Emerging theme: the enviro movement has done great work on climate change but it’s time to pass it on to a broader range of voices & actors.
— Suzy Waldman (@SuzanneWaldman) October 8, 2014
Climate change is a huge conversation. Enormous. I am just now starting to get to grips with the very tip of this iceberg and will spare you the inevitable Titanic metaphor that goes with that.
A few weeks ago I participated in the People’s Climate March. It was frustrating on several levels, but most of the sources of this frustration were reasonable. Expressions of fear make sense. Anger is justifiable. Writing nuclear out of the solution to ‘fix’ climate change is sadly inevitable. These concerns and perspectives are completely understandable, and I am willing to speak at length with people who think in this way. There was only one promoted view that outright annoyed me.
This sentiment was plastered over some of the first signs I saw, and it was a message repeated by Vivienne Westwood – yes, she of the £115 million net worth and £60 “Climate Revolution” T-shirts, are you actually kidding me – at the rally at the end of the march. I couldn’t believe it. End capitalism? Seriously? You might as well hold up a placard saying “IDEALS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ACTION!” As a climate change campaigner, how on earth can you justify splitting people’s focus with a wish more likely to be granted by a fairy godmother than existing governments? It made me angry. Given the scale of the problem we face and the necessity of prompt and effective action, it seemed selfish.
Greens are not the only ones with a fringe determined to focus on their ideal at the expense of realism though. There are people who seem to devote the majority of their time to promoting solutions like 100% nuclear that are exactly as realistic as 100% renewable energy. Renewables have the public acceptance but not the technology, and nuclear energy has the technology but not the public acceptance. Neither is possible in the foreseeable future. Likewise, insisting all older reactors should be decommissioned while they still work and replaced with newer reactors? Try and pitch that to the funding decision makers. Abandoning uranium forever in favour of thorium? Not going to happen in my lifetime.
Nuclear supporters should not for one second believe that our idealism is any more rational or realistic than green idealism. Better to view it as something our two groups have in common, along with our intentions to improve the world we live in by a) halting climate change, b) cleaning up existing air, land and sea pollution and/or c) increasing energy access in developing countries. Take your pick. We can all find common ground in at least one of these areas, surely?
It is frustrating that we seem to have found so many ways to splinter our focus from the most urgent problem: drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels that are warming our planet. Why are we making up false choices between energy efficiency and increasing energy supply, or between nuclear and renewables, or even between existing nuclear reactors versus newer designs? Different solutions will be suitable for different regions within different countries run by different political parties with different amounts of money to spare and different communities to consider. A popularity contest to declare which solution is overall ‘best’ has about as much point as preparing a sparkly tiara and bouquet of flowers for the winner. Whatever tools we have to sustainably reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, we should use. How are we not in agreement on this?
Suzy Waldman’s insightful tweet above was partly in response to this excellent piece on the alienating nature of the ‘People’s’ Climate March. The article is US-centric, but resonated with me strongly. The Climate March was my first environmentalist demonstration, but not my first walk to Parliament Square for a cause I believe in. If it was an alienating and excluding experience for me, how hard would it have been for any conservatives in the crowd? To walk past Downing Street, where people stopped to boo at the house of the prime minister who has supported the first new nuclear plant in a generation? To listen to anti-capitalist rhetoric from an extremely successful fashion designer who very recently and publicly stated, “I hate England”? To see the mocking and venomous anti-Cameron placards? I don’t blame any conservative who avoided the whole thing, and on seeing the “END CAPITALISM!” signs, I don’t even blame them for criticising us as a bunch of out-of-touch dreamers.
At this point, my pride is insisting I shoehorn in proof of my left-wing credentials, while my prejudice is cringing at the fact that I’ve provided even a small defence of the UK’s Conservative party. However, last week I asked pro-nuclear supporters “Do you want most to be right or to be effective?” This week, for the first time, I asked that of myself. And guess what? It’s more important to me to seek bipartisan action against climate change than it is to insist only on approaches that have the far left stamp of approval. The way I see it, as a self-proclaimed pro-nuclear advocate I have to swallow my pride, get over my prejudices and start using approaches that my political opposites can support, whether we agree on absolutely anything else or not.
Specifically, from now on I will refrain from any suggestion that one school of political thought is better than the others for the environment. I will do my best to avoid language and rhetoric that excludes people of differing political beliefs. I will not take an issue as complex and overwhelming as climate change and tack on social justice wishes that will not contribute to solving the problem of climate change, no matter how important they are to me personally. I will acknowledge good and bad energy policies regardless of which party came up with them.
As a part of the nuclear industry, I will not insist that one type of fuel or reactor design is superior to any other; that conversation belongs outside advocacy. I will not speak of nuclear as if it has no flaws or its detractors as if they are simply too stupid or ignorant to understand ‘the bigger picture’. I will not speak in terms of nuclear versus renewables or highlight the flaws of renewable energy sources in order to put them down as inferior to nuclear. I will do my best not to demonise coal, an easy target but a ticket out of poverty for many countries with the same need for baseload energy supply but a GDP too low for nuclear to be feasible.
I’m not asking that you end any discussion of these topics or related concerns. The issues are valid and important and these conversations need to take place… but not every single time climate change or energy sources come up in conversation, and certainly not when we’re trying to band together to achieve a specific goal. Just ask yourself if making that point at that moment to those people is a better use of your time than, say, finding out what you have in common and using that as the foundation on which to build a relationship, or at least to leave a good impression of the group you represent.
As mentioned in my last blog post, venting frustrations is your prerogative but it’s not good advocacy. Climate change is a huge conversation, and we need a working relationship with a truly diverse group of people to make changes that are both effective and sustainable. Step one of widening participation: drop your pride, ditch any prejudices and make the conversation truly welcoming to outsiders. Not all of them will be willing to join in, but those who do will be an asset to the cause.