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How to Win Hearts and Minds in Climate Politics

Sonia Furstenau, the head of British Columbia’s Green Party, has a vision for climate policy that reclaims nostalgia as a leftist emotion.

Courtesy of Nicholas Miller/BC Green Caucus

The climate emergency doesn’t feel great. We fear violent weather events and mourn vanishing seasons and species. We’ve had to name new conditions, like ecological grief and climate despair. Shaming politicians into action takes frustration and anger. There’s not much climate joy, hope, or excitement. And it’s hard to offer a vision for the future commensurate with the massive change required to decarbonize that’s also comforting for voters.

Sonia Furstenau, the recently elected leader of British Columbia’s Green Party, broke into public consciousness this October with a standout debate performance that helped her party shatter fundraising records. A former teacher, historian, and community organizer, she’s been wrestling for a while with climate action’s approachability problem. And she’s beginning to zero in on a novel solution, reclaiming a political emotion more frequently manipulated by the populist right: nostalgia.

Nostalgia is typically associated with a gauzy and glamorized past, not the deep future. Translated into politics, it’s often a reactionary force, the emotional bedrock of populist movements like Trumpism and a favored fig-leaf for white supremacy. Yet Furstenau, a new face in Canadian politics, thinks that nostalgia’s psychological power can be used to win elections and secure a future that is healthier, happier, and, as she repeats often, more resilient than the unequal and unsustainable carbon-fueled world we currently inhabit.

Green Party fortunes are rising in many multiparty democracies as the climate emergency escalates. B.C. might have been laboratory-designed for a Green surge. An increasingly progressive province with long traditions of ecological activism, B.C. is now grappling with climate change firsthand, from sea-level rise around the Salish Sea to the wildfires destroying homes and thickening the air. In 2017, the Greens won three seats in the provincial legislature—and with no other party able to command a majority of votes, the Greens became essential for the government’s survival. Until this fall, they were effectively North America’s first governing Greens at a regional or provincial level.

Most political parties are forced to justify climate action within their long-standing values and electoral narratives. Conservatives tend to gravitate toward market-driven solutions like technological innovation or limited taxes on carbon. In the center and on the left, environmental policy has historically found itself occupying a “nice-to-have” secondary role: valued but jockeying for attention among longer-standing commitments to economic or racial justice. Even the Green New Deal, hopeful in its nature and transformative in its implications, has been presented to voters more as an old-fashioned Rooseveltian “good, high-wage jobs” plan, less as an invitation to rethink the ways in which Americans live together and what that community could feel like into the deeper twenty-first century. 

Green politicians have the reverse problem. Ecological protection is their existential purpose. Their strategic dilemma is how to build a vision anchored in environmental action that’s also a full-blown political alternative to established parties. They have to persuade voters that addressing climate is the key to human flourishing in general, and that casting a Green ballot can be a joyful way to improve the lives of people you love, rather than simply a self-sacrificial duty.

Furstenau’s leadership is still young. A week after she stepped into the job in September, the province was thrown into a snap election and her party lost one of its three seats. But she remains interested in advancing a more holistic brand of climate politics. More social democratically inclined than her technocratic predecessor (the leading climate scientist Andrew Weaver), Furstenau has been relying upon the concept of resilience. She sees it as a useful tool for selling emergency-scale climate action, a way of helping voters see more deeply into the future—and feel excited about what they see there. “We need to be making long-term decisions in this province,” she argued in a recent election debate, “that get us to a place of resiliency.”

Resiliency, in Furstenau’s telling, isn’t just a policy goal. It’s a new political ideal and underlying narrative for the twenty-first century, an alternative tale about what politics is for and what our time horizons should look like. A resilient society, she suggested to me in a phone conversation, would be one dedicated to longer-term human flourishing in challenging new conditions. In addition to emergency-scale climate action, it might devote resources to improving food security, encouraging neighborly bonds and community organization, rethinking policing, or reimagining the nature of work. It would be a decarbonized world, in which everyone felt safe and supported and cared-for. 

In his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells observed that climate change is making the world unknown and unfamiliar to us. Furstenau’s resilience agenda, underpinned by explicit appeals to nostalgia, could help us grapple with this feeling of estrangement. For even as it pledges a radically new future, it promises to restore familiar feelings and sensations lost, perhaps ones associated with childhood: security, community, neighborly care. During this dark and uncertain pandemic winter, it’s hard not to wonder if she’s on to something.   

British Columbia’s 2017 wildfire season set new records, burning more than 1.2 million hectares and displacing about 65,000 people. 2018 broke records again. “We typically spend our summers as a family going on big road trips around the province,” Furstenau told me. “There were times where, literally, we had to turn around and drive away from an approaching fire.” Observing the evacuations and trying not to breathe the smoke that now blankets the province during the summer, Furstenau started thinking about resilience and how to cultivate it—not figuratively, she emphasized to me, or at an individual level, but “ground-level resiliency, actual resiliency”—the sort of preparedness that keeps people connected and safe during a crisis. 

Furstenau’s resilient society, first, is one in which more communities and neighborhoods are equipped for the myriad disasters of climate crisis (floods, wildfires, drought, etc.), not only with well-funded emergency services but with the sense of “connectedness between the people that live around us” that we sometimes neglect to cultivate. Recent research, in fact, demonstrates that social networks and community ties have a significant impact on emergency response. In Los Angeles, for instance, public health officials have found that community resilience helps individuals more safely deal with a range of natural disasters. And in 2018, political scientists at both Northeastern University and Stanford University, working with Facebook, revealed that “social ties, in particular the breadth of someone’s extended social network, have an effect on evacuation behavior leading up to hurricanes.”

When disaster strikes a community, Furstenau told me, it’s critical to have a “structure in place that ensures we know that everybody is going to be accounted for and, ideally, taken care of.” The same logic should apply, she argues, to the role of government in a climate emergency. A resilient society amid ecological breakdown, then, might be understood as a retooled welfare state: built on local community relationships as much as centralized administration, concerned as much with wellbeing here and now as with the conditions of human flourishing for generations to come.

Like her federal counterpart, Annamie Paul, a human rights lawyer and the first Black woman to lead a major Canadian political party, Furstenau believes that climate change, inequality, and systemic racism can and must be addressed together. During the October election debate, she seized attention with her frank and arresting response to a question about privilege: “We’re not all equal. I wish we were. But we’re not.… I can’t imagine being a mother and imagining that my child, my son, might die because of the color of his skin.” The three white politicians onstage, she said, herself included, “cannot reckon what that’s like.”

This more comprehensive approach to human flourishing explains why Furstenau’s vision of a resilient future, much like that of U.S. Green New Deal advocates, includes some policy ideas not often associated with climate action. She has argued, for instance, that B.C. should transition to a four-day workweek, calling the 40-hour Monday-to-Friday structure outdated. Instead, she believes, businesses should take advantage of modern advances in productivity and digital technology to give people more time with family and more space to care for their happiness and mental health. (She told me that she’s been inspired by books like Shorter, by the Silicon Valley futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.) Basic income has emerged as another pillar of her resilience agenda.

Furstenau sees ideas like these as corollaries to decarbonization, for two reasons. First, because they are long-haul contributions to human happiness and wellbeing beyond the four-year election cycle. Second, because they’re aligned with the emotional experience of a postcarbon future. As Furstenau explained to me, resilience allows her and the B.C. Greens to credibly answer two of the most critical questions in electoral politics: “Where do we want to get to?” and “What does it feel like when we get there?”

That second question seized my attention. What will a resilient and decarbonized future actually feel like?

Furstenau associates resilience with feelings of safety and security, the knowledge that you are embedded in a community that is looking out for you and that government is meaningfully invested in your happiness. Defining resilience in emotional terms allows her to link aggressive climate action with the psychological force more often associated with right-wing resurgence: nostalgia.

Furstenau personally associates this encompassing sense of stability and security with her childhood in rural Alberta, where she and her family inhabited a prairie acreage with six other households. “We were all very integrated, so this felt very normal to me,” she reminisced. “As a kid, I could wander between these households and just know that I was part of this larger network of people and families. I felt very safe and secure in that.”

Not everyone will share this explicitly communal experience of childhood. But the sense of familiarity, neighborhood reliance, and local support she evokes might resonate with voters marked by their own community bonds. There are echoes here, too, of the ways in which some American conservatives describe traditions of family support and child-rearing they believe to be dissolving. Resilience is “very personal,” Furstenau said. “It’s nostalgia for that feeling I had growing up, a safety and security that comes from knowing that the adults around me are taking care of me, that the systems I’m part of are very much committed to my wellbeing.”

This is also an emotional argument pitched squarely at millennials, now in their thirties and forties and confronting a world more precarious than the one their parents inherited. “The world made space for me as a young person, as a child, as a person in my twenties,” Furstenau continued. “I felt like I could take risks. I felt like I could take chances. I could pursue my dreams, I could get out of a marriage that wasn’t working.” 

At the core of her politics, then, is the accurate sense that such a feeling of security and possibility has eroded for many. Between Covid-19 and climate breakdown and rising inequality, it has become difficult to think clearly or optimistically about the future. It’s become a political truism that these deep human desires for safety and comfort will lead voters straight to reactionary right-wing populism. But Furstenau sees an alternate path, one in which this longing makes a more livable, decarbonized twenty-first-century society electorally viable.

“We have failed in terms of climate communication for a few decades now,” Seth Klein, a policy researcher in Vancouver, told me by phone. Persuading voters on climate issues is notoriously difficult, requiring clear communication of complex science as well as an emotional connection, or a way of conveying the human stakes of a global environmental transformation. Looking at other crises in modern history, Klein said, the most “masterful communicators” are the ones able to combine fear with hope in their messaging—but “there aren’t a lot of people in the present who are good at that. That’s the truth.”

Furstenau originally trained as a historian, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in medieval history from the University of Victoria. She sees parallels between her research thesis work on a twelfth-century Christian theologian and the business of politics during a climate emergency. “Hugh of Saint Victor made a very impassioned argument,” she said, “for how important it was to have theology embedded in what he called ‘the unfolding of God’s narrative in the world.’” Hugh’s idea, Furstenau continued, was that “people can’t understand theological concepts if they can’t understand how they relate to themselves, to the world around them.”

Time will tell if Furstenau’s resilience agenda will land with voters, if she can pull off the reorientation of the region’s political imagination that her project demands. Klein warned me that resilience itself remains an elusive notion. “I don’t quite know what it means,” he said. “It’s not a powerfully resonant frame for me. It’s hard, because it could just mean so many different things.”

Still, many of the twentieth century’s most compelling political ideals—from freedom to justice, equality to prosperity—were persuasive and influential precisely because of their slipperiness, because they could be contested, reimagined, and used to justify a wide range of possible futures. And resilience is a concept with a stronger emotional core than one might think, especially when linked to a longing for a world more stable and secure than the one we have now. In the wake of a global pandemic that has reminded us just how profoundly our happiness and wellbeing depend on the sense of connection we feel with our friends and neighbors, it might strike a chord. 

The key, Furstenau believes, is to turn fear into hope. “If we continue the way we are, the sacrifices that we will have to make will become greater and greater and greater. And the losses will become deeper,” she said. But “taking action isn’t a sacrifice. Taking action is what leads us away from this loss and devastation, and leads us into a more hopeful and—again—a more resilient future.”