Can Boris’ ‘Levelling Up’ narrative work for climate change?

COP 26 will be a big test for Brexit Britain and its new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, but could it also be a moment for both to shine and to unveil a new story about building a shared, sustainable future?

A Changing Context

As corona virus dominates the headlines and the world gets to grips with what a shared, life-threatening, global, systemic risk actually feels like, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that, as yet, the COP26 climate change negotiations are still scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November.

With a world on course for 3 degrees of warming, the disappointing non-result from the Madrid talks, the removal of Claire O’Neill as the UK’s head of the COP26 Summit, as well as this awkward, red-faced, bumbling from Michael Gove when asked what success at COP26 might look like, it may not feel like a good time to be optimistic… However, the recent outbreak and a newly independent UK means the context for the negotiations will be radically different from previous negotiations.

One thing the virus is showing us is that governments around the world are capable of taking bold decisive action, spending on infrastructure (here China builds a hospital in 8 days) and are even prepared to suffer a short-term economic hit for the sake of longer-term health and stability. The excuses for not taking bold action on climate change are looking more feeble and reckless than ever before.

While a narrative charged by fear and threat is successfully motivating many to take precautions against the virus, some have wondered why the threat of climate change is yet to drive the appropriate level of response that it demands. To understand why, and to construct an effective narrative for COP26, we need to consider our agency in response to the two threats. With COVID-19, we’re told that washing our hands, avoiding travel and not touching our eyes, mouth and nose can directly affect our chance of contracting the virus, and yet, buying less, flying less and eating a low carbon diet may or may not contribute to reducing our individual risk of suffering from the impacts of climate change.

This lack of direct agency has always been one of the fundamental challenges of driving action on climate change.It’s why it is important for narratives around climate to have a positive vision of where we need to get to. Withouta positive vision, the individual will lack theability to meaningfullyrespond to a threatandeither take refuge in denial or suffer in a state of anxiety. But with a positive, shared vision of a sustainable future the small actions an individual takes start to become meaningful, tallying up to a greater, wider effort to build a better future. This is why the conservatives need a narrative around COP26 that at its heart isfundamentally optimistic about the future.

Not only corona virus, but also Brexit mean we are very much entering new waters and the context around COP26 will be markedly different to past negotiations. For the UK, as hosts, COP26 is clearly a chance to show the world that we still have a meaningful role to play on the global stage. In addition, Brexit being ‘done’ actually helps us in this respect, reducing the incentive for our European neighbours to disrupt our efforts, especially given climate change is a topic that the French and Germans care so much about. Regardless of whether events will ultimately prove me naïve, there is an opportunity for leadership here not only for the UK, but for its new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Getting the narrative right will be key. While we’re fortunate enough to have a conservative political party that accepts the reality of climate change, legislated a moratorium on coal powered plants and more recently (and more reluctantly) fracking, they also crippled our nascent domestic solar industry with the rapid removal of subsidies. Recently reversing cuts to flood defences and undoing their own restrictions on onshore wind have been helpful steps forward but, generally speaking, radical change and conservativism are not natural bed fellows. So how could the current government frame action on climate change over the next eight months to build public support and political will for bold commitments in Glasgow this November?


1) Levelling up on climate

Prime Minister Johnson already has a narrative for his premiership as a whole, “levelling up the UK”.

At its face, ‘levelling up’ is a simple piece of language but the idea within it has remarkable depth. If we compare it to existing narratives on climate change we can start to see some of its strengths. For many, climate change, stands as a fundamental critique of the society we’ve built. A narrative of Human Hubris is constructed, “In trying to better our society we got complacent and let capitalism run amok, foolishly ignoring our dependence on the natural world. Climate change is the just reward for our greed, arrogance and short-sightedness”. Some extend this to a story of Human Virus, “humanity is like a cancer on the planet, devouring the natural world and threatening its host! Not to worry,” they say, “the world will soon shake herself free of us and return to health”. Both stories are remarkably disempowering, claiming that either our system or ourselves are fundamentally flawed and beyond redemption.Yet, unlike the encouraged revolutionary response to these stories – to tear it all down and start again – ‘levelling up’ is about taking what you already have and transforming, transmuting and transfiguring it into a higher form – agency, potential and optimism are all built in.

This makes ‘levelling up’ exactly the right story for our time and for the climate challenge we face. If we have 10 years to turn it all around, then we do not have time to start from scratch. If we want a stable climate and prosperous societies, we have to simultaneously reign in the worst of capitalism and unleash the best of capitalism. Now more than ever, faith in ‘progress’ needs to make a comeback – “levelling up” is progress in 2020-speak.

But hold on a second, isn’t a “conservative approach to change” an oxymoron? Will levelling up enable the ambitious action we need to see at COP26? I think levelling up can deliver at the top end of what’s actually possible. I believe we should embrace ‘bold incrementalism’, reaching just beyond what you know to be possible is how real change happens. When we set ourselves challenges that are outside of our comfort zone one of two things happen; either they’re too difficult for us and we fail or, the difficulty is such that we rise to meet them, finding new strength, developing new skills and overcoming adversity. We are then something more than we were before we started; as well as being more accomplished, we’re more capable and more complex – this is real growth, this is what happens when we level up. With repeated boldness our growth compounds and an accelerating affect appears, our progress moves from incremental to exponential and that’s how remarkable things come to pass. If ‘levelling up’ comes to stand for bold incrementalism, it may not announce the most radical targets but it could deliver achievable, rapid change that builds momentum for ultimate success.


2) A Resilient Britain

What, then, might ‘levelling up on climate change’mean for Britain? And how can we deepen the conversation in a way that appeals to the current British Government?

It’s well known that Boris Johnson’s favourite historical figure is Winston Churchill. In his opening speech as Prime Minister, Churchill told the nation “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”. Tackling climate change is going to be an almighty undertaking but it might also be Boris’s greatest opportunity to follow in his hero’s footsteps.

The remarkable thing about Churchill’s opener was his candour. In the face of uncertainty and adversity, he chose to tell the public the truth – exactly the thing Extinction Rebellion is demanding that the government do today. However, despite declaring a climate emergency, the real truth is still not being told to the public at large.

That truth is that we have incredibly tough times ahead. I believe that ultimately, humanity will get on top of its emissions and gain the power to intentionally control its climate – we already have most of the technology needed to do so – but the likelihood of 2 degrees or more of warming is still incredibly high and runaway climate change remains a very real risk. Britain should prepare to face severe floods, food shortages and drought. While it will take the worst of climate change to truly collapse civilisation, there’s no reason not to expect that we, along with the rest of humanity, will face the consequences of failed states that could make the Syrian refugee crisis look small fry.

I’m not recommending a narrative of ‘going to war’ with climate change – you can’t shoot greenhouse gases – but I do think that a wartime spirit of resilience in the face of adversity is going to be a crucial factor in bringing the country through the challenges it faces. Throughout the next few decades (at least) we will need to spend significant parts of our budget mitigating and adapting whether other nations pull their weight or not, resilience will be essential.

The way to construct this story is to be clear about what we are fighting for. Building on the idea of ‘levelling up’, and to counter the simplistic call for ‘an end to capitalism,’ we should identify what it is that we really want to take with us as we progress. Jim Bendell, in his challenging piece “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” sees the value of resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress… we can conceive of [the] resilience of human societies as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours”. How we do this, how we build a ‘Resilient Britain’, is a conversation that can be had with the British people in the build up to COP26 and continue afterwards as we work towards a sustainable future.

The beauty of ‘resilience’ is that it crafts a response and acknowledges the frustration of those on the left saying we should “tear the system down” without getting stuck in a counter position on the right that becomes so defensive as to brook no change at all. Starting that story off with one or two “values or norms” we are seeking to protect by acting on climate change can form the foundation for a wartime spirit focused on ‘conserving’ what’s important while accepting that change is upon us whether we would want it or not.


3) “Fairness” over “Justice”

While the path to Net Zero is still largely being worked out some have suggested government investment of up to an additional £33bn a year must be spent to get there by 2050.

True levelling up does not mean making climate change an investment bonanza for a privileged few. To deliver resilience, government will have to find opportunities to bring communities together and enrich them with decentralised community-owned renewables, to reduce fuel poverty and create local jobs with home insulation and energy efficiency upgrades, to strengthen British agriculture. Many in the climate movement would describe this as ‘a just transition,’ the goal of moving to a sustainable society in a fair and inclusive way. However, if climate activists wish to appeal to a broad electorate and especially a conservative government it’s worth taking a moment to explore the difference between ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ as narrative frames.

In January I wrote about the difference between the ‘climate action’ and ‘climate justice’ narratives and many of my readers have expressed interest in exploring it further. Here’s a brief summary of the difference between them:

‘Climate Action’ (CA) a scientific and rationalist approach, focused on the need to take rapid action to reduce emissions… ‘Climate Justice’ (CJ) narrative… makes an emotive, impassioned plea for an equity and human rights-led approach to responding to climate change with a focus on the redistribution of resources and the elevation of issues of oppression and social exclusion.

Because the framing of climate justice is so heavily aligned with a left-wing focus of anti-capitalism and oppressed groups, there is a risk, I believe, in delaying positive action on climate by perusing this narrative at this moment in time. In addition, I believe that most of the same outcomes can be achieved with a small pivot to a focus on fairness.

Justice and fairness, at first glance appear conceptually close, however, the social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion, Jonathan Haidt explains the key difference is that, “The desire for equality [on the left] seems to be more closely related to the psychology of liberty and oppression [i.e. ‘justice’] than to the psychology of reciprocity and exchange”. Reciprocity and exchange provide significant scope to argue that our transition to a resilient Britain be a fair and inclusive one, let’s look at how this can be applied to one of the most fundamental levers of government, tax.

As well as being one of the most obvious tools of government for driving change and incentivising behaviour, tax is also at the epicentre of what it means to have a fair society: Do we allow the wealth creators to keep their riches as reward for the value they create for all or do we acknowledge our interdependence and redistribute the wealth of the fortunate and privileged to compensate for the injustices, dumb luck and good fortune that dictate the outcomes of peoples’ lives?

Last year, French President Macron’s decision to raise fuel duty under the auspices of tackling the climate emergency helped trigger the emergence of the Gilet Jaunes movement, and in the run up to today’s budget, the first of the new government, it was widely rumoured that the conservatives were looking at the possibility of raising fuel tax here.

In France, this regressive tax fell hardest on those who could least afford to pay, the working class, rural French and the underemployed, triggering resistance to this and to Macron’s wider platform. Fuel taxes have never been popular in the UK either and are generally viewed as an unfair burden on those who have no choice but to drive – no surprise that the government backed out and decided to freeze them.

However, if they had applied the ‘fairness lens’ of reciprocity and exchange it could be possible to build support for not only raising fuel duty but also a range of taxes that target high carbon consumption such as air travel and red meat consumption. Put simply, reciprocity is about ‘give and take’, tax is just about ‘take’. A wide-ranging carbon tax, potentially delivered via a VAT surcharge on high carbon goods and services will only ever gain popular support if there is a clear ‘give’ element and the exchange feels fair. A distant and impersonal hope that we might advert climate change tomorrow lacks the tangibility of instantly higher prices today. Instead, a corresponding tax break (a ‘carbon tax cut’ perhaps), reducing either income tax or national insurance in proportion to the revenue raised from a carbon tax would bake fairness in and make most people better off with the burden falling on those who can afford high carbon consumption. This is how you can build a fair transition to a sustainable society within a narrative about making the country more resilient and putting money into the hands of those who need it most. A policy like this could be big announcement suited to a moment like COP26 and has the potential for cross-party support.


Some closing thoughts

It may seem strange to some to explore narratives, messaging and framing in this way. To strategically pick and choose a story you want to tell about the world rather than to simply describe the truth of the events that are occurring around us. But this is exactly what is happening all the time in businesses, lobbying groups, political parties and NGOs. Whether a narrative sticks or not is partly its connection to the truth of the events on the ground and partly its potential to inspire action and motivate change.

While ‘levelling up’ could be a great narrative frame for taking on the climate crisis I’m not holding my breath. Creating a “big society” and being “in it together” we’re also compelling narratives, suited to their moments in time and yet now they ring hollow as empty promises designed to paper over the deep social cracks formed by a program of austerity that saw our economic and political elites abdicate their responsibilities to the rest of society and flourish while the majority stagnated.

‘Resilient Britain’ too could be a compelling frame to invest in our future or a story about a nation further isolating itself from outside world. And finally, ‘fairness’ may be a more effective frame for driving progressive change in the UK in 2020 or it may become highjacked as an excuse not to act with fingers pointed at China’s coal powerplants and the UK’s relatively small population, both points that are more easily countered from a position of ‘justice’ by drawing on historical and per-capita emissions respectively.

Nonetheless, whether or not COP 26 moves us forward will in no small part depend on the current conservative administration seeing it as an opportunity for leadership and gaining popular support. I hope this piece has at least shown a few potential ways forward.



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