Sandbag is a UK based not-for-profit organisation campaigning for environmentally and economically effective climate policies, with a focus on the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).
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Thoughts on the future of the climate movement
posted by Bryony on 27th Oct 2010

BeThatChange recently posted a blog asking whether the climate movement needs to rethink its approach. The author, Keiran Battles, was reflecting on the relative lack of attention the 10/10/10 global day of action received despite being the biggest event of its kind ever.

The blog is interesting but the problem with questions like this is that there is an implicit assumption that there is such a thing as a single ‘climate movement’ and that it has a defined approach. The 10/10/10 global work party is not the climate movement, it is merely one initiative that sought to address a specific problem they identified and prioritized: the sense of powerlessness many people were feeling after the collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations. Inspiring people to undertake personal and community actions to change the things they control is one way of helping to generate a sense of optimism and renewed momentum. That it was so successful in reaching out to so many people across the globe is testimony to the fact that there is now a sizeable audience that responds well to this kind of call to arms.

In terms of generating media attention it was never designed to do this. We all know that the media is not turned on by good news stories. And in terms of impact one or two people chaining themselves to something is always going to elicit a far greater response than thousands of people quietly getting on and installing solar panels on their roofs.

As for political pressure that was also never a realistic goal for the event. Political pressure has to be targeted, centered on a well defined, timely ‘ask’ addressed to specific decision makers. If you want to see one of the movements engaged in trying to achieve political change, watch what is going on in California where the battle to save existing climate legislation is being waged. Here for the first time there are signs that the forces opposing each other are becoming more equal – big oil billionaires have suddenly found themselves pitted against Silicon Valley and Hollywood billionaires. We will see who wins next week.

George Monbiot’s recent post on the seemingly inexorable rise of ultra conservative ‘astro-turf’ campaigns in the US is an excellent reminder of how political campaigning works. The skill of the perpetrators has been to deploy their substantial resources to disseminate the right mixture of fear-mongering, propaganda and manipulation to stop specific pieces of progressive legislation. This strategy of holding back and delaying progress is well worn, having successfully protected the tobacco industry for years.

It’s a depressingly successful strategy but one that will not prevail in the long run – though the opponents of progress are powerful they are relatively highly concentrated and even they cannot cover all the potential battle grounds that are popping up around the world. They have very little influence in China, they are present in Europe but are on the back foot – climate legislation here is advancing not retreating. If they are defeated in California it will mark a significant turning point.

The ‘climate movement’ is no longer made up of just NGOs, their supporters and the media. It includes legislators, civil servants, think tanks, academics, politicians and progressive industries (some of whom are giants). All are driven to action by different motivations. All are using their powers to progress solutions. Sometimes quietly and sometimes using obscure little-understood processes but in such a diversity of ways that it will be impossible for opponents to hold back progress forever.

As the science and impacts become ever clearer, this movement, made up of a myriad of whirlpools of activity, will only gain in strength and influence. There is no need to change direction. We simply need to embrace the complexity and try to minimize any in-fighting.

Our analysis at Sandbag leads us to focus our efforts on directly countering the industry lobbying that weakens powerful cap and trade legislation. The political decisions made in this context save or release billions of tones of emissions and fundamentally change corporate behaviour. But while we do that we support all those working on their chosen solutions. Campaigning for something that is often seen as complex, abstract and open to abuse is not easy, but we do it because in boardrooms these laws are already having an impact and have enormous potential. We see no better alternatives in existence or on the horizon.

But we believe there is no one campaign or one tactic that will work to solve this problem – we are all part of a broad church and that’s its strength.

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