What to do about climate change? British activists debate, part 2

Sophie Harding Phil Thornhill George Marshall Sophie Hug
3 May 2005

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

George Marshall (Rising Tide): You’re all right – and wrong

I agree with all your ideas about how we should respond politically to climate change. If these are approaches that energise you, they will energise others and we need a wide spectrum of both approaches and tactics.

The problem is that these approaches will appeal to a very narrow bandwidth of that spectrum: people with a global sensibility, social concern and the self-confidence to act on it.

But climate change is different – because of its scale, and because of the universality of its causes and impacts. Sophie Harding is right to say that we need to make it “tangible to individual lives”. Everyone’s approaches are important, but none will be effective without a much broader approach which says that this is not just about “other” people – this is your problem and your future. The messages need to be engaging rather than antagonistic, practical rather than theoretical, optimistic rather than despairing.

I see hope in the announcement that the British government will spend £12 million on public communication about climate change. The intention of the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) is to fund local initiatives working at a community level. I fear that in reality this will probably not sink very deep into society - but it does open up the possibility that it will help create the groundswell of opinion that will make your work effective.

Phil Thornhill (Campaign against Climate Change): Don’t shoot the messenger

The destabilisation of global climate is bad news. Not just any bad news but horrifically bad news in terms of the catastrophic impact it could have on the future of humanity. There is no “nice” way to bring horrifically bad news. We are the messengers and we can expect to be shot.

It is not true, in my view, that “most people are aware of the problem”. Most people do not appreciate the true scale of the threat it poses and many people are in complete denial.

To anybody who cares about the future of the planet, the destabilisation of climate should be an emergency. Telling that to people – over and over again – will certainly be a turn off. But if it’s true, you cannot not tell them.

That is why I do not think that “sugaring the pill” in any way really helps. Anything that belittles the scale of the climate threat is a betrayal of the many people who stand to suffer grievously from it in the future. And trying to make climate change campaigning “more like” other types of campaigning, or to express it in the language of campaigns we are more familiar with, misses the point that climate change is a totally different – utterly unprecedented – kind of problem.

I do not really think that we must use a special kind of language, and am doubtful that some new tactic will suddenly make the job easier. In the end we just need to continue telling the truth as we see it.

For the first part of this roundtable discussion, “What to do about climate change? British activists debate, part 1”, click here

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George Marshall has a point: if the “language of empowerment” means offering people solutions and positive things they can do at every stage, then that should always go together with making people aware of the frightening scale of the problem. But “optimism” should never come at the expense of obscuring the ugly reality of the threat we face. Only if we correctly assess it will we be able to take action that is effective and not just a palliative. We need to be aware that we are involved in a desperate race against time.

I do get a sense from many of the new faces on our demonstrations that more and more people are becoming aware of how frightening a problem climate change is. On the whole I do not think that they are people that have been made to feel especially empowered, or who have responded to some new kind of language, or even who are coming because of a special concern about global equity; they seem, more than anything, to be people who have simply come to realise that climate change is a huge threat to the future of humanity. Some may have undergone a kind of “Damascene” conversion in terms of realising the full scale of what they had initially thought was just a marginal problem.

In my experience what needs to be done most has less to do with expressing things in a new, different, way – and more about simply getting practical things done. In my view there have been many people with power and influence - not only politicians, but people within the campaigning world – who have failed to do that.

At the most recent Friends of the Earth conference I said that the Climate Movement was something that should have been organised five years or so ago. I argued that bringing people together from the various environmental and conservation groups was something we had been trying to do for all that time but that it would have been much more effective if it had been organised from the top, by the people with real resources.

Meanwhile the development agencies are still not putting enough resources into climate change and their job will be far harder in the long run as a result. They do need to work closer with environmental NGOs and put resources into the Climate Movement. I may be wrong but I think it is they who are applying the brakes here.

Sophie Harding (Tearfund) Don’t ignore the messenger

Perhaps to his surprise, I agree with Phil Thornhill. The situation is bleak. I do not intend in any way to underplay its seriousness. Sadly, George Marshall is probably right too that maybe we can’t rely solely on a sense of compassion for poor people or the planet.

George has got to the nub: if we are to make this issue tangible, we have got to make the problem personal: your future, your children's future. Our responses must be practical, as Phil says, and passionate – but the language cannot be antagonistic. I really don’t think it's a case of messengers being shot, but of messengers simply being ignored – because people are bored of listening to tireless ranting. Everything seems to present a “threat” in today's world, be it terrorism, Sars, or the demise of people's pensions. It is a “boy cries wolf” scenario in the extreme.

As someone who works for a development agency I am only too familiar with the frustrations of climate change being segregated from development issues. There are too many pressing concerns, too little capacity and too few resources. Then there are people like Bjørn Lomborg who downgrade the importance of the climate in an oversimplified “ranking” of world poverty priorities.

Like George, I am encouraged by Defra's recent initiative. And, like Sophie Hug and Phil, I am hopeful about the new possibilities for campaigning presented by the Climate Movement. But I re-emphasise that the language of this movement needs to be different: constructive but honest, present options and not merely problems, and offer clear things for governments and individuals to do.

Climate change is bad news, but let us provide pragmatic steps forward that leave people empowered rather than paralysed, and ready and willing to act.

Sophie Hug (People and Planet): The public’s perception

I completely agree that the “global justice approach” will only appeal to a narrow spread of people and of course that is not enough! But you have to start somewhere!

I come to the issue as someone new to climate change campaigning and I am asking myself why I didn’t get involved before? I think there are three main reasons. First, I was scared of the science, as many people are, and sadly I think that that is a little victory that the oil-industry-funded sceptics have had over all of us. Second, I saw climate change as an “environmental” issue and couldn't see how it affected me or my fellow humans. The media seems to dehumanise the issue and focus on science and statistics. Third, the scaremongering that surrounds the issue, which made me feel helpless to do anything about the problem.

I am not pretending to be representative of the general public, but personally I still think that if a movement against climate change is to grow it needs to become integrated with - though not swallowed up by - the global justice movement. Phil's concerns that we need to distinguish climate change from other “global justices” because the threat is so massive and unprecedented are notable; but the fact is that unlike many other noble causes, climate change is not even on most people's radar. The global justice movement could have an important role in spreading that message.

I totally agree that we need to move from publicising the problem, which hasn’t got us anywhere, to using the language of empowerment. Providing people with clear action seems simple but I don’t think it has been done yet in a clear and consistent way. I like Sophie Harding's idea of a joined-up communications strategy. At the moment we are giving off far too many different, confusing messages. I hope the climate movement might help to solve this, or at least act as a common voice.

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.

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