Runner-up Jamie Curtis on Climate Change Politics

To what extent might Greta Thunberg’s ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement contribute to contemporary climate change politics becoming increasingly post-political?

This summer was the summer of Greta Thunberg: I have a dream. By using the concepts presented in Greta’s speech in the United States Congress (Independent, 2019) as a proxy to the intentions and characteristics behind her movement, I will attempt to consider the impact that it may have to the ‘political’ conditions under which climate change ‘politics’ play out. I will not attempt to analyse the implications or merits of a post-political frame for the effectiveness of climate change politics in countering climate change.

The conditions which are understood to be constitutive of a post-political environment are consensual agreements and formations, technocratic management and problem-focused governance (Swyngedouw, 2009). This is seen to be post-political or post-democratic because it tacitly reduces the opportunity for contestation or social antagonism which are central to democracy and political processes (Pugh, 2007). Post-political conditions can be seen to be perpetuated by populism because populist discourses construct an external enemy, such as CO2, in place of social antagonism (Swyngedouw, 2010). Populism is also based on the assumption that people know best and that science and technology aid this, as well as fundamentally seeing ‘people’ as a universal subject and a single entity (ibid). These characteristics of populist discourses contribute to decision-making becoming increasingly about holding expert knowledge and the reduction of democratic contestation.

A clear message portrayed by Greta was that she wishes to be able for us to “safeguard the conditions for a dignified life for everybody on earth” (Independent, 2019). This message may lead to climate change politics becoming increasingly depoliticized because reducing people to a single entity, without distinction between them, diminishes the opportunity for democratic contestation over the geographical variations that would likely be present in the realisation of climate change policies.

Another way in which Greta’s speech may lead to increasing the depoliticization of climate change politics is surrounding her approach to science. She stated to Congress that “you must unite behind the science” (ibid) and “It’s time to face the reality, the facts, the science” (ibid). The support for science removes the opportunity for political antagonism as the facts and principles which are presented by science start to frame the discourses. The centrality of scientific knowledge to climate change politics also changes how the we/they distinction is drawn in democracy (Pugh, 2007), it can create a simple dichotomy of acceptance or rejection rather than allowing for multiple views or stances to be taken. Greta does portray some of the potential problems of technocracy by understanding that the figures she uses from the IPCC may be too moderate as they are only the ones the “have been accepted by all nations”.  This shortfall may be linked to the increasing governance of climate change politics by post-democratic public-private transnational bodies rather than typical political institutions (Swyngedouw, 2010), as the consensus formation (such as at the Paris agreements and within the Kyoto Protocol) between different and multiple actors may require compromise of scientific accuracy. Greta’s presented dream “that governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences” (Independent, 2019) may accentuate the depoliticization in this way.

Another way Greta’s speech may lead to climate change politics being practiced in an increasingly post-political nature is through her construction of an external and exotic ‘enemy’, “our main enemy right now is not our political opponents. Our main enemy now is physics” (ibid). The externalisation and reduction of the ‘enemy’ is fuelled by the populist discourses which underpin post-democracy because it speaks to capitalist and neoliberal ideals of not challenging the status quo and allowing life to go on in a similar way (Swyngedouw, 2010). Rather than allowing for a multiplicity of enemies which will create contestation based of varying ontological standpoints and facilitate democratic antagonism Greta contributes to the externalisation of an enemy hoping for the unification or consensual agreement against this enemy.

It would be reductionist to think that Greta’s movement only depoliticizes politics. The distinctive we/they dichotomy between the “millions of school striking youth” (Independent, 2019) and “government, political parties and corporations” (ibid) currently failing that youth is also one drawn by Greta. The creation of this partition allows for contestation, and challenges the existing power relations and dynamics which currently govern us. Arguably, the reliance of Greta’s movement on protests also speaks to its politicisation, as these demonstrations are seen as generative events which cause a ‘slow down’ in the reasoning process and force contestation and antagonism (Whatmore, 2009).

In some ways, then, Greta’s movement has created contestation and antagonism which, given her platform, may ultimately increase the politicization of climate change politics. However, the aforementioned factors, which contribute towards a post-political framework, make the overall impact on ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ complex and dynamic in the context of climate change.

Reference list 

The Independent. 2019. Greta Thunberg: I have a dream that the powerful will take the climate crisis seriously. Available at:https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/greta-thunberg-congress-speech-climate-change-crisis-dream-a9112151.html 

Accessed on: 10/10/2019

Pugh, J. 2007. Chantal Mouffe (2005) on the political. Area,Vol.39(1)

Swyngedouw, E. 2010. Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change. Theory Culture & Society, 2010 Mar, Vol.27(2-3).

Whatmore,S. 2009. Mapping knowledge controversies: science, democracy and the redistribution of expertise. Progress in Human Geography, Vol.33(5),

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