The election of Donald Trump reflects the unraveling of the centre-left across the West, and with it a fragile consensus on climate change. For two decades parties of the centre-left have created narratives about climate change that they do not really believe. They have done this to try and convince their fragile coalition of supporters and to try to bring they’re political opponents on the right into the fold. These attempts have failed.
The centre-left long ago abandoned ‘typical’ green messaging in the way it talks about climate change. You don’t hear Obama, Clinton or Justin Trudeau talking about polar bears, sinking Pacific Islands or even climate change as a human rights issue. The go-to arguments of the centre-left (and to some extent centre-right politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel) are these:
– Climate change will create war, terrorism and migration—it’s a national security issue
– The solutions to climate change could create millions of jobs in manufacturing and industry—in areas hit most by industrial decline
– Tackling climate change is an opportunity for economic growth—there is money to be made by entrepreneurs
How did the centre-left end up making these arguments? And why does no one believe them?
In the early part of the 20th century the environment was the concern of the right. British imperialists created wildlife reserves in the colonies; European fascists became champions of ecology; Republican presidents like Theodore Roosevelt created national parks. The left was wary of environmentalism, seeing it as the preserve of wealthy. Environmentalism was a threat to industries that employed the people the left represented; a pursuit of the detached aristocracy more concerned with protecting rare butterflies than with the concerns of ordinary people.
By the 1970s a new environmental threat loomed. Climate change would wreak havoc on the environment. But fixing climate change would mean fundamental changes to the economy, industry and regulation. While the right could tolerate wildlife preservation, it could not tolerate fundamentally reshaping the economy to manage this new threat. The right had to dispense with the troublesome environmentalists in its ranks.
In the late 70s and 80s the right began to paint environmentalism (and its newfound concern with climate change) as the exclusive preserve of the left. They branded it as socialism by the backdoor—a charade created by the left to install a new wave of communism. A strange situation indeed, given that the organised left typically had little time for an environmentalism that is saw as a the concern of the privileged right. Labelling it as creeping communism was also a bold move. At the time the soviet block showed little interest in the environment and aggressively pursued hugely environmentally destructive industrial projects. In spite of making almost no logical sense, this hit job worked well.
But this transfer was only possible because of another tectonic shift in politics. Just as the right was looking to offload environmentalism, centre-left parties across the West were looking to offload socialism while hitching their wagons to neoliberalism—the doctrine of privatisation, globalisation and the rule of the markets in all areas of life.
Consequently, centre-left parties began loosening their ties to organised labour. Over time the voices that had traditionally objected to the centre-left’s enthusiasm for environmentalism became weaker. Yet on the other hand, the centre-left’s new corporate allies were clearly not environmental cheerleaders either. The result was the adoption of a flimsy corporate-friendly environmentalism based around carbon trading and the new trend for corporate social responsibility.
The new economic globalism started by the right and continued by the centre-left had another consequence. The removal of trade tariffs meant that goods could be made more cheaply in developing countries. Jobs moved from the industrial heartlands of the West to anywhere labour was cheap and regulation was loose. By the end of Thatcher and Reagan’s administrations the de-industrialisation of the UK and US was in full swing. Most heavy manufacturing was moving overseas.
The right now had the perfect weapon against the centre-left parties. ‘Look at these detached elites,’ they could say. ‘They’ve abandoned working people. They are more concerned with the preservation of polar bears than with the concerns of ordinary people. Their environmental regulations have forced your jobs overseas.’
Of course the right had done the most to ensure the decline of industry and the jobs that went with it. And the offshoring of work had more to do with trade agreements that environmental regulation. But the right had dispensed with their once cherished environmentalism and turned it into the perfect weapon against the centre-left.
For this reason centre-left parties now frame their concern for climate change around what they imagine are the concerns of others: framings around job creation are supposedly for the people of post-industrial areas they abandoned decades ago; framings around climate change and national security are not believed by the nationalists they are pitched at—and these people never voted for centre-left parties anyway; framings around economic growth are for the capitalists they welcomed into their fold in the 80s and 90s.
So there it is. The centre-left adopted an environmentalism it did not create. To persuade the hotchpotch of interests the centre-left depended upon, it created a set of narratives that no one found convincing.
Despite the victory of the explicitly anti-environmentalist Trump, centre-left parties across the West will probably just double down on their existing climate change messages. They will wrongly believe they can win over the nationalists and racists with their climate change = terrorism arguments. But it’s clear from the exit polling that this demographic never voted Democrat anyway. They will hope business interests will prefer their narrative about green growth over Trump’s narrative of unfettered, regulation-free capitalism—but why on earth would they? They will believe that traditional centre-left voters will be inspired by arguments about job creation and industrial re-growth.
The only of these arguments that is true is the last one. And it’s only half true. The idea of industrial growth and secure jobs is a compelling one. The idea of that growth being in renewables is even more compelling. But people won’t believe these messages when they come from centre-left politicians who have never shown the slightest interest in the concerns of the US rust-belt or the English North East or the Welsh Valleys. Hillary Clinton or the UK’s various Tony Blair clones will never successfully deliver these messages. But a new wave (or perhaps an older wave) of politicians might.
This goes someway to explaining the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. Politicians that never hitched their wagons to the neoliberal agenda. People who have always been opposed to the rule of global markets; people who continued representing the concerns of post-industrial regions while their parties abandoned them. People who might be believed if they said they wanted to create millions of jobs in renewable energy.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant