Tim Root argues for a grass-roots campaign as governments opt out.
Crunch time approaches, both for humanity, and the environmental movement. The International Energy Agency has warned that if we fail to cut fossil fuels significantly within five years, so much carbon will have been emitted that the chance of avoiding dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever”. No global climate deal will be implemented before 2020 at the earliest, if ever. In 2010, despite economic stagnation in the wealthy nations, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 6% compared to 2009. Severe disasters in the first half of 2011 suggest that it will be the costliest disaster year ever. Over a million homes were destroyed in Pakistan’s second successive year of flooding, which had killed two thousand people and submerged a sixth of the whole country in 2010. 356 people died in this year’s Thai floods, while nine hundred died in a Brazilian mudslide caused by torrential rain. In 2010, there were 230,000 disaster-related deaths.
This underlines that our campaigns are not making the rapid progress we need. The measures we have been able to get governments to implement have been inadequate. It has been estimated that by 2012 the Kyoto protocol will have led to emissions cuts of less than a third of 1% . European governments’ main climate policy, the Emissions Trading Scheme, has a carbon price of only €9 to €10, when the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has said it needs to be at least €100. Western nations’ emissions rose 7% from 1990 to 2008, once imports are taken into account. Only one person in six thinks the Copenhagen Accord will become a legally binding treaty. This scepticism makes it hard for us to mobilise enough pressure on governments. Nicholas Stern and Fatih Birol have warned of their “dangerous” complacency.
Leaked World Bank documents indicate that the wealthy nations are unlikely to raise the $30 billion in climate finance they pledged for poor nations for 2010-12, or the $100 billion per year to be paid by 2020. The G20 failed this November even to discuss ending fossil fuel subsidies, despite having committed two years ago to end them. Even on an issue all the nations considered very urgent, economic stabilisation, the G20 was unable to reach any useful decisions, leading one commentator to call it the bleakest global meeting since 1999. Instead, the nuclear powers plan to spend billions upgrading their weapons over the next decade, with the USA expected to spend a staggering $700 billion. This is probably linked to the struggle for resources, particularly in the Arctic now the sea ice is melting.
So while we continue trying to get radical government action, we should consider what the British foreign secretary’s climate change adviser John Ashton (founder of green think tank E3G) described as “the choice between what needs to be done but looks impossible, and what can be done but is clearly not enough”. He concludes “realism lies in expanding the limits of the possible, not in nourishing the delusion that something else might help”. Some green NGOs’ current campaigns are clearly not ambitious enough to make the difference we need. For example Germany’s leading green NGO Bund is demanding that the country cut its electricity consumption by 10% by 2020. This would be an achievement, but it falls far short of what we need. At Facebook’s current rate of growth, it would triple its electricity consumption by 2020, when it would be using more electricity than the current usage of Germany, France, Canada and Brazil combined. Greenpeace International’s list of online actions asks people to urge Facebook, which is using coal generated electricity, to develop a plan to be coal free by 2021. Again, this timescale is not quick enough for us to achieve significant emissions cuts within five years. We will not inspire potential supporters to action if we appear to be aiming only at small parts of a large problem. Many leading environmentalists have urged us to be more ambitious. George Monbiot wrote that climate change campaigns have reached an impasse and need to explore new strategies. Former Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett said that “something much more powerfully proactive is required”, and added that the Green movement has the resources to stimulate sufficient support. The more time passes with no climate campaign able to attract large-scale support, the more that many citizens who are concerned about climate change will divert their attention, due to discouragement.
Campaign experts Chris Rose and Jim Shultz both emphasise that we need to target those who have the ability to make the decisions we want. At present this is industry more than governments, which do not consider public opinion strong enough for them to prioritise climate change. Those most directly responsible for greenhouse gas pollution, able to reduce it soonest, are the producers of and investors in fossil fuels. The most direct way we can influence them is to hit their profits with a boycott. Boycotts have a long record of success, and business leaders consider them more effective than other campaign tactics. Successful boycotts include one which led to the preservation of a vast area of Canadian forest, and another in which students in 130 universities worldwide got Russell Athletic to reopen a factory they had closed when the workers formed a union.
A global boycott campaign could harness the widespread suspicion/hostility towards big business and the banks, of which the Occupy movement is just the tip of the iceberg. Jonathon Porritt recently said that in future the defining political mood will be anger, and that we need to tap into it. Much of the anger at mass unemployment could be channelled into anger at investments in dirty fossil fuels rather than renewables and energy conservation, which create far more jobs. Our headline might be
Boycott climate destroyers!
Clean green jobs – not dirty coal and oil!
(or something similar). The Tck Tck Tck petition gained 17 million supporters, most of whom would back a call to boycott selected companies most responsible for climate change. A recent survey found that 45% of consumers said they would avoid brands that failed to cut their carbon footprint. Opinion polls continue to show that most people throughout the world regard climate change as a serious problem. The campaign could make investments in particularly high emissions activities, e.g. tar sands, or agriculture on deforested land, appear likely to a) become unprofitable, and b) severely harm a company’s reputation. Renewables would then become a more attractive investment. Banks are already wary of financing polluting activities, and a boycott campaign could make the vital difference. A relatively small cut in income can reduce a company’s share price significantly and seriously hit executives’ income. Every year about three per cent of bank customers switch accounts, and many thousands of young people open their first account. This constitutes substantial consumer power we could influence. Six percent switched in 2007. Recent research has identified the banks most guilty of harming the climate.
Many people lack confidence in other campaigning options, due partly to the failure of Copenhagen. But boycotting products on a campaign’s list is a simple action, which a great many people would find both convenient, attractive, and empowering. For most people, striking an immediate economic hit on a major polluter is much more appealing than a politician-focused action whose results will not be known for a considerable time. Moreover compared to the massive goal of an intergovernmental agreement, hitting specific companies’ profits can be seen as an achievable objective, which Rose recommends campaigns should pursue. Activists could enlist support for the boycott at any time, anywhere significant numbers of people are accessible. Therefore many more people would become active, beyond the minority who are prepared to travel for a day to a demonstration, or the even smaller number prepared to risk arrest in direct action. And as Greenpeace has nearly three million members throughout the world, and Friends of the Earth over two million, there are plenty of activists to promote and sustain the boycott campaign. A global campaign could soon gain enormous publicity simply due to its bold ambition. Concerned citizens would see it as much more worthy of support than the campaigns for small incremental advances described above. It could trigger the “scale shift” described by political scientists, in which activists start to see their local struggle as part of a broader movement shared by others far away, whose goals they can share and whose tactics they can emulate. Thus those opposing “mountaintop removal” by coal companies in West Virginia could see that they were fighting the same opponent as flood victims in Thailand, and that the global boycott was an effective method for them both.
Of course, success is not guaranteed. While some boycotts have been very or largely successful, many have not won enough support. However, we have by far the world’s biggest issue. There are many celebrities who have supported environmental causes whom we could recruit. An important Vatican report warned earlier this year of the need to tackle climate change promptly. There are several religious environmental groups which can reach huge numbers of believers. Therefore it should be possible to get some prominent religious leaders to urge their followers to back the boycott. Above all, the campaign could motivate supporters who would see that its urgent and comprehensive aims warranted their commitment.
Many activists, frustrated by government inaction, are currently attracted to various types of direct action to try and reduce climate change. Certain direct action helps campaigns, especially if most people perceive political channels to achieve the objective to be unavailable. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that when such direct action inconveniences ordinary people, it is perceived negatively by most people, and thus is likely to lose political support. The media attention it gets in those circumstances is nearly all negative, and also reduces the space for media coverage of other campaigns which the public would perceive more positively.
Which products and companies should the boycott campaign target first? Before any definite decisions were taken, research should be undertaken with focus groups, and NGOs should debate the issue. However I will outline my exploratory research on the topic. Companies targeted would need to be susceptible in terms of making significant profit selling goods and services which enough potential supporters a) buy, and b) would be willing to cease buying or buy instead from a non-targeted company. The companies targeted would also need to be distinctive in terms of arousing enough negativity to motivate sufficient people to boycott them. Most Westerners are accustomed to using many high carbon products, and would resent a campaign which they felt tried to induce guilt about their lifestyle. Therefore we need to select products which can be perceived as particularly polluting.
One major activity which most people would regard as indefensible if they knew its consequences is tar sands oil, as its production causes a) much greater CO 2 emissions than that of ordinary oil, and b) major local pollution in Alberta. It is difficult to make sufficient impact by boycotting only the banks and companies which invest in tar sands, which include nearly all the major oil companies. Only a small minority of people are ready for the major lifestyle change of driving much less. Therefore I suggest that we boycott a list of selected high-carbon exports from Canada, and the United States, which is considering allowing tar sands oil to be piped into the USA for refining. While such a boycott would not directly hit all the most guilty companies, all the products it would hit would be high-carbon, whether in their production or their transportation. Targeted businesses not involved in tar sands exploitation would have a strong incentive to put pressure on governments to reduce those activities. Governments would see that their nation’s economy could be badly hit by the boycott. The campaign would inform targeted companies of steps they could take to be removed from the boycott, both through reducing their carbon footprint, and publicly urging their government to stop supporting the tar sands or other outrageous sources of carbon pollution. In some cases we should give the company some notice before boycotting, so it had the chance to clean up its act first.
Other reasons for including American high carbon exports include its government’s “furious” lobbying against the inclusion of aviation in the European Emissions Trading Scheme, its support for biofuels, which take 40% of its corn crop and cause additional emissions, and its recent authorisation of large-scale coal-mining in Wyoming, which is equivalent to opening 300 new coal fired power plants and running them for a year. No doubt our opponents would appeal to patriotism to oppose the boycott. However many Americans, including the twelve thousand who surrounded the White House in November to oppose the tar sands pipeline, would support the boycott. Its publicity would emphasise that specified American products would be withdrawn from the boycott once the government ceased backing the tar sands, opposing the European Emissions Trading Scheme, facilitating additional coal burning, or whichever other priorities we set.
Along with the USA and Canada, Australia has much higher CO 2 emissions per head than the other populous nations. It is also the world’s biggest coal exporter. Many people would boycott a list of its high-carbon exports or decide not to go there on holiday. Tourism accounts for 6.5% of Australia’s economy, and is Canada’s fifth largest source of foreign earnings. Visitors to the United States spent over $100 billion in 2010. Just a small reduction in travel to these countries could have a huge impact.
Focusing on tar sands, with its dreadful local pollution, and coal, which has had a dirty and dangerous image for decades, would avoid some potential supporters being put off by the anxiety which would be provoked if the campaign had an exclusive emphasis on future climate disaster.
Other targets could include car manufacturers which are failing to improve their vehicles’ fuel efficiency. We would not include too many targets, as otherwise the negative publicity each suffered would be diluted.
A campaign as described above would need to gain credibility, so people could have faith that the strategy was sound. Therefore it would need the backing of a few large NGOs with an established reputation. Such NGOs would be wise to bear in mind findings that alliances of a number of NGOs are a very effective way to campaign. This is probably because if a person has heard of one of more of the alliance partners, they think “well, if all these organisations think this campaign is a good idea, it must be.” Moreover a campaign launched by a global coalition would inspire support through its international unity. People know that only worldwide action will be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. We have appealed to politicians’ consciences for a long time. Now we need to assert our combined purchasing power and avert disaster, while we still have time!