As the prospect of a climate apocalypse becomes increasingly likely, people from all walks of life have been spurred into action. One such form of action is electing into power popular representatives who are committed to climate action. This undertaking has enjoyed a great boost from the overwhelming number of citizens who are now worried about climate change, but for some reason, the calibre of politicians voted into power still remain largely unchanged.
In 2015, the United States set the pace (as is typical in all matters) by electing to the presidency, the most powerful climate change denier in the world, Donald Trump. Since then, Trump in his usual erratic manner has made certain worrisome public statements about climate change. He repeatedly denies, and mockingly assaults the dictates of climate science but and last winter he went so far as to query “…if there is global warming, then why are cities so cold?”
Last week, Boris Johnson was voted in as the British Prime Minister. While he does not rant and tweet against climate action as much as President Trump, Johnson’s commitment to positive climate actions is at best described as “dubious”. And this is saying a lot for a politician of his standing.
But perhaps, the most disheartening of all these political events was the Australian election of a few months ago. After an election that had been touted as the most climate-centric ever; Australians still managed to vote into office the candidate from the party with the least green policies. A few months later, Australia’s environmentally sensitive issues such as the proposed Adani Coal mine have begun to show the world much wisdom, or lack thereof, of this popular political decision.
So the question remains –Why are people’s rising sympathy levels for climate issues not translating to more votes for politicians who are keen to do something about it? In the face of these environmental calamities we witness, how is it that people still manage to vote politicians into power who blatantly deny the climate emergency we face? And how can we translate the peoples’ environmental concerns into votes?
The truth is that when talking about the climate and sharing what has to be done to save our planet, climate activists more times than not come from a place of condescension. The position of the ethical and climate action community often appears to be “this is the right thing to do, you should want to save the environment; and you should know that; but if you don’t, then you’re either ignorant or evil. Or both”. The problem with this stance is that the answers to these queries are either black or white to some people, but to many others, there are in place varying shades of grey as well.
Most city folk have never had to “depend on the land” to survive, and while they champion environmental candidates a lot more than rural dwellers, they seem not to have a lot at stake in the political matter. The extent of their sacrifices seems to range from switching to reusable cups and deciding to buy a hybrid car or maybe, cycle to work. All these in relative luxury and security. Whichever candidate wins the election, their lives won’t necessarily take any turns for the better or worse, even if the environment might. I mean, it is plain unimaginable that any coffee shops or startups in city centers would be shut down because of any governmental pro-environment policies.
After the Australian elections, Matt McDonald, associate professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, wrote:
“… support for climate action looks broadly consistent with a ‘post-materialist’ sensibility. Here the emphasis on quality of life over immediate economic and physical needs encourages a focus on issues like climate change. But this is a sensibility that speaks to those in higher socio-economic brackets, and principally with higher levels of education.”
For rural dwellers on the other hand, the wrong candidate can mean the life or death of their town. Literally and in light of this, their consideration for the environment becomes secondary. A green candidate, could for instance, promise to close down a coal plant and consequently receive the support of the urban public. Pronouncements such as this are often made to garner votes from the environmentally-aware but we rally behind the candidate because we feel it is the right and reasonable thing to do.
What goes undiscussed however, are the scores of families whose lives will be disrupted by that singular policy. The workers who provide for their families from their wages working at these mines would become jobless; and watch their families starve as they struggle to find alternative sources of income. These people and their families probably love the environment and even if they still don’t get what the whole climate fuss is about, they are certainly not bad people. They know that fossil fuels are bad for the environment and the right thing would be to support a government that seeks to move away from it. When faced with the hard choice of saving the planet in the future or feeding your family in the present however; what becomes right and reasonable quickly change places.
The first step to changing the narrative as it relates to voting in better candidates is for eco activists and politicians to include honest and open conversations about this other reality in their manifestos. Grandiose promises on green futures do not necessarily put food on the table and don’t we know it. Mainstream politicians realize this and talk to their voters on a primal survival level: food, housing, land, taxes, expenses and job security. Now it may come across to certain people as scare tactics, but realistically speaking, these are the basics many people worry about it.
The second step would be to make clean energy and sustainable options as economically viable as fossils fuels and manufacturing etc. For instance, the simple knowledge that there has been unprecedented growth of renewable energy jobs, that there are jobs and livelihoods readily available on the sustainability side of things, will do more to convince people to support green policies than any speech, documentary or policy.
I feel I have some experience in this area because I am Nigerian. I come from a place where each election cycle, the common man is faced with the choice of either doing what is right in the short-term (vote for the candidate with bags of money) or voting for the candidate with long-term vision and policies (and zero money bags). Judging by the state of my country, we clearly continue to take the short-term route each time.
The context might not be exactly the same with Western societies, but the challenge is the same. An alarming number of people still vote in climate-apathetic mainstream politicians because they feel supporting climate candidates will likely translate into less opportunities, less stability and joblessness and hunger for themselves and their loved ones. This may sound overly pessimistic, but it is a reality for many. The earlier we realize this and take their narratives into account, the better the politicians we will elect into power.
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Feature image of Bernie Sanders flanked by supporters at a 2015 campaign event. Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr.