Phil's Climate Blog
Are the NGOs doing more harm than good in the fight against climate change ?
My starting point for this rant is that anyone who doesn't think that we are hurtling full speed ahead to climate meltdown, to a global tragedy of unparalleled scale, just doesn't get it. Anybody not already on that page won't get the rest of this. Its already looking like the terrifying prospect of large scale geo-engineering is going to be our only way out of an even more complete catastrophe – and anybody who doesn't get that, and who doesn't get how hideous a prospect that kind of geo-engineering will be, is not on the starting page either, and they might as well give up reading the rest of this now. (for more on this see my last blog )
But if you get that, then what I'm trying to say is pretty simple. If you are hurtling full speed ahead into any kind of full scale total-annihilation then the first essential step to have any hope at all of avoiding it, or even just dodging the worst of it, is to realise its happening and just how fast you're heading for how big a disaster. So what I'm judging the NGOs - the environmental NGOs especially - by is: are they really helping people to grasp the full truth of what's happening ?
Not on whether they are doing good work on protecting bees, or any number of other important-in-their-own-right environmental problems – because they will all be minor in comparison with what's coming. Not on whether they are improving or even saving a considerable number of lives right now – because that will be a small number in comparison to the number threatened by climate meltdown. And not on winning the political battles to take small incremental steps in the right direction but which will not take us far enough fast enough to make any real difference to the unfolding tragedy. My basic premise is that on any each-life-has-equal-value basis then avoiding ultimate climate meltdown is really all that matters, its so much bigger, it will destroy so many more lives, than anything else.
And my next premise is that people need to know that. I'm not in the Mark Lynas school of thought, for instance, whereby its just the obscurantist obstructionist Greens that are the problem, getting in the way of us just using the correct technologies that will solve the problem. We will not be able to just sneak in the correct solutions painlessly without a still-ignorant-of-the full-scale-of-the-problem public, noticing, as it were. I don't actually know (and I'm not sure I really care that much) whether nuclear power is going to help or not, or precisely which technology is best: I just know that we need to be acting on a scale that is massively greater than we are now and I don't think that scale of response is possible without the full-on engagement of society as a whole and that won't happen without a quantum leap forward in general awareness. An awareness that starts with a genuine appreciation of just how deeply in the shit we are.
Are the NGOs really helping to foster that ? Or are they rather fostering the idea that climate change is just one amongst many environmental problems – nothing special about it – and that anyway we are well on the way to dealing with it, we just need to win a few political battles to nudge this coalition government in the right direction a bit and all will be fine.
Now if you read the relevant Friends of the Earth reports, its true, you will get a reasonably accurate picture of just how huge the task we face really is, and just how far we are away from actually dealing with it. But none of that figures in their headline campaigns – its all about winning a few paltry victories against the most perverse of Osborne's decisions, or worse that that, its about (and this next phrase is to be understood as coming in a full furious blast of airborne saliva) ****ing bees! Bees are not just 'a campaign' - they are the headline campaign – they evidently represent the most serious problem we face. And the main problem with Greenpeace, to be honest, is just that its Greenpeace – everybody knows Greenpeace is there to raise hell about the environment so their familiar tactics, however daring, however outrageous, however well financed, designed and organised just come across as Greenpeace doing its thing again – not as a sign that there is a new, vast and quite unprecedentedly horrific threat out there. And their Arctic campaign taps into the safe, familiar, theme of the threatened wilderness, failing for the most part to deliver the more difficult and frightening message about what the arctic meltdown really means for the rest of the planet. (for more on the theme of the weak NGO message on climate see my previous blog Don't mention climate change )
Now you must be saying to yourself this is all frightfully unfair on the UK's NGOs - what about the UK's ground-breaking Climate Act, for instance ? Was that not the work of the NGOs – in fact for the most part just one NGO, Friends of the Earth? Well, yes, it was ground-breaking and it was a huge achievement. But it was only ever going to be the first essential step with the much harder steps of seeing this legislative promise actually implemented year on year, still to come - and at this point those are looking harder and harder to achieve. And more fundamentally still, its targets have been rendered obsolete by our growing awareness of the scale of the challenge we face, whilst it completely fails to tackle the problem of the outsourcing of our emissions – to the places like China which make all the high-embodied-emission stuff we consume.
And the problem is precisely that the campaigning seems to have stopped dead with the Climate Act, whilst the climate crisis has kept growing and growing. We are on the defensive trying to defend the integrity of the Act and its targets whilst we should be pushing on way beyond it. Beyond all that, though, the problem is that the Climate Act embodies the persuade-the-politicians-to-do-the-right-thing-and-all-will-be-well approach: its something that was essentially sneaked in without the greater part of the public really noticing very much - possible since it was only a legislative 'promise' with no immediate tangible impacts. What it was not was any real attempt to get the very difficult message of the full horror of the situation we're in across to the public. And now we're suffering from our failure to do that when we are trying to get the concrete things done that we need to do. We can't build wind-farms (enough, quickly enough) because everybody thinks they spoil the landscape and they don't get it how trivial a consideration this is against the gravity of the climate crisis, because they just don't yet get the full gravity of the climate crisis.
And more than that the inevitable political backlash is building in the form of a growing and avowedly denialist UKIP. As UKIP grows in influence and pushes the Tory Party towards the climate sceptic right, many in NGOs will sadly shake their heads – what they will probably not do is acknowledge that this is to some extent their fault: they never invested enough time and effort in actually getting the difficult message across to the public about how deeply in the climate shit we are... and they have left the path open for UKIP and the Daily Mail's powerful populist steamroller of denialism to roll in – with the message that climate change is just all about some kind of trivial Green political correctness. This is what you get if you think you can just get away with persuading the politicians and thats where you direct all your effortand without making the much greater investment of time and effort that getting out there and persuading the public, would take.
OK, that's easy to say but what do I really mean “invest enough time and effort” - what should the NGOs really have done, what could they have done - to get the message across to the public better than they did? Well, I think its just worth taking a little look at the situation in the US right now. Of course there they're up against a far worse, far stronger, extreme denialist political right, but there is the sense that perhaps the corner is being turned there with regard to the political drift in that direction – while in Britain the political drift now, I would say, is rather in the wrong direction. In any case, whether this is wrong or right, the US campaign on climate change, right now, looks quite a lot stronger and more effective than it is here. It really seems to have climate change per se at its core...its not just a jumble of peripheral issues thrown together as an excuse for a climate campaign. I'm not sure I like the abstraction of the number 350 which is more just a brand (and the 350 campaign is too 'brand' dominated) than something that really explains to people the scientific truth it is attempting to express. And yet it does help in some way to keep the magnitude of the crisis we face central to the campaign – assisted by the kind of rhetoric with which Bill Mckibben regularly assails the US public. Of course it is pretty important that in the US they have their Mckibben – one person who can embody the campaign as a powerful,vocal spearhead for the climate cause per se. We just don't have anyone like that in the UK, right now. Of course the situation in the US is really quite complex with a mixed bag of NGOs and a 350 campaign that is primarily supposed to be an international one, but coming out of all that there seems to be a stronger, more unified, more focussed, more powerful message than we are managing to convey to the public, over here.
You might reasonably say that over there they are 'helped', in a sense, by having the tar sands - with its attendant notorious XL pipeline - as a real game-changer of a climate issue right on their doorstep, to galvanise opposition. They also have not only their McGibben, but their Hansen, their figurehead scientist who is really at the centre of the campaign. The nearest we have in terms of an effectively vocal scientist is probably Kevin Anderson at the Tyndal Centre, but here there is an instructive contrast: whilst Hansen was finally galvanised into action by the Bush administration's suppression, or actual doctoring of his reports, Anderson seems to have the ear of our government. One can readily understand therefore why Anderson would not want to prejudice his position, and his scientific credibility, by too close an involvement with campaigning and I would not want to say that's a wrong decision. Nevertheless if he is listened to by our government he is also politely ignored (or so it looks to me) by them. Its somehow a typically British recipe for stultifying inaction. We tend to be big on all the appearances, all the official aspirations around climate, but rather small on the real action.
The Hansen example is possibly instructive of how the very fact that in the US they are up against a more virulent opposition has – perhaps – helped to galvanise a more effective campaign for action on climate. But I don't think they were always ahead in this respect in the US. Campaigning on climate - overt political on-the-street campaigning on climate - started rather early in the UK. But this is where we get the bitter and twisted part of the rant because here for me as the ex-coordinator of the Campaign against Climate Change it gets personal. In the CCC we started organising street demonstrations on climate back in 2001, with the avowed aim of putting climate change per se on the political agenda, of giving it the priority and profile it deserved. Even back then I can remember being thoroughly fobbed off by a certain person at FOE who explained, in a rather superior way, that their tactic was to put pressure on Blair to influence Bush – and therefore by implication they were not interested that much in our approach which was to use the anger against Bush's arrogant and unilateral rejection of Kyoto as a way of lifting the profile of climate per se. (Typically the NGO person was emphasising persuading the politicians, not the people) I think in retrospect the hope that the Blair Poodle would influence Bush can be seen to have been a rather forlorn and pathetic one, whilst our approach was essentially a valid one even if we never had the resources to take it as far as it should have been taken.
In fact some kind of coordinated response to Bush's rejection of Kyoto did materialise from the environmental NGOs in the form of the StopEsso campaign which had a valid target but the familiar hackneyed tactic (think Brent Spar) of picketing petrol stations was never going to be a way of communicating the really unprecedented nature and huge scale of the climate threat. In the CCC we tried to work with this campaign and broaden it in the direction of a classic political campaign, protesting directly against the US government to pitch the issue of climate as one of political priority, and thereby convey something of its magnitude. We struggled with our campaign in the shadow of the Iraq war but ultimately we benefited, I think, from the demonstration habit and machine that the anti-war movement created. As the political energy around the war tailed off we picked up a bit of it and converted it into a fairly ground-breaking 10 thousand strong demo, overtly and specifically on climate. Other initiatives on climate, from other quarters, like the 'Climate Camp' rapidly followed. We did something else back then that rather pre-figured 350 – we created the first 'global' climate campaign, with a number of coordinated demos around the world at the time of the UN climate talks. And all of this from a tiny office on a shoestring budget and at the price of many long days of work I would just like to add!.
You can understand then, perhaps, the way I felt when the NGOs largely ignored us in creating – finally – their own campaign overtly focussed on climate change per se. We were largely excluded from the process of its creation, except on the most formal and superficial level, despite, of course, having been beavering away on our own with pitiful resources, on a parallel track for many years, by then. Now I think it might not be too difficult for someone to understand and even sympathise with the way I felt at this point, especially as it looked at this stage as if both I and the CCC would be pushed completely off the stage by the infinitely better resourced Stop Climate Chaos Coalition. However I am only an individual and when important things are at stake an individual does not and should not count for that much so someone might also have felt that the NGOs had good reasons for what they were doing. So what is really galling for me in all this, to be quite honest, is the appalling mess the NGOs then made of it with their Coalition effort. In actual fact the CCC didn't quite disappear because the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, for all its far superior resources, seemed to leave quite a few gaps to fill. We added a lively mobile element to their static demonstration in 2006, and in succeeding years when they dropped the ball they had started running with – in terms of a demo to mark the UN climate talks – we did our best to pick it up. But of course we were pushed into a rather narrow space by their appearance on the stage and in particular became disproportionately dependant on the hard left. It was hard going.
The mess the NGOs made of it started with the adoption of the dreadful “I count” brand - pushing the climate issue they were supposed to be promoting one step into the background. 'Stop Climate Chaos' was not too bad a name, it did (and does) at least identify the issue – why not just stick with that ? But no, they had to go for the tepid and incomprehensible “I count”. When I asked where this brand name had come from I was told that some people “in Comms” had thought it up. Now I realise now that I am in fact a Stalinist because when I achieve supreme power (I'm working on it but don't hold your breath) I'm going to put all the “Comms” and PR people in the entire world in a big room together and shoot them all. We don't need clever advertising tricks, we don't need some novel psychological approach to get the message across (and we don't need to pay the people that make their living by conning us into thinking we need them to give us that) – we need plain speaking, we need conviction, we need truthfulness. As far as I can see, at any rate, this is a piece of advice that I would not need to ply Mckibben and Co too heavily with because they seem, for the most part, to already have taken it on board: plain - and quite forceful - speaking about climate change seems now to be largely what they are giving people. But I am away on a rant now – you just have to imagine the burning eyes, the sweeping gestures and the far too loud voice – but you just would not believe the ***p that some of these people come up with, like some fatuous intellectual who - from inside his think tank bubble – came up with the label 'climate porn' for any attempts to actually convey the horror of what climate change is actually likely to mean. There is something fantastically perverse about some guy - from the security of his useless think tank sinecure - labelling the people who are actually tackling the very difficult job of communicating the deeply bad, and frankly horrific, news that climate change really is, as peddlers of porn. And there are many other examples of this sort of thing. The biggest problem in trying to simply tell the truth is often that the people you would hope might back you up often turn out to be undermining you by watering down the message in countless ways. Yes we do need positivity, we do need solutions, and all that but we also need truthfulness and if its shocking IT IS shocking, if its terrifying IT IS terrifying, if its horrific IT IS horrific …. we shouldn't try to disguise, bend or sugar the truth – we should stand together behind it.
OK, I'm calming down now. Now let me try and be fair and balanced (as unlikely a prospect as that might seem). The SCC coalition was the right kind of thing for the NGOs to be doing. It was better than doing nothing. And they did finally seem to be getting their act together with the “Wave” demonstration in 2009. It was a relatively no-nonsense, straightforward march: people were allowed to move. And they built up quite a good volunteer base, at London HQ it seemed, as well as around the country. And of course they mobilised the pretty substantial resources, and a significant proportion of the membership base, of a lot of NGOs. The problem this time time was the massive strategic myopia that did not provide for a follow-through. On the contrary rather than following through, they fell off a cliff. The office staff was reduced from 6, I think, to one and they disposed of the Director. This was all part of the utter campaigning debacle of Copenhagen. I don't mean there weren't some good, even ground-breaking events like the 'Wave' and the march in Copenhagen itself but anything gained by this was probably cancelled out more or less completely by the subsequent lack of follow through. Of course there was the disastrous UEA email thing as well but what the public basically saw was a load of sound and fury leading up to the Copenhagen Talks and then when they ended in the frankly predictable train crash – nothing! The impression the public got was that the NGOs did not really believe their own rhetoric, since they did not seem to care, or react in any way to the complete failure of the Talks. This could not be any kind of very serious cause if its champions gave up on it so easily. What many a seasoned political campaigner knows which people sitting in NGO offices do not know is that flare, imaginitive genius, tactical brilliance and all that in campaigning are great but you also need a bit of grit, determination and doggedness to keep going when the going gets tough and to see the thing through. I think the climate cause, and climate campaigning - in the UK at least – has still to recover from the Copenhagen debacle.
And SCC was decimated and the Director disposed of. Now I should issue the caution that Ashok, himself, will probably disagree with everything I say but having invested that time, effort and money in building up the SCC, and its Director as a mouthpiece for raising climate awareness to just scrap it all was one massively stupid and irresponsible decision. What the hell were they thinking ? That climate change had gone away just because they couldn't score a result in one short campaign. It isn't just a quirk of fate that the climate campaigning scene in the UK is now so weak and fragmented and there is no one providing the kind of strong voice on climate that Bill Mckibben is in the US (or anything approaching it... ). It is – at least to some extent - the result of decisions taken. I remember talking to someone from a certain NGO and she said, well we don't seem to be getting much response at all from our climate campaigning these days so we're moving on to these other things.... Don't they realise they should be forging the agenda, not following the crowd....?? And I'm not going to accept that it was all because of a lack of resources. This is about the end of the bloody world...well, conceivably the end of Life on this world. I don't believe the combined resources of the NGOs in SCC were not up to funding an office of 6 employees and a Director. The NGOs just tragically failed to appreciate the critical importance of continuing a high profile public campaign on climate and a fantastically bad decision was made. Their mistake, I think, was a characteristic one: they thought all they needed to do was persuade the politicians - a big high profile public campaign - the way you keep the issue in the public's mind and try and persuade them - was not necessary. Of course this was self-serving, wishful thinking in that it meant the NGOs did not have to provide the much greater level of resources needed for such a campaign: they could all get on with what they were used to, and much preferred, doing. But in the context of the unfolding tragedy of global climate destabilisation it was a huge mistake and the people who made it, in my view, bear a very considerable responsibility for that
And the responsibility of the NGOs is pretty big I would say, because their very existence as prominent national institutions, that over the years have mopped up a large percentage of the more environmentally aware population into their memberships, makes it pretty difficult for anyone else to do the job they are not doing. I don't think we can look to political parties, for instance. I have listened to Conference speech after Conference speech from Caroline, for example, and never is climate there, where in my view, it should be right at the centre of things, basically providing the perspective through which we should be viewing everything else. But the Greens want to get elected and it is very difficult to do that as the purveyor of the very bad news that climate change most definitely is. The urge to present themselves as a bright shiny beacon of alternative hope can all too often lead them into falsehoods on climate like saying the solutions are easy and painless if we would only take them (simply not true in the context of everything that we will need to do)) or that in actual fact it is not only a challenge but an opportunity (it doesn't really give us any more opportunities than the ones we have already failed to grasp to improve our world and it is quite simply the deepest curse from darkest hell).
The hard left, mainly in fact the Socialist Workers Party (or whatever they have just broken up into) have contributed a very great deal to overt on-the-street campaigning on climate, have done great work with the Unions and the 'Green Jobs' campaign, and I do not doubt the sincerity of those of them who I know well, in their concern for the issue – but ultimately I do not believe that a party whose political philosophy is based on social division and conflict is the one that is going to unite society and the country in a determined effort to confront this great threat. It is a significant problem that climate change has been successfully politicised by the bad guys so that it can be made to appear as an aspect of 'leftism' or, worse, barmy marginal politics. The likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail play on this all the time – it makes it easier for them to steer people away from the scientific arguments where the consensus on the issue is overwhelming. Likewise whilst we ardently wish for the return of the Climate Camp, or anything that serves to likewise raise hell about climate, there will always be a limitation to any kind of protest that too closely ties the issue to 'fringe', or 'marginal' politics.
There is, though, I think, a massive role to played, potentially, by a broadly “mainstream” but hard-hitting campaign focussed on climate change per se., that might look something like the one we can now see in the US. I think it would need to be a “national” campaign because that's just the way politics and most peoples' minds work (so not just a bigger 350 over here). But it would need to be hard hitting and focussed on climate per se, in my view. Some kind of recycled Drop the Debt campaign focussed on Green jobs and with the tepid support of a significant portion of the Unions might help but it would be severely limited in my view if it had to mute its message to avoid alienating some of its supporters, or if its focus became too diffuse and it projected climate change as something on a level with, and no more serious than, our current economic difficulties – if it failed in other words to have the conviction and energy to speak the plain truth about climate change and the true scale of the threat that we face.
Well, I'm now getting to the point where the post starts to get very bitter and twisted because this is where we get to my own failure in this context. In the Campaign against Climate Change we did run a 'Climate Emergency' campaign,of sorts, and we did succeed, for instance, in at least getting an Early Day Motion on the books that was more radical and comprehensive than any other such on climate. It included a demand for 10% annual emissions cuts per year for instance. That was with the help of Colin Challen MP and latterly John McDonnell. But this campaign never very effectively got off the ground - not surprisingly perhaps in view of the very limited resources we had and the fact that it was an attempt to rather boldly push the boat out where no-one else was going at the time. There was no 'wave' to ride, and really no colouring with any political agenda with any especial appeal to this or that group. We were very much creating our own agenda, a very pure and radical climate agenda, I'd say. Despite it being in many senses a failure I think it was, and indeed would be, the right, or certainly the right kind of thing to be doing, or trying as hard as possible to do. Certainly with our limited resources, and in the context of the general drop off in the energy around climate campaigning since 2009, it was always a desperately hard thing for us to try and do: it was hard enough for me to maintain the energy and focus within the campaign, let alone make any success of it on a broader, national, public stage. And finally life was going to be made so hard for me, even within my own office, that the prospect of the personal effort needed seemed prohibitive and the chances of any significant success likewise even more vanishingly small - that I am afraid I gave up and resigned. I made it as clear as I could how I felt but I don't think I was listened to very much, and in any case found myself pushed very precipitately into what I felt was an impossible situation.
Now the work with trade unions and the 'Green Jobs' part of the campaign will continue to be pushed out very effectively I am sure, powered by the hard left, and its likely that everything else will become more and more an adjunct to this. “Camp Frack 2” has already been advertised as for 'climate jobs' as well as 'against fracking'. The campaign will also I'm sure, continue to support various good initiatives here and there. And everyone will be relieved because I will not be there trying to hector people into achieving impossible goals' or forcing the agenda. But in terms of what most needs doing as I see it – well maybe the CCC was never going to do that, but now I don't think it will even be trying to.
More important is the failure, as I see it, of those in a much better position to do something: something a lot more effective than is being done now, on climate. The campaign in the US isn't perfect by any means but I think it does demonstrate that a more powerful campaign, focussed more clearly on climate change per se is possible. And I think there is a problem that its difficult to see where that is going to come from over here if not from the NGOs but at the moment they do not seem to be up to the job, and indeed their record and some of the critical decisions they've taken up to this point would seem to confirm that.
For so many well intentioned, motivated, people NGOs are the solution to the problem that they need to earn a crust as well as wanting to fight for the causes they believe in. That makes a paid position in an NGO highly desirable but once secured there is perhaps a tendency for that in itself to fulfill the campaigning urge, as it were: at any rate its not so easy for people to bite the hand that feeds them or strike out in a radically novel way against the inertia of many years of organisational habit. Of course NGOs once they have grown to any size, need a substantial amount of money to keep going which can potentially make them unwilling to embark on any radically new path which might alienate their funding base. Very easy for the perceived need just to keep the organisation going, and undiminished in size, to become the priority – over simply doing the right, but perhaps more difficult and less broadly supported, thing.
Are they doing more harm than good ? Nobody would argue that many of the things they are doing are not good in themselves. Its a question of whether a fragmentary, desultory level of campaigning lulls everyone into the sense that something is being done so that the more energetic, focussed and hard hitting campaign that we really need never materialises: a campaign that does not hesitate to take on the critical task of communicating to the broader public the full scale of what we're up against and which not only makes climate change quite clearly its own permanent priority but also does not relent in its efforts to make it everyone else's number one priority, too.
We undoubtably owe a huge amount to our NGOs, and especially the environmental NGOs – I certainly owe, personally, a lot to Friends of the Earth, in particular. Of course they have done a lot to raise the issue of climate change, to build awareness and to bring it into the political arena. But as time goes by, the crisis deepens and the huge scale of the impending tragedy looms ever more ominously over us, then these institutions founded back in the seventies in a very different era with a different type and scale of problems to face, look ever less and less up to the enormous campaigning task we face today.