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More Emotions and Less Facts for the Ecological Transition

Claudia Detsch

8 mins - 28 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

The tone of the climate debate is increasingly strident. The left must confront it with simplicity, honesty, and optimism. Feelings are much more helpful than facts.
Yes, the apologists for “it used to be hot in the past” still exist. But in view of the increasing number of weather catastrophes, they have come up against reality. For the right it is more profitable to target climate policy. They want to convince the public that it is the next step of a resentful elite to attack the freedom and prosperity of ordinary people.

They have a doubly opportunistic game here, and this makes it a challenge for progressives to counter this message both politically and communicatively. On the one hand, many of the measures that achieve rapid emission reductions are associated with socially undesirable consequences. For example, by increasing the costs of certain activities and goods. This raises the stakes: a good climate policy must be social, or it will not be successful. 

Admittedly, talking about climate is as difficult as designing a good climate policy. The ‘how’ is crucial. The facts are not. Scientific studies and statistics only convince those who have been convinced for a long time. Scare scenarios of impending climate apocalypse do not serve to mobilise people either. Frightened citizens are more likely to seek comfort from those who see no need for action or those who promise a return to the past.

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Wandering aimlessly is not the solution either. Both the challenge and the solution are on our own doorstep, and that is where they must be shown and discussed. The fate of the polar bear on the Arctic ice floe can only convince zoologists. Moreover, looking out of the window is a way of killing two birds with one stone. Surveys show that many people value their own willingness to make climate-friendly changes in their lives very highly, but do not believe as much in the goodwill of their fellow human beings. This perceived lack of initiative on the part of their neighbours subsequently inhibits them from making their own efforts. Positive examples from one’s own region, community, or neighbourhood, on the other hand, make it clear that something is moving left and right of the garden fence. And it reduces the feeling of helplessness that often prevails for many on the issue of climate change. You can do something concrete; others are already doing it. If, for example, the electricity consumption of the neighbours in the neighbourhood was reduced last year, that encourages them. Successful campaigns are based on such examples.

Emotions are also important in communication. Right-wing populists appeal to feelings, which is why they are so successful. Left-wing parties appeal to reason, right-wing parties to emotions. The progressive camp can only lose in this game. The emotions of the population must guide our political decisions. It is not a matter of creating emotions as public relations. They are already in play. Fears and frustrations, anger and doubts must be addressed. The potential target group of progressive parties is very broad: the field of emotions is correspondingly large. They are not dismantled by denying them their raison d’être. They are dismantled by pointing to practical solutions that inspire hope, in which everyone participates and of which one can be proud.

Of course, you must be honest. Promising the moon does not work. It arouses distrust. And when practical reforms do not come, the disappointment is even greater. It is a triad: what is the challenge, what practical and socially balanced solutions are possible, what positive results will they bring to the population. These outcomes must aim at more than just limiting temperature rise. This should not be difficult for socialists and social democrats. After all, it is about a new relationship between the market and the state, a successful industrial policy, and more local participation.

The solutions are in the community or neighbourhood and in the company itself. That is the key to getting people involved. And this can also be emphasised in communication. It is about offering concrete solutions that everyone can work on and co-determine. People should not see themselves as passive victims but want to be active participants in change. And they do not want to be lectured to. Instead, positive examples from their own peer group are decisive. People with similar interests, attitudes and life circumstances to mine are doing something different and doing well. This is the message. Not the index finger raised in reprimand. Appeals scare people away. Telling people what to do is a good way to achieve the opposite. What is ‘well seen’, on the other hand, is effective. It can be used to show positive developments. People follow socially recognised norms; they want to belong to their peer group.

Behaving in a climate-friendly way should be a simple thing to do.  But it has to be recognised that this is easier said than done, given the enormous challenge involved. On the one hand, it is important to create the framework conditions for this, for example by providing the necessary infrastructure or adequate funding. On the other hand, values and expectations have to be developed at the societal level. 

Our climate policy solutions must deliver on the promise of securing a good life. They must embody our values. Right-wing populists also appeal to values in public discourse. And precisely the same ones that progressives stand for: Freedom. Community. It can be painful to see them abuse these values, deeply inscribed in social democratic and socialist history, for their own ends. For they are concerned only with the freedom of the individual, without regard for the freedom of others. And the freedom to surrender to the illusion that everything can go on as it has long ceased to be. However, the real threat to freedom is climate change itself. It will limit our daily lives and make many familiar things impossible. Socio-ecological change, on the other hand, thrives if it is initiated and implemented at the local level and with the participation of the population.

The right-wing populist community is a community that only survives by aggressively singling out and attacking other groups. That is why right-wing populists have discovered in climate policy a privileged field of action alongside migration policy. Hardly any other issue is so polarising. In this way, right-wing populists exploit a central feature of the climate debate and reinforce it at the same time: the fight against climate change is perceived throughout society as a divisive rather than a unifying issue. It is therefore a challenge to challenge this as a winning issue for the right.

Regretting this appropriation and instrumentalisation is of no use. It must be taken as an incentive. Recapturing these values and honouring them: in reforms and in communication. How can this be done? Electricity supply based on renewable energies is produced in a much more decentralised and small-scale way than that generated by fossil fuels. This makes it more independent and widespread. However, it also allows, and even requires, many people to participate in electricity generation. People can produce their own electricity, either on their own rooftops or through membership in an energy cooperative or community. Revenues can be used locally or distributed among members. This personal involvement creates practical solutions. And it is a powerful image of democratic participation of the population. The role of progressive actors is to ensure that these models are open to economically weaker sections of the population and not limited to the upper middle class. Those who have good intentions for society and the climate work on the ground of common interests and communicate about it.
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