On Monday 8th October, Birmingham Friends of the Earth (BFoE) were privileged to have Phil Thornhill, the National Co-ordinator of the Campaign against Climate Change (CCC), attending the evening’s meeting. Originally the focus of discussion was to be ‘corporatocracy’; the notion that modern democracies are undermined by the growing power of multi-national corporations, whereby rule by the people becomes rule by the economy. This is a particularly significant issue for environmental groups, as often the corporations who arguably have the most power, are also those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and avoiding pesky carbon emission reduction targets.
As our discussion developed, Phil commented on approaches to campaigning on these issues and it became clear that there was some disagreement in the room, and so the discussion began to focus on different means of reaching and engaging the public. Naturally, having brought together people who all care passionately about issues such as climate change, but who differ in their opinions of the best way to encourage others to care too, a lively discussion ensued. It was felt that organisations which have members and work with the public must have campaigns which are accessible to everyone. However Phil expressed frustration with campaigns such as ‘The Bee Cause’ which, while they may provide small wins along the way for charities and supporters alike, may also distract from the bigger issues. As such, CCC focus on Climate Change by using ‘loud’ campaigning tactics such as marches, and informing people of the emergency of the situation, while also persuading them to support projects such as the Zero Carbon by 2030 campaign.
In recent years the problems of Climate Change have increasingly entered public knowledge, and there was general agreement amongst the group that an increased popular understanding of environmental issues is a desirable goal. It is a positive sign for environmental organisations that people know more and are increasingly willing to engage in environmentally focused activities. Unfortunately not everyone has time to campaign on these issues to the degree that environmental organisations would hope, but recycling more, using the car less or planting wildflowers for bees are meaningful ways for people to engage with environmental charities in their own homes, and as such people should be encouraged to participate at this level and feel good for doing what they can, even when this may only be a small action.
However, as one member of the group argued, increased knowledge of environmental problems can also have negative ramifications, as environmental organisations cannot rely on simply relaying the issues to people and hoping they will support the campaign based on a sense of shock or fear. Phil noted that to communicate the problems of the melting arctic a number of organisations focus on the loss of a beautiful, untouched natural landscape or the risk of the loss of habitat to polar bear populations, but he felt that this should not be the approach used by everyone. He argued that this distracts from the real issues and thereby treats the symptom but not the cause. In this sense, saving the arctic for its beauty or its polar bears will not in itself resolve the problems which led to the melting of the arctic initially, such as the over reliance on fossil fuels.
Towards the end of the meeting, the conversation picked up once more on the ideas of corporatocracy, as it was discussed how a small but highly visible group have a disproportional influence. The group acknowledged that unfortunately a scientist stating that climate change is a real threat is often as significant, if not less so for many people, than Jeremy Clarkson saying it is a myth or that the problem is exaggerated, and that therefore the issue for campaigners is how to communicate to people that those who deny climate change do so for their own gains.
The debate highlighted that in order for campaigning to be effective a discussion on the means of campaigning must exist both between and within charities, and charities need to adopt an approach to campaigning which matches their aims and philosophy. My view is that campaigning should make people feel good about themselves and hopeful about the future and the ability of normal people to play a role in shaping it. A campaign which centres around continually proclaiming that our situation is dire is not a sustainable source of support, as people will be put off organisations which make them feel worried and guilty for not doing more. My hope is that people donate money or campaign on climate change because they feel empowered and believe that change can be made, not because they are scared of the future.
As a new volunteer this discussion meeting was illuminating in many ways; I was exposed to the different ways that organisations may campaign on environmental issues, and it was inspiring to see that people care about these issues a great deal and want to campaign in the most effective way. From this discussion I think it is clear that you need both forms of campaigning; organisations that work with members must cater to them, but equally some organisations are needed to do the more intensive work on policy and lobbying that the public can’t. Issues such as climate change are complex and not everyone has the time or inclination to understand them fully, organisations like BFoE and CCC must remember that just because we are interested doesn’t mean that everyone is.
The challenge is to strike a balance between giving people a full and detailed account, whilst not overloading them with information, which means excluding that which is unnecessarily intellectual and intimidating, and to find simple ways for people to get involved. Finally, I would also agree with BFoE’s Campaigns Support worker, Julien, that while it is good to debate, this should not distract from campaigning. Indeed, everyone at the meeting felt that it was important that environmental groups work together if environmental issues are to gain a place at the discussion table of those with power. Therefore we look forward to further discussions with groups such as CCC who share our passion for environmental issues.