We Don’t Got No Revolution

After addressing the Stop Climate Chaos coalition Annual General Meeting on Friday 20th July 2012, Tony Juniper, sustainability consultant, and Colin Butfield of WWF, responded to questions from the audience. There was a sense of unease in the room, dissatisfaction with the UK Coalition Government appearing to roll back commitment to the Climate Change Act, and their failure to enact their manifesto declaration of being “the greenest government ever”.

People expressed doubts about the design of climate change communications, about collaboration with companies over climate change action, and what would be suitable campaign actions for protest groups and charities. Several groups found their ongoing campaigns disparaged, in effect, by dismissive comments from others. It wasn’t altogether a pleasant experience. Here are just a few paragraphs attempting to summarise the question-and-answer session from brief notes made at the time.

One of the attendees proposed that climate change communications going forward should make use of the fact that people are questioning the legitimacy of the current economic system, and said that there was a failure to offer a programmatic response. He said that if people were given a systemic critique, they would “get it” – and that the Green New Deal formulation was ideal. He projected that if climate change communications campaigns don’t go against the corporations, that it will be less and less likely in future that governments will respond to corporate abuse of the environment.

Tony Juniper responded by saying that he didn’t see the backing for that level of challenge to the current system. He said that even though there is an economic meltdown in progress – it’s been shown that “a pack of bankers are nicking the peoples’ money” – there has been no revolution. The Non-Governmental Organisations have carried on as normal. At the General Election, people voted for the party of the financial system. The Green New Deal, he said, simply hasn’t got the backing it should have. It suffers from the same lack of attention that faces any different economic formulation that is put in front of people. Time is so short that we have to have something more pragmatic – plausible decisions about realistic proposals. He said it was down to the NGOs to formulate this – and that emphasising jobs was essential.

Another questioner put it to the speakers that the cost of deploying wind turbines was cheaper than not doing it and that contrary to the myths they were actually rather beautiful – and that even the pylons carrying new power lines to connect new wind generation to the grid could be made to be beautiful too. New technology is something to embrace rather than fear.

Tony Juniper replied that a small minority of people have managed to poison the debate on wind power, and that they are part of the Conservative Party core backing. He said that there is lots of support for renewable energy, and that this needs to be reflected back to the media. He said that the media is “pretty poisoned”, too – the Daily Telegraph for example, although The Guardian and The Independent were more open. He suggested that industry players start talking more to the Government and get more organised. He said that Government Ministers find it easier to deal with the nuclear lobby as they have one [professional] body and one message. After the failure of Copenhagen – where the Government predicted they would come away with a successful, positive outcome and didn’t – the atmosphere as a whole has been poisonous. The NGOs didn’t react to this disappointment.

Phil Thornhill, the National Co-ordinator of the Campaign against Climate Change, criticised the NGOs who he said have stopped focusing on climate change. He said it hard to find the next “really sharp point” – the really unifying thing – the way we did with the Climate Change Act. He said that action had to be more than just signing the odd letter, and questioned the approach where action has been fixed to a time or an event – with the obvious risk of collapse. He suggested that climate action should be a continuning goal.

Colin Butfield of WWF responded to the questions – he said that the problem with promoting renewable energy was the peril of ignoring NIMBYism – people may be generally positive about wind farms, but not want one in their own back yard. He said people wanted a genuine local conversation about renewable energy development. He said that on economic proposals, that people need to be presented with solutions they can easily adopt. He suggested one call to action that could easily draw people would be to ask “do you want your pension going into that ridiculous investment ?”, and then asking people to choose more sustainable investments and funds. He said that “normal” people are a “bit terrified” by the idea of collapse of the current economic system [and so may not react well or buy into the ideas]. He said that many pensions were a “climate bad”. He said that in the current economic situation, people could be brought to think about the link between the way banks invest money and climate change – as people are very unhappy with the existing system – “a blindside force for bad”. He said that an example of positive change had been in the campaign to demand buisiness carbon reporting.

Herbert Williams, Chief Executive Officer of A Rocha UK, holding up a credit card, said that positive investment change in the economy was unlikely to form a groundswell as people are in thrall to the current financial system, and that most public communications were advertising to direct the flow of money. He said that there was a danger in repeating the styles and actions of the past.

Peter Robinson of the Climate Alliance said that people are very demoralised about the economic situation – and that climate change arguments have to be involved in any policy proposals.

Tony Juniper said that a suitable goal for campaigning would be shifting anger about the economic situation to a call for green jobs. He asked whether this would still require “grassroots” activism and answer this with a qualified “yes”, because he said it would require different strategies. He said that the key requirement was to work out how to engage people and get them involved. He said that a different body of expertise would be needed in these campaigns. He mentioned that he has been considering employing psychologists – people from public relations companies – and said “we need to get some of these helping us.” He asked how many people would be a significant number to sign up to a campaign. He mentioned that the Climate Change Act campaign had got 200,000 people to urge their MPs to sign the Early Day Motion in Parliament, but that it was only successful because there had been more political jigsaw pieces in place. The 200,000 would not be enough to move to the next phase. To get real action on the Climate Change Act he suggested that the campaign would need to broaden the base – and that would need more people than just those from campaign organisations to be involved. He said that he was still seeing a lot of the same faces – even though it was “lovely to see you all”, but that the campaign needs to go wider. He said that there are difficulties with anything that involves infrastructure, as the Government has just ripped up the planning system in Local Authorities – 50 years of accumulated wisdom on how to do development.

Phil Thornhill said that Martin Luther King didn’t have a communications expert or a consultant psychologist. He had passion to get his views across. Climate change is perhaps less tangible that civil rights – therefore needs more passion. The idea that psychologists or public relations techniques can give you a shortcut to understanding your audience better was not helpful. Advertising and public relations are mostly about selling things to people. Climate change communications have been shown to not be getting through to people – the message to change can be unappetising.

It was asked if it is possible to hold together progressive politics and the traditional NGO approach.

It was noted that the think tank battle is very important – and their public relations. This style was planted 60 years ago – fundamentally anti-state – based on the Austrian school of economics – it’s very easy for them to point at any efforts by governments and claim “the faceless state is coming to take your money”.

Colin Butfield answered to a question about social media – could we get millions of young people to join in ? He said you can’t, but that we’d nearly got there with the Green Deal on loans. In regards to the 200,000 mentioned for the Climate Change Act he said that in the current less urgent political atmosphere, those numbers are always going to be ignored. By contrast, he’d had millions of people on the Facebook page for Earth Hour – and that was sufficient to get David Cameron to talk about it.

A questioner raised issues about coopting NGOs and the social movements to enact policy goals. Energy goals can’t be simply about deploying renewable energy, but must also answer questions on access to energy, land rights, food versus fuel, fuel versus forests. You cannot leave questions of justice aside.

Tony Juniper, in replying to a warning that it is important to keep vigilant about the dubious underbelly of corporate public relations agendas, said that although one could damage their brands for a while, and companies and campaigns could have battles to capture each others’ agendas, that we are not going to get anywhere without all sorts of compromise – finding shared values.

Later, over a spiffing Marks & Spencer buffet outside in the Westminster School walled garden, I spoke with a campaigner about the rationale and purpose of campaigning. I asked whether it could be seen as rather patronising to assume that we are the ones with the better ideas and information, and that we have to “engage” other people with a view to them adopting our position and taking our recommended actions. The campaigner asked what we would do if we didn’t do campaigns – how would we involve people in these issues ?

I thought to myself – therein lies the problem. A campaign should not be about keeping people running around like headless chickens trying to put across messaging and persuading other people to take action. Keeping concerned people busy with communications tasks is not a genuine achievement, I would suggest. It certainly doesn’t appear to be resulting in genuine, widescale political, economic and social change. There was a brief flicker of purpose when the previous Labour Government had promoted climate change communications (although they alienated a good portion of the population with their strategy and messaging), but now there’s no political lever.

We don’t got no revolution, and a new round of consultation with communications specialists is not going to change that.

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