The UK Climate Movement: Eight Reasons to be Optimistic

by Guy Shrubsole

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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First published: 28 January, 2013

Category: Activism, Environment

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19 Comments on "The UK Climate Movement: Eight Reasons to be Optimistic"

By Christopher Shaw, on 28 January 2013 - 08:51 |

I would question your optimism.

Firstly I don’t agree with your interpretation of Boykoff’s graph. There was a peak in 2009-2010 around Copenhagen, otherwise current coverage is around where it was 2006 and looks like it is on it’s way back down again. Additionally the nature of the coverage is just as important as the quantity (see my forthcoming paper in Global Environmental Change ‘Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: public representations of the decision-making process’ for an examination of that).

Secondly, and more importantly, your optimism has no grounding in the physical changes in the climate happening now at 0.8 degrees of warming. All the campaigning and climate friendly capitalism which you look forward to is only a cause for celebration if you consider two degrees of warming as some utopian future which avoids dangerous climate change. You are pretty much on your own if that is your vision of a two degree world.

By Neil, on 28 January 2013 - 10:43 |

I concur with Christopher Shaw’s pessimism and the causes he cites here. Re the point about media coverage - I would go even further than Shaw and suggest that the nature of the coverage is *more* important than the quantity because the latter reflects on attempts to shape the narrative about the causal meaning and proper responses to the problem, whereas quantity implies no meaning or even action, and even less direction. Secondly, I too share Shaw’s opinion that the author’s optimism only makes sense in relation to the possible achievability of a very moderate (and in my view dangerous) level of increase.

I would like to suggest though another cause for the author’s optimism which Shaw alludes to and which comes through strongly in the article.  The narrative which Shrubsole is adding  a layer to here is about the potential of capitalist reformism - green capitalism and the green technological fix - to *solve* our problems.  When I read articles like this I suspect that what makes these kinds of environmentalists most optimistic and pleased is any sign that the door is opening wider for green corporatism of which they are part. For this type of environmentalist building ‘successful careers’ and getting into positions of power (i.e. hobnobbing with political and policy elites - and possibly corporate too) on the back of their ‘cause’ seems to be for them *the* critical marker of success, rather than participating in developing successful mass social and political movements that might challenge the power structures that drive growth.  With friends like these who needs enemies?

By Aubrey Meyer, on 28 January 2013 - 11:17 |

The main problem with NGO activism at COP-15 was the random and prescriptive nature of their platform. Greenpeace led that with what they claim was a global carbon-budget that had no organisational principle to make possible a negotiation based on quantifying and sharing it. Even Governments were slightly better oprgnaised than that [which is not saying much].

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it [Greenpeace item here]: -

By Barry Woods, on 28 January 2013 - 11:42 |

Any climate fix is going to be down to China and India, and even Germany is building new coal fired power stations.. 

Guy would have been wise to listen to Dieter Helm at the IPPR meeting, rather than shooting the messenger.

China’s PER capita emission are ahead of the EU, this focusing on the UK /EU less than 14% of world emissions, is really a western conceit, in denial of the world dependence on coal for growth, which has brought 500 million Chinese out of abject poverty.. 

By Josh, on 28 January 2013 - 11:49 |

With regard to your second point, this makes interesting reading:

By Barry Woods, on 28 January 2013 - 11:53 |

Phil Thornhill regional cordinator (just stepped down ) of the Campaign Against Climate Change, is perhaps more realistic about the current situation.

Don’t mention climate change - Phil Thornhill


“But it does raise the question: what does FOE actually exist for, anyway? It raises the whole issue of NGOs and what ultimate aim they exist for rather than simply to propagate their own corporate identity and existence. Arguably it’s the latter that’s becoming the main aim - or at least that significant conflicts have emerged between this arguably necessary aim and what their ultimate aim really is or should be.

In the case of FOE,  I was inspired, as a member, some years ago, when Tony Juniper took over (whether connected with his arrival or not) it did look like we were really going to get our act together on climate. Indeed,  significant victories, like the Climate Act, have been won since. But I am aghast that after the much more critical defeat at the international level at Copenhagen and even as the evidence that climate change is happening much more quickly than anyone thought reaches a deafening crescendo the issue seems to have been de-prioritised – behind bees !!”

By Ben Pile, on 28 January 2013 - 12:15 |

Barry raises an interesting point from Phil Thornhill - ‘what does FOE actually exist for…’

The foreword of Tony Juniper’s latest book—what has nature ever done for us—was written by none other than HRH Prince Charles. Juniper has enjoyed less lofty heights, perhaps, serving only as Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International and Green Party candidate. Notably, the Author of the blog post above works for the same NGO. 

That author is right to observe that ‘Social movements wax and wane’. But do ‘left’ ‘social movements’ ever enjoy such proximity to relics of feudalism, and doesn’t the coincidence of large environmental organisations to such anti-democratic anachronisms undermine the author’s claims to being part of a ‘new’ ‘left’ project? Neil observes the green corporatism at work here. I believe the problem is deeper. Environmentalists’ claim to be a ‘social movement’, or part of the ‘left’ is entirely undermined by their almost total eschewing of politics, to the extent that they wouldn’t recognise a social movement even if it turned up to lynch them. Much less do they notice themselves constructing green corporatism. This is as much a ‘left project’ as is buying a Che t-shirt. 

By Paul Matthews, on 28 January 2013 - 13:03 |

As others have said, I think there’s a bit of wishful thinking going on here. 
On point 1, ‘thrown off depression’ - at Grist, David Roberts says “everything is awful”

On point 2, the latest US poll says only 49% believe in man-made global warming, down 7 points since 2007.

On point 4, re British politicians breaking climate silence, one word: Boris!

By Clayton Thomas-Muller, on 28 January 2013 - 13:06 |

Tar Sands?

By Neil, on 28 January 2013 - 13:12 |

Interesting to see the support my brief comment has generated. Why I spoke about green corporatism is that I think the implicit class agenda of this type of environmental NGO tends to be overlooked. I see their corporatist and top-down campaigning and lobbying approach and suppression* of the development of left social movements in the developed countries (which is how I interpret their climate silence and current focus on the likes of bees) as a corollary of their hidden class agenda. 

I’m not really a climate change activist (unless one calls a bit of local Transition activity that); I considered joining GP or FoE but when I saw what their focus was and the way they were organised and operating  I wasn’t interested. Speaking therefore as a lay outsider in this debate I wonder whether the climate change justice movement has become irredeemably hijacked by a rising politico-corporate elite, insular and detached from other (interconnected) issues, cut off from grassroots society, and too reformist. I am beginning to wonder therefore whether an end to *Growth* (a steady sate economy-society) rather than single issue climate change is potentially a far more holistic and radical objective around which a large part of the left might unite and construct a broad alliance of social movements? 

By Ben Pile, on 28 January 2013 - 15:21 |

Neil, environmental politics was always about using a sense of (ecological) crisis to suspend political debate about more material economic crises. Mark Lynas gave the game away in 2004 in Red Pepper magazine, of all places: 

>>The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere.<< -

The putative left has been unable to respond critically to that kind of argument, and has instead sought to absorb the eco-centric perspective at the expense of its traditional theoretical ground and constituency. Hence, the disarray and the endless ‘rebooting’ of the climate change ‘movement’ that the post above observes, albeit only partially. On most green perspectives the working class are a *problem* for their consumption habits, rather than the agent of change. Notice HRH complaining about consumer society—an easy thing to complain about when your own fridges occupy a space larger than most people’s houses.

But what caught my eye in your comment at 13:12 was your discussion of steady-state economics perhaps being a better foundation for a more progressive left than climate. I would suggest it’s more of the same. It’s what you do with growth, rather than growth itself which is the problem. Being against growth is surely to make an argument for austerity. After all, the problem for the current and previous government is that they have been unable to produce growth at all. You won’t find any constituency more sceptical of growth than the establishment and capitalist classes of today.

By David Wearing, on 28 January 2013 - 16:34 |

I suspect that what makes these kinds of environmentalists most optimistic and pleased is any sign that the door is opening wider for green corporatism of which they are part. For this type of environmentalist building ‘successful careers’ and getting into positions of power (i.e. hobnobbing with political and policy elites - and possibly corporate too) on the back of their ‘cause’ seems to be for them *the* critical marker of success, rather than participating in developing successful mass social and political movements that might challenge the power structures that drive growth.  With friends like these who needs enemies?

I find it hard to see the value in this sort of comment. What you “suspect” about a person’s motivations is neither here nor there, in the absence of any evidence. Yes it may be that the author is a cynical careerist. Alternatively, it may just be that he has reached a different point of view from yours, and done so in honesty and good faith. Either way, it would be more productive to argue your differences out on their merits.

By Geoff Chambers, on 28 January 2013 - 17:44 |

I’m sure you’re right in saying that: “the drop in trust was probably more down to two cold winters and the recession than the work of the sceptics.”
Both climate activists and sceptics wildly overestimate the importance of climate change among members of the general public. While it’s easy enough to get respondents to an opinion poll to assent to vague generalisations about our planet being in danger, or whatever, whenever the question of climate change is posed in a more general context of other issues, it almost invariably comes way down the list.  
You say:
“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.”
I’m not so sure. The last time I looked at the UKYCC site, they were getting about one tweet a day, and still no comments. The when I posted a couple of articles about them,
 I suddenly got 500+ hits, most of them via Facebook. It’s a very silent, passive sort of activism.

By Neil, on 28 January 2013 - 17:51 |

David - I am not intuiting motivations out of thin air - I am trying to interpret a political strategy from patterns of observed behaviour.  Although I hope I’m not reductionist I’m afraid that I cannot entirely separate people’s espoused political positions from their actual or potential economic interests or, I should say rather, questioning the possible relationship between them. I accept that I may be wrong about the evidence or its interpretation, however I may not be entirely alone in that view.  Whether or not discussing this subject is of ‘value’ seems to beg the question whether or not it is true, and if it’s not of value then to whom or what. Co-option, whether you like it or not, is a reality of radical politics of which I’ve seen my share in my life. By all means let’s have an open debate about this - let others present alternative evidence and theories as to what is going on. I remain open to a better explanation.

Ben Pile - I don’t believe that indefinite growth is either desirable or feasible.  I believe it’s a destructive pathological obsession in our civilisation. As I see it one of the reasons that the climate change opposition movement - and Occupy for that matter - either ran out of steam or turned reformist is that the mainstream remains wedded to a growth paradigm , and given that then the solution will almost inevitably continue to be seen as capitalist and technological. It restricts the diagnosis of our problems and limits their apparent potential solutions. 

By Roddy Campbell, on 28 January 2013 - 19:41 |

I probably shouldn’t comment on a Left blog, but I never understand how people can deny growth desirability.  What was Stevenson doing with the steam engine, should he have just kept quiet? etc etc etc Steve Jobs DNA Ford Columbus Curie - we gave your boys a hell of a beating etc.

Growth happens.  There’s a weird pathology around these days I quite agree, an obsession with it, make it happen by twiddling fiscal knobs, because without it we are lost - that’s nonsense.  Just less nonsense than a desire for no growth.

Growth brought my mum a hip operation and all that.  It’s good.  Gives us life.  And it’s been indefinite so far, you’re very brave to call the top.  It’s really obviously desirable.  It’s why I and my brother lived, and our equivalent in 1960 somewhere else like China wouldn’t have - medical technology and ambulances and stuff.

Moderate me out if OT.



By Neil, on 28 January 2013 - 20:11 |

To avoid possible further misunderstanding I should clarify that my statements about ‘these kinds of environmentalists’ was generally alluding to the upper echelons of these organisations, point 6 in this article in particular, and their implementation of, as I see it, a top-down model of change. I was *not* referring to the author of this article in particular as I do not know anything about him personally other than that he is a campaigner for FoE.

By Geoff Chambers, on 28 January 2013 - 20:56 |

With 31 links in this article (including one to Vivienne Westwood’s “Climate Revolution“ site) it’s going to take a while to reply to all the points raised by Guy.
Take his claim about green jobs: the link is to a Green Alliance report whose cover shows a pinman wearing a Union Jack standing proud above a German, a Brazilian, and a Chinaman (is this a bad joke?)
The report, which contains hundreds and  hundreds of similar pinmen standing in rows, and little else, raises many claims about the Green Economy, including the perfectly incredible one that the green economy represents 9% of the total economy. 
The source for this claim is:
- a government report which at least makes some effort to define what they mean by a green job. They mean: everyone working in the nuclear industry, water supply and treatment, and waste management, among many others. In other words, every dustbin man, plumber and sewage worker, plus a proportion of all petrol pump attendants where they sell ethanol, every bus driver whose bus runs on ethanol, every ticket seller in the bus company, and every market researcher, advertising executive, and green think tank activist who is employed to tell us what a marvellous success story it is.  
A left-wing movement which takes its evidence from official documents of a Tory government and the “revolutionary” website of a peddler of sexy underwear is clearly in a bad way.

By Neil, on 05 February 2013 - 12:06 |

Although I don’t agree with its class politics, political philosophy, and goals, the article ‘Green Social Democracy’ by Michael Jacobs (see Social Europe Journal) seems relevant to the preceding debate. In my opinion it outlines the political-economic terrain into which the major environmental  NGOs appear to be moving.

By James P, on 18 March 2013 - 11:26 |

“I confidently predict that 2013 will see the climate movement rebooted.”

I can see that joining David Viner’s 2000 remark that “children just aren’t going to know what snow is”. Unless, of course, ‘rebooted’ means into the long grass…

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