The State of the Climate Movement

September 22, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

This is the text of a talk I gave today at Save the Children as part of their #changehistory series, organised by Campaigns Director (and fellow GlobalDashboard contributor) Kirsty McNeill. Kirsty’s opening talk in the series is here; see also @changehistory on Twitter.


It’s the afternoon of 28 June 1988. NASA scientist Jim Hansen is testifying on global warming to Congress. Outside, it’s an oven. Temperatures are sweltering to an unheard-of high of 38 degrees Celsius. The legislators and journalists in the room are close to fainting.

It’s one of those moments when it all comes together. Next day, climate leads the New York Times. By September, 58% of Americans have heard of the greenhouse effect. Two months after that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is set up. Global climate policy is born.

Now it’s 1990. In Geneva, the Second World Climate Conference is taking place. Margaret Thatcher – herself a chemist – is lavishing praise on the IPCC, which has just published its First Assessment Report. And as if to anticipate the Stern Review 16 years later, she’s interpreting the IPCC’s findings very much through a rational lens of self-interest – telling leaders that “it may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later”.

Already, the terms on which climate policy will play out over the next two decades have been set. This is to be a technocratic agenda. Climate change will be owned by a ‘priesthood’ of experts, with its own language, rituals, gatherings, and assumptions. NGOs can be admitted as members, but only if they’re willing to adopt the priesthood’s worldview and profess its creed.

As for the public, their job is to listen to the experts and then remember to turn out the lights. It’s certainly not to participate, much less wield power.

It all looks very different to what’s about to happen in development, where a retired lecturer called Martin Dent has just had the idea of linking the biblical idea of Jubilee to a campaign for debt cancellation. Where Jubilee 2000 will be driven by a mass movement and moral outrage, climate policy will be about science, summits, and economic self-interest.

No surprise, then, that when we look at opinion polls from fifteen years later, in 2005, we find developed country publics saying they believe climate is real, urgent, and human-caused – but also not particularly willing to countenance big lifestyle changes as a result, or to demand radical action from politicians.

It’s a classic “thin yes”. There’s no great conviction or urgency here. Politicians understand this, so the policies they adopt are similarly half-hearted. The US pulls out of Kyoto. Canada and Australia follow suit. The EU stays in, but fills its new emissions trading scheme with loopholes. Emerging economies hang back, secure in the knowledge that there’ll be no pressure on them to act for as long as the rich world is so clearly failing to take a lead.

The UN climate process increasingly resembles a multilateral zombie: staggering slowly on, moaning piteously, never quite dying. And all the while, the world’s emissions keep rising, and rising, and rising – by around 60% over the two decades following 1992.

And then 2009 rolls around, and everything changes.


Environmental NGOs are still running with the same theory of change. It seems to be going well. A US Presidential campaign has just been fought between two candidates who both agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and urgent. Better yet, the House of Representatives has just passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill. As Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol later writes,

Visions danced in [environmental NGOs’] heads of a celebratory White House signing ceremony nicely timed to tee up US leadership in the next international climate confab scheduled for December 2009 in Copenhagen.

No one has noticed a new phenomenon called the Tea Party, which proceeds to spend the summer “invading town halls, dominating talk radio and Fox News, and generally scaring the bejesus out of Republican legislators” as environmental writer David Roberts puts it.

By the time the Senate comes back, prospects for US climate legislation have fallen apart.

Six months later, far from agreeing a 2 degree climate deal, Copenhagen breaks up having got rid of binding targets altogether. Instead, there’s a voluntary approach and pledges that put the world on course for between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees Celsius.

As environmental NGOs retreat to lick their wounds, they commission Theda Skocpol to write a report explaining what the hell just happened. Her reply: the Tea Party played an outsider, populist, values-led game against the NGOs’ insider, technocratic, facts-led game, and ran over them with a tank. They never saw what was coming. As Roberts puts it,

National polls tell enviros what they want to hear: in the abstract, majorities always support clean air and clean energy. Enviros mistook these results for constituencies. But poll results do not attend town halls or write members of Congress or exhort their fellow citizens through ideological media. Constituencies do that.


It’s summer 2014. Climate activists have just mobilised nearly half a million people on to the streets of New York, with the new kids in town – and Avaaz – leading the charge.

Over the next year, the media will be full of more totemic images of mass mobilisation: people in kayaks taking to the seas to stop oil rigs from being towed out to the Arctic, or activists closing down production at Germany’s largest opencast coal mine.

Obama seems to be making a new climate speech every month. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is claiming one scalp after another – Oxford University, Axa insurance, the Church of England, Norway’s vast sovereign wealth fund. The Bank of England starts an inquiry into the financial risk of oil companies becoming ‘stranded assets’ as their reserves become officially un-burnable. It couldn’t look more different to the demoralised low point of 2009.

So what changed in those five years – and will it be enough to keep global warming below two degrees?

Let’s with the first question, where I think three things fell into place.

First and most obviously, climate activists built a movement. Veteran 1960s New Left activist Todd Gitlin observes that,

There is a social movement when some critical mass of people feel that it exists and act as if they belong to it. They begin to sense a shared culture, with its own heroes, villains, symbols, slogans, and chants. Their moods rise and fall with its fate. They take pleasure in each other’s company. They look forward to each rendezvous. And people on every side – the friendly, the indifferent, as well as the hostile – all take note of it and feel something about it; they take sides; they factor it into their calculations; they strive to bolster or obstruct it.

On which basis, he says, “there is today a climate movement as there was a civil rights movement and an antiwar movement and a women’s liberation movement and a gay rights movement”.

Climate activists have also recognised that movements matter not just because they can demand that policymakers do stuff, but also – more subtly – because they are incubators for new values. Movements provide visible demonstrations of people living out the new norms that they espouse. At the same time, they also provide ‘congregational spaces’ in which the movement’s members can see each other and know their power.

And the climate activists also understood the power of small groups within the larger movement. Mass mobilisations at rallies or pop concerts are great for a summit– but if you’re playing a long game, as the climate activists now are, and you want to keep the pressure up over time, then small groups are the glue that keeps people engaged and fired up.

Armies have always understood this, which is why they’re organised around the basic unit of platoons. Jubilee 2000 got it too, and built its mobilisations largely out of church congregations. The Obama 08 campaign won using small groups. And now climate activists are doing it again – whether on fossil fuel divestment, a movement rooted in college groups across the US, or in the small group tactics that underpin mass actions like the Ende Gelande coal mine closure.

The second shift is that climate activists now have a terrific story. The Tea Party taught them that values trump facts, and they’ve learned the lesson well – following in the footsteps of abolitionists two centuries ago, civil rights advocates fifty years ago, and Jubilee and Make Poverty History activists a decade ago, all of whom framed their stories not in terms of rational self-interest but as moral challenges.

You can see the shift over Obama’s eight years in office. In the first term, it’s all about green jobs. By the time of the second, when Obama is actually doing stuff on climate, it’s just the right thing to do. In psychological language, this is a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, which research shows over and over is a far more powerful basis for action.

And the language of ‘unburnable carbon’ – that if we’re serious about 2 degrees, then we can never burn 80% of the oil, gas, and coal reserves sitting out there under the ground – is also a great new element of the story. It tackles the other end of the problem – wellhead rather than tailpipes – and it’s proved powerfully resonant, as the Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign shows.

The third big change, finally, is that climate activists have entered into a highly productive alliance with some people who’ve been doing small group organising and morally based narratives for thousands of years: faith communities.

Even before Pope Francis published his encyclical on climate change, the last few years have seen steadily increasing engagement on climate change by faith communities – with Tearfund, who are here today, among the very first faith-based NGOs to start campaigning on climate.

But to have the most charismatic Pope in living memory leading from the front on climate change is an absolute game-changer – and one that has only just begun to play out.


So those are three big things that have shifted in the new climate movement. But is it enough for 2 degrees? I would say not yet – because I think two more things still need to fall into place.

The first is about the movement’s demands. Some campaign asks have great vision but lack specifics – like NGOs’ calls for a “fair, ambitious, and binding” climate deal in the run-up to Copenhagen. Others have specifics but lack vision – like “standardised country by country tax reporting by multinational companies with data made available publicly rather than just to relevant tax authorities”. And just occasionally you have both – as with Jubilee 2000.

The climate movement isn’t there yet. It has a great vision of climate stabilisation (whether that’s expressed as 2 degrees, or the 350 parts per million limit on CO2 concentrations that gives its name). It has some resonant specific asks, like demanding Obama say no to Keystone XL, or that Harvard divest out of fossil fuels. But the asks don’t match the vision.

That’s why I would love to see the climate and development movements join forces to demand a safe global emissions budget that’s shared out on the basis of equal per capita allocations for everyone, something Bono has also picked up on.

Owen Barder, Alice Lepissier and I have just spent the last three years building a quant model to tell us what it would look like if the world agreed a 2 degree carbon budget, then shared it out on the basis of equal per capita shares of the sky, and allowed emissions trading. (Our report is out in two weeks’ time at the SDG summit, but here’s a preview if you’re interested.)

What we found is that not only is climate stabilisation way cheaper than you’d think for high emitters, but also that low and lower middle income countries would gain $419 billion a year from emissions trading by 2025 – more than three times as much as total current aid flows. So we stabilise the climate and in the process we sort out the finance for development gap that July’s Addis FFD summit so manifestly failed to do anything about.

So that’s the first thing that I think the climate movement still needs: a headline ask that will actually deliver its stated vision.

The second thing is a different kind of narrative that leads to a different kind of campaigning.

As I said earlier, climate activists are now speaking with a strong, morally grounded voice that’s totally different from the old, leaden, technocratic language we used to hear. But it’s still what George Marshall, who’s here today and who wrote what I think is probably the single best book on climate change, an “enemy narrative”. We’re the goodies, and others – Exxon, Shell, the Koch brothers – are the baddies. Those narratives have power, but ultimately I think George has it right when he says that:

The missing truth, deliberately avoided in enemy narratives, is that in high-carbon societies, everyone contributes to the emissions that cause the problem … the real battle for mass action will be won not through enemy narratives [but through] narratives based on cooperation, mutual interests, and our common humanity”.

This implies a very different approach to how we campaign. It’s a point that Micah White, one of the co-creators of Occupy, echoes when he says that “protest is broken” and that,

What I am proposing is a type of activism that focuses on creating a mental shift in people. Basically an epiphany.

I think this is exactly right. We need epiphanies – possibly, but by no means necessarily, of the religious variety – that create the sense of being part of a larger us, of living in a longer now, and of wanting a different good life to the one that’s been sold to us.

So how would we do that? There’s no neat reply to that question, but let me finish today by proposing that figuring out how to answer it will require us as activists to think deeply about three things.

The first is grief. Grief is an entirely appropriate response to what we are doing to the planet and its poorest people. Now, not just in future generations. And part of our job – as communicators, as messengers of a different future, as prophets, if you will – is to acknowledge and express that grief.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann observes that in the Old Testament, prophets do three things. First, describe reality as it is (as Jeremiah does, ruthlessly). Second, to face the despair that comes from that reality (as in Lamentations). And third, to give hope for the future (as Isaiah does). Brueggemann also observes that today’s progressives are great at the first and third of these, and terrible at the second.

So only very occasionally do any of us express our grief about what we work on. Yet when we do – as when the Philippines’ lead negotiator broke down at the 2012 climate summit while describing the impacts of Typhoon Haiyan on his country, or in how all of us have felt in the wake of seeing the images of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on the beach in Turkey – there’s a raw power that can shock us out of complacency.

The second idea I think we need to think more about is forgiveness. Climate campaigners can sometimes seem to believe that if they can just make everyone feel guilty enough about climate change, results will follow. But people already feel guilty about climate change – and it’s a big part of why they don’t want to think about it. Guilt is only helpful if we can do something with it; otherwise it turns toxic and ultimately debilitates us.

So we need ways of recognising and expressing where we’ve screwed up, and of being forgiven.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from 1,000 BCE onwards, there is a recognition that human sin – which is usually either ignorance, or injustice, or idolatry (worshipping things rather than God) – can break the delicate web of bonds on which creation rests.

To repair these breaches, and prevent creation from unravelling, there is a process called atonement, undertaken by the High Priest in First Temple Judaism and by Jesus in Christianity. Atonement is a very deep, very powerful idea that’s inextricably bound up with ideas of self-sacrifice and rebirth.

And far from being abstract, there are very specific ways of applying the idea of atonement to social, political, economic, and environmental contexts. They’re contained in an idea we already know well: Jubilee, which was always about much more than just debt relief, including a strong environmental component and twice per century resets of wealth to prevent inequality from building up across generations.

Which brings me to the third and final idea I think we need to think about: restoration. I’ve always hated the lame concept of ‘sustainable development’, which feels as though its aspirations go little further than stopping things from collapsing. I want a vision in which we repair the damage we’ve done.

In Judaism and Christianity, restoration is the result of atonement – Jubilee – being done properly. It’s why the Bible ends in the same place it began: back in Eden, with humans restored to their rightful home, something I can’t help but think of when I see examples of ecosystem restoration in Ethiopia in which bare hillsides that had lost all their soil to erosion have been painstakingly turned back into lush forest.

And I can’t help but yearn for social restoration too – of the damage we’ve done to people we’ve never met through our emissions, our subsidies, our financial regulations, our arms sales, and so on. Or the damage our forebears did, whether through slavery, or colonialism, or the historical greenhouse gas emissions that are still in the air around us.

Religions have always been good at talking about grief, forgiveness, and restoration. But while that works for me as a Christian, there are lots of other people in our secular society for whom it doesn’t work. And it’s here that I think our real challenge lies.

We need to find new ways of talking about these issues, rather than sweeping them under the carpet. It’s an urgent task in an accelerated, technocentric society that’s nonetheless engaged in a sustained search for stories that work, and that’s right on the edge between something horrible and something beautiful.

It’s not the kind of thing we usually talk about as campaigners. But if our old theories of change don’t work any more – and they don’t – then we need to be ready to change too.

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, where he works on international development, foreign policy, and resource scarcity. He is currently working primarily on the post-2015 development agenda and future global climate policy, and also writing a book on psychology, myth and sustainability. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. .

Tags: climate change, climate change communication, climate movement