At the Annual General Meeting of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition on 20th July 2012, the presentations began with some agonising public displays of angst from Colin Butfield, head of campaigns for WWF, and Tony Juniper, sustainability consultant and formerly the Executive Director of Friends of the Earth in the UK.
Colin Butfield echoed the thoughts of many in the room when he said that although we have been winning a lot of the battles on climate change, we have been “losing the war quite badly”. He gave the example of Vince Cable, who he accused of using weasel words of political doublespeak in undermining the UK Government coalition commitment to abandon foreign “investment in dirty fossil fuel production” by essentially removing any goalposts.
Colin Butfield said that Vince Cable’s response to clarify what that commitment meant was anything legal under the voluntary European Union standards – and that it was hard to think of anything that would not be covered by this – including dirty unconventional fossil fuels.
Colin Butfield also spoke about the UK Government’s machinations ahead of the widely anticipated Energy Bill – how the Treasury has been seen to intervene over the matter of £20 million of subsidies for renewable energy technologies – and that he was amazed that this was somehow worthy of the Chancellor’s attention, particularly green energy is perhaps the only British industry capable of growth – and that this was a shocking use of Treasury power.
It still seems like people are having to “fight” for “no-brainer” decisions, such as the long-resisted European Union 30% targets and the carbon budgets of the Climate Change Act 2008, “every step of the way.”
Colin Butfield said that it is no longer possible to assert fundamental moral rights and responsibilities over trashing the planet – that campaigning organisations are no longer able to talk about equity and development issues. It was good to hear him being realistic about this – but he did not connect the dots. It could be said that the Non-Governmental Organisations have failed to realise the logical problems in making demands for impossible equity and development targets, such as those proposed by the Greenhouse Development Rights framework.
Colin Butfield said that the political context on climate has changed so dramatically that it has dropped off the radar – even as we are getting to read the most worrying science. Since the climate change models got better, and there has been clearer and clearer evidence, the two degrees Celsius target originally put forward as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “upper bound” for a safe planet has become invalid. For ordinary citizens trying to follow the issue, even as the science and the computer models improved, the individual uncertainties relating to any particular regional area have broadened – and have been leapt upon by climate change “sceptics”..
Colin Butfield said that we do not have an intelligent debate in the media – and [recently] has been uncharacteristically quite negative.
Colin Butfield proposed that there is a special year coming up – 2015, why which time the UNFCCC is hoping that a global treaty on climate change will have been agreed. A number of other things are due for completion that year, including a new set of Sustainable Development goals, so that is a good year to focus on for a campaign.
Colin Butfield said that despite the problems, there are some hopeful pegs for messaging. Despite the apparent fight about renewable energy, [this is only really an issue for the media] as the majority of the British population are fine with renewable energy deployment [unless it’s in their own back yard, perhaps ?] Yet people are not necessarily going to march in the street to urge the Government to install wind turbines – [it’s not a “flashpoint” issue]. Although there is quite a bit of evidence that the population is quite willing for climate action – “people are not going to demand it in quite the way we would like”. Colin Butfield said that there is an opportunity for the European Union to put forward their further commitment on emissions targets.
Colin Butfield said “we have to look at different ways of representing things”, and that it is our “challenge to reinvigorate and re-inspire everyone.” He admitted that there is still a risk of doing what we did over Copenhagen – building everyone up to expect a significant agreement only to be disappointed. He said we should “try to inspire people in a different way and put climate back on the agenda.” He said that the climate change should rightly focus on food.
Tony Juniper addressed the room next. He said that the environmental movement was not in a good position at the moment. The climate change issue is not on the front pages of the newspapers and the politicians are not tracking it. After the groundbreaking legislation of 2008, it is now 2012 and we don’t have an international treaty – and some countries have “thrown in the towel”. In quite a few countries, the issue of climate change has gone backwards – for example in the UK and the USA – despite Obama’s early statements on commitment, there has been no change – no carbon trading. Global emissions reached a new peak in 2011 – we have finished up in a place where we’re not doing quite so well.
Tony Juniper said that 2015 is quite an important year – the governments want to come back with a treaty [ – and that although that might be hard to get] – a new set of Sustainable Development goals need to be agreed and that this might give us a new way [in / forward] – that this is “perhaps a better place to look than a climate treaty” for progress. “If we can’t get leadership in individual countries, the chances for a global treaty are slim.”
Tony Juniper said he has come to a simple conclusion – that the economic crisis has shaped the dynamics of global plans – that focus on climate change has been replaced by a different set of issues. “Every few years we find we are having to rebuild the narrative”, he said – although it’s gone away for now – “it’ll come back again. The facts of the matter are very pressing. Impacts are coming through.” He suggested that how climate change is coming back is what we should pay attention to – how we can shape it. He said that there are two things to consider in campaigns – first – the easy bit is to know what we want – what we want for a Treaty and what we want for technologies – he context of campaigning is always hitting preconceptions and views. The second is to consider the blockages in the way – and have this systematically built into the strategy :-
Blockage A. The extent to which people think climate change is not an economic issue
Tony Juniper said it was insanity of the first order not to consider climate change as an economic risk factor. He cited the front page article on the Financial Times : “Osborne in renewables row with Lib Dems” [George Parker and Pilita Clark, 19 July 2012] “George Osborne is blocking a new subsidy regime for renewable energy, as he fights a coalition battle with the Liberal Democrats to ensure gas remains central to Britain’s future power needs. The chancellor fears overgenerous support for wind power and other renewable sources will deter investment in gas-fired power stations, which he believes offer businesses and consumers the prospect of lower bills in future…”
Tony Juniper said that this argument to block subsidies for renewable energy concerns a small amount of money – and it will block British companies wanting to take part in the renewable energy economy – it’s “costing British jobs”. He also said that the language of the debate is pandering to misconceptions about renewable energy and the reporting is leading to complete misunderstanding [in the minds of the public]. He asked “can we build a narrative built on facts ?” with the support of business ? He mentioned the recent Confederation of British Industry critique that the political wrangling was disastrously judged – when investment should be taking place now. He wanted to know if a campaign group has already done this. He said it should be backed with data – to link economy and ecology.
Blockage B. Talking down the apocalypse
Tony Juniper admitted that in the past it was necessary to talk about the scale of the effects of climate change – essential to communicate it – but it did end up sounding like a doom-laden agenda – about the need to avoid terrible risk – instead of embracing a positive future – fairer, cleaner, longer lives. He said that critics of past climate change communications say things like “you’re asking me to think my children have no future…for us to sit in the dark…” and so on. He said that the communications challenge was – “can we paint a positive picture – why people would like to come with us ?”
Blockage C. Watermelons
Tony Juniper said that an ideological chasm has emerged. “Quite a few think that climate change is an issue for namby-pamby leftist liberals…but if it’s a real problem, let’s put up a nuclear power station.” In the United States we’re communists – a narrative promoted by right wing organisations and companies with money, and that we should not think that we’re strong enough to put over our point of view without contact across the divide. He said, “I think we need to have a think tank on the right that speaks for our values. Is it possible to build a right wing group of thinkers who look like George Osborne [but understand climate change issues and promote the science] ?” He said that we should try to get people on the “other side” of politics to “join us”, or we are not going to get far. As a hint of the level to which politics is compromised, he cited coal companies in the US writing legislation. He went on to quote Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who set up Friends of the Earth in the UK, “we’re disagreeing without a reason to disagree.” He then listed some areas in which people of different political persuasions could be encouraged to think along the same lines – such as in de-carbonisation of the economy to create jobs, and avoiding future fuel costs. He said that this was a matter of framing. He said, “I don’t like the ideas of the political right wing, but…” He talke about how he is engaging with researchers looking a response to communications on environmental matters. He said 40% of people are affected positively by it, and the other 60% are not hearing, whereas they might be listening if communications were about energy security, having good, efficient products that work, and so on. He was pointing the way to being able to capture the currently unaffected population by capturing their concerns in environmental communications.
Tony Juniper said that it was important to “find common cause with corporates – as a simple power analysis. Until we have these guys on our side, we can’t fight [climate change].” He said that quite a few companies have taken strong climate measures, and that there is now a sufficient overlap between concerns (such as the price of energy for businesses in a difficult economy) that there are synergies emerging between doing good business [and sustainable development]. He said “it doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a moral agenda. We need to meet the guy driving the SUV, go to the big companies” with the climate change messasge, and that we need to keep thinking about the messaging [and how to deal with corporates]. There is an imperative to reach a peak in global emissions by 2015, when a decline should begin, and we are not going to get that otherwise.
Tony Juniper said that campaigners need to consider “how to shape the context” – this is now 2012 and there is an ongoing economic crisis. Back in around 2005, there was a moment when this stopped being an environmental idea – the reason it did was a speech by Tony Blair in 2004 laying out his priorities for the G8 conference in 2005 – Climate Change and Africa. No world leader have ever said that before. Climate change went from being on page 7 of The Guardian newspaper to analysis by the BBC political editor – it was seen as needing “to be reported properly”. There was a perfect storm of positive [attention]. Tony Juniper asked, “how are we going to get back that ? Can we find some political leaders anywhere to put [climate change] back up there ?” He said that the climate change situation is pressing, so surely there is a way of doing that. He said, “top of my list is having conversations with scientists” doing analysis of weather extremes and calculations of how these can be related to global warming. He gave an example of asking the question, “the chances of this being purely coincidence ? 60 to 1.” He stressed that the important thing to keep communicating is that climate change is not a future theoretical risk and it’s happening now. He said that with that dialogue in play we could then do political work on the back of this attribution work (the calculations that show the probability of extreme weather events being related to global warming).
Tony Juniper then mentioned Chris Rose the researcher who has been doing an “omnibus survey” to gauge public opinion on climate change. The first question is, “Do you think the climate is changing ?” For anybody over the age of 40, the answer is usually yes. The second question is, “Do you like these changes ?” The statistics give evidence that climate change is something they don’t like. Extreme weather events are happening now – “Biblical storms”. Tony Juniper asked, “There is still a lot of natural variation there – but can we now put a probability on it ? For example, 20 to 1 not natural ?” Then, at the same time as putting examples we can put across the co-benefits of taking action : economic security, jobs, health benefits.
Tony Juniper stressed that we should not think that things that we did previously in climate change communications are right for the present moment. He urged us to think outside the box. He noted that concerns about economics are currently “trumping the Green Deal” – and said that a remedy has to include engaging the political right, and connecting climate change concerns with public opinion. He suggested there has to be a “clearer way” in communications strategies, such as “Climate Change is happening, and it’s not very nice.” Although he added that the communications challenge is going to be difficult. “Good luck with that.”, he said smiling, “and do give me a ring [telephone call].”