Attack, Engage or Ignore? The role of ‘the enemy’ in sustainability

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Attack, Engage or Ignore? The role of ‘the enemy’ in sustainability


Enemies (or ‘opponents’) are prevalent in campaign narratives on climate, energy, nature and sustainability more broadly. But do enemy narratives help our sustainability and regeneration causes?

This was a key discussion topic in a really thought-provoking discussion with:
Noora Firaq – Deputy Chief Executive Officer – Climate Outreach
Funmibi Ogunlesi – Interim Head of Messaging – NEON
Phillippa Simmonds – Countryside & Community Research Institute
Alex Evans – Founder/Executive Director – Larger Us
Session curator: Adam Corner (Climate Barometer)

All speakers shared valuable insight and made really interesting points. The aim wasn’t to come to an agreement as to whether to use enemy narratives or not. But for me, there was a clear conclusion:

  • Enemy narratives tend to be counterproductive for problems that require sustained, system change (like transforming the economy in order to tackle the existential, sustainability challenges we face). Because narratives about villains and them (the bad actors) vs us (the good actors) alienate important groups of people that we need to win over.
  • However, enemy narratives that villainise the very institutions and systems, that need changing, can help unite the critical mass of persuadables (about 60% of the people).

Alex Evans made particularly thought-provoking points against the use of enemy narratives in climate change.

A common approach in climate campaigns is to base them on a resonant enemy – a villain to fire people up. It energises debates. It is great for securing media coverage. It can fire up funders for our campaign too, thus it can help secure funding.

But the cost of enemy narratives is – as he discovered himself in a Brexit campaign he has run – that they deepen division on issues and polarise debates. We can’t afford this with sustainability problems like climate change.

Climate Outreach’s founder, George Marshal, makes a very compelling point in support of this position too. In his fantastic book “Don’t Even Think about It | Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change”, he highlights that climate is too big an issue to be solved without near total commitment across society.

We need to drive and sustain public support from a broad spectrum of political opinion. Not just for one news cycle or one election cycle. But for decades, while we transform our economy.

A key challenge that we – the environmental movement – are facing is that we spend most of our effort on firing up the 20% or so of people who are already in our eco echo-chamber. They support us and agree with everything that we are saying.

Whereas the people we should be focusing on are the 60% or so of people who are the persuadables. They often show up as supportive of climate action in opinion polls. But they don’t necessarily have a deep commitment that translates into action. Their sustainability concerns can easily be traded off against another issue, such as the cost of living or unease about the economy.

When we lead with division (enemy narratives), there is a high risk of us turning off the persuadables, whom we need to be winning over.

Othering in sustainability

Another barrier to progress in the sustainability movement is the ‘othering’. We you ‘other’ groups by making them somehow essentially different from us and inferior to an extent.

Alex highlighted three types of othering: of voters, leaders and systems or institutions.


Othering large sways of voters risks firing up a large part of the people we need to be winning over. An example is the 2016 US presidential election where Hilary Clinton called Donald Trump supporters ‘a basket of deplorables’. This completely energised them to further support Donald Trump. Whereas she needed to be winning over those voters.


Othering leaders, such as politicians, can be problematic when voters, who identify with politicians, feel othered as a result. Coalition building often is key for winning elections. Those coalitions include people whose values and perspectives are different from our own.

Systems or institutions

Othering systems or institutions is much less problematic. When using enemy and villain narratives, this is where it’s worth focusing on. This othering can be a powerful motivating tool and carries a lot less risk of turning off voters that we need on our side.

An example is Nelson Madella. Before he started his jail term, he saw white people as the enemy. By the time he finished his prison time, he saw apartheid, the system, as the enemy, and white people and black people – as equally caught up in this unjust and repugnant system. This view enabled him to other a clear enemy that everyone needed to unite against in the name of justice.


It’s worth being mindful of our ‘shadow’. The term is used by psychotherapist Carl Young to describe the things that exist in us that we don’t want to face in ourselves and so, we project onto other people. For example, when we notice traits of others that wind us up but that we have ourselves too. This is very easy to happen in sustainability.

When we project big problems like climate change onto a cartoon/villain (easy binaries), we overlook the extent to which we are all entangled in the systems we need to change. This is counterproductive to the system change we need to drive. That change requires almost everyone to be on board. Except for a small minority at the far end of the spectrum, that we are never going to win over – we shouldn’t waste our breath trying to get them on board.

Additionally the vast majority of the British population – as researched and grouped into segments by Climate Outreach and think-tank More in Common (in the Britan Talks Climate evidence base) – is concerned about climate change. There are narratives and framing that could help unite different segments of the population. Such as nature, protecting nature, and preventing harm to wildlife.

Noora Firaq also highlighted that when it comes to climate justice, naming and shaming (individualising blame for climate change) tend to cause further division. However, framing climate justice and similar issues through the lens of fairness helps to unite people – without alienating segments who hold different values and are more resistant to change.

Noora also highlighted the importance of:

  • Engaging loyal nationalists with climate change topics
  • Providing alternatives, when asking for a discontinuation (or reduction) of an action. For example, discouraging flying altogether would have negative impacts on a range of countries and people (including countries at the forefront of climate change, like Maldives). Instead, we need to reduce flying to work with the airline industry to figure out what a sustainable model of flying will look like. Or if the infrastructure and the system is – as Nelson Mandela once said – to change, what does that look like? And what should that be? Without making countries like Maldives even more vulnerable than they are.
  • Look at climate change not just as an isolated issue, but is an intersectional issue

Blaming individuals should also be avoided. Because that just moves people to fatalism which doesn’t help to change systems.

It is certainly worth listening to the whole debate.

Read more about we need to scale behaviour change we need for a 1.5-degree world.

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