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Episode 7: Climate Change and Extinction Rebellion / October 09, 2020

With Quan Nguyen

Hosted by Hamish Stewart

Edited by Signe Emilie Eriksen

Posted in Political Philosophy Main feed Epistemology

Climate change is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in politics and in everyday life. On today’s episode Hamish Stewart talks to Quan Nguyen, a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. In this episode Quan describes a public philosophy article he wrote following the school strikes for climate as well as his experience in Extinction Rebellion Scotland.

In the first half of the episode, Quan gives a quick sketch of rationality and then explains why he thinks fear and anger are rational responses to climate change. In the second half of the episode Quan discusses political actions more generally; the strengths and weaknesses of ‘Extinction Rebellion’, and how to build a better climate movement for the future.

01:24 – Quan’s defence of fear and anger as rational responses to climate change

08:45 – Can fear and anger lead to irrational action?

12:00 – Quan’s opinion on referring to the irreversibility of climate change

13:46 – Extinction Rebellion

19:00 – Criticising and improving the climate change movement

Further reading:

Nguyen, Q., 2019. Why Fear And Anger Are Rational Responses To Climate Change. The Conversation.

Website, 2020. UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021.

Facebook page, 2020. Migrants organising for rights and empowerment (MORE).

Twitter account, 2020. Glasgow Calls Out Polluters.


Hamish Stewart: Do you mind – I’m just looking at the volume – do you mind if I put it right up? It’s not a problem for me because I speak super loudly. I just shout, basically… [laughter]…See, already that’s much better.


Hamish Stewart: Hello everybody, and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. My name is Hamish Stewart. Today on the show, we have Quan Nguyan, who is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. Quan is currently finalising his philosophy PhD on the rationality of time biases and temporal neutrality. More importantly for this episode though, he’s recently started a job as a coordinator for the COP26 coalition, which is a civil society alliance organising for the UN climate summit next year in Glasgow. He’s also been a working group coordinator with Extinction Rebellion Scotland, and writes philosophy articles for public engagement. Today on the episode we talked about rational responses to climate change, and about climate change political movements. The second half of the episode we talked about Extinction Rebellion. Here are some Thoughts on rational responses to climate change and Extinction Rebellion.

HS: You wrote this article named ‘Fear and Anger are Rational Responses to Climate Change’ in – what was the publication?

Quan Nguyan: In The Conversation.

HS: In The Conversation, March 2019?

QN: Mmhm.

HS: What was your argument there?

QN: So, I guess – let me say something about the context there first. So like at that time, the school strikes really went off...there was a lot of debate and criticism about this; that these school children are gambling with their future; they should not be so hysteric about it; they should just be like reasonable and rational about this; they should just go to school. I think Theresa May said that quite famously, like, if you care about climate change go to school. All over Europe politicians have said that and in the US I think too. And that kind of upset me quite a lot because firstly, it’s super disrespectful to young schoolchildren who are about the future, but secondly it’s a wrong use of rationality and it’s an ideologically driven misuse of rationality as a concept, and that’s why I wanted to write this article.

HS: Yeah, the reaction you were saying is not irrational was fear and anger.

QN: Yeah, so like schoolchildren are afraid of climate change, right? And they’re angry at the government in action and that’s a perfectly rational response, and anyone who says you should be reasonable, you should be more rational about it – be more grown up, is silencing these voices and these concerns, which is a form of injustice itself. But it’s also just not accurate, because if you think about rationality, rationality is quite a complicated thing and there’s different forms of rationality under which you can kind of, like put these kind of responses of anger and fear and outrage. And I think under all of them the school strikers reactions have been quite rational.

HS: Yeah, lets talk about the different types of rationality. Earlier you were saying there’s three, is that how you like to look at it, or…?

QN: Yeah, so I think if you talk about rationality you can talk about it in terms of appropriateness. So, are you responding correctly to facts and reasons out in the world? Like, say you see a bear coming towards you, um, the bear is dangerous, then you can have an appropriate reaction towards that and like have fear and fear driven response. That is an appropriate reaction in that sense; fear is rational. But it can also be a form of coherence. So that is another form of rationality, so it can fit into your other beliefs. So, for example if you are sad about a species dying out, or something, that fits in together with other beliefs you hold about like, I dunno, the value of life, biodiversity, stuff like that. And in that sense, an emotional response can also be rational in terms of coherence. These two are often called the two faces of rationality by people in the field. Already in these two sense, fear and anger about climate change are absolutely rational, because you have like a bit dangerous pattern of events coming towards you; if you would not be afraid of the consequences you would actually be quite irrational, I think. You would either not know all the facts, or if you would know all the facts about climate change, how catastrophic it can be and how dangerous it can be, then you should have some kind of emotional response, and fear is one of the most appropriate responses to that. And it is also coherent – for schoolchildren who care about their future, who care about human life, they develop like a politic consciousness to, um, be outraged about inaction on a global crisis. So that is a perfectly coherent emotion to feel. And in those two faces of rationality, school strikers have been absolutely rational.

HS: Yeah, cos you wrote in the article “there’s no real way of separating emotions from rationality”. Could you say a bit more about that?

QN: Yeah, so I guess when you speak about rationality in everyday language and stuff like that, there’s very often some kind of separation between emotions and what’s rational, which goes back to quite a few philosophers, like Emmanuel Kant who saw inclinations as something that doesn’t quite belong to you. It goes further to the Stoics and people like that, but I think Emmanuel Kant was probably the most influential modern philosopher who tried to show that we can just govern ourselves with pure reason, and emotions are just intrusive things that come in and you need to…if you act from emotions you’re not acting morally, you’re not acting freely and stuff like that. Which is quite an influential view, lots of people think that if you don’t have yourself under control you’re not being rational. But that’s a really old fashioned view on rationality; no psychologist would say that. People in rationality theory would not say that. There’s no clear…there’s the extreme side of course, like David Hume – best Scottish philosopher, peak Scottish Enlightenment – would just say that yeha, there’s no such thing as rationality, there’s just the passions, there’s just the emotions and we sometimes balance them off a little bit but that’s really it. Even if you don’t go that far, there’s a sense of rationality to emotions because they are responding to things, they are intentional objects, they are propositional and you can’t just separate them into belief components and feeling components.

HS: Yeah, sure. I totally follow that; I mean, I think you’ve definitely convinced me that it’s a rational response to feel fear and anger, but what I want to know is about what comes next. I want to know which action is rational.

QN: So I guess that’s where the criticism of school strikers comes in, right? There’s a third type of rationality, where people kind of sneak in through the back door when they talk about how does it benefit you, how does it lead you towards achieving your goals; how does it lead you to live your best life, so to say. So that sense of rationality is sometimes clashing with the other two – like, you can be perfectly rational in terms of appropriateness and coherence, but it might not be beneficial for you to respond in a certain way.

HS: Can we think about an example?

QN: Let’s go back to the bear. It might be appropriate for you and coherent to freeze, or run away, but that might not be the best thing to do for a bear because the bear would just – ‘he’s running away, let’s eat him’. So stuff like that. Especially in a political context, if you’re angry and really outspoken and outraged lots of people say this is not beneficial to your cause because it’s alienating people; because it’s upsetting people; because it will consume yourself. So in that way it can clash with your long term goals which is a common criticism of the climate movement; it’s a common criticism of anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter.

HS: Yeah, ok, let’s address it right now – so, what do you say to the people who say that fear and anger will create irrational actions?

QN: I think that’s incredibly patronising because firstly, you don’t know what’s going to be a rational action; you don’t know what’s going to be a productive pattern of behaviour that is established, and people who are upset about these kind of political structural problems know a lot better or very often what will be good for them than people who criticise them for their responses. And this response very often has like an ideological purpose, right. If you tone police people like that, if you say, ‘ok, your outrage alienates other people from your support’ you’re prioritising your own feeling of safety and reasonable respectful discourse over the political problem that these movements draw attention to.

HS: Can you imagine a case where somebody – the police or the person in power – does believe in the cause – let’s say the BLM – but still wants to say fear and anger is not going to be the most beneficial for both you and us?

QN: So I guess, I dunno. Because people who say that they’re, yeah we’re on the same side but you shouldn’t speak like that, um, are at least playing into the status quo, at least trying to disarm the movement from their responses. Anger and fear often sustain political movements, right? So in that way it’s a really beneficial and productive thing to have. If you don’t let it consume you you can use this anger to fuel your movement, to stay productive, to motivate you. That goes back – it’s not like high tier philosophy – it goes back to David Hume, like what motivates actions? It’s passions, it’s emotions, and without these kind of like, anger responses, fear responses, you won’t do things anymore. So in lots of way this anger is – and to bring that back to the school strikers, think of Greta in the very beginning. Greta reads about climate change somewhere and she’s really upset about it, and she goes out, doesn’t go to school and sits in front of parliament with her shield which is super…it’s incredibly weird if you think about it in that moment, right? Someone who’s sees that is like ‘the fuck’s this girl doing?’ But, um, it turned out to be really beneficial for her, for her generation and for the entire movement because loads of people shared that response, saw that anger and joined in the cause. And I think what critics of this emotionalisation of politics…people like Martha Nussbaum who wrote this book ‘The Monarchy of Fear’, where she says politics is emotionalised and that’s a bad thing. They’re interested in this form of liberal discourse where you have an institution and all of these people governed by the institution have very rationally clean responses. But that’s not how real politics is like. And you can only achieve change when you have a big movement in society and for that you need an emotional connectedness across the population to mobilise people for a cause.

HS: Yeah, ok. And one other thing which really interested me recently is the discourse in the climate movement around the irreversible tipping point. And I’m just quoting from a website here, what’s been talked about is that in 10 or 11 years if we continue as is then global warming will exceed 1.5 Celsius. However, hearing that, hearing that there’s going to be a tipping point in 10/11/12 years is quite a dramatic thing to say. What do you think about using that as a tool in the movement?

QN: So, it’s complicated, because it really drives home the urgency of the climate crisis and it shows how little time we have left to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown which is motivating, which will outrage people and bring them to the streets. So I think it’s important to drive this point home, and to hold governments and corporations to account; that they’re failing to reach (sic) this kind of tipping point, which is scientifically backed up by the IPCC report. On the other hand, of course it’s difficult because it can lead to a kind of fatalism in the movement that you see, ok, we have this super restricted timeframe when we have to change the entire economic and political system, we most likely won’t succeed so why not just sit back and stay on the couch and do nothing. So there’s two sides to it.

HS: I suppose we’ve been talking, we’ve been eluding to, actual political movements about climate change, and in the second half we should probably talk about political climate change movements. One that you were involved in was Extinction Rebellion, so I wonder if you could tell us a bit about what Extinction Rebellion is for those that don’t know, and where it started and where it is now.

QN: So, Extinction Rebellion is a climate organisation that try to rally as many people to the streets as possible with very dramatic methods. With like, dressing up, with lots of dramatic shows of spilling blood everywhere, singing, all that kind of stuff. And they had like 3 asks for the government…What differs Extinction Rebellion from other climate movements like Ende Gelände in Germany for example, or the school strikers, is that they only address the government and they ask the government to act now and tell the truth; they wanted carbon neutrality by 2025 and they wanted citizens assembly to replace the current forms of governance. And they’ve been fairly successful in the UK in mobilising thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people onto the streets, mostly in London, but also in Scotland there’s a strong presence of Extinction Rebellion.

HS: Yeah. Now, you were a working group coordinator at Extinction Rebellion Scotland, but you are no longer. I wonder what you think is good about Extinction Rebellion’s approach, but also whether you have sort of any open questions for Extinction Rebellion?

QN: So, Extinction Rebellion, so there’s quite a lot of good things about Extinction Rebellion. Mobilising so many people to the cause is excellent; I think what is particularly good about Extinction Rebellion is that they try to like, open up about emotions felt towards climate change which opens up a good conversation about how we should feel when there’s an impending crisis that will hurt so many people. And I hope that Extinction Rebellion continues their work, but there’s a lot of open questions of course. So, one of the deeper issues I see with Extinction Rebellion is that Extinction Rebellion makes climate change into a moral problem – which it is to some extent, but climate change is also a political problem. Climate change is about political structures, it’s about inequalities, it’s about a system perpetuating injustices, and Extinction Rebellion takes that and says “you need to act now; it’s your moral duty to act on the climate crisis”. That kind of like works in mobilising a lot of people, right? Because a lot of people feel a moral duty to act on climate change, but what I see as a risk of this moralising strategy of a political problem is that people get demobilised afterwards, like they feel that they…

HS: They’re burned out.

QN: They’re burned out. They have failed morally, to prevent this crisis so they’re just going to go home and feel guilty about it which is not helpful at all right? You shouldn’t feel guilty because morally speaking it’s not your fault, right? You might have moral responsibility to some extent to the climate crisis because you’re trapped in a system that forces you to consume in a bad way and stuff like that, but that doesn’t mean that you should feel guilty for being a moral failure for not personally solving climate change. And that needs to be fixed.

HS: Yeah, ok. That makes perfect sense. And I’ll just bring up one or two other criticisms I found on the Wikipedia page of Extinction Rebellion; you can comment on them if you want to. They talk about Extinction Rebellion using unrealistic timeframes, and according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit Extinction Rebellion is an ambition that technically, economically and politically, has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled, and there’s also the class and race stuff, isn’t there?

QN: So, for the first thing – of course they’d say that, right? Unrealistic demands should not be the criticism that people focus on. Of course it’s going to be unrealistic to achieve carbon neutrality in an entire country by 2025, but that’s not what it’s about. If you place an outrageous demand, it will shift the political conversation in a certain direction. So it is a strategic thing to use. With the other thing, that’s more complicated. The intersectionality – racism and classism critique – I think is accurate. The way environmentalists organise is very often alienating to people of colour, to working class people, it’s quite inaccessible to people with disabilities. It’s not new – lots of people in that conservationist movement have been quite racist and they’re always upper middle class, historically. So, there should be no surprise that these elements are still in the climate movements. Other movements have done work to criticise that and reflect on these kind of things, and Extinction Rebellion is in a process of doing so, I hope at least. I know that is to some extent true for Extinction Rebellion Scotland; I can’t speak for other Extinction Rebellion movements like Extinction Rebellion UK. But yeah, that’s something that they need to work on. I guess, lots of the criticisms need to be dealt with to make the movement evolve, and political movement is always about educating people in that movement on the issues and I think there’s – of course, there’s like unproductive criticism, right. There’s criticism that you should just ignore. There’s always trolls in political movements who try to derail things, but there’s a difference between derailing the debate within a movement and getting off target, and drawing concerns about systematic problems within a movement. I think these things should be listened to, because you will need a broad support for fights for a broader sense of justice. You don’t fix climate change by just reducing emissions. There’s a broader debate, especially if you want what is called a just transition – when you want to transition to a carbon free economy in a way that doesn’t harm communities, doesn’t harm workers. Then you need to take a lot of communities with you, and then you need to organise in a way that reaches out to working class people; to workers in the oil and gas industry for example; to people of colour; to communities in the global south. And it’s also important to recognise why climate change is so bad. You can’t get a sense of why climate change is so bad without actually seeing the most vulnerable communities hit by the climate crisis. So this is the opposite of derailing the movement, right? If you say you need to think more about indigenous communities in the global south – that is not derailing it, it’s more like bringing the climate movement more on target because these people are being killed right now and are those worst hit by the climate crisis. But also have the most solutions to the climate crisis by protecting forests and preserving their way of life.

HS: That sounds great. Yeah, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, it’s been really fun talking to you. I’m going to let you plug now – do you have any…you’re obviously involved in climate change political action in Glasgow. What could Glasgow University students do if they were interested in doing something in Glasgow?

QN: You should join a political movement. There are a lot of things to do – if you’re interested in climate issues, go to Extinction Rebellion’s Glasgow meetings, join Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, help the school strikers. If you’re interested in race issues, there’s lots of migrant justice organisations you can help out, for example, MORE – Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment are a great organisation. Glasgow’s an incredibly political city and you should take part in that. And when the COP26 comes to Glasgow next year I’m gonna see you on the street, hopefully.

HS: Brilliant, brilliant. That was amazing.

Transcript written by Frances Darling