Using narratives for strategic adaptation: lessons learned from COP21

For climate activists in the run-up to COP26, taking strategic decisions based on stories about past mobilizations risks missing emerging opportunities.

Mattias Wahlström Joost de Moor
4 February 2020, 9.44am
Greenpeace demands a climate plan, Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands, December, 2019.
Romy Arroyo Fernandez/PA. All rights reserved.

In the midst of the current wave of climate protests under banners of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, it is worthwhile to look back at past mobilizations of the climate movement, and to see what lessons can be learnt from them.

Drawing on our recent study of the climate movement’s mobilization around COP21, published open access in the journal Theory and Society, we argue that today’s organizers would benefit from reflecting upon the use of shared stories about prior mobilizations when strategizing.

Our study shows the importance and difficulty of telling a convincing story about one’s current protest campaign that articulates the need to act now while still encouraging activists to continue their struggle in case the mobilization fails. We show that it can be advantageous to mobilize and strategize around a joint, streamlined narrative of past experiences, but that with reduced complexity comes the risk of blind spots.

Moreover, movements should be wary of ‘retrospective fixation’ or relying too much on knowledge about the past, thereby missing emerging opportunities.

We cannot provide easy solutions to these challenges, but we think current protest organizers can learn from past mobilizations and the way past organizers learned from their predecessors.

The climate movement at COP21

In an article in The Guardian earlier this year, journalist and climate activist George Monbiot argued that “a central task for any campaign is to develop a narrative: a short, simple story explaining where we are, how we got here and where we need to go.”

In our study we found one story to be crucial for strategizing in the COP21 mobilization: the “Copenhagen” narrative. In a nutshell, the narrative suggests that the movement regarded the 2009 COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen as a last chance to save the climate, it was hopeful the summit could deliver, and it thereby managed to mobilize massive protests.

Yet the failure of the Summit led to a post-Copenhagen “hangover” or “depression” that demobilized the climate movement. The moral of this story is that the Copenhagen experience falsified the expectations that the UN and its COPs would be able to draft a strong and binding climate agreement and that pressure by social movements could force leaders to realize this potential, thus debunking an overly optimistic perception of the COP. Moreover, building up expectations that the movement could ‘save the climate’ in Copenhagen effectively brought people to the streets, but created disappointment and demobilization afterwards.

What was so remarkable about this story was how streamlined it had become. That is, while there had been disagreement about the interpretation of Copenhagen in its immediate aftermath, activists came to agree on a shared narrative in the run-up to Paris. We found that the story was being retold as part of developing a successful strategy for the COP21 mobilization. Indeed, the Copenhagen narrative did a remarkable job in that regard.

Though there was disagreement from some groups (most notably Avaaz) the shared Copenhagen narrative united activists around the understanding that no matter how much pressure the movement would exert, the COP was unable to deliver a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, and should therefore be ignored – or at least, the movement should not demand anything from it. Instead, actions should condemn the COP and target other actors, such as by challenging false solutions proposed by corporations, and promoting real solutions to fellow citizens. Above all, the mobilization should not be presented as a ‘now or never’ end point, such as Copenhagen had been, but should function as a spring board for a sustained climate mobilization.

The Copenhagen narrative was successful in uniting the movement around a strategy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it resonated broadly with an increasingly broad subsection of the climate movement that had experienced growing disenchantment with the UN’s ability to address climate change.

Secondly, it was well integrated into a broader story about the movement’s identity and about where the movement was coming from, where it was now, and where it was going. Essentially, it depicted the movement as having learned from its mistakes in Copenhagen, putting it on track to a more successful, sustained mobilization.

Thirdly, organizers were able to turn ‘Copenhagen’ into a shorthand for an entire, shared narrative about what happened in Copenhagen and what it should mean in terms of strategizing for Paris. This shorthand could conveniently be used to influence time-constrained meetings through brief, authoritative statements, such as “No Copenhagen again”. It signified a community with a shared experience and understanding, and challenging it came at the risk of becoming an outsider. Finally, the Copenhagen narrative was effectively used by experienced activists to bring newcomers up to speed about the movement’s history and the need for strategic change.

In the end, it appears that using the Copenhagen narrative when strategizing was fairly successful in preventing some of the main failures ascribed to the Copenhagen protest campaign from being repeated in Paris. Indeed, while it is hard to determine exactly how much continuity the movement was able to maintain after Paris, activists seemed to agree that the worst outcomes of Copenhagen was avoided. Despite seeing the Paris Agreement as vastly insufficient, there was little or no sense of hangover or failure, instead organizers left with a feeling that the movement maintained momentum to be continued after the COP.

Problems with a good story

Still, the use of narratives for strategic adaptation to the political context harboured some potential pitfalls. Firstly, the streamlining of the Copenhagen narrative involved overlooking important nuances and alternative interpretations. One apparently forgotten interpretation was that the radical wing of the movement had failed to mobilize sufficiently on the notion of climate justice. It might be the case that the dominant Copenhagen narrative was preferred because it attributed blame to the political context instead of the movement itself. This probably created a more positive self-image for the movement. However, the streamlining effort that made the Copenhagen narrative so successful also meant losing an opportunity to learn from alternative interpretations.

Secondly, using narratives to adapt strategies to political context may create what we call a ‘retrospective fixation.’ That is, because these narratives are based on experience, they give priority to information coming from the past. While this has the advantage that it builds the authority of trial and error into strategic learning, it also presents the danger that newly emerging opportunities are overlooked, or simply outweighed by experience-based interpretations of the political context.

In the case of COP21, we were surprised by the fact that almost nobody seemed to care about the fact that in the run-up to Paris, political weight had shifted to individual countries’ commitments. That is, rather than coming up with a single global agreement to address climate change (such as was tried with the Kyoto protocol), the UN was now trying to get signatory countries to commit to Individual Nationally Determined Commitments. We cannot know whether focusing more on shaping the individual countries’ commitments enhanced the movement’s impact. It is simply remarkable that this fundamental shift in the political context was not considered as a political opportunity (or threat), but only as confirmation of the conclusions drawn from Copenhagen. Retrospective fixation may thus have created a blind spot to emerging opportunities.

Lessons for today’s (climate) activists

While historically unique, we believe there are several lessons to be learned from the COP21 mobilization and its reliance on the Copenhagen narrative. Narratives are powerful tools that can unite diverse movements around strategies that draw on lessons from the past – especially about misjudgments of contextual threats and opportunities. If successful, such narratives can contribute to a movement’s self-confidence, showing for instance that while mistakes were made in the past, the movement has learned, and is now ready to take on the next challenge. Moreover, the Copenhagen narrative successfully warned against the dangers of mobilizing using a ‘now or never’ narrative.

When learning from COP21, organizers should moreover be cautious of some threats when relying on narratives to develop strategies. Firstly, while streamlining narratives is key for making them effective, alternative interpretations should still be considered for potential lessons. Secondly, while experience is a great source of information about the political context, the political environment changes constantly and may present new threats and opportunities the movement needs to take into account. Thirdly, while it is urgent that countries across the world take forceful action to address global warming, the Climate movement must construct mobilizing narratives that on the one hand avoid depicting each mobilization as a now-or-never situation (risking demobilization if the campaign fails) while nevertheless conveying the urgency of taking action.

In the context of some of today’s most significant mobilizations, these lessons seem quite relevant. Fridays for Future (FFF) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) have a strong narrative about the political context that is shared across countries: Governments have failed to deliver a meaningful answer to the climate crisis. While we agree this is the case, this failure is not absolute and the exact reasons for governments’ failure vary between countries and may change over time.

Movements need to continue scanning the horizon for such subtleties and adapt their claims and strategies accordingly. Most importantly, movements’ actions may have a real impact on the political context, potentially opening up new opportunities for influence. Retrospective fixation might lead movements to overlook them.

Last but not least, the narrative by FFF and XR focuses on the failures of governments. Learning from failures (and successes) of previous climate campaigns seems at least as important. In particular, narratives of defeat that draw lessons from the past while encouraging sustained action seem crucial. Emphasizing urgency may be critical here, but ‘now or never’ narratives may undermine such sustained action.

For a more detailed discussion, see the original open access article here.


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