Inspiring hope for an effective climate campaign

| 20th July 2018
The Ecologist
The long summer drought in the UK gives as a glimpse of what climate change could deliver. Yet the country seems utterly distracted by Brexit. And people have little faith in the UK government or the European Union to deliver on the Paris Accord. Perhaps it's time we took matters into our own hands, argues TIM ROOT

Target companies could include HSBC, which in response to activist pressure including the Climate Serious petition has introduced a somewhat improved energy policy.

Droughts in Southern Africa, wildfires which killed over a hundred people in Portugal in 2017: we repeatedly see the growing havoc of climate change.

We have only a few years to cut emissions enough to keep temperature rise below 2°C, as former UN climate change chief Christiana Figueres and leading scientists have warned.

As Professor Chris Rapley said in the Ecologist recently, progress is “absolutely not at the scale, or pace that is necessary.”

There are vigorous campaigns against new fossil fuel developments, for instance the inspiring resistance to the proposed Kinder Morgan tar sands oil pipeline  in Canada. However efforts to cut emissions overall are far too slow.

Not very likely

Faced with huge dilemmas, like how to tackle climate change, people’s default position is to follow the excessively risk-averse approach Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, in which potential setbacks are given disproportionate weight in decision making.

As a result, goals which lack the necessary ambition are chosen. If we proceeded in this way, we would probably regret it in a few years when, despite any apparent victories on our modest campaigns, feedbacks due to temperature rise had led to accelerated climate change.

Instead, as Friends of the Earth Director Craig Bennett said, our campaigns must “really scale up the ambition of the transformational change we need.”

We need goals which sufficient people will consider both achievable, and large enough to make a significant difference. We will not stimulate people to rise to the challenge unless we communicate “a credible strategy that is to scale with the climate crisis”.

A large poll in eighteen European countries found that high proportions of people consider it either not at all likely, or not very likely “that enough governments will take action on climate change”.

Susceptible businesses

Two-thirds of Germans, and over half in both France and the UK have this belief. Governments’ plans submitted at Paris, even if implemented, would lead to temperature rise of at least 3°C.

The May round of UN climate negotiations was suspended in disarray. While some countries and regions have started to price carbon, the price is far too low to cut emissions and drive investment in renewables sufficiently.

This all underlines the importance of pushing business, as well as governments, to cut emissions. The eminent researcher, Ed Maibach, stated: “people who are concerned about climate change are much more likely to express their concern through their purchases as a consumer … [than] to engage politically as citizens.”

Therefore we urgently need a new campaign targeting selected susceptible businesses which could be pushed into making large emissions cuts soon.

Many large companies could follow the example of Lego and others and save substantial sums by investing more in energy efficiency or contracting to use renewable energy.

Dirty energy

The proposed campaign would flood the companies with demands from thousands of citizens, and create publicity imaginatively, to pressure and embarrass them to reduce, or cease funding, specific polluting activities.

Targeted companies, which consider their “brand strength” “critical”, would have a huge incentive to improve before their reputation and profits were seriously hit.

A relatively small cut in profits can reduce a company’s share price significantly and seriously hit executives’ income. As the leading management consultancy PWC said, companies take great care to “anticipate possible risks and opportunities before they materialize”.

We can show them that the risk of high carbon operation is too great, and that energy efficiency and using renewables would boost their reputation and profits.

Certain banks which invest the most in dirty energy could be among the targets. Current account switching has been made much less hassle than previously.

Coal mining

There are over 40 banks and building societies listed by the Current Account Switching Service.  Ethical Consumer ranks them in terms of their overall ethics.

Every year about fourteen million people invest in savings accounts, about three per cent of bank customers switch accounts, and millions of young people open their first account.

All this constitutes substantial consumer power we could influence. On and in the weeks around Bank Transfer Day in the USA in 2011, 650,000 customers shifted $4.5 billion out of major banks.

Target companies could include HSBC, which in response to activist pressure including the Climate Serious petition has introduced a somewhat improved energy policy.

However, it is continuing to finance substantial coal mining in three countries, leading the campaign group BankTrack to point out that HSBC is Happy Still Being in Coal.

Irresponsible companies

The Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card 2018 shows that HSBC are the 7th worst bank in the world for financing the dirtiest, most climate-harmful fossil fuels.  They have failed to follow the example of thirteen European banks which have stopped direct funding of coal power plants.

It would also be very helpful to enlist high-profile and respected supporters, provided they are well-chosen to stick to the campaign’s line. They can have a strong impact, as Bob Geldof did for Live Aid, and Mark Ruffalo for renewable energy.

One strength of the campaign would be that it would offer supporters a range of actions, from signing a petition to the target companies, joining other activists to collect petition signatures outside target companies’ premises, embarrassing the companies at their AGMs, or by visiting their premises to highlight their failures, using music and drama.

Posing a major threat to various high-emitting companies, and therefore potentially also to many others before long, could create the well-known radical flank effect, making business and governments more receptive than previously to the demands of less radical environmental groups.

The campaign would show all large companies that citizens will not tolerate them wrecking our climate, and that they could be targeted next. Once the initial target companies had made adequate commitments, the campaign would target other irresponsible companies. You can contact me to help make this campaign a reality, telling all businesses: go green, or go bust!

This Author

Tim Root is co-ordinator of Muswell Hill & Hornsey Friends of the Earth. Tim’s work on climate campaigns has previously been published in a few magazines, including at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/tim-root/prospects-for-paris

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