What to do about climate change? British activists debate, part 1

Sophie Harding Phil Thornhill George Marshall Sophie Hug
2 May 2005

See more of the openDemocracy debate, “The politics of climate change”.

George Marshall (Rising Tide): We must change ourselves first

Two years ago I agreed to lead a workshop on “action against climate change” at a large conference of environmental activists. In the parallel workshops on nanotech and the World Trade Organisation, there was standing-room only. In my workshop there were only two people - one of the organisers (who attended because he felt sorry for me) and a lunatic promoting a campaign to publicly “moon” heads of state. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering what it is about this particular issue that makes it so unappealing to even the most ardent activists.

The campaign model I had been following recommended three steps: first, prepare your arguments, drawing out the most emotional warnings; second, spread those messages so people take action - sign petitions, join groups, pressure the government and corporations, join protests; third, mix in some visible direct action to create a media buzz - what Greenpeace likes to call “global opera”.

For fifteen years, environmental activists, myself included, have been pursuing this tried-and-tested model. Our call to action has been made against a backdrop of serious warnings from scientists. And yet there is still no vocal mass movement against climate change in any country. Where are we going wrong?

The major environmental groups invested too many resources in detailed reports and information materials to persuade policy-makers and the intergovernmental process without recognising that the only real reason why governments would constrain fossil fuels would be intense public pressure at home. Climate change is a social-justice issue without precedence yet there has been scarcely a peep about it from the organised political left, human-rights groups, faith communities, or until recently the largest aid and development organisations.

But this is still only part of the story because, as my disastrous workshop suggested, there are fundamental ways that this issue fails to engage even the activist heartland. Climate change is so amorphous that it is hard for people to feel they can have any influence. Our instinct is to respond to threats that are tangible with a clear enemy - a government, a corporation, a class or interest group – in a nutshell, someone else.

We try to apply this model to climate change - to demonise Bush, Blair, the oil and energy companies, people with big cars; but, complicit and hypocritical as these targets are, we’re pushing at an open door. Many of these traditional “enemies” appear to agree with us and even use our language.

The enemy, in short, is everywhere. We all contribute to climate change - activists in particular adore long-distance flights.

So I don’t think that “bogeyman campaigning” will work in this issue. We have to make it personal. Social change on climate change will come from a movement of people leading by example, who, having faced up to their own denial and complicity, have taken real steps to reduce their own emissions. We should do this not from guilt, but from a confidence that authority on this issue starts from changes we make within.

Phil Thornhill (Campaign against Climate Change): Don’t blame the campaigners

The situation is bleak. It certainly looks like we are heading towards catastrophe. All you can say is that catastrophes vary in scale, that human beings have a cockroach-like ability to survive. It is unlikely they will be completely wiped out, and even if we lose 5 billion of the world population it still remains a moral priority to save the last billion.

Nonetheless we have really already entered a global “battle for eco-survival” in which only the scale of catastrophe is in doubt - even if most of us don't realise it – and we had better start fighting that battle now, because any delay will make our defeat yet more overwhelming still.

But it’s not difficult to understand why our campaigning efforts seem to have made so little difference. Above all it is simply the unprecedented nature of the threat: mankind has had a serious impact on odd corners of the global ecosystem before but never the whole thing at once, as now. No wonder we do not have the mechanisms to deal with it.

Yet even with environmental issues where the threat is well known and understood – like deforestation, or over-fishing – we have also been losing the battle. Deforestation has been a high-profile cause for many years, numerous campaigns have been fought on the issue, without the tide being halted. On this issue no amount of workshops or Greenpeace-inspired “global opera” seems really to have worked. Perhaps because the scale of the economic imperatives that drive the process is so great. At any rate the only thing that I can think would really stand a chance of working would be concerted political action at an international level.

It’s a pretty tall order to make this happen. We should not have to flagellate ourselves for our campaigning failure when the challenge we face is clearly so huge. Maybe the progress of deforestation (and climate change) would be worse still if Greenpeace and other groups not fought against it. In any case, in our clearly desperate straits, I think that the best we can do is to draw on look for inspiration to the great radical achievements of the past: the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the ending of apartheid, the movement against the war in Vietnam.

The dichotomy between so-called “bogeyman” campaigning and “a movement of people leading by example” is a false one, I think. Once a problem is taken seriously it is only natural to blame those most responsible. That generally means those with most power to deal with it: our political leaders. A favourite practice of campaigners has been to concentrate fire on the worst offenders, and I think that is still valid.

So, in the field of international emission-reduction treaties, we should target Bush rather than Blair, and amongst the oil companies, Exxon rather than BP.

This is not because the others are guiltless, but because targeting the worst makes the point better. It is all about establishing a moral climate that makes the prevention of a global climatic catastrophe the number-one priority.

Sophie Harding (Tearfund): Climate change is also a development issue

The pessimism of George Marshall and Phil Thornhill may be justified, but is it helpful? Indeed, I wonder if the gloom-and-doom tactics of past campaigning have actually undermined its success. Most people are aware of the problem, but does the backdrop of repeated, ever more serious, “emergency” warnings not make climate change seem even more remote from the realities of our everyday lives?

The tried-and-tested approaches are clearly not working. A different approach and a different language are needed, which break through the chronic political and public inertia.

I believe the language needs to be one of empowerment and equity. We need to demonstrate how the nebulous global threats of climate change translate tangibly to individual lives. We have all contributed to the problem, and we all have a vital role to play in becoming a part of the solution.

Alongside this is the need to make explicit that this is an issue of equity. The poor have not contributed to climate change, yet it is they who will suffer most from its adverse effects.

The tragic Asian tsunami prompted international compassion and unprecedented giving, and is perhaps opening people's eyes to the vulnerability of poor people in an unsafe environment. A stable, safe environment is vital to sustainable poverty eradication, but climate change threatens to undo decades of development gains, and put millions more “on the edge”.

Make Poverty History has put poverty on the political agenda and firmly within public consciousness. There are ample opportunities for climate change campaigners in 2005 too, especially with Britain’s prime minister seeking to be seen as a leader on this issue. But so far few links are being made between the development and environment agendas, let alone the threats that climate change poses.

So these links need to made more explicit. We need to convince people that they can do something for the sake of their poorer global neighbours.

Sophie Hug (People and Planet): Climate change isn’t just for the old and green

The key question is: why have we failed to mobilise people on climate change? I would like to add my young person's perspective. Until recently, I was scared of the idea of climate-change campaigning: primarily because I didn't understand the issue, secondarily because all my previous campaigning had been focussed on things that I felt were more tangible – such as human rights and trade justice.

As George Marshall rightly points out it is an issue of social justice, but I think that the environmental movement has greatly failed to present it as such. So personally I am very excited about the potential of the Climate Movement, a new coalition that will hopefully put climate change as high on people's minds as the trade justice movement.

The Esso-funded climate sceptics have held us up for too long. But while many people are still asking if climate change is really happening, we need to move beyond that and change the image of climate-change campaigning: from something only for the “greenies” to a broad-based movement focussed on global justice.

To read part two of this roundtable, click here.

What should activists do next? Tackle the issues with them. Post the arguments and questions you think activists need to consider, so they can read and respond here.

This article appears as part of openDemocracy’s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative - a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData