Most popular #politicalframing to attack climate activists (and counter-frames) [updated]

1. Introduction

The following text aims to analyse common #politicalframes to attack climate activists and delay climate action. Attackers are attaching negative associations to climate activists or causing confusion in a discussion making it ineffective and leaving the audience vulnerable to emotional-irrational reactions. By analysing these frames and correcting or counter-attacking them, clarity should be provided to a discussion or if not possible, at least an illusion of victory should be achieved.

2. Frames attacking activists

2.1 “Climate activists are radical or are becoming more radical”.

Here, this statement attaches the negative frame of being “radical” to climate activists, while the speaker is framing himself as “moderate” or “balanced” which has positive connotations indicating fair compromise between different interests. However, in the climate crisis, the political corruption and inaction promoted by corporate interests has made a moderate approach to climate action impossible at the current state of GHG concentration in the atmosphere. Therefore, at present the required action to avoid dangerous or catastrophic climate breakdown requires “radical” action, which however, could be also just be called “adequate” with regards to the size of the pending danger and degree of change required. In the literal sense, the lating word “radix” means root, so “radical” can also be interpreted as addressing a problem at its root or ultimate cause. What is more, continued political inaction during progressing global heating while upholding the global warming limits of the Paris Climate Agreement will necessarily lead to demands by climate activists becoming more radical (“radicalization”).

Negative/Incorrect Political Frame: “”Climate activists are radical or are becoming more radical”.”

Positive/Correct Political Frame: “Adequate adjustment of demands during worsening  human-caused global warming and on-ongoing inaction, delay, or blockade by politicians, corporations, and the media. The demands are considered adequate and science-based with regards to the risk, impact and degree of change required to avoid dangerous or catastrophic climate change.”

2.2 “We should leave no one behind.”

Here, the statement suggests that we are all in the same hiking group as a basic metaphor of social justice and any member which is left behind because he cannot keep up with the group will be exposed to the risk of getting lost and losing support of the group. However, in the climate crisis this #politicalframing is misleading because (using the same metaphor) some are walking, others driving SUVs, flying in planes, or space rockets. Those in SUVs, planes or space rockets are currently leaving the rest of the group behind. To slow them down, will actually be consistent with “leaving no one behind” and ensure the homogeneity of the group (~social justice). This means, those people have to get out of their SUVs, planes, and space rockets on their own free will or against their will.

Example: The UNFCCC  is build on the principle of unanimous consensus (“leave no one behind”) and has historically failed to deliver climate action for 26 years because anyone can block everything. Using racism as an example we can ask ourselves: Do we think that we could get rid of racism by first everybody (!) agreeing that it is a bad thing, then everybody (!) agreeing on how exactly to stop racism while slave traders sitting at the negotiation table? Would that work?

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead stated instead [Link]:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This principle can also be applied to a small group of thoughful, committed states (!).

Interestingly, the “leave no one behind”  is used both by inactivist politicians and climate activists, obviously with different interpretations.

On the one hand, inactivist politicians use this frame to justify avoiding social changes which would cause anyone in society “to fall back”. They are presumably using the frame to defend the interests of  their political party, their voters, or supporting industry lobby groups or other groups benefiting from the current system. For example, inactivist politicians argue that they want to keep prices low so poorer people can afford meat (flights, cars, etc) and pretend to intend to mitigate social injustice (by externalising the costs on future generations or the Global South). However, the current social injustice will still be maintained because even if costs for these products are low, rich people will still be able to consume more meat (flights, cars, etc). Instead one could increase prices for meat (flights, cars, etc) to reflect the actual costs (and not externalise them to future generations or the Global South) and still raise the living standard of the poor by redistributing wealth from the richer to the poorer. This means, the issues of ecological justice and social injustice are independent and depend on political decisions whether to a)  increase ecological justice and increase social injustice (eco justice ~ -social justice) or b) increase ecological justice and increase social justice (eco justice ~ social justice). The inactivist political framing proposes that eco justice leads to more social injustice because they assume it as a given that the costs will be dumped on the poor and rich people are untouchable.

On the other hand, climate activists use this frame to justify implementing social changes which would make life of weaker social groups less hard by demanding compensation, eg redistribution of wealth or income.

Negative/Incorrect political framing: “We should leave no one behind.”

Positive/Correct political framing: This frame is misleading because our society is no homogenous hiking group. In fact, some are already way ahead, while others are already left behind; some are walking, some are using SUVs, others planes or space rockets. If we want to pursue the idea of becoming a more homogeneous group, than in fact those in SUVs, planes, or space rockets, have to get out.

2.3 “Climate activists have a left-wing/socialist agenda.”

Here, the statement insinuates that climate activist pursue a (hidden) agenda following personal interests.

Negative/Incorrect political framing: “Climate activists have a left-wing/socialist agenda.”

Positive/Correct political framing: Climate activists, of course, have goals, which are clearly and openly stated in the Paris Climate Agreement and scientific publications and reports, such as the IPCC reports,  or fundamental international or constitutional laws demanding the preservation of the biosphere for future generations.

In addition, climate activists are interpreted to have a left-wing/socialist agenda. What does that mean?

According to Wikipedia:

Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition of social hierarchy. Left-wing politics typically involve a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished. According to emeritus professor of economics Barry Clark, left-wing supporters “claim that human development flourishes when individuals engage in cooperative, mutually respectful relations that can thrive only when excessive differences in status, power, and wealth are eliminated.” [Link]

Right-wing politics supports the view that certain social orders and hierarchies are inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically supporting this position on the basis of natural law, economics, or tradition. Hierarchy and inequality may be seen as natural results of traditional social differences or competition in market economies. [Link]

Considering that the current climate and biodiversity crisis has been caused by societies formed by and forming industrialization and capitalist markets and by rich and powerful individuals over-consuming planetary resources, it it is logical that any reasonable action to address the climate and biodiversity crisis MUST be left-wing.

The political and economic elites who are in control of the current system, of course, do not want to lose their wealth and power which is based on economic prosperity and cheap fossil energy. Therefore, the often cited argument that climate and biodiversity action should not be a “partisan” issue is fundamentally wrong, because climate action is a direct attack of current wealth and power structures build on over-consumption, over-production and cheap fossil energy from the fossil industry in association with related industries (eg automobile industry, aviation industry).

Negative/Incorrect political framing: “Climate activists have a left-wing/socialist agenda.”

Positive/Correct political framing: The current climate and biodiversity crisis as been created by our traditional industrial and economic system with an associated social hierarchy. The system changes which are required to effectively overcome theses crises require a fundamental transformation in the industry (eg fossil fuel, automobile, aviation), economics (e.g capitalism, banking system based on book money) and society (eg social status based on over-production and over-consumption), and the associated social hierarchy based on political power and wealth. Therefore, it is a logical consequence and an empirical observation  that climate activists have to follow a “left-wing agenda” and the current elite and right-wing politicians benefiting from the existing system have vital interests against climate and biodiversity action.

2.4 “Climate activists create division.”

Here, this statement attaches the negative frame of division to climate activists, while the positive frame of union or peace-making is owned by the speaker.

Negative/Incorrect political framing: “Climate activists create division.”

Positive/Correct political framing: Climate activists bring attention to the existing division and conflicts in society to allow to effectively resolve and overcome them. The division and conflicts are the result of a societal system including economics and politics which strives for extraction and accumulation of wealth and externalization of costs, thereby, creating division and conflict. Accusing climate activists of division is highly misleading and reverses cause and effect. Obviously, those parties who are benefiting from the current system and conflicts have a vital interest to avoid system changes to protect the climate and biodiversity.

2.5 “Climate action or activism is a luxury. Climate action or activism is for the privileged.”

Here, the statements frame the subject as a “luxury” with the meaning of “something that is expensive and not necessary” [1] or  as a “privilege” with the meaning “ the advantage that wealthy and powerful people have over other people in a society” [2].

While is partially true that climate actions will create absolute costs, the more important question is what the relative costs are in comparison to no climate action, ie climate breakdown, to draw the conclusion whether something is expensive. In addition,  luxury frames the issue in financial terms not addressing the moral aspects and the non-financial values, which cannot be manufactured and traded, ie a species. The implicit meaning of luxury that climate action is unnecessary is proven wrong by climate science (cf IPCC reports). By focusing on and exaggerating the absolute financial costs, the framing of  climate action as a “luxury” can be considered an argumentum ad absurdum.

While the framing of climate activists as “privileged” may partially be true in that sense that middle-class, white, academic people maybe overrepresented (to be confirmed with data), the focus on there personal traits overlooks the situational aspects and uses the Fundamental Attribution Error in a human audience. To act on the climate crisis  a minimum of information,  financial resources, time and fundamental rights, eg freedom of speech are required. Therefore, poorer people, who do not have access to key information (eg scientific journals) or cannot intepret it adequately because of a lack of education, or have higher risks of oppression by the police or the courts, have a higher barrier to participate in climate activism because of harsher consequences and may therefore, self-select not to become activists. By focusing on the (negative) personal traits and ignoring the situational aspects by the executive and legal system, this framing can be considered an argumentum ad hominem.

Negative/Incorrect framing: Climate action or activism is a luxury. Climate action or activism is for the privileged.

Positive/Correct framing: Climate action or activism is not a luxury, considering that is relatively cheaper than no climate action, ie climate breakdown. In addition, there are fundamental moral and non-financial values, eg livable parts of the biosphere or biodiversity, which require climate action.

Climate activists who are middle-class, white, and/or academic are in a superior, “privileged” position to others. However, the potential over-representation of so called priveleged activists should be interpreted with consideration of the situational aspects such as access to information, ressources of money and time, and discrimination by the executive (police) and legal (court) system which create a  much higher barrier to participcate in activism, esp. more confrontative civil resistance. Therefore, less activism by non-privileged groups, who are often more affected by the climate crisis, should not interpreted as a lack of interest or as an indicator that the climate crisis can be ignored.