LES LEVIDOW analyses the predominant political narrative on climate, and ways for social movements to oppose it
As embraced by the world’s most powerful governments, the predominant approach to climate change has three main elements: market mechanisms, technological fixes, and delay. Market-type policy instruments are meant eventually to stimulate novel techno-solutions which can decarbonise or replace high-carbon systems.
This techno-market framework has maintained a societal hegemony through a seductive narrative, namely: that a smooth low-carbon transition will become more feasible sometime in the future, as grounds to delay climate action for now.
These climate-delay narratives warrant scrutiny for their strategies, broad appeal and role in system continuity. Focusing on them, this article ends with ideas for counter-strategies towards system change.
As climate-change denial has become marginal, climate-delay has become a more important obstacle. Having initiated the US agenda for a Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deploys the epithet “climate delayer” against politicians who promote excuses for delaying effective action, especially the Democratic Party leadership.
Climate-delay narratives encompass a broad range of obstructors, excuses and delays. In the guise of sharpening debate, they raise questions that divert attention from decarbonisation solutions. Their strategies variously redirect responsibility, promote non-transformative solutions, emphasise disadvantages of climate action, and/or encourage a fatalistic surrender to climate change, according to an academic analysis published in the journal Global Sustainability.
Its authors argue that a prevalent strategy has been to divert the focus away from stringent decarbonisation measures, towards “technology and market-based measures with minimal interventions, even if these are ultimately insufficient to address the scale of the problem”.
This strategy has many variations, e.g. emphasising recent progress in renewable energy deployment, promoting techno-optimistic solutions (always falling short of the promised timeframe), and recurrently substituting new future solutions, e.g., zero-carbon airplanes, fusion power and direct air capture of greenhouse gases.
Such narratives anticipate future decarbonisation technologies that would avoid the need for major socio-economic change. To reach the target of near-zero carbon emissions, “I am told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make by 2050 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have”, said the US government’s climate envoy John Kerry in 2021.
According to advocates of such a climate fix, it would be more smoothly, feasibly implemented than current options.
These wishful techno-optimistic expectations express the elite’s long-term alibi, namely: awaiting hypothetical fixes and perhaps funding them, meanwhile continuing high-carbon production-consumption systems.
As means to deliver or stimulate future techno-solutions, policy elites advocate market-type instruments. In particular, when US vice president Al Gore was President Clinton’s climate representative, he pushed the Kyoto Protocol (1997) to adopt carbon trading – as a condition for US government support for the agreement (which anyway never materialised).
This policy framework is worse than simply diversionary, in at least four senses:
□ First, it displaces responsibility away from institutions, instead towards anonymous market forces and/or technological progress, which can then take the blame for failure.
□ Second, it extends the neoliberal state’s role in creating markets and outsourcing solutions through competitive contracts.
□ Third, it promotes a societal model simulating or intensifying market-type competition, while undermining or marginalising cooperative solutions.
□ Fourth, it facilitates expansion of high-carbon activities in the expectation that the emissions can be reduced by technological means.
This general elite strategy can be understood as a neoliberal techno-market fix. Such a policy framework has been promoted by the UN Climate Convention and the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, despite their pretensions of global leadership for climate solutions. The annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) still promote carbon-trading and future techno-fixes, rather than the necessary shorter-term actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Since 2019 the European Green Deal has extended familiar subsidies and market-type incentives for decarbonisation technologies, but imposed no requirements to reduce fossil fuels.
Techno-market fixes versus opposition
Fortunately, some fixes have provoked public controversy, opposition alliances and proposals for truly low-carbon alternatives. Such efforts have mobilised social forces and issues beyond climate issues alone.
From those controversies, what can be learned for future strategies? How do these experiences indicate a potential social agency for system change? Such questions will be explored here in European contexts.
The EU has a long history of techno-optimistic promises for environmental fixes, justifying system continuity. Justifications have implied that technoscientific advances will avoid or overcome negative effects of previous technologies. Sooner or later, their advocates have claimed that similar fixes would offer climate solutions. Such techno-market fixes have often provoked public controversy.
Opposition alliances have framed false solutions in pejorative ways bridging several issues, thus aligning the frames of potential participants. For example:
■ “Climate-smart agriculture” was claimed to sequester carbon through no-till cultivation methods, thanks to GM (transgenic) crops. Opponents pejoratively reframed this agenda as “corporate-smart greenwash” which degrades the soil and monetises Nature through carbon credits.
■ Future second-generation (or advanced) biofuels were claimed to replace oil. Opponents pejoratively reframed biofuels as industrially-produced “agrofuels”, which “feed oil addiction” and generate “a carbon-emissions time bomb”.
■ Novel incineration techniques were euphemistically called Advanced Thermal Treatments, claiming to reduce GHG emissions from landfill and through bio-based fuel products. Opponents pejoratively reframed all thermal treatments as “incinerators in disguise”; likewise as a linear economy of “make anew, use-and-dispose”, wasting resources and harming nearby communities.
■ Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) from natural gas, e.g. for generating hydrogen, was claimed to decarbonise fossil fuels in the near future. Opponents pejoratively reframed this agenda as “hydrogen hype”, perpetuating fossil fuels and GHG emissions, while also hijacking the EU’s Covid-19 recovery funds.
Those diverse cases illustrate some general patterns.
In climate-fix controversies, multi-stakeholder citizen-expert alliances have contested official knowledge-claims about benefits of the putative fix. These alliances can be generally understood as “mobilised counter-publics”. They have stimulated public controversy over dominant agendas, averted passive public consent and counterposed alternative futures. Thus they open up greater opportunities to promote low-carbon, lower-energy futures.
Counter-publics often emerge from social movements, whose participants bring diverse framings of a societal problem, e.g. environmental or health threats, socio-economic inequity, resource degradation, etc. Such opposition has drawn on knowledge from socially excluded groups (e.g. service users, patients, low-income groups, small-scale producers, etc.), facilitated by NGOs and social movements.
Effective action depends on integrating all those groups and issues through joint action. As a feature of social movements, “frame-bridging” aligns “two or more ideologically congruent but structurally unconnected frames regarding a particular issue or problem”. Through frame alignments, counter-publics have devised pejorative slogans undermining climate fixes, while advocating alternative futures.
As protest raised risk or sustainability issues, state bodies have framed them as direct, potentially avoidable effects of a product or technology (e.g. of GM crops, biofuels, incinerators, etc.) The fix is presumed remediable through appropriate management measures. This official framing has often channelled dissent into specialist issues, thus obscuring systemic drivers of harm.
Regulatory procedures have evaluated potential harm through implicit normative assumptions as regards what potential effects may be relevant, acceptable or worse than some standard. These norms are often disguised as “science”, as if they lay above politics.
Counter-publics have identified and questioned such normative criteria, thus extending political controversy to regulatory expertise. Moreover, they have highlighted how political-economic interests and institutional commitments drive the fix. Those critical perspectives often have emerged through knowledge co-production between researchers and activists.
Moreover, such counter-publics have highlighted the anti-democratic basis of technicised decision-making, which depoliticises societal choices. Counter-publics also identify “undone science”; they demand or generate resources for new knowledge which could serve a broad public benefit rather than private interests. They mobilise resources to fill the knowledge gap, sometimes for alternative solutions through grassroots inclusive innovation.
Such innovations can contribute to eco-localisation agendas; they can build more enjoyable lives by creating lower-energy forms of livelihoods and localising production-consumption circuits. This is sometimes called “an economy of sufficiency”.
It involves solidaristic commoning, i.e. creating communities that defend commons or devise new ones, as non-capitalist means to protect and appropriate resources. In all those ways, counter-publics can develop the alternative institutions which are crucial for system change.
The labour movement’s divergent decarbonisation agendas
Amidst those contrary agendas for system continuity versus system change, the labour movement has divergences on decarbonisation agendas, especially in the global North.
Trade unions in high-carbon sectors, sometimes calling themselves the “Energy Unions”, have generally sided with their industry bosses by embracing techno-optimistic fixes. These wishfully imagine a smooth techno-driven transition which needs to change only the energy technology, meanwhile delaying or pre-empting low-carbon alternatives.
In general, they promote Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This aims to decarbonise coal or fossil fuels into hydrogen as supposedly a zero-carbon fuel, thus justifying fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. In the UK they have supported the Hydrogen Strategy Now campaign, promoting a cross-class national interest in technological progress. Its patriotic image juxtaposes Big Ben with the Union Jack, which has been historically stigmatised as the Butcher’s Apron by anti-imperialists.
By contrast with high-carbon industrial sectors, public-sector unions such as the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have been more supportive of socially just, transformative decarbonisation agendas around the sufficiency principle. This perspective has been elaborated by a global network, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). The TUED approach resonates with civil society agendas for a Just Transition.
Thus decarbonisation agendas, whether they are called Green New Deal or Just Transition, have divergent versions.
The capitalist high-carbon one has generally prevailed within trade-union federations such as the UK’s TUC and the AFL-CIO in the US. Disrupting the cross-class alliance will be necessary in order for the labour movement to play a stronger role in socially just decarbonisation agendas and hence system change.
“System Change Not Climate Change” has become an increasingly prominent slogan. The “system” denotes socially unjust, profit-driven investment, resource plunder, dispossession and labour exploitation. The slogan has been taken up by the Fridays for Future protests, among others. “The climate and ecological crisis cannot be solved without system change”, declared Greta Thunberg at the 2020 UN Climate Action Summit.
What impedes system change? Entrenched economic interests seek to capitalise their sunk investments in fossil fuels, which continue to expand. Indeed, “the fangs of the fossil fuel companies are being sunk into the necks” of people throughout the global South, argues the Nigerian activist Nnimmo Bassey. Renewable energy supplements that expansion rather than halting it. Together those sources feed the general rise in energy usage.
To some extent, Western European economies have been decarbonised by outsourcing high-carbon production to the global South and then importing the products. They also buy carbon offsets, which sell a licence to pollute the atmosphere. Rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such credits disguise increases.
More fundamentally, capitalist market competition (along with fossil-fuel subsidies) perpetuates the high-carbon, environmentally destructive, socially unjust system. This system must be overcome for effective climate action.
This imperative “changes everything”, as Naomi Klein argued many years ago. Yet policy elites lack the will or capacity to make any fundamental change. As Jonathan Neale points out:
The people who now run and own the world have spent their adult lives convincing the rest of us of three things. First, we have to obey the rules of the market. Second, there is no alternative to the market. Third, if we disobey, we will be crushed.
Indeed, through techno-market fixes, dominant institutions have promoted climate-delay strategies, thus imposing system continuity. This role characterises the UN Climate Convention and the EU”s climate policy.
The appropriate response “must be a logic of confrontation, pitting Europe’s communities against Europe’s institutions that seem unwilling to see the climate and environmental crisis through the lens of their lived realities”, argues the Green New Deal for Europe alliance.
Such a confrontation will highlight the inherent limits of the dominant institutions and the need for grassroots alternatives. As the 2022 Ecosocialist Encounter declared,
“System change, not climate change” is not a request we make to the current institutions. It is our responsibility to make it happen. To achieve this requires that we should be coordinated globally and regionally, that we define strategies and act together, and create spaces where we can build peoples’ power and grow the movement.
How to do so? A transformative mobilisation is necessary to build alternative institutions which can strengthen self-confidence in climate solutions. These must confront, overcome or bypass proprietary claims over the resources necessary for alternative futures.
From the various cases above, a transformative mobilisation has five general features: mobilised counter-publics, frame alignments, grassroots innovation, eco-localisation and solidaristic commoning to organise common resources.
Together those features can help link diverse political issues and social forces, much broader than the climate movement per se. This can build a social agency with the political will, collective capacities and resources necessary to implement strong decarbonisation measures, as steps towards system change.
□ Les Levidow is Senior Research Fellow at the Open University. This article draws on his forthcoming book, Beyond Climate Fixes: From Public Controversy to System Change, which elaborates the big picture through case studies of techno-market fixes versus alternatives