Friday, July 2, 2021

Beware of internal conflicts, rivalries and toxic behaviour polluting climate action

Sou | 1:29 PM Go to the first of 20 comments. Add a comment

Today I'm going to tackle a difficult but important topic - internal conflict. Given the number of people involved, the number and complexity of the issues, and the decades over which the climate movement is likely to be needed, it's a pipe dream to think there will always be harmony. At the same time, if the sort of problems mentioned here aren't acknowledged and, preferably, dealt with well, they can spread and become very destructive. Sweeping things under the carpet, pretending conflict doesn't exist, only allows it to fester and grow.

When a large number of people are working toward a common purpose, it is inevitable there will be internal politics. (If you prefer "virtually inevitable" or "almost inevitable", I'd love you to point out an instance that's been free of this.) 

In this article, I'll use the word "movement". I don't like to apply that term to mitigating and adapting to climate change (which is bigger than any movement); however, in the context of this article it's the best word I've been able to come up with.

Everyone who works in an organisation for even a short time, understands internal politics have an influence on decisions, behaviour, alliances, staff promotions and so on. The same goes for any movement, whether it's related to broad social justice, climate change, anti-litter, health, equal opportunity, local politics or anything where a dozen or more people come together around a common purpose.

Conflicts can arise for any number of reasons, some that could be regarded as fundamental, and some are confusingly petty and vindictive. Here are several to watch out for:

  1. "Means and methods" camps - opposing camps can emerge having fundamentally different and, perhaps, opposing views on how to achieve the common purpose (nuclear vs anti-nuclear; all adaptation no mitigation vs mitigation plus adaptation etc.)
  2. Personalities and personal ambition - with camps emerging based on individuals within the overall movement (personality cults). These can arise if it's thought there will be personal reward for the personality or the follower (such as fame, career progression, book contracts, committee posts, awards, or other personal recognition). I'm not having a dig at our climate champions. We need them and most leaders in the climate movement are above petty politics. It's wannabes and people scrambling to position themselves where this can become a problem.
  3. Ideology and political leanings - dismissing and therefore alienating large segments of society based on their politics or ideology (hard left vs left vs centre vs right vs extreme right).
  4. Position on other causes  - dismissing and alienating individuals or segments of society based on their opinions or actions or perceived level of support for other causes - e.g. do they give equal or better attention to social causes (feminist, BLM, gender issues, voting rights etc) and if it's not seen as good enough, if they're seen to be mainly focused on climate, they must be bad people.
  5. Personal attributes - dismissing or alienating people on the basis of attributes such as sex, gender, skin colour, ethnic origin, cultural background, religion or lack of, sexual preference, education level, political allegiance, age, friends, colleagues, profession, or opinions expressed on matters unrelated to that common purpose. E.g. all men are bastards, particularly if they are white baby boomers.

The most toxic behaviours I see are related to points 1 and 2 above, and to a lesser extent points 4 and 5. These can (usually by intent) elicit emotive rather than rational responses - anger, hurt feelings, public naming and shaming of individuals whether deserved or not (i.e. straight up defamation). All of this leads to a weakening of the movement making it less able to focus on the common purpose. It can result in fragmentation, a muddying of the waters. It can cause hard-working, committed people to be disillusioned and give up. It can confuse the general public if it spills over into the mass media, reducing their understanding of the important issues.

I'm no mediator. That's not my training or talent. I think I am able to see most things clearly but when it comes to helping people work through personal differences, I defer to people who are expert in that area. I'm not a political animal either, normally being more of an onlooker than a participant. At the same time, as you know, I'm not likely to do nothing when I see good people being unfairly maligned. (Mostly I've addressed maligning by climate science deniers, yet this sort of ugliness has been happening within the climate movement too.)

I don't really want to say much more on this topic. These matters need to be dealt with internally by the more responsible and able members of the movement, rather than airing all the gory details in public (which can in turn cause a lot of harm). I know I've sometimes been a bit intemperate myself, dashing off an angry tweet or two and maybe going a bit overboard in articles here from time to time. I'll keep trying to do better, though I still won't hesitate to call out and ridicule climate science denial.

This article is more by way of reminder and a caution. If you're tempted to join a camp or become a groupie to a personality - just take care you're doing it with your eyes wide open and with good reason. Avoid taking at face value everything someone you might admire says. Do what you can to keep the movement healthy. Stay focused on the common purpose. 

Then all the usual things - be prepared to change your mind if the information changes. Forgive individuals if they make what you regard as a mistake now and then. At the same time, watch out for people who exhibit ongoing patterns of toxic behaviour, who may not be as trustworthy or authentic as all that (to use another word I very much dislike), who might be using you and/or abusing others for their own purposes. Remember, you might very well become their next target.

In the end, people come and go, but the issues remain. Harnessing yourself to a particular individual without viewing the broader picture may not be the most productive path in the long term. In the same vein, tying yourself to a particular and very narrow means of achieving the goal could limit our chances of getting there.

Welcome - and please help the world address the problems of climate change

The climate movement must remain broad and diverse, welcoming people from all over, with all our flaws, with all our brilliant ideas including conflicting ones, and with all our efforts - if it is to achieve the results we must.


We've had a tough few months with more and worse fires, drought, floods, heat waves, disappearing glaciers, water supply problems, rising seas and a global pandemic. 

There's much more to be done. 

It's nice to be back, and quite lovely to read your words of welcome here and on Twitter. Thank you. 

Further reading

Here are some relevant articles I came across in a Google search. I don't know if they're among the best examples. Although I've done some work to improve social justice over the years, I've never regarded myself as an activist so this is not my field. Given the sensitivities of social justice movements, the references might or might not be politically acceptable! If you know of other good articles, please add them in the comments.

Three Ways to Reduce Internal Conflict in Civil Resistance Movementsby Joel Preston Smith, September 20, 2018.

Conflict and Movements for Social Change: The Politics of Mediation and the Mediation of Politics - by Kenneth Cloke, July 2013

Crises and Conflicts in Social Movement Organisations by Jo Freeman, published in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, No. 5, 1978, pp. 43-51 - (just to show that internal conflict is timeless).


  1. Excellent overview, and this applies as suggested across movements (that is a good term) including climate related.

    I can add one, that has only caused minor acrimony but that can cause annoyance: The ways to the means differential. I'll give you a specific example in the "Race Class Narrative." I use this example comfortably because I am a strong supporter of it, and I use it all the time and like it. In fact I'm certainly not criticizing it but I can use it as an example.

    In this modality of internal conflict, a great idea emerges on how to communicate. This is purely rhetorical, not policy or position. For example in the RCN, there is a sequence of steps that an ideal communication has. There are actually two versions, since the original form has so many steps, which has only three. It is so proscribed that I can spot an RDN generated commentary a mile away.

    It is a great tool, and is used to effect, and part of the RCN movement within a movement is that it is measured with polls and stuff and proven to work.

    But movement members tend to start off by taking the RCN as an imperative. If you don't communicate this way, you are not communicating correctly. Then they sometimes take it as a signal. If you are not communicating this way, that signals that you are counter-movement.

    Worse of all, the RCN is seen as the ONLY way to communicate and all communications must use it and only it, and once you are using the RCN than you are therefore a great communicator, since following the diagram from the one training you took is all you have to manage in order to accomplish this greatness.

    The only think holding bac, the RCN from clogging the internet with nearly identical 750 word cringe-causing missives is the fact that they don't fit in tweets.

    This probably only counts as a sub-category of one of your categories, but it is annoying enough to take note of, IMHO.

    1. Sounds like an excellent example, Greg. "My way or the highway".

      I like the sound of the research-based approach too. I'm assuming it can be adapted and doesn't really end up with everyone saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same way :)

  2. Great post, Sou. Unfortunately, it seems that some phenomena are unavoidable, and we are experiencing exactly what you described. But so is life.

    1. Yes, Ugo, I agree some things seem to be unavoidable. Humans are fallible. We can only keep trying :)

  3. I presume this post was inspired by recent events, but as I am no longer on Twitter* I have no idea what it is about.

    Twitter is set up to pit groups against each other and to make people waste time on (internal) conflicts. Twitter rewards awful behavior with attention and followers to monetize.

    I guess we cannot avoid being there fully as long as many people are there, but we best spend as little time as possible there. May I herewith invite every to Mastodon, a social media system that looks like Twitter, but is much better moderated, has a much higher SNR and allows for productive friendly conversations. http://variable-variability.blogspot.com/2020/07/friendly-micro-blogging-Twitter-scientists-no-nasties-surveillance.html

    On a general note: Any successful movement needs a diversity of strategies. It is pointless to try to angrily convince people to use another strategy. If you want more people to use your strategy, make it look attractive.

    * I was mocking the conspiracy community and the AI thought I was one of them.

    1. I did miss you on Twitter, Victor. See you on Mastodon.

      The inspiration was seeing an adult unable to clamber over their own low bar. They managed it eventually:D

    2. Miss you guys too. But do not miss the drama and the negative energy. Great to see you on Mastodon. Please at least post your blog posts there.

      Adults! Always those adults. If we make it through the next two decades the future looks bright. Young people are great.

  4. Is this Honest Government Ad on CSIRO and BOM accurate? It sounds a bit extreme.

    1. Probably is, Victor. Australia's in a huge mess right now. The corruption and incompetence is so pervasive it's almost impossible to keep track of it all. There's a new scandal just about every day - sometimes more than one.


    2. "A tribute to CSIRO scientists and BoM meteorologists. We hear you. ❤️" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H85ZfjMGRcU

      A song for my colleagues. I hope they read this blog.

  5. The biggest problem I find with the good people in the general public is the tendency to believe that one persons actions doesn't matter. This delusion is constantly reinforced in mainstream media. But real change can ONLY happen if individuals begin taking responsibility, and learning to live cleaner, and self sustaining. Reduce the flow of capitol to huge energy and big ag corps. This will force movement. Change will NOT come from the top, never has, never will.

    1. The biggest problem i find with the good people in general public is the tendency to believe that one persons individual actions matter.

      The more so for climate change which can only be solved if everyone joins in and where we thus need collective action. Rumor has it that one of the strategies of the oil companies is to make people believe it is a matter of personal sacrifice to make sure less people will want to join the movement and nothing happens.

      An individual can naturally spark collective action. #Greta

  6. On the topic of personal action, I am writing to the Mounties to get them to investigate suspicious reports of Russian steam pipes being installed in Canada.

    1. That would explain it :(

    2. No matter how far down the rabbit hole that may be, it is only consistent with the direction burrowed by Chief Rabbit Anthony.

  7. You mean like when Naomi Oreskes called James Hansen a "denier"?

    I agree you would be more successful if you united, but its not going to happen. For that to happen, you would need a common cause which was more important than the egos of your leaders.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. "...more important than the egos of your leaders"

      I can never tell when Eric is intentionally being funny or if he is just so stupid he does not think about what he writes. Because the great leader of climate change deniers - he who was lauded at WUWT as the messiah of denial - has an ego larger than that of the entire scientific community put together. Well done Eric - if that was an intentional joke on your part!

      I refer, of course, to that "stable genius" Donald J Trump.

  8. I completely agree with you "The climate movement must remain broad and diverse, welcoming people from everywhere, with all our flaws, with all our brilliant ideas, including contradictory ones, and with all our efforts - if we are to achieve the desired results.

  9. I've been part of enough groups and movements to have seen these dynamics multiple times, often with the result of the fragmentation, and even the destruction, of the group or movement. I've done a study of what causes these problems. It's too complex to get into here, but yes, it seems inevitable. (One way of avoiding it is a sort of autocratic rule over the organization, but that's something few of us want.)

    In this case, the stakes are too high to let these dynamics interfere with pursuing the goals of tackling climate change. Kudos to you for your doggedness in continuing onward.

    (I've missed your blog. I'm delighted to see you at it again!)


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