Burnout: Arguing the case against addressing Climate Change purely on Leftist terms


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We need to kill the idea right now that climate change belongs to the left. This tendency – and the divisions it creates – are just as dangerous as the causes of the climate change crisis

*In the context of the damning conclusions of the most recent IPCC Report on climate change, I’ve written a blog arguing against a purely leftist interpretation of the climate crisis, and the forms of climate action that this interpretation deems worthy. I write with great love and respect for my friends and others making profound, ingenious and transformative actions to address the climate crisis. Above all, I hope this piece provokes lively discussion! This is a first draft, so I would feedback and comments are welcome.

This piece departs from an article published last year in the Guardian arguing against the ‘neoliberal’ framing of Climate Change solutions, to-date shared more than 244,000 times. The author – Martin Lukacs – offers instead a more radical leftist-political stance to confronting the climate crisis, focussed on tackling the capitalist forces that are responsible for climate change. The article is determined to assert that there is just one true way to confront climate change “it’s only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis“. The assumption here is that the Right (in league with big business and unaccountable power) is to blame for the climate crisis, and that crisis can only be addressed by its counter-balancing force: The Left. Climate change thus becomes just the next chapter of the eternal battle. This conflation is deeply problematic for reasons I want to briefly examine and invite you to debate.

Disclosure: I personally identify on the left. I personally  agree with this more profound Marxist-inspired diagnosis of the causes of the climate crisis (although it has serious holes in its analysis – not least that for a large part of their history fossil fuelled-economic liberalism has enabled the social liberalism that we hold so dear). If you need any proof of our agreement, I invite you to attend a lecture of mine or read something I’ve written. My research has lead me to believe that essentially I don’t think we can address climate change without addressing inequality. Thus i will focus my own efforts at addressing these trends together. 

Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter what I as an individual hold dear. The left doesn’t own climate change and must let go for others to see themselves as part of the climate fight. We must not expect others that come from different walks of life to arrive at the same conclusions as we do about climate change. There must be room for a broad range of perspectives, experiences, and modes of taking action. These people are not useful idiots deprived of our enlightenment. Despite their ideological differences, they are worthy of our care and respect: demanding a tolerance for diversity that as a progressive we should be familiar with.

Though I do not think we are ultimately responsible for it, Leftists reinforce the sleight-of-hand trick that climate change is a party-political issue. I do not think this is deliberate, but it happens each time that we automatically equate the climate crisis with our diagnosis of political wrong-doing. People perceive this as a conflict of interest: do you want me to fight climate change or do you want me to become a socialist? Climate change forces us to confront this dilemma with fresh urgency.

  • Moral burnout

Climate change affects everyone. The impacts know no political divide. There are those that appear to feel schadenfreude (i.e. joy at others misfortune) when Republican-voting citizens or climate-change deniers are affected by climate change. I hope that you do not join them. Climate change is not the crisis you were looking for if you wanted to stay at home at a comfortable distance from those impacts and feel smug on twitter.

There are, and will be increasingly as climate change hits home, people that want to take action to confront climate change without adopting the political beliefs that we hold dear. We need to recognise that and be willing to work alongside them. As much as we would like to colour it one way or the other, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is politically neutral.

I am deeply concerned that people identifying squarely on the left of the political spectrum are dictating what is the one and true way to confront the climate crisis. I am scared that this has hidden consequences which are just as dangerous as the capitalism we love to hate. We are in effect asking people to change to take on our political stances to the world. I do not think that we would be prepared to offer the same in return. I say this tentatively, wanting to understand if others feel the same: doesn’t this hidden request represent a moral dilemma? even a form of moral burnout?

I’m deeply anxious about the tendency of some leftists to judge people who don’t think like us and will never share our political opinions. Implicitly telling people they are idiots and the identities they have spent a lifetime carving out are irrelevant or unwanted is not a functional political strategy.

Establishing the one true way to confront a crisis establishes an us-and-them that confronting the climate crisis cannot support. We are not going to get anywhere with those politics. I recall plenty of moments in my life where I’ve encountered deeply-hypocritical cultural elitism on the left of a kind that undermines the claims to be inclusive.

We need to look hard in the mirror and ask ourselves at this point – what is most important – being able to look back and say we dug in, got messy, clumsy, and at times deeply uneasy, but we confronted the climate crisis and surpassed it, or holding our moral cards so dearly to our chest that we forget what is most at stake?

So this piece is a call for the Marxists among us to put aside their qualms and anxieties around joining a larger coalition of actors working for change. We all want the same goal: A liveable planet. This is a call for galling, uncomfortable, pragmatism. Climate change asks us to hang up our hang ups, and in effect become the tolerant and inclusive leftists we always claimed to be.

To find common cause with people experiencing the impacts of climate change now and in the future, I suggest a number of ways in which Leftists (both activists and academics) need to step up and become politically relevant again:

  1. Demonstrate the effectiveness of galvanising climate action using the methods they propose. Too often social movements have whimpered out because of their austereness.
  2. A commitment to sharing power with a broad range of actor groups and interests spread across classes. This means reflecting on the kinds of language you use to discuss climate change and how these are likely to be percieved by different audiences. Neoliberalism and Capitalism are likely to scare away as many as they draw in.
  3. A demonstrated commitment to empiricism.  This is not about showing your credentials about which particular brands of communism or socialism you are read up on. It’s about balancing a deference to that legacy with a respect for looking and listening to how things are right now, In other words, in what ways can they show humility in conversations around climate change. and an ability to listen to the lively power relations of particular people and places?
  4. Leftists need to demonstrate that climate change matters. It’s not simply the latest in a long line of matters that function as a vehicle for class-based power analyses and defeating the evil Right. Climate change represents a provocation to leftists who have for too long taken the non-social world for granted.
  • Shirking responsibility

Shirking responsibility is a dangerous side effect of the same moral burnout.

If your view is that only a minority of actors – powerful multinational companies – are responsible for emissions, and therefore as individuals we bear little responsibility to do anything, I do not agree. It is too convenient for one, but it also creates another us and them: those with blood on their hands and those who do not. These companies gain their power through our implicit consent. We’ve all enjoyed fossil fuels through our lives and continue to do so up to and including this online, digitally-enabled conversation. The causal chains of the climate crisis that connect the actions of these companies and the composition of the atmosphere run through us. It is our bodies, our minds, our decisions (or no-decisions) that entail the proximate cause of climate change. We cannot stand by, or become activists convinced that it is someone else that needs to change.

On that note, if your cyniscism about the state of the world prevents you from taking action, then that is your every right. But finding yourself in that situation, you need to step aside, not decry the authentic efforts of passionate individuals who don’t share exactly the same values. And once change towards a zero-carbon society really kicks in as a result of these people’s blood, sweat and tears, you better be willing to come up with some serious humble pie. To paraphrase Rebecca Solnit, it’s easy for a neoliberalism-inspired pessimism to set in – but that would be conceding defeat.

  • Learning to be good listeners

In times of urgency, why would we expect people to suddenly accept radical alternatives when research tells us people turn to what they know in times of crisis?

Ultimately where are our allegiances? To our own worldviews and politics, or to the people affected by climate change now and in the future? If the latter then we have to think long and hard about whether we’re capable of climbing down from our high horses and joining a rainbow coalition/broad church that stands any chance of reducing the amount of Co2 in the atmosphere.

Take a look at drawdown.org, the most comprehensive set of climate actions ever assembled. These are the things that will reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. How many of those actions require you to be a died-in-the-wool lefty? Take time to get to know the actions that will make a difference. How will leftists play a role?

What I am saying is that instead of asking people to take on the same political beliefs as  a pre-condition of them joining the climate fight, you’re invited to find your place in a  wider coalition. Actually, with your knowledge of the structural determinants of social change, I think you have a responsibility to take up particular lines of action that are desperately need to confront climate change, such as

  • Challenging consumption as a social practice
  • Challenging the causes of consumption
  • Stopping the production of fossil fuels at source
  • Creative mobilisations to make fossil fuel assets risky and prompt capital flight

We also have a great role to play in gently reminding others of the importance of not crossing ethical red lines, or identifying the risks and opportunities for challenging inequality. For instance, this is where I put my efforts in working with wider coalitions of actors on the subject of Nature-based Solutions to Climate Change.

  • Taking the leap

Climate change requires us to commit to a profound but potentially wonderful social pragmatism. It could be the crisis that ultimately brings us back together across political divides. A recognition of the legitimacy and moral-worth of other peoples ideals could have effects that long surpass our successful joint efforts to address the climate crisis.

Witnessing these debates unfold in academia and activism over the years, its become apparent to me that those on the left could be in danger of missing the transformation whilst waiting for it to happen. There’s so much focus put on the dark forces of capitalism and neoliberalism that we miss the importance of creating empowering narratives and realistic political strategies for change.

Taking action, together, is a profoundly energising experience. Getting things going, off the ground, is a wonderful way of bringing people together around a common cause, giving people something tangible to be getting on with.

To summarise the argument of this piece: I’m concerned that advocates of a leftist approach to confronting the climate crisis play to a particular tribe, without considering the unwitting effects of such an approach, including its function as a way to establish moral worth and political difference. Neither of these has any place in the broad rainbow coalition we so desperately need to confront the climate crisis.

So, by way of coming to a close, I ask again: if you are as committed to change as you say you are, then what scruples are you willing to leave behind – in order to get it done? Rolling up our sleeves was never going to leave any of us untouched.


Climate change puts us all ultimately in the same boat. We need to make confronting climate change fun, inclusive and a task that everyone can find themselves in. We cannot expect people to change their identities to fit our political ideologies in ways we would never do.

Acknowledgements: I take full responsibilty for the content of the piece. However this piece is indebted to ideas gleaned from Flor Avelino, Maris-Claire Brisbois, Christopher Lyon, Kimberly Nicholas, Mark Hudson, Kevin Anderson, and Richard York. I also couldn’t have written this piece without the careful provocations of friends and colleagues who identify more towards the hard-leftist interpretation of climate solutions. I want to re-iterate that I share your concerns about the direction of travel we are taking.

Update: I edited this piece on the 19th October 2018 in order to remove some of the unnecessary phrases that distracted from the argument I am trying to make.



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