ rather than the politicians make sense.

If we wouldn’t want our surgeon to have learnt her doctoring from YouTube, we shouldn’t take assessments about carbon levels and temperature patterns from rightwing bloggers — and yet, of course, many of our leaders do.

Yet a respect for expertise should also mean a recognition of its limits. While physics explains the processes heating the atmosphere, it doesn’t — and can’t — provide direction as to how we should respond to those processes. On the contrary, because climate change follows from our relationship with nature, it forces us to consider how we should live — the central question for the political sphere.


'To put it bluntly, there’s no historical parallel for a social change comparable to that required to decarbonise the developed world without massive political polarisation.'  

Unfortunately, a conflation between science and politics runs throughout even the respectable literature on climate change, since much of the research makes assumptions about economic activity and social life that naively extrapolate from the status quo.

That’s particularly important because, while the ‘apolitical’ approach gets touted as a way of winning over the public, in practice it’s invariably defended as a way of wooing parliamentarians. A rhetoric stripped of politics will, we’re told, allow MPs of goodwill from both parties to abandon their silly culture wars and come together for the benefit of the planet.

Of course, the divide over climate change bears less relationship to will (whether good or bad) than to power. Specifically, the power of those individuals and corporations enriched beyond measure by fossil fuels. Both major parties now contain sizeable groupings tied politically, organisationally and financially to the carbon lobby. It’s those factions that give rise