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Why has civil society failed to stop climate change?

By Jamie Clarke on June 19, 2017

Written by Adam Ramsay and first published in Civil Society Futures

Civil society organisations have mobilised across the country – and the planet – to demand ambitious action on climate change.

And yet new fossil fuel projects continue to attract investment. Communities across the world face ever more extreme weather. The planet continues to warm. While there are many positive things to say, honesty requires acknowledging a simple truth: civil society, as it’s currently structured, has failed to stop climate change. And we’re still failing.

To begin answering this question, I went to Oxford to speak to Jamie Clarke. Jamie is the Executive Director of the think tank Climate Outreach, which specialises in understanding climate communication and engagement. Their research over the years has focussed on everything from what sorts of images motivate people to act on climate change to how people on the centre right can be persuaded to engage more with the issue. Jamie’s recent book “Talking Climate”, written with his colleague Adam Corner, is a vital summary of the latest research on climate change communication.

I started by asking about the history of English civil society’s engagement with climate change.

“The science of climate change became very clear roughly 20-25 years ago” he explains, “and when climate change came onto the scene it very soon became adopted by people called ‘environmentalists’: those who had previously been campaigning on pollution, (the) anti-roads movement, and other such environmental issues.”

This form of environmental group had largely sprung up in the late 1960s and the 1970s and had by the early Nineties had a string of victories. In the UK, one such win was a ban in 1983 on the iconic pesticide DDT, made famous by Rachel Caron’s book Silent Spring. Globally, the International Whaling Commission had adopted a moratorium on killing whales in 1982, and the Montreal Protocol agreed in 1987 to ban the chemicals in aerosols and fridges (called CFCs) which were causing the hole in the ozone layer. These were also groups, Clarke says “who locally had been successful in wide ranging direct action movements against road building, when the UK stopped plans for the biggest road building programme since the Romans.”

“So, you can see that this relatively new issue of climate change fits into a context of an environmental movement that was buoyed by the success of direct action, and also international agreements. And not surprisingly therefore we see an adoption of many similar tactics.”

This, for Clarke, is one of the roots of the problem. Climate change is, of course, an environmental issue, he says. But it is also a social problem, a political problem, an economic problem. And the specific framing alongside other environmental questions has been a perennial difficulty.

By the 2000s, Clarke argues, there were two main approaches to climate action. On the one hand, “we saw rapid growth of climate camp which was aimed at shutting down power stations”. On the other, “we also saw the adoption of quite simplistic behaviour change approaches to climate change by people encouraging individual lifestyle changes. Whether that was turning your lightbulbs off, (or) turn your monitors off… that was something which was adopted by government bodies.”

This means that throughout the 1990s and 2000s “you had this tripartite of approaches” including a focus on international negotiations, a focus on individual action promoted by government, and campaigners and activists shutting down big emitters with direct action.

Though, he points out, towards the end of the 1990s and in the early 2000s, it wasn’t just governments which told people that “‘you can solve this big issue through walking more, cycling more, turning off your lightbulbs’” – lots of activist groups adopted similar framing.

It fitted both with the lifestyle choices of the direct action movement who were aiming on low carbon living but also fitted nicely with a marketing, mass public engagement approach of ‘we can promote this to the public and give them easy to do actions.’”

This personal behaviour change narrative has long been criticised by many of those who study climate change communications. Partly, it risks shifting implicit blame onto those you want to act, which rarely motivates people. And, partly, it leaves a sense of cognitive dissonance whereby people find it hard to believe both that there is a vast global problem, and that it can be solved through small changes in their behaviour.

Despite these ongoing criticisms, in the early 2000s, this approach “was a big show in town and adopted by a lot of the activist groups (and) more mainstream NGOs” – though towards the second half of that decade, there was also some focus on government, with a mass mobilisation for a climate bill, which passed in 2008.

These days, in the UK, “we can have some pride in having one of the world’s leading climate change acts… We have a government (which) to some extent still declares that climate change is a serious issue, that takes it relatively seriously in global discussions, although it is debateable whether that is going in the right direction now. (And) there seems to be a rejuvenation in activism following the downturn that we saw in 2009 following the failed Copenhagen talks”.

The UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009 was billed by much of the climate movement as “the key decision moment for the future of our planet”. “When it didn’t go positively… we definitely saw a significant downturn in climate change activism across the UK from people feeling dejected, tired, moving onto other issues.”

“The support from the NGOs started disappearing, a lot less money going into the umbrella organisation (Stop Climate Chaos). The direct action movement, climate camp, wound itself up around that time. Generally, there was a real downturn in climate change activism.

“In more recent years in the run up to the Paris, UN discussion in 2015, we did see a rejuvenated movement of a slightly different shade or approach… The stop climate chaos movement turned into the climate coalition, re-focused on wider public engagement, trying to activate wider groups of the population to be supportive of climate change, largely fuelled by this understanding that climate change had become an issue that was very difficult to talk about outside of climate change groups, and not only was that bad for political understanding but it also meant that environmentalists were feeling very dejected and couldn’t talk about their issue.”

Why hasn’t it worked?

There are many reasons that this approach hasn’t worked. Firstly, he points out, there’s the fact that climate change is such a vast issue because so many different kinds of activity contribute to it, and because it requires action not just once, but forever. Unlike many of the environmental problems which were partially resolved in the 1980s and 1990s, it can’t be solved with one policy, banning one chemical or gas. It needs “a mass, society wide, long term, sustained effort to keep the fossil fuels in the ground… And we need to make sure in 10 years’ time the new government doesn’t decide to change the policy.”

“We need to shift the way society thinks about fossil fuels that make them morally, socially, and economically unviable and that’s a balance that our society has very rarely managed to do. The only equivalent is something like banning the slave trade. It took a mass-mobilised group of people, direct action from slaves and those impacted, and a moral shift and understanding that this was abhorrent.”

But he also points to a series of problems in the way that different kinds of civil society groups have worked on the issue: “there has been an interesting history of different parts of the social activist movements picking up on this issue but not coordinating and working to their strengths”. In the anti-roads movement of the 1990s, for example, “there were different tactics, but they complemented each other”.

One example of this is that when, in the mid-‘90s, protesters occupied trees to stop the building of the Newbury bypass, “we saw Friends of the Earth organise mass walks with Conservative politicians”. A decade later, “we saw very little connection with the big NGOs and the direct action movements of the Climate Camp. There were very few large NGOs at the power stations getting involved”. Where formal NGOs and informal social movements once collaborated closely, “they moved further and further apart”, producing what Clarke calls “a polarisation within the activist movement around climate change”.

Alongside this lack of collaboration, the Labour government “takes the issue, turns it for its own sake, and uses a methodology of individual action which ultimately isn’t productive” and at the same time, “a side of the activist movement take a perspective on the wider population – who don’t necessarily sign up to their lifestyle – and tend to ignore them or belittle them at worst”.

Of course, it wasn’t just failures of civil society which prevented action: the same period saw the fossil fuel industry “desperately throwing a lot of money at the sceptic lobby to create myths around climate change”.

But how did major organisations working on this issue end up being unable to coordinate effectively and unable to reach a huge percentage of people in the country and convince them about a massive problem of our age?

“I think everyone was motivated in the right direction, I think people took the issue seriously. You saw development organisations getting on board with the issue. But I think history will probably say that what happened was an adoption of the same cultures within each organisation which had proven successful for them in the past, on the smaller, more limited issues.”

Within the larger NGOs, Clarke argues, there was a bad habit of focussing narrowly on trying to win over the small group of MPs – (at the time, New Labour) – rather than working out how to convince a broader swathe of the population.

In this context, there developed “a feeling that the direct action groups were on the opposite side of that more centralist approach” while, similarly, there was “a feeling within the direct action groups that they didn’t want to compromise, that low carbon living meant one thing and not another and therefore not feeling like there was a need to coordinate with wider political forces.”

While the various parts of civil society failed to work together, almost no one was reaching out to some of the most important groups who needed to be won over – and lots of the messages coming from both sides were actively alienating: “There was lots of talk of closing down coal mines, and little talk of it with the (affected) community… I still receive tweets from green groups celebrating the closure of a coal mine without acknowledging the loss of jobs, heritage, and culture that is so important to those areas… We’ve become too compartmentalised and… largely based on the culture and history of our ways of operating.”

Much of Clarke’s criticism ties into a broader history relating to the “new left” politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and a shift from people organising their workplaces and geographical communities to people focussing on specific individual issues, and organising alongside those who share their particular concerns. Over the course of the decade from 1961 to 1971, as the baby boomers came of age, a string of NGOs including Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth were all founded, representing these new social movements. At the same time as these sorts of groups grew, there was a massive reduction of trade union membership, which combined with a long-term drop in participation in organised religion. How does this history tie into Clarke’s story about how those environmental organisations, which grew out of that process, failed to mobilise the communities they’d come from?

“They failed,” he says, “to reach back to communities around them or people that were going to be affected by the impact of climate change. Most of the stories told were from the standpoint of particular environmentalists”. Climate change offered “a great opportunity for social activists. It brings together all of the struggles that many of us have had over the years around social justice, environmental justice, economic justice and the need to bring those different aspects together is something that climate change offers the world.” But this opportunity was missed.

Instead, “each group took their totemic issue whether that was a lifestyle choice or saving a particular fauna, or taking a particular behaviour change and saying this is the one thing. People went off in different directions rather than taking the sum of the whole and working towards that from their different vantage points. They took their particular vantage point and tried to shout about that loudest.”

Perhaps this failure was the product of financial pressures: the need to win your £5 a month by appealing most strongly to the 500,000 people who agree with you most rather than stressing daily about how to reach the 50 million who will probably never give you cash. Perhaps it was about the sociological consequences of broad changes in society. Or perhaps, most of all, it was simply because climate change is such a huge issue, which demands such broad changes, it’s inevitable that people have struggled to communicate about it effectively. The most important question, though, is, what needs to happen next?

“There is a need to recognise the great victories we’ve had but also the failings that have been within them… And whilst everything is urgent and needs to happen tomorrow rather than next year, a stock take of where we’ve come from, in order to enable where we’re going, is vital… We need to start listening, and properly listening to the communities that we want to start engaging with. We’ve got to dismiss the approaches that we’ve had previously…. Climate change is not the same as individual policy changes, we’ve got to take our messages and understand the communities around us… We need to start listening to the communities rather than staying stuck in our little rut.”


Adam Ramsay is a trustee of Climate Outreach


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Photo by Zooey – Storm Clouds Gathering

By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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