Clumsy, Patronizing Climate Narrative Still Needs a Tweak or Two

OPINION by Mathew Carr

May 16, 2021 — LONDON: Representatives from rich countries are still at it, casting their bias on the rest of the world.

They are still telling the world, much of which hasn’t caused the problem, how to clean up the mess that is the climate crisis.

Take Alok Sharma, the nominated president of the Glasgow UN climate talks in November.

He wants those talks to “consign coal power to history,” according to a speech delivered two days ago.

[I hesitate to pick on Mr Sharma because, when it comes to messaging, he’s pretty close to getting it. Yet, there are still some communication flaws, so here goes. And by the way, I’m sorry this is a little preachy, but the bad communication has gone on way too long and it’s getting in the way of solutions.]

What a least-developed-country person hears when she hears a U.K. representative say “consign coal to history” is “we got rich burning coal and ruining your climate and now we don’t want you to copy what we did”. That’s an irritating message.

Photo by Pixabay on

Mr Sharma needs to stop saying it like that. There are better ways (see below).

What’s surprising is that he is still making these clumsy statements, even after apparently meeting with representatives of about 115 of the world’s 200 or so countries.

It underpins unhelpful messaging in the mainstream media, such as the resulting headline on BBC: “Alok Sharma urges nations to banish coal.”

This messaging isn’t helpful. If you are a developing nation with a fairly new, efficient coal power station, of course you want to use it until the end of its useful life, providing your people access to electricity, perhaps for the first time.

Emerging countries tire of being patronized if they feel their only or main form of electricity is under attack from those who are most to blame for the climate problem.

It’s also surprising bad messaging still prevails because what is clear from another section of Mr Sharma’s speech is that he knows better.

He included this on the promised $100 billion a year of climate finance from rich countries to poor, which hasn’t really turned up (arguably):

“I asked ministers from developed nations to imagine what it is like for communities on the front line of climate change, struggling to deal with a crisis they did next to nothing to create — to feel what it is like to see developed countries invest trillions (of dollars) overnight to address the covid 19 pandemic, whilst the $100 billion a year that we have promised to support developing countries with remains uncertain.”

Delivering on the climate finance is “a matter of trust,” he said, standing in front of a shiny Scottish windfarm (not one funded by the U.K. in Africa).

It’s precisely because of the lack of trust that Mr Sharma needs to start using the same sort of language when talking about coal as he does when talking about climate finance.

It’s rich countries that have blown past their fair share of the carbon budget implied by the Paris climate deal because of their coal burning — it’s them that need to urgently consign coal to history. Developing countries? Not so much.

Climate communications need to keep in mind this is a global, multi-generational problem. Ignore history, you’ll fall into a trap. Misunderstand the future, you’ll look like an idiot.

Had Sharma delivered his message more carefully, the BBC headline might have been: Alok Sharma urges rich nations to banish coal.

That’s a narrative that might secure Sharma more support from developing nations when they all meet in Glasgow. Such a headline would also give better perspective to the BBC’s rich-country readers/viewers, as it accurately reflects historical responsibility to its poor-nation readers/viewers.

The climate-messaging problem is not only about trust. The lack of trust stems from a lack of humility.

When Agra, northern India-born Mr Sharma begins to show some humility about Britain’s proportional culpability for the climate crisis, he’s going to win more trust from emerging countries.

Roughly one billion richer people have caused most of the climate damage, ruining the environment for the other 7 billion people on earth. If the one billion continues to shame the 7 billion, mistrust in the negotiations will stick, and the Glasgow talks will fail, as United Nations climate talks have failed for the past 30 years.

I’m not urging politicians to play up the climate blame game, but to move on from it by confronting it with humility and collaboration.

India is going gangbusters already on solar investment that will help fix the global problem mainly caused by the rich world (I’m also glaring here at politicians in my home country Australia, which has one of the biggest responsibilities for the climate crisis on a per-person basis).

There are some signs of improved climate messaging, but they are not coming fast enough.

A month ago, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken gave a speech on American leadership on climate change. It included this:

“We only have around 4% of the world’s population, but we contribute nearly 15% of global emissions.”

This is the first time I’ve heard a senior U.S. official say something like this — make this simple admission. But it does not go nearly far enough.

What the Biden/Harris administration needs to do is start talking about how the U.S. is the biggest contributor of heat-trapping gases currently in the atmosphere, despite that small portion of global population.

It needs to stop demonizing China and India on climate, where the per-capita, historical blame for the crisis is much lower indeed. It needs to start emphasising collaboration. It needs to drop the zero-sum game language – ie “we will win only if China loses.”

Blinken knows the climate crisis is hurting the poor disproportionally. Yet he’s apparently less willing to acknowledge this applies on a global basis. He is mainly willing to say so far that it applies domestically.

Bringing the U.S electorate into the global climate solution is one of the biggest challenges of the UN climate talks because the American messaging has been so wrong, so lacking in humility, for so long.

If you’re from a rich country and you’re tempted to say “we are all in this climate crisis together,” make sure you simultaneously admit your own special blame where you have one.

I’m pragmatic. I realise these narratives are not going to change overnight.

But, with six months to go, changing the discourse urgently will give the world much brighter hope that the Paris rulebook out of the Glasgow negotiations will have more teeth and allow for better global trust and collaboration.

Rich-nation envoys are fully aware of the importance of walking the talk and they now need to better show it.

After the end of President Donald Trump’s reign, see this turnaround statement yesterday on coal from special U.S. climate rep John Kerry, who was interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr:

“We are behaving in the way that we are talking, which is moving towards alternative and renewable as fast as we can.”

Finally. Even better was this tweet from Democratic senator Ed Markey, from last month:

These are the sort of messages that will help win agreement in Glasgow, Mr Sharma.


See Mr Sharma’s speech:

His profile:

BBC coverage:

See Mr Blinken’s speech:

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