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What role do political beliefs play in climate activism?

Tackling climate change feels like it should be an apolitical issue. However, in recent years centre-left parties have been increasingly backing pro-climate policies, whilst the right remains largely unmoved. This divide has politicised the climate issue, transforming every common-sense method to tackle climate change into a political grenade, waiting to explode in the hands of whoever holds it. But, what role do political beliefs play in climate activism? 

To begin with, it is worth highlighting three key components in the fight against climate change. Firstly, there is the assessment of the problem – essentially whether protecting the planet is necessary at all. Next, are the measures taken to protect it. Finally, there are the groups that influence political parties.

Tackling climate change feels like it should be an apolitical issue

So, how do different political ideologies treat the problem of climate change? In recent years, the right has generally become more sceptical of climate science. A 2017 study by The Conversation found that 92% of Democrats versus 52% of Republicans believed in the existence of global warming. The reason for this divide is thought to be due to “a lack of knowledge or understanding of the causes of climate change, a lack of sense of urgency or insufficient awareness about the issue”. 

But, if climate change is a global issue, perhaps it would be better left to international organisations. The United Nations has a programme dedicated to the environment. It focuses especially on building a ‘Green Economy’ that is low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially inclusive. Historically, mainstream left-wing parties have been much more globalist than their rivals on the right. Likewise, the issue of climate runs contrary to individualism – a policy favoured by right-wing voters. Both of these factors suggest that there may in fact be something inherently left-wing about the issue of climate change.

The issue of climate runs contrary to individualism – a policy favoured by right-wing voters

‘The Green New Deal,’ trumpeted by both the Democrats in America and the Green Party in England and Wales, involves massive state intervention to help tackle the climate crisis. For enormous collective action problems such as climate change, interventionist approaches are simply more effective. Though market-driven approaches to tackling climate change are possible, such as the ‘Cap and Trade’ scheme introduced in the European Union (EU) in 2005, interventions of this kind run contrary to laissez-faire capitalism.

Finally, there are the interest groups who are affected by climate change. This is the most significant factor in determining the climate scepticism of the right and the climate advocacy of the left. Right-wing parties typically have closer relationships with large businesses and corporations that are actively contributing to climate change. On the other hand, unions, particularly those in fossil fuel-driven industries, are both inherently left-wing and climate sceptical. The most important interest group, however, is the voters. Left-wing groups are heavily populated by young people, while right-wing parties tend to appeal to older generations. 

Left-wing groups are heavily populated by young people, while right-wing parties tend to appeal to older generations

As the issue of climate changes becomes more important, many conservatives will want to join the movement. However, they are likely to find that it is not comprised of people like them. The climate movement uses old fashioned left-wing language such as ‘The Green New Deal’ and ‘climate strikes’. It also gravitates towards radical, left-wing policies. To save the planet, the movement needs to expand and dominate the mainstream. To expand, it needs to accept and appear attractive to conservatives. 

It is clear that we cannot save the planet overnight. For meaningful change to happen, the issue of climate change needs to move from political debate to consensus. The issue should not be politicised as it is a humanitarian problem. The most important thing to remember is that this problem can be overcome. The movement must accept moderate and centre-right voters in the battle to save our planet. It must learn to accept those it disagrees with. If there is one thing the left should know, it is that change must come from the many, not the few.

 

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