Prospects for Paris

Where should the climate movement be focussing its energy?

Tim Root
3 August 2015

In the USA, the Pope’s climate change encyclical “brought an outpouring of support from religious leaders, environmental, social justice, and public health groups”. The US Catholic bishops’ president called it “our marching orders for advocacy”. It is vital that this likely upsurge of climate activism is sustained, and well-targeted. Repeated efforts to influence governments have led merely to them “shifting all the difficult decisions into the future”, as Greenpeace pointed out at the 2014 UN summit. Research by Nicholas Stern concludes that pledges to be made at Paris “are likely to fall far short” of what we need to get on the vital track to 2º C maximum. Any American commitments at Paris could be reversed by the next president. The Senate Republican leader won his 2014 election on the slogan “guns, freedom, and coal”. The Pope linked “the failure of global summits on the environment” to the “special interests and economic interests” which “easily end up trumping the common good”. Therefore while environmentalists should try hard to influence Paris, we also need a complementary strategy.    
Most people are sceptical about governments’ commitment to tackle climate change. Only a fifth of Britons consider it likely that world leaders will keep temperature rise “within acceptable levels”, while over half consider it unlikely. Nearly all governments regard public opinion on climate as too weak for them to prioritise it. However there are numerous potential supporters of action. Nearly three quarters of Britons believe climate change poses a serious threat to global stability, while in late 2013 a sixth of EU citizens considered it the most “serious problem facing the world”. The overall EU sample rated its seriousness at 7.3 out of 10. But as Naomi Klein stated, if people believe there is no viable plan, they will avert their attention from the issue. To rouse sufficient people to activism, we urgently need a global “credible strategy that is to scale with the climate crisis”.    

The director of online activism network 38 Degrees, which regularly mobilises mass support, stated that “climate campaigning is difficult because it’s about … unfathomable targets  … far off in the future”, whereas “campaigning to stop big businesses, corporate greed … works much more for our kind of organisation”. Two fifths of EU citizens believe it is the responsibility of business and industry to tackle climate change. The Carbon Trust states that market research consistently shows that “a majority of consumers want to take action to protect the environment and are keen to buy goods that are less harmful to it.” Showing selected businesses that cutting emissions would enhance or protect their reputation and profits would probably achieve the necessary emissions cuts much sooner than majoring on governments.
Which businesses should be targeted? For over five years has been campaigning for divestment, aiming to “politically bankrupt” major fossil fuel companies and thus push governments to curb them. Despite praiseworthy progress, such as the coal divestment by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, vast amounts are still being invested in fossil fuel exploration, including in the Arctic, and tropical forests. Many potential supporters feel that the oil giants are too strong to defeat soon enough, and are “trapped by a short-term mandate that leaves little room for manoeuvre”, as Jonathon Porritt stated. In February Shell’s boss said “oil demand will continue to grow for at least two decades”. Such companies have massive amounts of capital tied up in fossil fuel assets, and therefore would lose enormously by ending those activities, which would entail writing off fixed assets, and a huge loss of potential revenue. Research concluded that despite certain divestments, fossil fuel companies would continue to be regarded as desirable investments by morally “neutral investors”. A study of the stock market’s “limited” reaction to the “unburnable carbon” publicity concluded that “many investors would be reluctant to make substantial portfolio adjustments” as the possible future benefits “can be quite small relative to” the current profits. Britain’s former finance regulator Lord Turner recently warned of this short-termism. Moreover “green bonds” still constitute only 0.04% of the bond market.

Targeting susceptible companies

However a campaign could succeed by targeting companies such as banks, and others, which are most likely and able to switch their investments, or cut their emissions, relatively soon. Extensive research shows that many companies are very keen to protect their reputation. As Unilever boss Paul Polman famously said, social media activists have the potential to “bring down” a company “in nanoseconds.” A campaign to name and shame, and if appropriate boycott, selected susceptible investors and companies in a wide range of high-carbon activities could gain mass support, giving an appealing, easy chance to hit corporate polluters. Research shows that highlighting culpable enemies would promote commitment to our cause. From 2005-2013 the big banks invested nearly $500 billion in coal. With increasing competition in retail banking, business experts have warned banks of “the importance of reconnecting with their customers” without delay. Every year fourteen million Britons invest in savings accounts, and millions of young people open their first account. 1.1 million Britons switched their current account between October 2013 and August 2014. The campaign could ask people to use the less guilty banks, or to add their name to a list of people who undertook to switch their account from a targeted bank by a certain day if our demands were not met. This would strengthen the ultimatum to the bank in question, and enable people to make a preliminary commitment if they were unsure about the larger commitment initially.
There are many potential supporters for such a campaign. High proportions of people consider banks irresponsible, and disapprove of companies causing pollution. One expert on the Catholic Church said that “in asking Catholics to reshape the market by changing their consumer habits, [the encyclical] could release a whole new form of people power”. A six nation survey found that one person in seven is strongly motivated to promote sustainable consumption, with “the potential to disproportionately influence others”. Globally, Greenpeace has nearly three million members, and Friends of the Earth two million. Many of these would enthusiastically take to the streets and social media to promote such a campaign, if it gained backing from one or more respected NGOs. Research suggests that once people saw that the campaign had a critical mass of supporters, many others would perceive it as viable and decide to support it.
Successful actions of the type proposed include that by Greenpeace, which got Volkswagen to pledge that its cars would meet EU fuel efficiency targets, and Rainforest Action Network’s campaign which led to Citigroup undertaking not to finance logging in tropical forests.
The campaign would link cutting carbon pollution to the potential of green jobs, and improving air quality. It would show business that consumers’ concerns make the risk of high carbon investments too great, and therefore that renewables and low emissions products have better profit prospects. Subject to each company’s response to our demand for emissions cuts, the campaign could then obtain media coverage, take various other actions, or launch a boycott. A 2012 survey found that sustainability experts consider consumer boycotts more likely than other tactics to influence companies. In 2014 Desmond Tutu called for such a boycott.

In addition to selected banks, companies the campaign could target include:

Selected companies which transport goods by air;

Supermarkets which make least effort to cut food waste;

Companies whose products contain palm oil which they could not show was innocent of adding to deforestation;

Utilities which generate most of their electricity from particularly high-carbon fuel such as coal. In 2013, in eight EU nations, more than 10% of customers switched electricity supplier;

Selected high-carbon products from countries whose governments permit particularly high-carbon practices, such as Canada and Australia, including exports of beef, lamb, and cars from, and tourism to, these nations;

Selected high-carbon products from nations which are failing to curb deforestation. This would give these nations’ often inter-connected business/government elite a strong incentive to cut deforestation, circumventing the complex issue of determining if specific products come from deforested land.

All of these companies/products sell in competitive markets, and would therefore stand to lose vital market share as the campaign inflicted reputational damage on them. Once targeted companies saw that the campaign could harm them, a wide range of companies would be anxious not to be targeted themselves, and would aim to cut their emissions faster, partly to attract concerned potential customers.
As stated by many insiders, the environmental movement lacks clout, and as a result most current climate campaigns have relatively modest goals. We must not succumb to the excessively risk-averse approach Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, in which potential losses are given disproportionate weight in decision making. Instead, as Friends of the Earth’s Craig Bennett said, our campaigns must “really scale up the ambition of the transformational change we need.” Showing governments we can enlist large-scale support with such a campaign will in time also motivate them to adopt greener policies. Climate change is the world’s biggest issue by far. There are many celebrities we could recruit. An assertive global campaign can inspire support and succeed, provided we don’t delay!

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