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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