The UK Climate Movement: Eight Reasons to be Optimistic

by Guy Shrubsole

Have environmental activists finally recovered from their post-Copenhagen exhaustion? Why we’re about to see a renaissance of climate campaigns

First published: 28 January, 2013 | Category: Activism, Environment

Social movements wax and wane. Arguably, British feminism has recently experienced some renaissance, with dozens of new groups and a surge of activism. In contrast, the UK climate movement – which burst onto the political scene in the mid-2000s – has been in the doldrums since the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks in late 2009. All that, however, may be about to change. I confidently predict that 2013 will see the climate movement rebooted.

Before I explain the reasons for my optimism, let me outline what I mean by the ‘climate movement’. There have been civil society campaigns about global warming since 1988, when Friends of the Earth launched one of the first. But there was little by way of a concerted public debate about climate change until 2005, when Tony Blair put it on the agenda for the G8 summit in Gleneagles. New groups proliferated – Climate Camp, Climate Rush, Stop Climate Chaos and the UK Youth Climate Coalition - organisational innovation being one sure marker of movement health. Media interest in the issue skyrocketed, even holding up initially after the credit crunch hit.

The climate movement never spoke with one voice, often fell out, and had much that was dysfunctional about it. But it achieved some great successes: the end of new coal in the UK, the halting of Heathrow’s third runway, and the world-leading Climate Change Act.

Then came Copenhagen, which sucked hope and energy out of the movement. Media interest in the issue soured less positively with ‘climategate’, then seemed to tail off almost altogether. Public attention moved from the environment to the worsening economy, and the activist community became preoccupied with combating the austerity drive. David Cameron's vague promise to lead ‘the greenest government ever’ curdled, with his Chancellor George Osborne doing everything he can to end the cross-party consensus on climate change, threatening a new dash for gas and the abandoning of carbon targets.

But beneath the surface gloom things are changing and here are eight reasons to be cheerful:

1. Climate campaigners have finally thrown off the exhaustion and depression that has dogged the movement since Copenhagen. As Thom Yorke recounted after witnessing the failure of the climate talks, “you know what has stunned me coming back is the anger you can taste in the air about this…” So much effort was poured into activism in 2009 that it was inevitable that it would take time to rebuild energy afterwards.

2. The climate sceptics’ mission to destroy public trust in climate science has utterly failed. Public belief that global warming is real and manmade is now back to pre-Climategate levels. Indeed, the drop in trust was probably more down to two cold winters and the recession than the work of the sceptics.

3. Activists are getting organised again. Stop Climate Chaos, the umbrella body for environment and development groups on climate, recently held its first public demo since 2009. There are whispers that Climate Camp may yet live again. Lush have teamed up with Vivienne Westwood to launch Climate Revolution. When protestors from new direct action group No Dash for Gas occupied West Burton gas power station – and held it for an entire week – they were not only signaling the return of environmental direct action to British shores, but showing its continued viability following the trauma of police infiltration by “spycops” like Mark Kennedy.

4. Like Barack Obama, British politicians have finally started to break their ‘climate silence'. After his strong performance at DECC, Ed Miliband’s failure to make a single speech on the environment in two years of being Labour leader felt like a betrayal. Now he has intervened strongly, and committed Labour to a progressive position on power sector decarbonisation, the Westminster debate on climate is hotting up again.

5. The international media have started to talk about climate once more. As academic Max Boykoff’s data graphically show, press mentions of climate change and global warming are rapidly rising again, after two-and-a-half years in a trough.

6. A new generation that fundamentally understands the perils of a warming planet is stepping up to the mark. A fresh cohort under thirty, whose whole lives will be shaped by the climate problem, are moving into careers and positions of power that will strengthen a new climate movement.

7. A larger constituency of support for climate action now exists in the form of a burgeoning green economy. Even the CBI argues ‘green is working’, with almost a million people employed in green jobs, and the sector being one of the few to grow during the UK’s recent stagnation. Recounting this isn’t to say ‘green growth’ arguments are flawless, nor even the best way to argue the case for tackling carbon emissions. Such co-benefits for taking action don’t sum to the full case for avoiding catastrophic climate change. But the scaling-up of economic activity to prevent global warming is an important step on from the traditional crude dichotomy of ‘economy’ versus ‘environment’.

8. Climate change is becoming much more tangible to people in the West. This is hardly much of a reason to be cheerful, of course. Yet it is at least becoming an additional motivator to action. Whilst developing countries continue to bear the brunt of climate impacts, we are beginning to glimpse that future for ourselves too in the past year of climate-induced weather extremes, from drought to flooding, and Hurricane Sandy in the US.

Finally, of course, the climate movement is reawakening in the UK because of new political threats. George Osborne is threatening to undo the achievements of the first climate movement through his new “dash for gas”, new “roads to nowhere”, and new reappraisal of airport capacity.

Two key fights loom. Firstly, this spring will see a major battle to defy Osborne and put a 2030 decarbonisation target into the Energy Bill sitting before Parliament – which, if passed, would commit the country to cleaning up its electricity in a generation. Secondly, coming up on the horizon is a review of the 4th carbon budget that Osborne and some Treasury officials would dearly like to use to water down our climate commitments, when we should be strengthening them. At the heart of both of these battles is a bigger war: a war against a mindset that says all environmental regulation is simply a burden, that the UK can’t lead on climate change for fear of damaging its own competitiveness, and that greens are merely an ‘environmental Taliban’.

Facing such a confrontation, it is small wonder that movements thought asleep are stirring anew. With activists getting organised, the media taking an interest again and politicians spoiling for a fight, it is high time to reboot the climate movement. Perhaps it’s appropriate to draw on a natural metaphor to describe what is happening. Waves, like social movements, rise only to crash on the shore and fast dissipate; but they keep returning. And like a rising tide, we must hope that each time our movement returns, we inch a little further up the shoreline than last time.


Guy Shrubsole works as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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