Thank you former UK Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, – and, let’s be honest, climate denier– Owen Paterson, for providing us with an excellent object lesson in right wing climate change narratives. There is much to learn, and much to cause concern.
In yesterday’s high profile op-ed in the conservative Sunday Telegraph newspaper link.., Paterson, until last week the politician in control of Britain’s environmental policy reinvented himself as the voice of ‘sanity’ against the straw enemy of green extremists.
Allowing a while for the irritation to pass and the blood pressure to go down, I suggest that we environmental communicators can improve our game by watching how a highly skilled communicator like Paterson is speaking to this audience. Please read it now and reflect on it.
Although he pays lip service to supposed external facts, he does not cite any of them. Paterson is only really interested in a culture war of competing values and identities. According to Self-categorization theory we seek to achieve closeness and similarity with people with whom we feel an identity and kinship: our in-group. Then we seek to establish our differences from the people who are not like us: the out-groups. Our attitudes are shaped by both the people around us who we want to be like and by the people beyond us who we want to be unlike.
Paterson’s interest is in setting up the identity markers that clearly signal that he is speaking to in-group conservative values of national pride, localism, fairness, and property as the reward of personal success. And he is just as concerned with defining this in opposition to an out-group: the “mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups and renewable energy companies” which Paterson calls the “Green Blob”.
Paterson duly defines “the environment” within the conservative frame of patriotism and defense of locality and traditional values as “the real countryside of farmers and workers, of birds and butterflies” and “the landscapes of this beautiful country”. Such values (as highlighted in an excellent COIN report by my colleague Dr Adam Corner) is diametrically opposed to the language of a global responsibility and “saving the planet” utilised by mainstream environmentalism. Putting the two worldviews in direct contrast Paterson praises the “wonderful work” of “local conservationists on the ground” who, he says, are “a world away from the highly paid globe-trotters of the Green Blob”. The meaning is contained in the nuance: the word “conservationists” shares a root with “conservatives”- they are rooted in “the ground”. The phrases “world away” and “globe trotters” links the environmentalists with internationalism and its older sibling cosmopolitanism- both deeply distrusted values within traditional little England conservatism.
Enemies need motivations, and a moral judgement requires that this enemy has an intention to cause harm. In Paterson’s story, the Green Blob is motivated by its “handsome” profits, “lavish funds” and “high pay”. This tendency to mirror the accusations of your opponents is called inversionism and is familiar from other polarized debates such anti-smoking, gun control, and abortion. In arguments over climate change both sides portray themselves as ‘David’ s mastering the real science against a self interested and corrupt ‘Goliath’.
So, having established the mythic moral battleground, Paterson can then write a heroic narrative of himself standing up to “death threats” even when he is being “burnt in effigy”. The main structure of this piece is a single rhetorical pattern, repeated five times, like the riff in a conference speech: When I spoke up..they tried (and failed) to silence me.
His countervailing opponent it is not just an amorphous “they” Green Blob. His article repeatedly pits the heroic Paterson against more specific enemies. They do not need to be named because they are less important as individual people (although readily identifiable) than as familiar out-group archetypes. All have one quality in common- they are members of a privileged deracinated leftist elite who have never done an honest hard days work. So, he tells us, his mission was opposed by “pop stars who had never been faced with having to cull a pregnant heifer… a luxury organic chocolate tycoon…a dress designer for whom energy bills are trivial concerns” and so on.
This storyline is familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in 2007 the novelist Michael Crichton took part in a radio debate on climate change that was broadcast across the US. Crichton received the largest cheer of the night when he castigated the hypocritical greens who fly their “private jets to their second and third homes” or “buy a Prius, drive it around for a while, and give it to the maid”. Crichton, as one of the world’s most successful authors, understood all too well the power of this storyline.
Then Paterson brings in another familiar frame that defines his in-group identity, arguing that these Green Blob “anti-capitalist agitprop groups” are “like the nationalised industries and obstructive trade unions of the 1970s”. As with the other accusations the goal here is not to put a coherent argument. The real goal is to flash the right cultural signals to his audience.
So what then can climate change communicators learn from this?
Firstly – Paterson understands well what we often do not. Environmentalists and scientists alike continue to assume that climate change denial can be overcome with more reports and data. They are wrong: this has to be understood as an appeal to values and identities.
Secondly – we can do well to adopt Paterson’s framing of environment around the cultural values of the national landscape. This confirms the finding of my own research as discussed in a recent report on “How to Build Climate Narratives Around National Identity and Cultural Pride”
Thirdly – we must, as a matter of ever greater urgency, develop a right wing discourse on climate change. Political orientation has become the single most reliable predictor of people’s positions on climate change. The centre right political worldview is very poorly served by environmentalists, most of whom have progressive left politics. Our failure to address this audiences has left this critical social space wide open for aggressive deniers like Paterson to fill with their own narratives and language.
But we cannot and should not be filling this void on our own- and it would be disastrous for environmental organisations to do so. We need to step back and encourage and enable conservative communicators to come to the fore, shaping language around their own values. And this, I have to warn my colleagues in the Green movement, will involve allowing some new ways of talking that make us decidedly uncomfortable.
Finally we must not respond in kind, however tempting it might be. To do so would be to further fuel the very polarisation that Paterson wishes to create. This is not the place for a culture war and we must, at every opportunity, recognise our differences but speak over them to common values and shared concerns. More than any other issue climate change requires a sense of shared humanity and we must not let that be poisoned by the divisiveness of a failed politician preparing his speech for the dinner circuit.