How can advocates of climate action fight opponents who plumb the depths of moral bankruptcy in order to spark and then weaponise outrage?
I've been thinking a lot lately about that recent viral clip in which President Barack Obama eloquently calls out 'cancel culture' and the ineffectiveness and illiberalism of so many 'woke' millennials.
It is, as you'd expect for the premier political communicator of his generation, perfectly pitched, brilliantly argued, and hugely compelling. And he's right, of course, a failure to even attempt to understand your political opponents coupled with a lack of tolerance for those who do not share your values is inherently divisive and counter-productive. It cements tribal division and frequently fails to win over those in the middle ground that any change movement needs to convince. If you haven't seen it yet, it is well worth two minutes of your time.
Watch President @BarackObama make an excellent point about call-out culture. pic.twitter.com/P6mw9aLWTQ— ATTN: (@attn) October 30, 2019
Obama's comments also contain obvious lessons for the climate movement. There is a current vogue to ramp up the green rhetoric into an all-out verbal assault on anyone who can be interpreted as a drag on climate action. Under this strategy, a handful of companies are supposedly to blame for the entirety of the climate crisis. Calls go out for oil chiefs to be tried into the Hague. A cathartic roar of outrage is released that may have justified roots in the continuing malfeasance of some fossil fuel companies that surely demands a more robust legal response, but which also risks glossing over the complex web of market failures and soaring global energy demand that makes all of us complicit (to massively varying degrees) in the world's rolling environmental crises.
Obama's sage and reasonable advice, his defence of activism that seeks to convince and consolidate, to reach out and recruit a growing constituency to the middle ground, resonates on so many levels. And yet. And yet…
If the Obama doctrine's critique of the extremes of cancel culture is right to highlight how reductive it can prove, it also feels more than a little dated. It contains within it a touching assumption in the good faith and reasonableness of your political opponents, which, well, does not seem entirely borne out by the available evidence.
What do you do if your political opponents are deliberately and provocatively ratcheting up their rhetoric to advance positions that are both morally unconscionable and genuinely dangerous? What if their policies and practices are literally and metaphorically toxic and harmful to society as a whole? What if their highly effective strategy is to torch all social and political norms in order to stoke your outrage, so that they can weaponise your angry response to further divide society and motivate their own political base? What then? On these questions, Obama and so many others remain silent.
Is it better to call out the unconscionable or to try and engage with the unengagable? Alternatively, should we just try and ignore the unignorable? These are becoming some of the defining questions of the age.
Whether it is racist Spectator columnists, ethically bankrupt social media spin doctors, or climate denying presidents, no one seems to know how best to challenge a slide towards pollutocrat-friendly populism that is accelerating by the day.
This week's confirmation that President Trump has started the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement provides a case in point. No one seems to know how best to respond.
There is the attempt to deny its significance, to insist progress will continue to be made - a legitimate but always dubious argument further undermined by the fact emissions are now rising again in the US. There is the attempt to present the counter narrative that most other countries remain committed to the accord - more effective, but again potentially guilty of failing to acknowledge how much damage the vandals in the White House are doing. And then there is the attempt to fight Trump, to remind everyone that this is a uniquely dangerous President who needs to be defeated as soon as possible - arguably the best approach, but one that risks further enflaming the tribal divisions that define US politics.
It might be in defiance of Obama's advice on progressive, inclusive, empathetic activism, but surely there has to be value in calling out moral cowardice and near-sociopathic recklessness for what it is? Because that is what Trump and his allies offer.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement insisting the US was still committed to a "rational" approach to tackling climate change and protecting the environment was so utterly mendacious, so detached from reality, that it is hard to understand how anyone could put their name to it and look at themselves in the mirror. Trump's facilitators would prove more honourable if they simply declared they do not care if pollution increases and the Tropics burn. At least that line of the defence could be recommended for its honesty.
The sight of the President of the most powerful nation Earth - a crucible for innovation and brilliance, a global pioneer of environmental protection, and one of the critical keys to global sustainable development - declaring that he is to withdraw from a multi-lateral climate treaty that he has clearly not bothered to read is an historic disgrace. That it comes in the same week as scientists issued a primal howl of pain and grief in warning that we have just experienced the hottest October on record, not to mention the same week as analysts detailed how global emissions are continuing to rise putting the world firmly on track for climatic tipping points that contain impacts that could push human civilisation onto a uniquely dangerous path, is almost too much to bear.
And yet bear it we all must.
How then to respond? We were talking about this in a slightly different context at the BusinessGreen Leaders' Summit last week during a panel discussion that touched upon how Extinction Rebellion and the climate strikes were getting sucked into the binary culture wars that define modern political discourse. Given the risks of alienating people that come from being seen to take sides in this culture war, should environmentalists join with XR and others in calling out those who would torch our shared climate or is a more nuanced strategy required?
Former M&S sustainability boss Mike Barry offered a course of action that has stayed with me this past week. "We have to fight them," he said of those who seek to block climate action. "But we need to do so with a smile on our faces. With a clear and positive vision for the future."
Can Trump and his pollution-loving allies be beaten by a smile and the vision of a better future that sparks it? On days like today, when we are reminded once again how global efforts to avert climate catastrophe are failing on their own terms, such an approach can feel hopelessly under-powered. After all, the narcissism, nihilism, and hubris contained in Trumpism's complete failure to countenance what happens if it is wrong about the climate crisis cares nothing for competing visions of the future, no matter how optimistically they are packaged.
But then again, the aim of any debate is not to convince your opponent, but to convince the audience. And in that case fighting with a smile on your face is not only all we've got, it is the only thing that might yet work.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.