Why campaigning on climate is difficult

Tord Björk | Climate,Environmental movements | Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Here is a text written by Chris Rose on the problems of climate campaigning. It is the only text to my knowledge that makes an overview of climate campaigning and a critical assessment from many different angles. It has the rare quality among NGO campaigners to have a long perspective and being self-critical. It is still limited in some crucial aspects in the way anglo-american texts tend to be. The story is false on one substantial level. There were from the beginning to different climate campaigns. One was starting on Finnish-Indian intiative focusing on conflicts much the way Rose present how campaigning best can be done. This initiative starting at a Finnish third world meeting in 1989 continued with a march against the construction of a motorway and the initiation of Climate Action Days coordinated together with Swedish organisations, A SEED and YEFA in 70 countries world-wide. The other was the initially anglo-American dominated Climate Action Network that as Rose confirms choosed lobbying instead of action. Actually CAN refused to cooperate with the International Climate Action Day but was successful in getting funding for their campaigning as well as high salaries for their lobbyists isolated from troublesome initiation of local action.

The main stream lobbyists in CAN together with their allies at other NGO offices continued in their isolated world together with the governments and business representatives, sometimes bringing a “victim” as a decoration into their lobby activities. The Finnish-Indian-Swedish initiative dried out of money but the kind of conflict perspective that carried this campaigning continued in actions as struggle against deforestation, oil drilling or motorways by Reclaiming the Streets which by the end of the 1990s got expressed in such initiatives as People’s Global Action.

Today the challenge is how these two strands can complement each other as both are needed in spite of that politically there is a clear contradiction. Between those that promotes the idea that the present political system must be kept at all costs and that it is more important to save the climate treaty than to save the climate and those that see the need of over throwing the present political system and uses climate change as an excuse there is a possibility for conflict campaigning going beyond the two ideological strands by focusing on the social side of the climate issue.

Rose analysis is a help in making us better understand the conditions for climate campaigning and better able to meet the challenges.

Why campaigning on climate is difficult

In Britain and elsewhere in Europe NGOs are getting together to launch joint campaigns to ‘mobilise’ the public on climate change. In the US, the ‘failure’ of climate campaigning has sparked controversy over whether ‘environmentalism is dead’ (see last newsletter). Carl Pope of the Sierra Club has argued there’s “something different about climate change”.

Here are ten factors which have made it hard to campaign effectively ‘on climate’. It’s not an exhaustive list.

1. Scientists defined the issue

2. Governments ran off with the issue

3. There was no campaign [sequence]: NGOs adopted secondary roles

4. The issue had no public

5. The media were left to define the issue in visual terms

6. Governments soft pedalled on the issue

7. Scientists led calls for education of the public

8. Many NGOs tried to make the Framework Convention ‘work’

9. Other NGOs tried to connect it with “bigger issues”

10. There is no common proposition

Before looking at these in any detail it’s worth remembering that the alarm on climate change was only sounded around 1988, and it really is a huge problem demanding huge changes. NGOs can also claim many specific successes in changing policies of governments and businesses. But overall it is true that action remains disastrously inadequate, the engaged are too few, strategies are largely uncoordinated and many efforts could probably be better placed elsewhere.

1. Scientists defined the issue

Unlike almost any other ‘environmental issue’, NGOs did not announce, discover, ‘construct’ or define climate change as a problem. Comparison of climate model predictions led a small group of climatologists – mostly government scientists – and officials to engineer the first moves towards action. From the start, ‘climate change’ as a problem was conceived through scientific models, and the subsequent responses have been framed and interpreted by scientist’s ideas of how progress can be achieved.

The ’causes’ for example were ’emissions’ (Global Climate Model inputs). In 1997 we counted it as a success when a NGO campaign managed to change the language of the public debate by inserting ‘fossil fuels’ as the main source, rather than ’emissions’. Progressing by testing and the pursuit of knowledge, science creates political processes in its own image, and these are always susceptible to delay through manipulation by work commissioned to muddy the water, and raising hypotheses that need tedious if sometimes obvious disproofs. Hence, for many years, the success of the Global Climate Coalition and others in paying for science to create delay.

Because of this, the actors critically responsible for the problem – such as the fossil fuel, car and chemical industries – were able for a long time, to stay outside the picture altogether. Source industries, technology choices and commercial imperatives were missing from the scientific and diplomatic negotiations, which consequently created instruments with little or no traction on them.

2. Governments ran off with the issue

In the late 1980s the few NGOs struggling to get involved in the ‘issue’ were mostly concerned with organising themselves to ‘track the process’. We set up the Climate Action Network for instance because we feared that none but the best resourced large, ‘Northern’ NGOs could even find out what was going on in the inter-government processes. Meanwhile these, driven by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher who were determined not to be caught out as they had been over ozone depletion, steamed ahead. The ‘answer’ was to evolve through a combination of diplomacy, inter-governmental agreement and climate science. The media followed the scientific revelations and the international gatherings, with NGOs, representing the public, in the corridors and outside with banners.

3. There was no campaign [sequence]: NGOs adopted secondary roles

Most campaigns follow a sequence something like:

awareness > alignment > engagement > action.

This time there was awareness – though of a problem framed in abstruse scientific terms – and action which ordinary individuals could play no part in. Only extraordinary individuals such as Aubrey Meyer, father of ‘contraction and convergence’, managed to penetrate this remote citadel. NGOs could prioritise it but they were stuck in someone else’s game. Alignment to the problem and solution was largely absent and engagement opportunities were almost absent.

4. The issue had no public

Consequently the issue developed without a ‘public’, outside of the policy community. Normally the public constituency of concern comes first. By the time NGOs (and now governments) started to try and create one (with climate witnesses etc), the problem and solution had been defined in elite, inaccessible terms. Contrast this for instance with the driving impact of disadvantaged German forest owners during the development of forest-decline as an issue in Europe in the early 1980s. There was no army of affected interests, no bottom-up pressure for remedial action.

5. The media were left to define the issue in visual terms

Visuals are generally the most powerful communication. Here the issue looked like disagreement at meetings (very dull and like any other gathering in suits), scenarios, or the sources of ’emissions’. There was no compelling scientific image like the ozone hole. Hadley Centre visualisations of the ‘cooking’ earth came late. Hence the prevailing formative images have been tailpipes and steamy smoke stacks – with no particular ownership. In Greenpeace we spent years trying to change this, with little success until a photographer on an Arctic voyage snapped a walrus sitting on a rapidly melting ice floe. If the story had begun with visuals of submerging Pacific islands and the human flight from homes, then it would have developed differently.

6. Governments soft pedalled on the issue

Having become the controlling ‘owners’ of the issue, by the mid 1990s governments began to lose the will to do what was needed to fast-track industrial change. The progressive ‘like minded’ turned to NGOs to take on leadership and ‘put on the pressure’ but NGOs lacked the army, authority and even the visual iconography to do so. Progress slowed to the pace of the slowest parts of the inter governmental agreements.

7. Scientists led calls for education of the public

Faced with inadequate political responses and significant intransigence from many powerful industries, concerned scientists led calls to ‘educate’ the public, so ‘awareness’ would lead to ‘action’. Unfortunately education (especially about the functioning of the global climate) is not a good way to achieve action. This fallacy was reinforced by many pundits who had pronounced climate change as huge, complex and hard to deal with. Not exactly conducive to engaging anyone in trying.

8. Many NGOs tried to make the Framework Convention ‘work’

Naive in some cases, pragmatic in others, most of the growing band of NGOs ‘working on climate’ focussed on ‘Kyoto’ and the framework set up by the Climate Convention. They tried to ‘make it work’. Here I agree with Shellenberger and Noordahus – a literal approach of trying to mobilize public pressure by overt calls for technical policy measures is a bloodless stratagem, lacking drama, agency and short term rewards. Alternative strategies have been few (trying to start an end-game for carbon reserves for example). At this level many NGOs have just drifted into the ‘climate game’ and are now prisoners of the policy community rather than creating social and political imperatives for industrial and political action – something best done from outside. Nor are many looking at alternative delivery routes.

9. Other NGOs tried to connect it with “bigger issues”

Some people like to split, others like to lump. Some NGOs specialise in ‘stepping up’ and have used climate change to illustrate ‘bigger’ problems – sustainable development or ‘globalisation’ for instance. This has not yielded any additional influence to promote climate action, nor even made much difference to winning arguments.

10. There is no common proposition

With this legacy, many NGOs are committed to special niches within ‘the climate issue’ as defined by the administrative architecture of ‘the problem’. There are dozens of lobbyists for example working on Joint Implementation or the Clean Development Mechanism, while others specialize in certain impacts or sources or geographical regions. This ‘niche specialisation’ works against a common focus of public pressure. An effective campaign proposition usually requires an identification of the responsible party, the overall problem and solution, the specific action needed and the consequent public benefit (see the extract “Constructing RASPB propositions” at www.campaignstrategy.org/bookindex.html – current pre-publication from “How To Win Campaigns”). If NGOs are now to focus their efforts, then they will need to do so on a much narrower front within ‘the climate issue’, if they are to change it.

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A Campaign Strategy Article – © Chris Rose.
You are free to reproduce all or any part of this article if you credit the source.

www.campaignstrategy.org is a non-profit website on campaign techniques and strategies, designed to help NGOs.

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