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Climate One

Monday, May 10 at 2:00 pm

Distorted Democracy And The “Zero-Sum Game”

In the US, we’ve become accustomed to climate – like nearly everything else – being politicized. Even when potential solutions might benefit everyone, a zero-sum mentality has taken hold, where there’s an “us” and a “them” and progress for "them" comes at the expense of "us."

“When you can be divided and get easily manipulated into cheering the destruction of things that could be beneficial to part of the American people," says political strategist Heather McGhee, “that's making life harder for everyone.”

McGhee is board chair of Color of Change, the nation's largest online racial justice organization, and author of the new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. In it, she argues that racism in our politics and policymaking is distorting our ability to respond to big problems that require collective solutions by framing them as a so-called zero-sum game.

“The belief is that there's only so much to go around and what is good for an ‘other’ is bad for us,” she explains. “You can't dig into the social science data and see how much racial resentment became highly correlated ... with white public opinion on issues that nominally should have nothing to do with race during the Obama era.”

But does it have to be this way? In the UK, for example, climate politics are rarely marked by the partisan and racial divides of the American climate debate.

“We still have a very consensual approach to climate change,” says Rebecca Willis from Lancaster University, author of Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change, noting that the UK’s 2008 Climate Act has endured across conservative and progressive governments. Willis sees both a promise and a warning in US climate politics, as well as broader implications for global climate action.

“Maybe this is democracy’s moment,” she says, “maybe this is the time that we see that we need collective action because we sure as hell can't solve this one as individuals working through the market.”

Heather McGhee
Political Strategist & Author

Rebecca Willis
Professor and Author

To listen to the audio of “Distorted Democracy And The “Zero-Sum Game”” on Climate One online, please click HERE.