We need a united, well-planned climate campaign

Climate Change - Credit: Wikimedia CC \ Baluchi5

Tim Root on using the right tactics to save the planet from global heating

Global temperature has breached the Paris target of 1.5° above pre-industrial levels for twelve continuous months. Emissions must be cut urgently to avert the worst of climate breakdown. As temperature rises, sea ice melts. This exposes a large area of sea, which absorbs additional warmth that previously had been reflected back into space by the ice. Last year’s severe drought in the Amazon led to increased emissions due to fires, with considerably fewer standing trees absorbing CO2. To reduce vicious circles like these we need to stop temperature rise without delay. This is why the environmentalist Bill McKibben famously said that with climate change “winning slowly is the same as losing”.

Governments continue to fail badly on climate. Although US emissions fell 1.9% in 2023, they would need to fall at three times this rate to meet the government’s target of a 50% cut below 2005 levels by 2030. The European Union is on course to miss its 2030 emissions target substantially. Campaigners clearly need to become more effective urgently. Public opinion is potentially receptive. A 2022 twenty nation survey found that in high-income nations 81% agreed that their nation “should take measures to fight climate change.”  In Autumn 2023 a 31 nation poll found that three-quarters of people agree that “we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly”.

However, concern about climate is nearly always overshadowed substantially by more short-term worries. An eighteen nation European poll this March found that the highest proportion (68%) rated rising prices a priority issue, while only 52% deemed climate change a priority. Climate was rated sixth in the priority list, below the “fight against illegal migration”. A Europe wide survey in autumn 2023 asking people to name the “two most important issues facing the European Union”, found that 28% nominated immigration, and 28% the war in Ukraine. “Environment and climate change” was nominated only by 16%. The large gains by the far-right in the European Parliament elections, and the Greens’ loss of 30% of their seats, must be a wake-up call! As Naomi Klein recently said “If we are in a place where the right is rising and the left is losing, if we don’t have the ability to be self critical … what hope do we have of changing and modifying and perhaps doing better in the future?”

Winning diverse support

Climate campaign activity has been weakening. On the 9 December 2023 global day of climate action, there were 275 actions in 40 countries. On the equivalent day in 2021, there were over 800 actions globally. In September 2019 more than 4,500 climate strikes took place globally, while half a million people took part in a march led by Greta Thunberg in Montreal. In Civil Resistance: what everyone needs to know, Erica Chenoweth emphasizes that “the single most important influence on the civil resistance campaign’s success is the scale and range of popular participation. The larger and more diverse the campaign’s base of participants, the more likely it is to succeed.”

Building a broad base of support for climate proposals reduces the extent to which they can be perceived as linked to one party or ideology. The Climate Majority Project point out that the radical climate “movement’s tone, culture and appeal, appeal mainly to the “far left” – a small segment of the population”. Many people evaluate proposed policies from a partisan standpoint, rejecting more or less automatically those which they perceive as being linked to political groups which they oppose. Having proponents from across the political spectrum makes it much more likely that a wide range of people will support our proposals.  

Chenoweth points out that recruiting a large and diverse group of participants necessarily entails establishing a coalition of different organizations. This requires people representing the different strands of the movement pooling their wisdom to agree both the demands, and the public image, for which the maximum number of people will campaign. A wisely-chosen tactic supported by many people is much more likely to succeed than a range of different tactics each supported by a smaller number of people, which as a result do not generate the positive publicity needed to persuade people that they are worth supporting. This process requires a stronger level of co-ordination of the various strands of our movement than at present, with a structure with “the power to change tactics and communicate new plans” when necessary. Organisations may be dubious about taking part in a coalition, which can cause “headaches” if not run skilfully (p. 313). However given that the climate movement is not succeeding, and the stakes are so huge, organisations need to focus on their shared priorities. Research shows that groups which discuss the priorities they share and cannot achieve separately, known as superordinate goals, make better progress.

Powerful communication

Successful movements need to put forward a clear and concrete demand, with a powerful slogan, which can easily be communicated and thus win support from huge numbers of people. Analysis of climate hashtags found that #climatemergency  was used in only 26% of hashtagged posts, #climatecrisis in 12%, and #climatejustice in only 6%. The fact that no more popular hashtag has been devised suggests that our movement needs to study which words would resonate with a much larger number of people. Maybe a coalition could call itself Climate Protectors, as protection has a positive connotation. Focus groups should be used to help choose the best name.

Research shows that moral outrage is one of the strongest factors motivating people to become involved in social movements. This was well illustrated by the huge upsurge in protests which followed the murder of George Floyd. There is currently enormous anger at the devastation in Gaza, with 12,722 protests having taken place in the USA alone between 7 October 2023 and 12 June this year. Climate campaigners need urgently to work out how to arouse a similar level of outrage at the appalling suffering climate breakdown is likely to cause, and has caused already. Otherwise we will fail to reduce the scale of the disasters. We must also arouse this outrage in a way which does not cause too many people to feel  hopeless. Plenty of efforts have been made to gain support by downplaying climate disaster while highlighting solutions, but up to now this has not aroused enough support. Recent research using a variety of different messages found that the one which highlighted the dire effects of climate breakdown was the most effective in getting people to share on social media an appeal to reduce meat/dairy consumption. Another study also found that messaging on the damage of extreme weather was effective (Chapter 4).

The above research did not address variations in people’s response due to the message source. It is well-known that the credibility of the messenger has a huge impact on the reception of the message. Research found that in the climate context David Attenborough is trusted far more than other prominent people, with 65% more trusting him than those who distrust him. Chris Packham came second with a net trust level of 35%. Researchers found that as spokespeople, climate scientists, people who had experienced the effects of climate change, and health professionals, were trusted much more than others. Campaigns need to ask trusted prominent people to front communications. Mark Ruffalo has 8.2m followers on Twitter (X), and Greta Thunberg 5.6m, while Taylor Swift has 95.3m. Because such people are trusted by their followers, they can spread a message very effectively.

It would be great if we could get media coverage with the remarkable impact of Mr Bates versus the Post Office, which within a short time of its initial broadcast in the UK had been streamed 16.6 million times. However as we have not succeeded in getting significant media coverage for climate victims’ stories, we need to create our own effective communications, possibly using TV ads. Research analysing people’s reactions to a range of climate messages found that “We owe our children a better future but if we don’t act, they will pay the price” was overwhelmingly the favourite. The messaging must be sufficiently striking to gain people’s attention and show them that climate activism is an urgent priority. Greta Thunberg stimulated the support of millions of young people, telling world leaders “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is!” Campaigners could explore slogans along the lines of

Climate action cannot wait; if the wildfires spread, it will be too late!

Climate action cannot wait; if the sea floods cities, it will be too late!

TV ads would be expensive, but probably are necessary to bring campaigns’ goals to a larger and more diverse audience. And if creative, they could bring in enough donations to cover the cost. We should also remember music’s amazing power, and find a song which could give our campaign a strong impact, as Dolly Parton’s song Nine to Five did for the movement of women workers in the USA in the 1980s (p.61).

Hitting the right targets

Research on social movements shows that tactics which mobilize the economic power of ordinary people can be very successful. For instance, in the early stages of the American civil rights movement, black people boycotted the main shopping area of Birmingham, Alabama. This took place in conjunction with large protests in the city. After less than six weeks the store owners reached a desegregation agreement with the civil rights leaders. This led to huge growth in the Civil Rights Movement throughout the USA, and the Civil Rights Act became law less than a year and a half later.

We need to consider which sectors of the economy a campaign could influence to achieve large emissions cuts.  Such a campaign would need to be sustained for a fairly substantial period, so the target could see that their business would suffer badly if they did not improve their practices. In December 2023 I undertook a fairly small exploratory survey which asked people “how effective or ineffective” a list of various campaign strategies “would probably be to tackle climate change”. The most popular strategy was

 “trying to get public bodies like councils to take all their pension fund investments out of coal, oil and gas” which 61% rated very effective. Next, rated very effective by 51%, was “naming and shaming banks which invest a lot in coal, oil, or gas, and encouraging people to switch their account to a better bank”.

By contrast, only 17% rated “demonstrations and petitions demanding that the government reduces use of coal, oil and gas” very effective. The climate movement needs to undertake extensive research along these lines, so we can identify effective tactics for which we can gain mass support.   

Campaigns could achieve some sizable emissions cuts quite soon by targeting the fashion industry, which is responsible for a substantial proportion of greenhouse gas emissions.  Retailers import vast amounts of clothing by air.  One option by which we could influence the banks would be campaigning to get large organizations to switch their account. Oxfam did so, following Christian Aid, which concluded that Barclays’ commitments to reduce its support of fossil fuels were “weak”. Cambridge University is also considering ditching Barclays. Further such victories could enable us to generate powerful publicity, tarnishing the reputations which banks are keen to preserve. This could show the targeted banks that their future profits would be seriously harmed unless they switched very soon to investing only in clean energy.

Please remember: time is short, unity is strength!

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