Alex Evans, author of The Myth Gap, looks at the effect that Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could have on the climate change movement
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate deal may turn out to be a spectacular own goal.
His announcement has already galvanized support for the accord from other governments, from city mayors and state governors in the US, and from ordinary people in America and all over the world.
But it’s also possible that the chorus of outrage and contempt directed his way could actually make it harder to get the US back on board in the future – by solidifying the already enormous political polarization around climate change in the country.
In the US, what you think about climate change is the single most accurate indicator of your overall political orientation. More than gun control, more than abortion, more than capital punishment, climate change as an issue is owned by ‘progressives’ on the left – and as such is anathema to conservatives on the right.
The problem with that, as climate expert George Marshall notes in his book Don't Even Think About It, is that climate change as an issue is "far too large to be overcome without a near-total commitment across society".
The sheer scale of the transition needed – across energy, transport, homes and lifestyles – is vast, after all.
And unless a grand consensus exists across the American political spectrum, the risk is that successive administrations will just flip-flop back and forth on an issue that requires long-term commitment more than any other: just as we’ve seen in the transitions from Bush to Obama to Trump.
So how might such a consensus be built? Not with evidence and data, for starters – this is something climate activists learned the hard way back in 2009. Up until then, their idea of how to drive change was thoroughly technocratic, focused on influencing a small number of political insiders.
For a while, this approach seemed to be working. The 2008 presidential election was fought between two candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, who both believed that climate change was real, urgent, and caused by humans. The House of Representatives even passed a climate bill.
To succeed, new types of campaign will need stories that can fight ‘them and us’ political narratives with the idea of a larger ‘us’
But then the Tea Party burst on to the scene, destroying the bipartisan consensus that had seemed to be taking shape on climate change. It achieved this not through use of data or evidence, but through brilliantly deploying populist stories that led not with facts, but with values.
In many ways, the Paris accord was the result of environmentalists learning the lesson that the Tea Party had taught them. Organisations like 350.org successfully built a mass movement on climate change – mainly by telling hugely resonant stories.
These stories were not about emissions or technologies or green jobs, but about responsibility, morality, and covenants between generations. They recurred over and over again in Obama’s second-term speeches, and even in Pope Francis’s first papal encyclical.
The problem, though, was that many of these stories were ‘enemy narratives’, which claimed that climate change was all someone else’s fault – whether the Tea Party, Exxon, Saudi Arabia, or the Koch Brothers. Just as the Tea Party had fired up the right on climate change, so climate activists fired up the left.
The result: yet more of the profound political division that has become the defining characteristic of US politics today, and is most pronounced in the debate around climate change.
The good news, though, is that other kinds of activism are emerging – ones that place less emphasis on division, and more on what unites us.
In the US, for example, veteran climate activist Van Jones has gone out of his way to build bridges with communities such as the Virginia coal workers – who, he points out, are as much victims of the fossil fuel industry as anyone.
Meanwhile, the Knock Every Door campaign explicitly sets out to reach voters outside the ‘progressive’ community, with the aim of creating space for a new political centre to grow.
To succeed, these new types of campaign will need new types of stories. Stories that can fight ‘them and us’ political narratives with the idea of a larger ‘us’. Stories that can replace endemic short-termism with the idea of a longer ‘now’. Stories that can appeal to a different idea of the good life, in which growth is about growing political maturity and responsibility rather than just increased material consumption.
If we can embrace these kinds of stories – especially in moments of crisis – we’ll be well on our way to building the kind of future that most of us actually want. And Donald Trump’s stories – about isolation, walls, and fear – will increasingly be seen as relics of another age.
More about the author
Once upon a time our society was rich in stories. They united us and helped us to understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths.
Today, we have a myth gap.
Does that matter? Alex Evans argues powerfully and persuasively that it does. In this time of global crisis and transition– mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity, and climate change - it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is stories, rather than facts and pie-charts,that have the power to animate us and bring us together in to change the world.
Drawing on his first-hand experience as a political adviser within British government and at the United Nations, and examining the history of climate change campaigning and recent contests such as Brexit and the US presidential election, Alex Evans explores:
*how tomorrow’s activists are using narratives for change,
* how modern stories have been used and abused,
* where we might find the right myths that will take us from a dark age of uncertainty towards the broad, sunlit uplands that we all seek.