Extinction Rebellion, an activist movement started in the UK in 2018 that now has 400 branches globally, last month held 11 full days of demonstrations in central London, aiming to draw attention to the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and the threat of human extinction. During this last phase of protests, over 1,000 people have been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, and the group has gained 40,000 new members.
It’s fantastic that the movement is growing so fast, and it is clear that many people (especially young people, environmentalists and the left-wing media) see the protests as inspiring, laudable and absolutely necessary. But there are also plenty of people who think that the activists are just eccentric idealists, or that see the protests as misdirected or counter-productive. Those that fall into the latter camp – which are almost exclusively people whose political views fall right of centre – are extremely unlikely to have their minds changed by either more protests or more science.
This is down to what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: we predictably accept things that conform to our view of the world, and reject things that do not. It is this tendency which helps to create the “echo-chamber” of social media, and why fake news can be so readily accepted as truth. It is also why so many people can still deny the reality or severity of climate change, and can disparage activists as “self-satisfied hippies” or even “sanctimonious, kale-munching cretins,” as the Sun newspaper did.
While the short-sightedness of such a position is evident to anyone familiar with the real risks of failing to act on climate change, the fact remains that the protests have become – like so much in contemporary politics – immensely divisive. If the true aim of protest, especially on a topic as existentially important as climate change, is to change hearts and minds, then we have to find a way to broadcast a message that doesn’t risk getting so disastrously lost in translation or splitting down partisan lines. We have to find a way to also convince people who don’t already agree with us.
To be clear, I applaud members of Extinction Rebellion for their dedication to drawing attention to the matter. Lawful or non-disruptive protest – protesting only in designated areas or on designated days – only reinforces the system, as it gives the appearance of a democratic society while maintaining the status quo. Non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience is often necessary to bring about meaningful change, and the sense of community and action it fosters in those involved is extremely valuable in a situation which might otherwise seem hopeless.
But what about those who are still entirely opposed to the climate movement? Here narrative framing is also crucially important. A study by Climate Outreach showed that communicating about climate change to people on the centre-right is much more effective if it speaks their language. This means avoiding words like “revolution” and “rebellion”, and even words like “green” and “eco”. Slogans like “save the planet” don’t go down well either.
This is not because these people would rather destroy the planet, but just because any phrase that is strongly associated with the political opposition acts like an alarm system that shuts down all doors, so no further information can get through, as this study describes. Right-wingers hear “save the planet”, unconsciously think “socialist” or “hippy”, and don’t hear anything else. And it works both ways.
If you are a lefty environmentalist and you see or hear a phrase like “Take Back Control” or “Make America Great Again”, you automatically assume that whatever comes next is not going to be worth hearing, and any further discourse is coloured by your prejudices. It’s not that Democrats don’t want America to be “great”, nor that Republicans don’t want to save the planet – it’s just that these phrases lose any literal meaning as they become shorthand for a whole worldview.
As Greta Thurnberg has commented, we do not lack the science or technology to act on climate change; we lack the political will. In our entrenched and sluggish political systems, change at the speed and scale now necessary is not going to come easily. But it won’t come at all while so many people remain deaf or hostile to Extinction Rebellion’s aims. Keep protesting, keep disrupting, yes, but it’s also time to think of ways to engage people that are not already sympathetic to the cause – and this will take a different approach.
People on the centre-right are not stupid, and they’re not evil. They are simply humans with a different way of looking at the world. But they also have children, and value their future. If we can start talking about climate change in a way that appeals to these shared concerns, as this study shows, there is a potential for broadening the movement beyond the left.
As the current phase of protests come to an end, and the group considers changing its tactics to focus on political negotiations, it would be wise for activists to also use the time to start reaching out to those that have been so far unconvinced, and to the people who see the protests as just another sign of middle class privilege. For a lot of people it’s not that they don’t believe in climate change: it’s that concerns like feeding and clothing their children seem far more pressing.
Speaking to people who don’t share your political views is hard – harder than chanting in the street with a group of like-minded people. But it can be done. Be respectful. Listen to people’s concerns. Don’t tell them that they’re wrong or stupid. Avoid criticising capitalism and corporate greed (this kind of language will just raise their defences). Focus on emotions, not science. Emphasize that shifting to renewables is not just good for our environment, but is also good for our health, and good for our children.
Underline that everyone – regardless of political orientation – stands to gain in “rebalancing” the climate. Foreground the reduction of pollution and waste, and the increase of pragmatism, efficiency and prosperity. This might mean calling to “build our future” instead of “save the planet,” or to “modernise energy systems” instead of “ending dirty coal”. As the Climate Outreach study shows, people with centre-right political views are far more receptive to ideas about action on climate change if it is framed in terms of “fairness” and “decency”, “security”, “stability”, “prosperity” and “growth”.
Words that sound like they came straight out of a Tory manifesto or Republican think-tank might taste bitter in the mouths of environmental activists, but if those words mean the message can reach a wider audience, I suggest that we all get a lot more used to using them – because the crisis is bigger than anyone’s politics.
Jemma Deer is a research fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.