Briefing Overview

Title: The Missing Narrative: radical environmentalism
Author: Peter Kingsley
Approx. Reading Time: 7 minutes


The Missing Narrative: radical environmentalism

The warning signs come thick and fast. Increasing global emissions.  Too much coal, too many cars. Progress is too slow. Temperatures continue to rise. Looking a little ahead, 2019 is likely an El Nino year, so temperatures are set to rise again. Climate change is a clear and present danger.

In a recent BBC interview, Corrine McQuere, one of the authors of  the 2018 Carbon Budget Report “Emissions are still rising: ramp up the effort”, said there is ‘no vision’ for transport to narrow the gap.  Researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre published a reminder that environmental systems are deeply interconnected: half the sources of potential collapse will amplify one another.  Complex systems are prone to runaway, concatenated failure.

Despite the alarm, the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait initially objected to language at the recent COP24 conference designed to reenergise the Paris Agreement. Defying the IPPC and scientific evidence that there is little time left to save the world from catastrophe, the US administration stuck to the blinkered, short-term view that environmental sustainability cannot be reconciled with economic prosperity and energy security. The final outcome failed to deliver the commitments the majority of delegates campaigned for.

The First Narrative: reduce emissions, slow warming

Two intertwined, highly contested, unstable meta-narratives continue to frame the challenges of a fast-changing climate.

The first is that the natural world can be controlled by reducing carbon emissions, investment in radical technology and conservation. By taking concerted action on emissions, the story goes, warming can be slowed.

The narrative captures an optimistic imagined future and drives real-world action. Despite the setbacks at COP24 and at global policy level, there is clear evidence that the majority of national and city leaders, institutional investors, asset managers and corporations are taking action to cut emissions with increasing urgency.

The European Commission’s “A Clean Planet for all” sets out a vision for the transition to a net zero emissions economy by 2050. China is leading the way in electric vehicles (though relying in the short term on coal to power them) and sustainable infrastructure. In the US, regional and city leaders are taking action, ignoring the Trump administration’s position.

There are no single breakthrough inventions, but systemic technological innovation in everything from electric vehicles to domestic energy efficiency have moved from the margins to the mainstream.  Corporate leaders recognise the risks of alienating investors and the public alike. Some insurers are cutting underwriting support and investment in fossil fuel and polluting industries.

City leaders are in the front line.  Many recognise that they must transform core systems infrastructure, renewing where they can, re-inventing where they must, if emissions, pollution and sustainability targets are to be met for the long-term—on hundred to two hundred year timescales.  The challenges are daunting: cities are vulnerable to some combination of extreme heat, water shortages, extreme weather, storm surges and sea-level rise.

The optimistic argument is that localised governance, visionary leadership and existing technologies will deliver. The key point of the recent IPCC report is that it is not too late. Step Up Now and C40, amongst others, illustrate the depth of commitment. This is critical, since cities emit 75% of all carbon dioxide from energy use. The pessimistic argument is that cities cannot change quickly and that investment will fall short.

For investors, there are one-way bets: whatever the outcome, investing in sustainable sources of energy and innovation all but guarantee accelerating returns. The idea is that the sustainable future will bring jobs, clean air and reduced air pollution has momentum.  The now dominant thread in the wider narrative amongst investors and the financial markets is that investment in green innovation and sustainability is the next source of primary growth.

The Second Narrative: stability within 2 degrees

The second meta-narrative is that limiting global temperature increases to two degrees (and now 1.5 degrees) centigrade above pre-industrial levels will lead to a stable climate and biosphere.  This again captures the conventional, optimistic view: the threshold may not guarantee climate security, but it will avoid catastrophic failures.

This is hotly debated. Climate science is uncertain, but it is also cautious. The evidence suggests that in the history of IPCC reports, the scale and rate of change has been underestimated.

Fresh evidence of rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic, melting glaciers, warming seas, wildfires and the risks of methane release from the ‘permafrost’ (which turns out not to be permanent) continue to indicate that action to cut emissions is ‘too little, too late’.

Some analysts have called for a change in perspective to confront the new realities, calling for ’dark realism’ to drive more urgent action.

In other words, the overarching narrative that cutting emissions will slow and stop runaway climate change disguises more complex realities. The counter-story is that the vast complexity of global natural and human systems cannot be simplified. There are more flaws. Policy-makers have framed the problems in terms of a contest of evidence and certainty, rather than hedging strategies, or precautionary principles.

The Missing Narrative: radical environmentalism

Grand narratives like these play a vital role. In the face of deep uncertainty, they anchor social systems and collective action, linking the past to present action and imagined futures. They create context, yet only work so long as outcomes over time demonstrate that story and reality match.  They are dangerous and prone to sudden collapse if confidence falls away, particularly in the face of waves of contradictory or confusing information.

This brings us to the missing, highly contested narrative surrounding the critical issue of short-term cultural change: radical environmentalism will emerge, yet political, economic, social and financial security will be maintained in the transition to sustainability.

As with all contested narratives, there are mixed signals.  For the time being, the public have not been persuaded or self-motivated to act en-masse.  Since mass-scale action on climate depends heavily on public attitudes, cultural change is the pivotal issue.  The final trigger to climate catastrophe may be that public values, attitudes and action fall short of targets.  From another perspective, public activism itself may drive social division, anarchy and chaos.

The so-called ‘just transition’ may prove impossible, given the vulnerability of national governments and the fragility of international alliances.

The well-known principle of complexity theory is that fragility leads to system failures unless underlying problems are resolved. Inequality, fears about mass automation, the breakdown in trust in media, politics and institutions and failing social justice have already brought many Western governments to the edge.

The ideological flaws in liberal thinking and lack of political vision have created a vacuum in which resentment continues to grow. The failure to act on the ‘climate emergency’ adds to the pressure and itself may accelerate failure.  If the benefits of the sustainable economy re-enforce existing inequalities, the backlash will gather momentum. Growing evidence suggests that climate change and climate action will hit the poor hardest.

Just when robust leadership is needed, many national governments are compromised and weak.

The long list of protests reflecting simmering grievances, includes the Gilet Jaunes movement in France and the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement in the UK, both brought to the boil via Facebook.  In India, Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement, said recently that mass action by farmers “could be the most important thing happening in the world right now: India’s first mass protest in response to an ongoing climate-related agrarian crisis.  Of vital significance in a region where more than a billion people will face catastrophe.”

Even so, there are positive, if weak, signals.  Activism takes many forms. To illustrate, campaigners have targeted the world’s major institutional investors and in turn, the major fossil fuel companies.  In the most startling shift, Shell have made commitments, distinct from “ambitions”, to cut emissions. Corporate leaders, squeezed by active investors and advocacy groups, are making radical changes.

In France, a petition launched by four NGOs protesting government failures to act on climate collected two million votes, twice that of the Gilet Jaunes.  In the US, the idea of the ‘green new deal’, first articulated back in 2008[1], is gaining momentum, promising sustainability and jobs.  The idea is gaining ground in Europe. This is new for the US.  The Sunrise Movement signals that a generational change of the guard may be underway. City, regional, business and financial leaders are taking action, ignoring the Trump administration.

Listen To The Public

Against this background the critical uncertainty is not about high-level policy, international leadership and radical technology, important as they are.  It is about bridging the gap between politics, the public and a socially inclusive future.

The underlying problem is that political leaders and policy-makers often fly blind. There is a gap in understanding of public emotion, mood and feeling, a gap above all, in empathy. This is a model failure that echoes the experience of economists who excluded the influence of the financial markets on the real economy ahead of the 2008 crash.  Hidden narratives with the potential to go viral are out of the intelligence range of policy-makers. Emerging protagonists and opinion formers, the keys to narrative power, are part of an opaque world.

The public do not respond to abstract ideas and policy, but to feeling, to people and the stories they tell.  This the challenge of the age.  As the European Commission put it “citizens play a central role”.   The idea of a “just transition” is not new.  It is an idea whose time has come.

Alternative futures, of a systemic transformation towards more inclusive economic models may, after all, be imaginable.  The vital challenge is not to leave the poor behind.  In the extreme, green movements may become the unifying force in an otherwise dark world.  This is not an academic question: to repeat, only with mass-scale public action will emissions fall and climate action match the scale of the challenges.

The ‘Fifth Industrial Revolution’ may not be about industry, but radical restructuring, de-industrialisation and ‘de-growth’ that recognises environmental limitations.  Radical environmentalism may hold the key.  In the meantime, we face both runaway climate change and exponential, radical innovation.


[1] The Green Collar Economy: Van Jones

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Briefing Overview

Title: The Missing Narrative: radical environmentalism
Author: Peter Kingsley