The two climate campaigning stories

Tord Björk | Action,Climate,Environmental movements | Friday, November 27th, 2009

It was in the middle of this context climate negotiations begun in 1990. British neoliberal prime minister Margaret Thatcher took the leadership. Coal miners were already a headache for Thatcher. She wanted also not to be cought passive in relation to a new environmental issue that had been the case with sulphur dioxide emissions and the ozone hole.

Apart from governments and business addressing the issue there was also the NGOs and the radical environmental movement. Chris Rose, a British professional NGO campaigner, makes an interesting analysis on his webbpage on how the climate negotiations emerged and why campaigning on climate is difficult. He makes in 2005 a not exhaustive list of reasons why it is difficult: Scientists defined the issue, Governments ran off with the issue, NGOs adopted secondary roles, The issue had no public, The media were left to define the issue in visual terms, Governments soft pedalled on the issue, Scientists led calls for education of the public, Many NGOs tried to make the Framework Convention ‘work’, Other NGOs tried to connect it with “bigger issues” and There is no common proposition.

Rose states that NGOs can claim some specific successes. ”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.”

The climate issue had been discussed already prior to the UN Conference in Stockholm 1972 but received wider attention only in the late 1980s. As Rose states the dominant answer was to be focused on international environmental negotiations that started officially in 1990 and got a first step forward at the Rio conference 1992. But the way that the NGOs framed the issue made them caught in the process started by governments rather than able to develop an independent position. Rose claims that from the start ’climate change’ have been conceived through scientific models and framed and interpreted by scientist’s ideas of how progress can be achieved. Causes were described as ”emissions” and thus actors critically responsible as fossil fuel, car and chemical industries stayed outside the picture. NGOs were busy finding out what was actually going on in the negotiations according to Rose and were not able to do anything else than trying to catch up with the governments that had run off with the issue. No action which ordinary individuals could participate in was organised by the NGOs who were stucked in someone else game. Thus the issue became something of internal interest for something the British call policy community including governmental and NGO actor active within a specific political field. Rose states:  ”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.” The result was described by Rose as: ”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.”

In this situation once again scientists became active: ”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.”

Most of the NGOs focused on ”Kyoto” and the framework set up by the climate Convention, more eager to save the climate treaty than to save the climate. Rose is no less critical towards this way of campaigning: ”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.” He also states that other NGOs that tried to link to other ”bigger” issues as sustainable development or globalisation failed to add any additional influence to promote climate action. He concludes by stating that many NGOs in this situation are committed to special niches within ‘the climate issue’ as defined by the administrative architecture of ‘the problem’. He states that ”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”

It is with other words not only sustainable development that have failed as a strategy but also single issue NGO campaigning when it comes to climate change. Still scientists arguments is framing much of what campaigns focus upon, to educate rather than to win political struggles is still much of what is happening both from NGO side and by the left. The left seems often more interested in educating people that it is capitalism which is the problem rather than find struggles to win. The NGO lobbyists wants to educate people on all the constantly new new abbreviations they are working with in their important job to influence politicians. The eagerness to be part of the process is still there, much expressed by Climate Action Network and their way to try to frame what NGOs state within the framework of what governments find acceptable and thus focus on that growth can be achieved together with reduction of CO2 emissions, perfectly in line with the attempts by G8 to restore the focus in the failed investments agreement from 1998 by introducing private investments as the main tool for saving our climate.

But there is one false part of the history that Rose makes. It is not true that the way British and other NGOs reacted was the only possible way to start climate campaigning.

Another way was shown by the same movement that alone in Western Europe stood up against the Brundtland ideology. In 1990 the Finnish anti motorway movement protested against a new project between the two biggest cities Helsinki and Turku by a March along the planned route with people from the third world at the front of the march. Finland became a key country in mobilizing globally for stopping climate change by an independent popular movements  strategy- Together with Environmental federation in Sweden. later in 1995 merged with friends of the Earth Sweden, and together with international youth activists networks European Youth Action and the global Action for Solidarity Equality, Environmental and Development climate action days were organised 1991-92 in 70 countries on 500 places. No main stream NGO wanted to support the international climate action days in spite of that they were proven to be a success. They were built on the contrary concept from how the main stream NGOs worked. The idea was to focus on local conflicts all over the world stating that it was in this conflicts on deforestation or car traffic and similar issues that the future of the possibility for saving our climate rested. And by the side there was also information on how to pressure governments.

The result can be compared with the international climate action day 2008 with wide support from all big NGOs and a lot more media attention. Last year action took place in 64 countries, six less than in 2007 and in 1991-92  The international climate action days nowadays have been more geared toward being grassroot support for NGO lobbying rather than placing the main climate conflict in the local communities were people live.

There has been and still is possible with another strategy than that of the main stream Northern NGOs. What happened with the Finnish-Swedish-Youth climate campaign was that lack of resources to continue, that the mass movements in the South not yet were interested in the issue and disinterest among so called climate action NGOs caused this first attempt at global climate campaigning to disappear. But the main character of the campaign have still been in environmental issues, to link up with conflicts felt by people all over the world. With the mergence of Via Campesina and other movements in The South throughout the 1990s. Now with the Climate justice movement it is possible again to build a movement on another strategy than that based on educating the public on the importance of science and NGO participation in international negotiations and instead focus on questioning the politicians and going in conflict with corporate interests.

July 2009, Tord Björk

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