Extinction Rebellion And The Politics Of Climate Change

by Robert Garner4th February 2020

Robert Garner explores the competing interests and values that are brought up by environmental activism, exemplified by Extinction Rebellion.

The main demand of the new breed of environmental activism as represented by Extinction Rebellion – a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 – is admirably clear but does not take into account the political complexities involved. Climate change is a political issue not so much, if at all, because there are doubts about the scientific reality of global warming but because it brings to the fore competing interests and values. 

To see how all-pervasive competing interests and values are it is worthwhile thinking about the circumstances under which they would not exist or could be put aside. One obvious scenario (within an individual country at least) is war where there is a national interest in victory against an enemy power. This is the scenario that is envisaged, writ large, by the new breed of climate activist. The clue is in the use of the word ‘extinction’. That is, without a radical approach to climate change, the human race faces annihilation. This line of thinking explains why climate change activists are bewildered at the slow progress that governments are making to address the issue 

Plausible though this nihilistic vision is, it does not address the political difficulties. For one thing, although we know we must ultimately take greater steps if we want to protect human life on the planet, we are not exactly sure what all of the consequences of climate change will be and when they will occur. In the meantime, the impact of climate change has differed, and will continue to differ, from state to state, and from community to community. Most notably, the developing world has been reluctant to act, at least without considerable financial help from the rich North, because it fears the economic consequences – for people who are already poor – of agreeing to a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels. There may well be a case for saying that we need to tackle climate change precisely because developing countries are less able to adapt to its consequences. Conversely, for some in the developed world, these consequences – at least for the time being – may be acceptable if they avoid the economic sacrifices that are likely to follow from the kind of radical action insisted upon by Extinction Rebellion. 
Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion protest on 16th November, 2018 in London, UK. Photo by Julia Hawkins, available on Flickr via CC BY 2.0

Even if we take a longer-term view and accept that climate change will have devastating – and perhaps fatal – consequences for the human race, it is still by no means clear that we should respond now with the radical agenda suggested by Extinction Rebellion. There are still choices to be made based on competing interest and values. The older, for instance, may rationalise it is not in their interests to take radical action now because many of the catastrophic effects predicted may not happen in their lifetime. Younger people are more likely to disagree not least because they calculate their lives are going to be much more negatively affected by climate change. 

We also have to factor in the relative value we attach to present and future generations. If one holds that future generations have no moral worth, or at least less moral worth than the currently living, then justice will be served by prioritising the interests of the latter, and this may mean there is less of a case for radical action to deal with climate change. If, on the other hand, it is held that we have moral obligations to future generations then, clearly, justice is served by protecting the planet for those yet to be born, even if that means making sacrifices now. 

The starting point for a comprehensive analysis of the politics of climate change is the recognition that human beings are different. Spatial, temporal and economic factors have to be factored in to arrive at an accurate account of the interests involved. Similarly, questions about competing value systems are equally pertinent – what kind of society do we want to live in? what value do we attach to economic growth? what value should we attach to the non-human realm? The analysis of our current situation presented by radical environmental activists, whilst well-meaning, paints a partial picture which is unlikely to attain universal consent.

Featured image credit: Photo by Callum Shaw. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.

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