By Isabella Crispino
Is the climate crisis ushering in a new politics of the emotions?
‘I am deeply sorry.’ In front of 250 delegates and the world’s cameras, a man in a well-cut suit is at breaking point. Faced with the disappointing results of the final negotiations of COP26 in Glasgow late last year, in a moment that would come to define the conference, its president Alok Sharma was close to tears. Elsewhere, an interview with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, saw her succumb to them, in a lachrymose and powerful plea that cut through the normally sober world of policy and diplomacy. The entire conference took place against the audible backdrop of a cacophony of jeers, cries, and drums from thousands of protesters just outside.
While climate change has never been a wholly dispassionate topic, the uninhibited outpourings of emotion jarred amidst the policy talk, blaring white lights, and conference passes. Climate anxiety — frighteningly real and wholly justified — has burrowed itself into our consciousness and lexicon with no immediate solution. Gen Z and millennials are vividly aware that it will be them who must face the consequences of the world hurtling towards irreversible damage. In activist circles, including those who took to the streets in their thousands to demand action over words during COP26, politics and passion have always intermingled. While these groups are not completely powerless, they remain, broadly speaking, politically disenfranchised and ignored. As long as profits are chosen over people, pledges remain unfulfilled, and global temperatures continue to rise, protesters have no reason to abandon their cause. Emotion and politics are interwoven — sometimes necessarily so. But there is a difference between how we know politicians feel privately and what they let us see. Or, at least, there used to be. Will the politics of climate change make them open up?
Throughout the conference, the marginalisation of voices representing interests other than economic heavy hitters was palpable. Exactly who participates in politics and public life, and the nature of its accompanying discourse, is a question interrogated by critical and feminist theorists alike. Equipped with these lenses, scholars have re-examined the foundational texts of political theory, pointing out the subordinated groups left behind by the assertions they make. Feminist theorist Iris Marion Young argues that the exclusion of women, subordinated racial groups, and sexualities rests on the dampening of the diversity of perspectives and experiences in these foundational works. This stems from the ideal of impartiality, a notion granted the status to discern the validity of reasoning. The representation of distinct voices, lived experiences and needs must therefore be abandoned in lieu of the purportedly more authoritative, transcendental ‘view from nowhere’. Crucially, Young believed that in order for an outlook to be considered impartial, it necessitates dispassion. That which threatens homogeneity with differentiation, the ‘specificity of women’s bodies, desires, differences of race and culture, needs, goals and desires and ambiguities of feeling’, is rejected in the name of unity.
The consequence of this political theory is the fashioning of an ideal political citizen who abandons emotion in favour of an abstracted notion of impartial reason. Emotion becomes the enemy of reason, with the latter governing the public sphere — the realm of politics and power — while the former is confined to the private sphere, to which women have been traditionally relegated. For Young, this separation ultimately fails. Feelings, desires, and the rootedness of identity lurk as ‘inarticulate shadows’, undermining the ideal. Critiquing mainstream political theory’s demand for reason over passion, and universals over particulars, feminist thought can inform the way we understand climate-related political discourse as it develops. Emotionality, traditionally condemned as a ‘feminine’ trait, has long been contrasted to the paragon of political discourse: rational, detached and, implicitly, masculine. Historically, when women have been invited into the male pantheon, they have been forced to adapt. Margaret Thatcher’s re-fashioning of herself on the model of the male statesman — cold and unemotional, adopting a deeper voice than she would naturally speak with — continues to haunt our conception of the female politician. When certain forms of expression are prized at the expense of others, and little value has been placed on forms of political expression that are emotive and embodied, it is only a select few that stand to gain.
As climate catastrophe comes ever closer, emotionality is coming in from the cold. Adam McKay’s much lauded new film, Don’t Look Up, puts the human emotional response to the crisis centre stage. Having discovered a deadly comet is hurtling towards earth — a thinly veiled metaphor for impending climate disaster — Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Kate Dibiasky, is ushered onto a morning news show to discuss the development. When the severity of the situation is met with humour, trivialization, and lack of engagement, Dibiasky snaps: ‘We’re trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.’ The proportionate response, she suggests, would be to ‘stay up all night every night crying’. Of course, she is ridiculed instantly. It is telling that the cinematic outburst struck a chord with environmental scientists, who took to Twitter to explain that Lawrence’s character’s hysterics perfectly reflected the way that they feel working in the field.
Off screen, the situation is familiar: Georges Monbiot, an environmental campaigner and journalist, broke down in tears on air on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in a back-and-forth about the actions of environmental protest group Insulate Britain. Monbiot’s plea — ‘time is running out on the greatest crisis that we’ve ever faced’ — has no pretence about being ‘a view from nowhere’. Highly informed, rightfully scared, and defiantly emotional — it is a view from somewhere. Faced with the existential threat posed by climate disaster, how long will it be before the veneer of composure and diplomacy shatters?
When Alok Sharma broke down in front of the world’s cameras, an emotional, embodied, and passionate response to climate change was thrust into the political mainstream. The development is a welcome one, particularly amongst a group whose status as the original advocates of climate justice has been sidelined by structural racism, policy failures, and Western hegemony: indigenous communities. One of the most powerful, if underreported, debates at the COP26 conference concerned ‘Loss and Damage’, the question of how we mitigate the real effects of climate change that are happening now, such as floods, hurricanes, and tropical cyclones. ‘Loss and Damage’ remains near the bottom of the policy agenda because the areas of the world that stand to benefit from such policies are outside of the West. The way the West understands the existential threat that climate change poses renders the crisis ineffable, looming in perpetuity. Always in the process of arriving, never having yet arrived. This is, of course, due to the fact that the Global South disproportionately bears the brunt of the destructive effects of climate change — change that is occurring right now, not in some distant future. The consequence of climate change existing only as something to be read about – to worry about, but not to feel, at least not for a while longer – is that we neglect those whose lives it is upending now.
‘I'm sorry, I just get really emotional guys.’ Audibly fighting tears and breathing shakily, Sudanese poet Emi Mahmoud addressed a pavilion full of policymakers and press in Glasgow with words one might expect to hear in an intimate setting, uttered to loved ones. An example of a new generation of climate activists, despite such spaces being perennially hostile to their contributions, Mahmoud comfortably succumbs to her emotions. She reminds us that we do not have to read them as a symbol of weakness.
There is a disjuncture between the communities on the ground whose livelihoods and futures are under immediate threat, and those empowered to make the big decisions. Mahmoud, mirroring Young, warns of the risk of falling back on abstractions like ‘vulnerability’ and ‘extinction’. She calls attention to how, detached and unrooted, these words cannot ever capture the essence of what is happening on the ground. Abstraction can have a numbing effect.
Of course, there are limits to the power of the emotions. Politics must be grounded, too, in reason and rationality. It is crucial that the observations of commentators like Young not be taken out of context. They are a response to the status quo, demanding a step in another direction, not a utopian vision calling for the abandonment of reason in favour of a governance of unbridled emotionality. But climate and political discourse that values the rooted, emotional and affected voices of those on the frontlines of environmental disaster stands to benefit these communities. Rather than being allowed to engage meaningfully in the conversation, members of indigenous and minority communities are often used merely to prop up the opinions of the more powerful players — rich, mostly Western nations, who dictate the state of play. Real participatory structures, points out Young, are those in which people, in all of their difference, assert their perspective within an institution that values equally the representation of a diversity of voices. Integration within these spaces can be bolstered with an appreciation of a diversity of modes of expression, especially in the realm of climate discourse, where the impacts upon different groups are so starkly divergent.
The image of Alok Sharma crying was shocking, but vital. It painfully captured our shared sense of a desperation that goes beyond words. The fact that it came from a conventional political figure, and a Conservative male, reinforces a bleak yet crucial truth: no one will exit unscathed from the climate crisis.
Isabella Crispino reads History and Politics at University College. She still hasn’t figured out how to come across as witty in an ORB bio.
Art by Ben Beechener.