Would you let an arms company sponsor National Peace Week? How about the BNP sponsoring International Refugee Day, or Lambert & Butler logos all over a cancer charity fundraising event? These (imaginary) examples seem far-fetched, but they’re no less strange than a climate action week sponsored by a coal-burning energy corporation, an oil-hungry supermarket giant and the UK’s biggest financier of fossil fuel projects. Welcome to the strange, topsy-turvy world of Climate Week.
As noted in a previous Ecologist article, the choice of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Tesco and EDF Energy as sponsors for next week’s “supercharged national occasion” has already stirred up a fair bit of controversy. RBS are a particularly contentious selection, as they have been facing increasing criticism lately over their support for climate-wrecking Tar Sands extraction; but don’t forget that Tesco’s entire business model is based on the mass transportation of goods halfway across the globe, and on driving a race-to-the-bottom in environmental and labour standards in farming worldwide; or that EDF operate two of the five biggest coal fired power stations in the UK. At best, this is all incredibly cheeky – as I pointed out last week, by sponsoring a week of local climate action these companies are essentially encouraging us all to rally round and help clean up the mess they’re busy making.
But does any of this really matter? Climate Week will include over 800 local events, a national Climate Challenge competition, and the Climate Week Awards to recognise people and organisations who have made a difference. It all sounds like good, positive stuff – so what does it matter where the money comes from? Surely, as others have argued, it’s better to have a corporate-sponsored Climate Week than no Climate Week at all?
Can big companies play a part?
The problem here is that all the voluntary, on the ground initiatives in the world aren't going to crack this problem if we're still letting big businesses like Tesco and RBS get away with their polluting activities. The reason we haven't solved climate change isn't because not enough people are aware of the problem, or aren't doing their bit in their schools and workplaces - it's because carbon-intensive companies are distorting the political process, putting profits before the real needs of people and the climate, and using their huge power to undermine any progress that the rest of us make on the issue. The only way to stop this is for enough people to stand up and challenge the big polluters, and to put pressure on governments for tougher regulations to rein them in.
Initiatives like Climate Week, on the other hand, paint companies like EDF, RBS and Tesco as friendly and green, taking the heat off them and allowing them to continue driving us into climate meltdown. This kind of corporate sponsorship cynically uses people's goodwill and enthusiasm as a marketing exercise, a distraction tactic to focus attention away from the real culprits.
While Climate Week has been successful at getting a lot of local groups on board, it’s very telling to look at who isn’t supporting the week. Where are Friends of the Earth. Greenpeace, and WWF? There’s no sign of Oxfam, Christian Aid or the World Development Movement either – it seems that no-one with any serious political analysis of climate change wants to go anywhere near it. In fact, if you search Climate Week’s website you’ll find it takes no noticeable position on climate change at all. It’s as though it’s something happening in a vacuum, with no political implications, that can be solved purely through goodwill and by “inspiring” enough people.
Back in the real world, climate change is deeply political: carbon-intensive industries pour millions of dollars into politicians’ campaign funds, and promise them short-term economic boosts to placate the public; in return, governments subsidise dirty industries with billions of dollars, making their fossil-fuelled products and services seem artificially cheap. This all happens within an economic system based on the impossible dream of endless growth on a finite planet; a system that is stripping out the Earth’s resources and trashing the climate in order to generate temporary wealth that overwhelmingly benefits the minority at the top.
As I found when researching my new book, we do indeed need local groups and institutions to start putting climate solutions in place – but more importantly, we need to be challenging corporate power and government inaction, creating serious social and economic change. However helpful Climate Week may be with the former task, it’s set to greatly undermine the latter, more crucial goal: next week, schools, workplaces and community centres will be filled with leaflets touting the supposedly “green” credentials of the very businesses we urgently need to be challenging.
Small is beautiful
Which is all a huge shame, because we don’t need corporate sponsorship to hold great local events. Most of the people organising activities for Climate Week would probably have held their own events anyway at some point, just with fewer glossy flyers and without a swanky awards ceremony. Inspiring initiatives all over the UK. from Transition Towns to Grow Heathrow are putting grassroots climate solutions in place without any help from big polluting funders.
So to any action groups, schools, and workplaces thinking of taking part in Climate Week I say: go for it, celebrate your achievements, organise some great events and spread the climate message. But don’t do it under RBS and Tesco’s dodgy Climate Week banner – make your own publicity that gives the credit to you and your community instead. In fact, why not join People & Planet or the UK Tar Sands Network in organising some anti-greenwash actions at your local bank or supermarket? Let’s take climate action back into our own hands, where it belongs – and craft our own powerful campaigns without the need for corporate logos.
Danny Chivers is author of the 'No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change'. You can read the first chapter of the book free online here
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