Eccentric orbits

Battle for hearts and minds on climate change will be fought across generations

Winston Churchill, not a man concerned about making enemies. Cecil Beaton

Last week there was a bit of a hullabaloo when it was discovered that the international programme director for Greenpeace, Pascal Husting, was flying to work from Luxembourg to Amsterdam a few times a month. Sensible arguments could be made for this arrangement and in the bigger picture this cannot be considered an important issue. And on some level, it just didn’t seem fair to single out Husting in this way.

It wasn’t fair. But politics and campaigning isn’t fair.

You cannot have a senior member of an organisation taking regular short haul flights for a group that has in the past asked its members to break the law and risk limb and even life to protest exactly against that. At some point someone should have paused for thought and asked: “I wonder what this would look like if it became common knowledge?” If they had, then Husting would have done much earlier what he has now committed to do: take the train, and acknowledge that this was a lapse of judgement.

So now we can all move on.

Except some won’t because this incident will be used to further sharpen the axes wielded against Greenpeace. Greenpeace is by its nature a controversial organisation. If nothing else it confronts power, and power typically never cedes an argument lightly. Nor does it play fair.

In some ways that doesn’t matter. Nothing Greenpeace could ever do would mollify their hardline critics. As long as the organisation campaigns against nuclear weapons testing, spearheads anti-whaling, opposes clear-cutting of rain forests and argues for big reductions in carbon emissions, then it will continue to upset a large number of people. As Winston Churchill once observed, that’s not necessarily a bad thing:

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.

Greenpeace’s fiercest opponents shouldn’t be ignored, but no sustained attempts should be made to change their minds. The battle lies elsewhere. And it’s a battle that will be fought over much longer timescales.

The expression “hearts and minds” was first used to describe the British and Commonwealth armies’ attempts in the 1950s to convince the indigenous people of Malaya that their best interests were served in co-operating with them, rather than the communists and separatists seeking independence from the British Empire. It was taken up with great gusto by US forces that sought to pacify the South Vietnamese and turn their allegiances away from the Vietcong. US troops dug water wells, and distributed food and medicine. Neither love bombing nor carpet bombing proved to be successful strategies.

Current events in Afghanistan and Iraq show that billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure, education and political systems can produce a relationship with less commitment than a drunken one night stand. Hearts and minds are won as a result of significant and sustained actions. It may take years. Perhaps generations.

There are many long games played in the evidence-based policy field. When neonicotinoid pesticides were first introduced in the 1990s some expessed concerns at their use at the time. However it has only been very recently that the danger they represent to a wide range of species – notably bees – has been established or at least recognised by those with the power to do something about it. There is rarely a smoking gun, an irrefutable piece of evidence after which everything suddenly changes. Scientific papers establishing a significant correlation between smoking tobacco and lung cancers were first published in the 1920s. Since then, many millions of people have had their lives significantly cut short by the diseases that smoking can produce.

As little as seven years ago, crawling back into your clothes after a night in the pub could be accompanied by a strong waft of stale tobacco smoke. Nowadays, in the UK even hardened smokers wouldn’t consider lighting up in a bar, restaurant or cinema. When driving, you put your seat belt on without any real consideration, and you wouldn’t stand idly by and watch a friend drunkenly stagger to their car and attempt to drive it home. You don’t beat your children nor object to mixed-race marriages. I hope.

All these attitudes have changed over time. People convinced other people of the force of their argument. Somewhat less prosaically they often just outlived their opponents. To paraphrase Max Planck: science proceeds one funeral at a time. Millennials have grown up in a world of social norms different from Generation X and the Baby Boomers before.

It is arguably this newest generation that is most important. They have their working lives ahead of them and in a few decades will be in positions of power and influence commercially and politically. Movements such as Push Your Parents demonstrate that young people have an important role right now. Speaking to them, convincing them of the case for reducing our impact on the Earth’s climate, of valuing biodiversity, of building resilient and just societies should continue to be a central mission of Greenpeace and others invested in producing meaningful change. Opening the door to such change will never be easy and will at times be resisted forcefully by some.

But then, if it was already open, someone would have already walked through it.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 97,200 academics and researchers from 3,137 institutions.

Register now