Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

How to Campaign for the Climate

What is campaigning?  

Firstly campaigning is not politics. Politics is the art of the possible. Campaigning is about changing what is possible.

What we want to make possible is the survival of life on earth as we know it. This means getting atmospheric carbon levels back down to 350 parts per million and keeping climate change to less than 1.5 degrees per century.

So perhaps I should describe climate change campaigning as the art of making the impossible possible.

Outrage is in

So getting going, what's the first thing you need to do? Create a scandal. 

Climate Change is awful, that's very easy to show, but lots of things are awful; earthquakes, Monday mornings, the Eurovision Song Contest. To successfully campaign what we need to make is a scandal. A scandal is something awful that could have been prevented.

When the government invests in roads whilst neglecting the railways; or when it allows local communities to oppose wind farms, but overrules their objections to fracking; or when we subsidize the fossil fuels but neglect wave power, that is a scandal.

It is also a scandal when someone is profiting from the awfulness. The salary of Shell's CEO may not directly affect the climate (although what he spends it on may well do) but someone living well by selling a product that will kill millions when used is a scandal

It is also a scandal when the Science Museum takes money from Shell, or the Tate takes cash from BP, or when coal companies bribe politicians.

We must cultivate the outrage.

Frame the debate 

The second thing we need to do is frame the debate.

Framing is like haggling. Anyone with children knows how this works. They say they want something outrageous, you say no, but you end up giving them something anyway, just not everything they want. Sometimes.

Climate Change denial is all about framing the debate. Scientists say Climate Change is almost certain and almost certainly bad. The deniers say it's not proved and the effects will be mild. The end result is that the public takes away the message is that Climate Change is possibly happening and possibly bad, but not something to worry about today.

Campaigners must re-frame the debate. We need to stick to the facts, but we can re-frame the debate without telling lies like the deniers. We can talk about the Arctic, warming faster than the rest of the planet. We can talk about the methane hydrate blowholes exploding across Siberia. We can say that palaeoclimatologists are showing that past warming didn't take place gradually. We can say that the error bars on the IPCC predictions go both ways; it might not be as bad as is predicted, but it could also be worse.

We can also re-frame the debate by our actions. Doing things like not leaving the TV on standby and eating less meat are noble actions in themselves, and essential if you're not going to be called a complete hypocrite, but in terms of re-framing the debate they aren't very effective. If all it takes to beat Climate Change is getting off your bottom to press a button before you go to bed it appears to be a small problem. If all you're prepared to do to fight it is eat a vegeburger every now and again then it appears you don't care all that much.

However if people are prepared to put their lives and their liberty on the line by boarding a Russian oil rig, or to get up at a stupid time in the morning to spend half the day on a bus to London with a bunch of hippies, then it shows this is a big problem that, some people at least, really do care a lot about.

The last line of the film Battle of Seattle, about protests against the 1998 World Trade Organisation meeting, shows another way this can work. One of the character says “A week ago, nobody knew what the WTO was.  Now…well, they still don’t know what it is, but they think it’s bad.”

Bite sized chunks

So how do you do that with a problem as large, complicated and multifaceted as Climate Change? Few people can get their head around the whole problem, and no organisation, even an international one like Greenpeace, can campaign on all the issues at once. The trick is to break the problem down into bite sized chunks. Tackle single issues that can be explained clearly, and then set yourself realistic short term goals.

This is important practically but also psychologically. For all the successes of the environment movement over the last four decades we have been fighting no more than a rear guard action. All our victories are temporary. All our defeats are final. You need the small successes to keep yourself going.

You can have 'output goals', such as stopping something you don't like, or sometimes you have to make do with 'input goals', simply organising a protest that works. Sometimes the goals can be global, such as getting a deal in Paris this December But they can also be very personal, maybe just getting the courage to talk to your MP, or to go along to your first demonstration.

Bigger organisation can take bigger bites, but examples of 'bite sized chunk' are getting a local council to oppose a fracking application, or getting an institution to divest from fossil fuels.

A successful campaign is often made up of a series of bite sized chunks. Greenpeace successfully opposed ocean dumping of first of radioactive waste, then solid wastes and then hazardous chemicals. Eventually all that was left was a loophole allowing the dumping of redundant oil installations. Greenpeace then occupied the Brent Spar and it was job done.

Upstream or downstream?

You can look at the problem of Climate Change from many different angles, but two approached stand out.

Firstly you can campaign on how we use fossil fuels; our patio heaters, our short haul flights and our gas-guzzling cars. You can campaign on these issues individually, or you can campaign for some sort of carbon rationing either individually, or on a nation by nation basis. This has been the foundation of every attempt to make an international treaty on limiting Climate Change and our own Climate Change Act.

Most of the Climate Change related campaigns I've been involved in to date have been 'downstream' ones, such as opposing new roads and airports. (Although if your goal is to get people to stop driving or flying then opposing new roads and airports is actually an 'upstream' approach). 

However if you look at the campaigns that are currently making headway, such as against fracking, or Arctic oil, or fossil fuel divestment, or tar sands, the focus now is 'upstream'; on Keeping It In The Ground.

One reason for this is that it's easier to stop one oil rig than a million SUVs, or to get one university to go and divest from a company than a thousand people to stop buying its products. 

But another reason is that this is an indirect way of achieving the 'downstream' changes that you want. If we shut off the supply of cheap oil, we will need to make what we have last longer and use it in smarter ways. Perhaps it might even make the free market do what it is supposed to do, and actually innovate.

The indirect approach

When you have picked your issue and identified your target, then you need to go for it and start campaigning. Fight on the terrain you know best, use the weapons to have to hand and you attack your opponent where they are weakest.

Or maybe you don't even attack your opponent at all. Maybe you campaign to get another organisation to do something that you can't do yourself.

The motley bunch of campaigners known as Save Swallows Wood managed to stop the Peak Park Motorway, alias the Mottram and Tintwistle Bypass, primarily by getting the Peak District National Park authority to forget about the shabby little deal they had done with the Highways Agency, and join the campaign against the road. That meant that when the Public Inquiry opened the Highways Agency were then faced with, not a bunch of enthusiastic but legally untrained campaigners, but a medium sized government department on the warpath. The road did not get approval.

Divestment is a good example of the indirect approach, as is Greenpeace's successful campaign to get Lego to ditch Shell. Universities and big charities, like Danish toy companies, are far more likely to listen to arguments about the threat of climate change to the poor of the Global South than the oil companies themselves. Persuading your MP to take stand is another way. They have power and influence you don't.

Stay positive

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and that is true of all campaigning, especially on the climate.

This is a campaign in which, if we are to win, we must do so by making people care more about other people's future than about their own present. We must make people realise that we are all on this earth together and that we are all one race, the human race.

The problem with fear is that it does exactly the opposite. When people are afraid they go for self preservation. Terrify people too much about waves of climate refugees crossing the Mediterranean and they may go for the Katie Holmes approach and call for helicopter gunships. If instead you tell them how solar panels can help African children who are off-grid to study after dark, or how biochar can lock CO2 in the ground and provide much needed employment in the Global South, then you might make them care.

Because there are positive messages here. To beat climate change we need renewable energy, better insulated houses and more public transport. As well as reducing our CO2 emissions, doing those things will give us cleaner air and water, warmer homes and less traffic congestion, plus a million more jobs making the changes and running the new infrastructure.

That's why the situation isn't just awful, it's a scandal.

Meet people where they are

So how do you persuade people?  

The science of changing minds is complicated, but in essence you need three things. 

The first is the stick, you need to tell them that something very bad will happen if they don't change. That's easy enough with Climate Change, it's going to be pretty bad for everyone. 

Secondly you need the carrot, the reward for changing. As I said, if you keep your message optimistic there are some small carrots there.

But those things alone are not enough. People are have principles and they can stick to them even when it is not in their own best interests. Here is retired General Frank Kitson, with a practical military take on the problem:
"Some people consider the carrot and the stick provide all that is necessary, but I am sure that many people will refuse the one and face the other, if by doing otherwise they lose their self respect. On the other hand few people will choose the harder course if they think that both are equally consistent with their ideals.”
For proof of the General's words consider that polls regularly show that there are more Texans who don't have health insurance than support Obama's free health care. In other words they would literally rather die than support something they consider 'communist'.  

This is an aspect of campaigning that the Right, with their appeals to tradition and patriotism, does much better than the Left, which usually expects people to be logical, or worse altruistic. But it doesn't have to be this way. Our history is not dominated by selfishness and the rise of the free market and the City. We have a radical, collective and industrious past as well.

You can tell people that Britain led the world in the first industrial revolution and we can lead the world in the new green industrial revolution. You can say that collective action won us the Second World War. If you are talking to Trade Unionists you can mention those one million climate jobs, or if, God help you, you are talking to free market libertarians you can discuss ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies and making them pay for the mess they've made.

The important point to remember is that your audience is not you. They will have their own motivation, and you need to figure out what it is.


But perhaps the most valuable weapon in the activists tool kit is imagination. You need to believe there is an alternative.

Our society appears to have lost the ability to imagine that we can do things differently. If you look at the science fiction films at the moment you can see the world being destroyed by Climate Change, alien invasion, dinosaurs or killer robots, but always it is the same world of big corporations and corrupt politicians. It seems we can imagine the end of our world but not the nature of it changing. We must rekindle the utopian vision. 

Because things can change, sometimes very quickly. 

When I was young half of Europe was controlled by a totalitarian regime that would not admit there was any other way of doing things, that used an economic system that failed to take into account the value of the resources it used or the pollution it caused, which served a few people very well but most people rather badly, that was supported by a compliant press and ruled by a small and out-of-touch elite who were mostly in it for personal gain. Then, almost overnight, the Berlin Wall came down and the whole rotten edifice collapsed.

As the writer and activist Arundhati Roy says:   
"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

...and finally 

So why campaign? For the sake or your children and other people's, because once you
know the facts you haven't got a choice, but there is another reason. 

Here's George Monbiot:
"But while a global revolution offers little by way of material self-advancement to activists in the rich world, there is, in collective revolutionary action, something which appears to be missing from almost every other enterprise in modern secular life. It arises from the intensity of the relationships forged in a collective purpose concentrated by adversity. It is the exultation which Christians call Joy', but which, in the dry discourse of secular politics, has no recognised equivalent. It is the drug for which, once sampled, you will pay any price."
That is activism for me.

Please join the resistance.  

Useful resources: by Chris Rose (where I nicked half this stuff from)

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