Don't mention climate change

Submitted by Phil on Sun, 11/11/2012 - 01:07

I heard the other day that before a Greenpeace street action, campaigners were told by the organiser “Don’t mention climate change”. This was apparently because, according to the organiser, “The Public are not interested in climate change”.  This latter might be true and one can understand the organiser’s reasoning  – but it does rather raise the question of what Greenpeace – and indeed the broader Green movement – exists for, anyway.

At the same time it seems like an ‘on the street’ equivalent to the “climate silence” that has been said to reign in US politics (at least until Hurrricane Sandy). This is itself a part of a broader trend. Climate seems to have fallen off the agenda, there seems to have been a general pulling back on the issue and this, all too often, seems to have been something not so much resisted, as shared, by so many of the organisations engaged in environmental advocacy. And especially so since the significant effort that was made by those organisations in 2009, in the context of the Copenhagen Climate Talks.  Back then the Climate Talks were “our last chance” to prevent catastrophic climate change, that is prevent an overwhelming unspeakable, catastrophe. As I pointed out in an earlier blog the relative stepping back of NGOs on the climate issue after the Copenhagen debacle just when what was needed was the mobilisation of a massive outraged reaction, was a disaster for climate advocacy.  The obvious point, though, in any case, is that if Climate change really does represent the threat of an overwhelming catastrophe then one would naturally expect it to trump all other issues and be everyone’s campaigning priority.

And one could hardly say the threat of catastrophe has receded. With Hurricane Sandy (for the link with climate change see here) now giving the North Eastern US an unprecedented battering, with extreme weather now measured by Hansen as occurring 30 times as much as it was in the fifties, with major droughts (Russia 2010, USA this year…to name but two) pushing up food prices, with the planet’s very geography, in the form of the Arctic ice cap. changing before our very eyes with a stunning crash in sea ice this year making its total disappearance – which wasn’t supposed to happen for 80 years or more – likely in just a few years. With all the awesome arctic feedback mechanisms now springing powerfully into life, one would want to simply scream out for action, preferably disrobing, painting oneself blue and running around the streets as one does so.

But one might feel very lonely making such a fuss since it doesn’t seem to be a big priority for anyone else - even for those for whom one might most expect it to be. The campaigning priority for Friends of the Earth, right now is “Bees”. Yes you got it “bees”, the little buzzy social, insects. At the Party conferences recently one might have expected organisations like Friends of the Earth to be pleading with our government representatives to do more to prevent climate apocalypse but as I handed out leaflets about the “Arctic Meltdown” and all it implied, there were the FOE people dressed in ‘bee costumes’. Now no-one is doubting bees are important, that they are a part of the problem and everything is connected. But does campaigning on bees really convey to the public (or MPs and party delegates) the sense that we are in a desperate race against time to stave off an overwhelming catastrophe: runaway, irreversible, climate meltdown. Now the argument goes that “we can’t say that because it will only turn people off” and that campaigning on bees (for instance) is a way to “reach out to people”, new people who we can then gradually introduce to the ‘bigger picture’. Well we better do that pretty damn quickly because we don’t have much time, and no one else is going to get the message about how dire the overall situation is if, when they look at one of the country’s two major environmental organisations they see that what the major concern seems to be, is ‘bees‘.

The fact is, of course, that it may indeed work better for FOE as an organisation to campaign on bees: FOE may well, that way, attract more members, more support, more money……because it is indeed, as they say, ‘an easier sell’.   But it does raise the question: what does FOE actually exist for, anyway? It raises the whole issue of NGOs and what ultimate aim they exist for rather than simply to propagate their own corporate identity and existence. Arguably it’s the latter that’s becoming the main aim - or at least that significant conflicts have emerged between this arguably necessary aim and what their ultimate aim really is or should be.

In the case of FOE,  I was inspired, as a member, some years ago, when Tony Juniper took over (whether connected with his arrival or not) it did look like we were really going to get our act together on climate. Indeed,  significant victories, like the Climate Act, have been won since. But I am aghast that after the much more critical defeat at the international level at Copenhagen and even as the evidence that climate change is happening much more quickly than anyone thought reaches a deafening crescendo the issue seems to have been de-prioritised – behind bees !!

Lets go back to Greenpeace. Now they do at least seem to have a prominent campaign in the right area. Because as noted above what’s happened in the Arctic this year – a precipitate crash in sea ice cover – is providing the most tangible, visible evidence ( a subject I’d like to explore more fully in a future blog) of the frightening speed with which we are hurtling towards climate catastrophe. And Greenpeace have a prominent campaign on ‘Saving the Arctic’. The trouble is, however, with the way that campaign is presented. Its presented as a campaign to save a pristine wilderness. This works and Greenpeace know it works because there have been so many campaigns before about saving a natural wilderness – its something people readily understand. So like ‘Bees’ for FOE, it probably works for Greenpeace as an organisation. But it misses the point – that what we see in the Arctic is something that is going to have an overwhelmingly destructive impact on the whole planet. The fact is we could shoot all the polar bears and pour dirty black oil all over the arctic, and on a relative scale it wouldn’t matter that much. It would be a tragedy for sure, but per se it would be just a fraction of the tragedy that we are actually seeing unfold. No-one (almost no-one) lives in the Arctic: if what happened there stopped there most of us could still get along with our lives, easily enough. Yes, drilling for oil in the Arctic will only make things worse but stopping that will not save the Arctic - because the real meltdown of the Arctic is part of something so much bigger that only a massive globally coordinated effort can stop it. But the implication of so much of Greenpeace’s campaigning is that if we could only help Greenpeace’s brave little ships to stop Arctic drilling we will have saved the Arctic – which, sadly, is deeply misleading and wrong.     

Now let's be fair, this isn’t what Greenpeace actually says: if you listen to John Sauven giving an interview for instance, he will give you a reasonably good  picture of the real situation – just as will, for instance one of the FOE reports like “Reckless Gamblers: how politicians’ inaction is ramping up the risk of dangerous climate change” (December 2010). The trouble is that such an interview or such a report is, in a sense, the ‘small print’ of their campaigning. I’m making a distinction between what they actually say and what the main thrust of their campaigning actually conveys to the public in practice.

Let me give another example of what I think is the active relaying of a false message. I listened to Paul Steedman the FOE energy campaigner at a workshop at the Green Party Conference. He gave quite a good account of the positive developments around renewable energy and how George Osborne and the Tory administration are effectively sabotaging these. The problem was the way he framed his presentation: he said that as an environmental campaigner we would expect him to be bringing a doom-laden message but actually his message was going to be positive (how nice!). The net impression that he conveyed was that if we could only stop Osborne and the Tories sabotaging the positive developments around renewable energy and get the government to heed the advice of the Committee on Climate Change so that the achievement of the targets in the Climate Act was ensured then all would be OK. I went up to him afterwards and asked him whether even if we won all the battles that he had talked about, it would really make that much difference, whether the targets in the Climate Act could now be regarded as sufficient or anywhere near, whether he supported the advice of the Committee on Climate Change or the Tyndall Centre (they are not the same!) and finally whether he and FOE supported Green Party policy in its prescription for 90% emissions cuts by 2030  - something far more ambitious than anything he had mentioned?  Under this kind of pressure he began to give a much fuller and more satisfactory account of how he and FOE saw the overall situation and what we really need to do (FOE’s own report “Reckless Gamblers..” as well as the Tyndall Centre imply the Climate Act targets are quite inadequate…) but he had not given any hint of this in his actual presentation which in that sense had been entirely misleading. It is completely disingenuous to claim to be ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’ when the positive developments that you then refer to, to justify this claim, are not in fact measured up against the scale of the problem we actually face……  this kind of ‘positivity’ risks becoming just another way of burying your head in the sand.

In my view it's all too typical of NGOs. It has to do with the fact that they tend to focus on what they can practically achieve within the context of contemporary politics. This seems pragmatic and understandable enough.  But the problem is that the gap between the politics and the science (or physical reality) is so huge.  Yet it's where the political battles are currently being fought that tends to define for most people the totality of what we need to achieve, and so the scale of the crisis we face.  As a result people get the completely false impression that the scale of the crisis much smaller than it really is.

There is an obvious place to look for where contemporary politics might have answers that really begin to match up to the scale of the crisis we face. This is my cue to move on to another part of the broader ‘Green Movement’  -the Green Party. As a member I have squirmed in frustration through many of Caroline Lucas’s opening speeches to Conference. Now I am sure this is an entirely atypical reaction and that those speeches have delighted the vast majority of members and represent in all probability something like the party consensus. What exasperated me was not so much what was said but rather what was not said – in terms of framing the whole message in terms of the awesome struggle our nation, and indeed species, is currently engaged in to avert an overwhelming catastrophe. I have heard Caroline speak very well on the magnitude of the threat we face from climate change but my complaint is that she doesn’t do it often enough and to every kind of audience and that it does not seem to permeate the whole of her approach to everything –in the way I feel such an overwhelmingly critical issue should.

Green Party policy, it should be said, is not at all bad - 90% emissions cuts by 2030, for instance. Who knows whether this is adequate but at least it correctly implies that current ambition is nowhere near sufficient.  But, like those NGO reports, it remains in the small print, rarely mentioned and even more rarely any realistic impression given, of how challenging a goal this really is. At the last Conference, the new leader Natalie Bennett was asked why she had not mentioned it in a TV discussion about climate change. In fact, under pressure, she acknowledged she should have but then went on give an argument similar to what I have heard from Caroline and which seems to amount to a ‘party line‘. This is that speaking about the true magnitude of the threat is too “negative” and will only “turn people off” and so, instead we have to focus on the positive benefits that will come from the low-carbon policies we will need to adopt to prevent catastrophic climate change. I have to say I find this utterly unconvincing. Do we really stand any chance of persuading people of the dire urgency of the situation simply by cherry-picking for them the positive aspects of what we need to do? If someone was about to walk into what you knew was a minefield would you try to persuade them away from it by saying ‘look there’s a really much more beautiful meadow over here’ or would you say ‘For God’s sake don’t go over there you’ll get blown up!’.

In this context its worth stepping back and attempting to gauge realistically what any meaningful attempt to get to grips with the crisis is really going to look like. This is not to contest that there are easy things to do we are not yet doing and that there are indeed many “win-wins”.  But will these be anywhere near sufficient given the scale of what we’re up against. Will it be enough just be to enact a few policies that we need to persuade people, by hook or crook, to agree to accept – or is it, as I would argue, to ultimately wage a huge national effort that mobilises the whole of society behind the goal of decarbonising the economy with extraordinary rapidity, something for which the only thing that approximates to a historical analogy would be a ‘war effort’. If the latter is true then we need to ditch the ingrained mental habits imposed by our consumerist society and realise its not about ‘selling’ something, a policy or two - or even a party, or NGO membership - its about forging a national resolve. To do that we will just have to level with our fellow citizens and try our damnedest to convince them of the plain bitter truth. Yes that will turn people off, yes that will generate frenzied denial and opposition  (actually we seem to have that anyway...) – but it's simply what we are going to have to do.

Now the huge task of communicating this very difficult message will be made easier - just as with any other exercise in political persuasion - the more voices, speaking together, that it is heard from, while the fewer voices it is heard from the harder it will be. This means that every softening or sugaring or toning down of the message has consequences : it will tend to undermine those who are striving to communicate the plain truth.

Given that many people will naturally look to the Green party, or Green NGOs to inform them of the true seriousness of the environmental crisis then everything I have said above becomes all the more serious. There is a ‘movement-building’ angle to this too, because over the last 30 or 40 years the big Green NGOs have ’mopped up’  the greater proportion of environmentally aware citizens and in this context command their loyalty, to a very great degree. This means that if anyone else is trying to bring people together to convey the very difficult message and make the very radical demands that match up to the true scale of the crisis then it is extremely difficult for them to do it - unless the NGOs are a part of that process. In that context there is a risk that the NGOs become a block to the development of the effective political movement we need, to force change.

The fact is that our major environmental NGOs were formed in the 70s when things were very different. Environmental problems could be confronted one by one and there was not one all-encompassing overwhelming environmental threat to human existence in the way we can clearly perceive that there is today. There is no doubt that that the huge unprecedented, almost unimaginable, phenomenon of the destabilisation of global climate has  caught human society by surprise and everyone is rushing to catch up with it and all it means, from the scientists confounded by the disappearance of arctic ice 80 years too soon, to the politicians, to a doubting largely uncomprehending public. One might argue that the same applies to the ‘Green movement’ and our Green NGOs : they simply have not caught up with and adapted to the new reality in the way they need to. Habits learnt in the 70s and 80s still determine the way they work - or at least more than they should.

OK, you might say, easy to criticise. So what should the big Green NGOs actually, ideally, do?  Well, ideally and in the broadest terms, they should come together - as Caroline Lucas was ever so politely urging at this year's FOE Conference - and they should come together in a way that definitively and uncompromisingly subordinates the propagation of their individual corporate identities and interests to the common aim of confronting the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.

And they should not flinch from telling the plain truth about the scale of that threat. Now I would not like to be characterised as saying the message should be wholly negative or all about the scale of the threat without reference to the solutions, especially indeed the ‘win-win’ solutions. Most important here is the promise of Green or Climate Jobs as the inevitable result of the necessary investment in a Green economy. And it's fair to make the best of synergies with the substantial political movement that does exist behind a more Keynesian approach to our current economic problems. There is a promising logic that connects the building of a ’national resolve’ for something analogous to a war effort and the level of investment that would provide jobs and lift us out of recession. It was of course the actual historical war effort, a response to an external threat, that finally lifted us out of the great Recession of the 30s. This kind of approach and argument looks like having the best chance of providing the ‘motor’ for political change in the current political circumstances. But at the moment that motor is spluttering on low power I believe - most of all because while the familiar demand for jobs is as strong and resonant as it always has been the “green” part of the equation lacks equivalent power - simply because there is no deep appreciation of the need for ’green’,  no strong awareness of the true urgency of the climate threat. So in order to make this approach work, to ‘fire up’ the motor as it were, what we most need to do is more effectively communicate that urgency - to communicate that very difficult bad news message of the true scale of the crisis.

This should be the mission of the Green Movement but its not just a case of telling the unalloyed truth. The campaign, itself, around which the Green NGOs come together should express that truth. Most of it all it should  incorporate a demand that effectively reflects the true scale of the crisis, that is determined by the science rather than the politics. In the current political circumstances that will make it politically unrealistic and unlikely to be achieved anytime very soon. But that wouldn’t stop it serving the purpose of being something that we could unite around to generate a mass political movement of the kind we’re not seeing now. And of course there’s no suggestion we should abandon the current lobbying and battles for politically feasible incremental change. But there should also be that big public campaign of the kind that has been completely abandoned since Copenhagen and it must be one that is bold, ambitious, pulls no punches and dares to project the full enormity of the challenge we face.

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