The climate movement at a crossroads

This is a defining moment for the British climate movement. Copenhagen has proved a watershed: its failures have thrown campaigners into a state of profound self-doubt and re-evaluation. Combined with the revival of climate scepticism – the fallout from Climategate and Glaciergate still reverberating around the media and confusing the public – 2010 has begun with the green community feeling disconsolate, introspective and in need of a reassessment.

Such moments come around but once in a while and have not been felt by the UK climate movement for some time. It has been on a roll for the last five years, achieving some great successes and punching above its own weight.Lobbying successfully for the world’s first legally-binding carbon budgets; committing the UK to 80 per cent emissions cuts by 2050; elevating global warming to the top of political agendas, and hugely expanding its media coverage; launching a direct action movement that has prevented new unabated coal from being built in the British Isles; and, likely, stopped a third runway at Heathrow. We can feel justifiably proud of these achievements. Indeed, there was a sense in mid-2009 that the movement was becoming a victim of its own success, running out of fights to pick.

That sense has very much dissipated now. Copenhagen and Climategate have created a crisis of confidence for campaigners: that we are not only losing the political battle, but also the battle for hearts and minds. That soul-searching has been evident at every climate-related meeting I’ve attended this past month – from the annual AGM of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, to Climate Camp gatherings in London and Wales, to meetings of the UKYCC. Ian Katz, writing in a recent Guardian editorial piece, crystallizes the mood:

“The case for climate action must be remade from the ground upwards.”

Yet to despair over these recent travails without taking a proper look at what is good and bad in our movement would be a mistake. Not long ago, back in 2004, a pair of maverick American activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, wrote an influential essay entitled The Death of Environmentalism. The precise details of its arguments are irrelevant here, being aimed at US environmental groups in somewhat different circumstances to our own. But its salience lies in its being a profound and thoughtful analysis of the state of a movement, at a time of crisis: the height of the climate-denying Bush years. We could do with a similar reassessment.

I have none of Nordhaus’ and Shellenberger’s originality, so can only repeat what I have read, heard and observed in recent meetings, studies and corners of the blogosphere. But if I were to put forward an agenda for rethinking the UK climate movement, it would centre on the following four basic diagnoses:

1. We talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. The UK retains a preference for setting ambitious targets and spouting great rhetoric, while languishing behind other countries when it comes to actual delivery. For example, we are at the bottom of the EU league table in terms of renewable energy deployment – only Malta and Luxembourg are worse. Many expert observers doubt the UK will really reach its much-lauded 2020 targets. Andrew Pendleton and Matthew Lockwood of ippr have begun to argue on their new blog, Political Climate, that instead of continuing to lobby against fossil fuels, we should be “making alternatives cheaper by triggering an innovation revolution.”

2. Our movement remains small, and lacks diversity. There are nagging concerns, seldom aired publicly, about the size and composition of the UK climate movement. Whilst Stop Climate Chaos trumpets its “11 million members”, it has only ever tempted at most 50,000 of them to a protest. Last December’s march in London was the biggest environmental demo the UK has ever seen, but tiny compared to the numbers who have marched for other causes: even the Countryside Alliance attracted crowds ten times that figure. MORI’s opinion polls register that just 8-10% of the British population consistently place environment as the most important issue facing the UK. Other climate campaigns, like 10:10, measure their supporters in thousands, not millions. As Lenin once said: “Politics begins where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions”.

Connected to this, our movement remains horribly white and middle class. As a white, middle class male, I’, hardly one to talk: but I know that the movement to which I belong cannot claim to be representative of the UK as a whole. Until we take strenuous efforts to outreach to other groups and demographics – to ethnic minorities, working class communities, trade unions, and rural areas – we will continue to fail. Ed Miliband, secretary of state for Climate Change and Energy, is wont to telling campaigners that they “need to enlarge the circle of the committed.” He’s right.

3. Public support is shaky and could decline. The resurgence of climate denial over the past three months has revealed the surprising strength and reach of sceptic networks. This time around, it has reached far into the mainstream media – from Kelvin McKenzie in the Sun, to the BBC’s Newsnight, and even shaping coverage in the Guardian. The assault has had a significant impact on public opinion, with polls indicating a sharp decline in popular belief in climate change. Coupled with a persistent unwillingness to accept green taxation or similar measures, it is clear that the UK public remains reluctant to bear the costs of decarbonisation, and susceptible to backtracking on their erstwhile enthusiasm for the climate cause. There are worrying signs that the Conservative party – despite the Cameroons’ professed penchant for environmentalism – could become the vehicle for an anti-climate change backlash.

4. We’re good at selling the negatives, but not the positives. The UK climate movement persists in emphasizing the downside of climate catastrophe, and not the upside of a low-carbon future. Our movement is all-too-often characterised as all doom-and-gloom and little optimism. Perhaps that’s the truth; but being right isn’t enough – you have to be liked, too. Solitaire Townsend, of sustainability consultancy Futerra, characterises our current messaging strategy as “selling hell”, whereas we need to “sell heaven’.

After all, in the words of the activist Al Richmond: “Changing the consciousness of millions requires a politics that is, rather than ought to be, relevant to them.” To do this, we need to point out the additional positive benefits that flow from decarbonising the economy. Futerra have recently resurrected an old advertising adage: “Don’t sell the sausage – sell the sizzle.” In other words, “you don’t sell the sausage itself… it’s the desirable sounds and smells which get the juices flowing and the people hungry.” A new Green Alliance report, From hot air to happy endings, makes a similar point: that public support will flow more readily if inspirational messages are used, rather than depressing warnings. Melanie Smallman, chair of SERA, has recently called for a ‘green Enlightenment’, “a vision of a sustainable future that the world will be clamouring to sign up to”.

If we accept this diagnosis, then what might be the cure?

1. Put in place strong policies for delivery. Stop obsessing about targets and instead lobby for policies that unlock investment and skills – such as a Green Investment Bank, energy bonds, and green apprenticeships. An NGO coalition called RepowerUK has started doing this, but much more needs to be done in public.

2. Build a rainbow coalition of different constituencies. Talk far, far more to groups outside the environment and development fold: work with progressives, trade unions, human rights organisations, small businesses, working class communities, and ethnic minorities. We need more projects like the one that the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) is running with trade unions, and more alliances with groups like Compass, Amnesty International, and the TUC.

3. Restate the scientific case calmly, refute deniers, and out sceptics. It may be old science, but it bears repeating. At the same time, we must not shrink from rebutting climate deniers robustly, challenging the media when they publish inaccurate articles, and exposing MPs and party apparatchiks who are less green in reality than they claim to be.

4. Develop a dazzling vision of a positive, low-carbon future. Modify our message to start selling the benefits of solving the climate crisis, rather than simply selling the solutions themselves (or worse still, merely pointing out the dangers of inaction). Talk less about carbon dioxide, and much more about jobs, energy security, healthier lifestyles, and a better quality of life.

Above all, don’t succumb to despair or factionalism. It would be easy in 2010 for the UK climate movement to fall into recriminations, or retreat into purely ‘localised’ campaigning, having given up on influencing national and international progress. To lose hope at this point would be foolish, and to fragment disastrous. Instead, let’s remember the words of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, much repeated during the recent financial troubles: “Never waste a good crisis.”

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27 Responses to “The climate movement at a crossroads”

  1. Will Straw

    Fascinating piece by @guyshrubsole arguing that the climate movement is at the crossroads. 4 diagnoses & 4 ways ahead

  2. Ian Wardle

    RT @wdjstraw Fascinating piece by @guyshrubsole The climate movement is at the crossroads. 4 diagnoses & 4 ways ahead

  3. Rupert Read

    Let’s start by not accepting the prejudicial framing of this issue by the doubt-addicts. Ergo: please let’s drop their term, ‘Climategate’, which ludicrously pretends that there is any analogy between this storm in a teacup and Watergate. (There IS an analogy, but it is not the one that they want: ).
    Reframing is in fact what is missing from the above useful analysis. See e.g. Poole’s UNSPEAK, Chris Rose’s and Tom Crompton’s work, and my Green Words Workshop.

  4. David Taylor

    Great article. As Ed Miliband, Ben West of UKYCC and others have said, no one would have followed Martin Luther King if he had said “I have a nightmare”.

    The positive green jobs better living standards are what we should all be focusing on.

    NEF’s new report on a 21 hour week is fantastic btw, fits into this agenda nicely:

  5. David Taylor

    (p.s. why didn’t you use a more positive photo for the article tho!! lol)

  6. Billy Blofeld

    So called “progressives” are starting to realise they are wrong – about almost everything fundamentally important:

    1. It turns out that Climate science ins’t “settled”.

    2. Being outside of the Euro is good

    3. Wars shouldn’t be started on a political whim.

    I won’t be long before the “Robin Hood Tax” is shown up for it’s total stupidity as well.

  7. Casper ter Kuile

    Please can we change the image – it’s no longer 1992!

  8. Mister Jabberwock

    This is a fascinating insite into a warmist’s world.

    I have always been sceptical (and scepticism is the essence of the scientific method) – not that I doubt the base science (CO2 is a greenhouse gas) but of the modelling. That is a subject I know a lot about in another sphere and I know that a mathematical model will reflect the assumptions of the modeler and most data can be made to support a large number of scenarios. However the model takes on the power of an unchallengable expert – that is extremely dangerous.

    What you cannot challenge is that for the last 15 years the climate has not followed the models. That does not mean there will be no future warming. But it does mean a sceptic will question the certainty with which you campaign and ascribe it either to arrogance or a hidden agenda.

    If you want to progress your agenda you need to make a much much better case for the economics of avoidance instead of adaption – currently your case does not stack up.

    You must (if you want to win the argument) stop using perjorative terms like “deniers” – it tells your audience that you have to resort to denigration instead of rational debate. You can for instance mark the change of media narative from the moment one Gordon Brown called those of us who question your agenda “flat-earthers”; a quite ridiculous statement.

  9. Rachel Hardy

    William Hague said recently that even if the concerns of those who believe in man made climate change are only 50% right, we are facing rather a big problem!I think though those on the political right are more inclined to be sceptical, its not just5 G/B who has woken up to the issue.Flat earthers is a very sensible way to describe those who question man made climate change, Its polite and descriptive and everyone knows what he means. I think if you do believe in climate change, and believe that action is vital now, its very hard to keep being polite to those who want to condem our children/grandchildren to a possible desperate future, for their own selfish? stupid? whatever reasons. However I agree we must, whilst not letting them distract from spending energy on ideas for positive ways forward, and yes pointing out the positives of change.

  10. Mister Jabberwock


    I am of course happy for you to call us Flat Earthers – all I am saying is it damages your agenda and makes your movement less successful. The more you use the words like denier the less the public are inclined to believe you – you might want to think about that.

    I don’t want to condem my children to a desperate future, obviously. It is just that the evidence does not actually suggest that that will be the case. It seems to me on the balance of probabilities that if implemented your agenda would damage those vulnerable people, that I am sure you genuinely want to help (why can’t you belive that of me), more than it would help them.

  11. Oxford Kevin

    Mister Jabberwock,

    If the temperature in the 2000s wasn’t what was expected by the climatologists why then do we get this.

    Even that doesn’t have the latest results for the full year 2009 which was warmer than 2008 in all the temperature series, and also misses that using the UAH (The sceptics favourite temperature series) January 2010 is now well out there. See:

  12. Mister Jabberwock

    Oxford Kevin – Thanks Tamino article is very interesting.

  13. Danny

    Nice one Guy – I can’t find much to disagree with here.

    A couple of points to add though: firstly, it’s worth stressing that expanding and diversifying the climate movement doesn’t just mean drawing more “members” into climate action networks – it’s also about forming alliances with other, existing campaigns. Many of those 90% who don’t place “environment” as their top concern are active on other social issues such as poverty, labour rights, social exclusion, health, etc. Most of these issues will either be negatively affected by climate change or have the same fundamental root causes: our current crazy consumerist growth economy, the failings of our political system and the excessive power of corporations. We need to seek common ground with other social activists, and find ways to support each other in tackling these common enemies. Which is something you hint at in your post but I think is worth saying more explicitly!

    Secondly, we mustn’t forget to form international links too – I wrote a piece about this for the New Internationalist, based on my experiences at Copenhagen:

    Also, on the denial front, I have a new performance poem that I’m using to try and tackle this…I really need to make it into a video but you can read the text here if you like:

    Anyway, enough shameless plugging of my own stuff. Keep up the good work!

  14. Mister Jabberwock

    Oxford Kevin – the other link was even more interesting. The author has very intersting views on AGW.

  15. comment is free

    I agree, the ‘climate movement’ has lost its way. It has lost the bigger picture…sustainable development. A few years ago we all said, we shouldn’t just talk about climate change without SD, but that is what has happened. What exactly is the climate movement trying to achieve now? I do believe that we wouldn’t have our Climate Change Act (amongst other things) in place if it weren’t for the ‘movement’ but I think that ‘you’ (and I’m afraid even as a sustainability practitioner I don’t feel signed up to the ‘movement’) have failed to stay ahead of the curve. The movement seems to be looking inwards and not at the world around us. Often the message is reduced to nothing in the attempt to garner interest. Do your bit, recycle.

    I am passionate about the environment but not ahead of other issues such as poverty, food security and peace. Maybe consider where the movement should focus its efforts now. What will you call a success? What might your next move be? What is THE plan? The movement seems to acknowledge the need to think in the long term, for the future but fails to do this itself, while demanding it of others.

    I think adaptation is undermined by a lot of what the ‘movement’ is all about. I don’t blame people for not being excited about living in a low carbon world. I would struggle to see why they wouldn’t be attracted by an adapted world though, one that brings benefits to society, economy and environment (and that means an integrated approach, where mitigation and adaptation are not considered separately). Maybe its time to be positive and start making a real difference to people’s lives and the environment we all share. Now.

  16. LadyMargaret

    A v thought provoking article, captures the mood, and points us towards the great weakness of the environmental ‘movement’ – that it is a movement united by what it is trying to stop rather than by a shared vision of a better future. It seems to me that one reason there has not so far been a strong message of what we are ‘selling’ is that the different constituents of this fragile coalition have always had different visions of that future. Seeking to create your ‘dazzling vision of a low carbon future’ threatens to break apart the coalition – which is why many have steered clear of it for so long.

    At the broadest level, there are very real tensions between the technophiles with their big engineering solutions, and those who believe it’s big engineering that got us into this mess in the first place; between the anti-capitalists and the engaged corporates; between the trade unions and those who do not see this as a social agenda. And drilling into the detail more such clashes emerge.

    It isn’t impossible, but a single, positive, vision shared by all in this ‘movement’ is a long way off. Are we ready for the shockwave of the current alliance breaking apart and reforming to create new alliances focused on the answers, instead of the problems? Can we create a single consensus among such a diverse group? Can we trust each other to stick to that consensus? And can we do it while under scrutiny from organised groups doing their best to destroy the public support the movement relies on?

    Interesting times indeed …

  17. Cllr. Dr. Rupert Read

    But the trouble is that ‘sustainable development’ too often just means, now, _economically_ sustainable. It is a meaningless tick-box exercise, so far as the ecosystem is concerned.
    On this front, check out these great books:
    ANCIENT FUTURES by Helena Norberg-Hodge.

  18. Oxford Kevin

    Mister Jabberwock,

    Spencer’s publishing record in determining temperature from microwave measurements is very impressive and is a very difficult technique to get right. On speaking about sensitivity he is speaking outside of his principle expertise and if we are to take him seriously on why he thinks climate sensitivity is about a third of what those working in the field think it is, then he needs to get himself published.

    In other words I respect the work he does in the field where he has the demonstrated expertise and published papers but I’m far more skeptical when any specialist talks on topics outside of their direct expertize and where their arguments haven’t been tested in the peer review literature.


  19. comment is free

    Cllr Read,
    Sustainable Development does not need to be reduced to a tick-box exercise – I suspect as Cllr you may have some scope to make sure it isn’t!!
    I think a lot of people forget what sustainability really means because it means they actually have to use their brain and think outside their OWN box.
    Local authorities have huge potential in this area. If only the game would stay the same for them long enough to get on with it (and no, I don’t work at a local authority!).

  20. Niel Bowerman

    A great analysis Guy, many thanks! I was intrigued by your final comment that we shouldn’t “retreat into purely ‘localised’ campaigning.” As someone who was about to spend a little while setting aside national things to work on the local scale, I would welcome your thought on why this won’t necessarily be a good idea.

  21. Lewis Merdler

    Fantastic Guy…this has really solidified and clarified a lot of thoughts that have been floating around my head since Copenhagen!

    I also agree with Danny, that emphasis needs to be placed on forming alliances with organisations tackling a broader spectrum of issues. The Robin Hood Tax is one great example of something climate campaigns need to support. Climate Change is, after all, a symptom of the deeper rooted problem with our globalised neo-liberal society. Climate campaigns need to further the agenda in tackling the symptom (and you give excellent pointers on this) and support campaigns which tackle the cause…our inequitable and excessive patterns of consumerism. As you say, this crisis offers a real opportunity for the movement to expand, diversify and coalesce with other movements and I get the impression that campaigners are starting to get the message.

  22. Guy Shrubsole

    Thanks for the many interesting and insightful comments. I’ll try to respond to some of the points raised:

    – Rupert – agree with you that calling the East Anglia emails debacle ‘Climategate’ is perjorative: as the guys over at Realclimate write, “All of these various “gates” – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates.” I was mainly using the term for shorthand.

    Also, thanks for the heads-up on the reports about reframing the narrative – familiar with Tom Crompton’s work but the rest definitely on my reading list.

    – LadyMargaret – thanks for a particularly useful comment. You ask “Can we create a single consensus among such a diverse group?” Perhaps not. But I do think that we should try, and even if not everyone agrees on the same solutions (e.g. nuclear vs renewables), injecting some positive narratives into the public debate will surely be a good start.

    – Niel – We definitely shouldn’t stop localised campaigning; it’s “retreat[ing] into purely ‘localised’ campaigning” that I’m worried about. There is a sense now that the international process is broken and national governments are powerless: the answer is to make both work better, rather than ‘drop out’. But campaigning on a local level remains as important as it’s always been.

    – Danny, Lewis: definitely, we should be broadening our coalition much further.

    – Comment is free: it’s be great to talk more about how adaptation to climate change can be given more of a hearing. And I agree with you that true sustainability must reconcile multiple goals – even if, like Rupert, I suspect ‘sustainable development’ has been hijacked as a term.

    – OxfordKevin: thanks for the links to the climate data. MisterJabberwock, BillyBlofeld, hope you’ve had a read.

    – As for the rather depressing picture — apologies, not my choice! 🙂

  23. G

    Sustainable Development is the best oxymoron since national socialism.
    We face interlocking, possibly fatal comorbid challenges resulting from the process of industrialisation. We have everything from super green megalopolis’ to rammed earth houses currently informing our vision. Re; the Robin Hood Tax, he had a band of merry men and bows and arrows. Join the dots and try to enjoy the ride.

  24. edward sikk

    The planet is not warming.It has not been warming for the past 12 years as the Dr. Jones the head of the UN investigating body on climate change has recently admitted.There are many better causes for young people to pursue than alleged global warming,Global poverty due to the unnecessary production of bio fuels in developing countries is one of them. Piano

  25. David MB

    The climate movement at a crossroads | Left Foot Forward

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