How do we best stand up for what we believe in, and how do we make a change? Last week’s event saw three experts discuss the ways in which individuals and communities can make a real difference by embracing the power of community.
Damian Ryan: Director of Strategy at The Climate Group
We started up in the early 2000s when we noticed a gap in the environmental narrative. There were two main ways of looking at climate change, one was to look at it as something which signified everything that is wrong with society, the only solution being to stop burning fossil fuels and to start living simpler lives. The other perspective, the business perspective, was sceptical and doubted the science behind climate change. The solutions were too expensive and so solving climate change was a problem of the future, to be tackled when the economy would be stronger. We set up a group to work with businesses and governments, to look at climate change in a different way, as a business opportunity, an opportunity for job growth and to reduce pollution.
Gita Parihar: Independent legal consultant, solicitor, and former Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth England.
Now we are seeing more cases being brought about by youth and children. The Paris Agreement even talked about the rights of the younger generation to a good future but, once Paris was signed, the gloves came off. However, it is a great step forward that now cases are being brought up against corporations in terms of climate change. For example, people living in a village which is under a melting glacier are suing RWE for the costs of adaptation. Children in the USA also tried to bring about a lawsuit, but the Trump administration stopped it just as it was allowed to be heard. Despite the fact that many of these cases don’t win and have to appeal to be heard again, the principle that these cases can in fact now be heard is a great step forward. In Colombia, young plaintiffs are petitioning against the destruction of the Amazon and want younger people to have more of a say in policy. The cases bring up questions involving the relationship we have with nature, can it be monetised? Climate change has been made into an issue for science and technology, we have lost the connection to nature. But this connection to nature is what gets people to care and to connect, it’s what reaches out to people’s hearts.
Peter Lefort: UK Community Network Manager for the Eden Project
What does community activism actually mean? It is often broken up into 2 areas. One where people literally or figuratively chain themselves to a cause, and another where people don’t just challenge the system, but make it obsolete. For example, Oxfordshire has a very good recycling system, and this began as a result of community activism. We need the two areas to sit side by side – we can’t expect everyone to chain themselves to things. It is easy to see a campaign as being won or lost, but it is more complicated than this. The Eden Project connects people with each other via the natural world and one way in which it aims to do this is through space and community, to normalise and strengthen connections. It is easier for people to take new ideas on board if they feel a sense of community.
Do we need different methods of communication for different audiences when talking about climate change, e.g. businesses or individuals? Do you have distinct experiences of tension in the climate movement between people trying to communicate in different ways?
Peter: We do need different methods of communication but, ultimately, everyone is an individual. If we speak to everyone as an individual, we appeal to similar needs in terms of protecting the planet. We don’t want it to become too disparate.
Damian: Yes, you definitely do need a different kind of language to engage people. The Climate Group didn’t want to be seen as an activist organisation as this would damage its aim to speak to and relate with businesses. It is the same with government officials, we need to communicate with different audiences in a way that makes sense to them.
Gita: What is the communication for? Do you want to inform or engage people? People in other parts of the world are well aware of climate change, but here we need to engage people. Some businesses will just be looking at the profit line while others will actually look for what changes need to be made.
Damian: The word “ecosystem” is an important word to use: an ecosystem is made up of parts but works as a whole. Our group wouldn’t have the impact they have on businesses without other organisations, like Friends of the Earth, putting pressure them. On the other hand, some companies may not want to work with Friends of the Earth but will happily work with us.
What is the role of major fossil fuel companies and corporate organisations in the transition to a renewable future? Do we need to work with them or fight against them?
Gita: We have a theory of change. We look at where we are and where we need to get to. Fossil fuel companies are problematic; they will spend huge amounts of money on marketing “green” initiatives in order to boost their public image without making any real major differences. There are controversies over companies like ExxonMobil over what they share and what they hide, and climate change litigation is being brought about against the Carbon Majors, but we need to see a real willingness of these companies to make a change and stop destroying the planet.
Peter: There are companies that I would personally refuse to work with. Other people might say that we can work with big companies and change them from within, but it wouldn’t sit well with me. The idea of the emotional impact that climate change can have on us is important, and sometimes we need to set aside the anger and the idea of heroes and villains in order to focus on a common solution.
Damian: We also have a theory of change. We need to engage with the top 10% of business leaders, regardless of industry, otherwise nothing will ever get changed. One end of business is extremely progressive, take Paul Polman of Unilever, speaking publicly on how we need to change business. On the other hand, we have CEOs of big corporations who oppose and change to the status quo. But we are seeing change as a result of the drivers of policy, the cost of adaption and generational change. I expect the next generation of CEOs will be much more aware of the issues than the current CEOs. There are ways in which businesses are now being forced to make a change, for example the G20, Michael Bloomberg and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. These methods force large corporations to disclose the costs to the company posed by the risks brought about by climate change, and this will change the direction that investors go in. They will be looking to invest in climate-safe business models, and this is a game changer.
What advice do you have for people to make the transition from having strong opinions and feelings about the cause to actually building a network and making a change?
Peter: Normalising and encouraging building a network is the first step into activism. We need to build on the bonds of friendship and society, there is nothing more sustainable. It is about having a clear journey and connecting to people’s identities.
Gita: In legal cases, there are powerful narratives which engage the public. In terms of mobilisation, it is important not to let anger become fear and fear become paralysis. My left field response would be that people today are tired and busy and don’t have time to connect. They live in a state of fear and climate change brings just another thing to worry about. We need to approach life in a way so as to avoid being consumed by our jobs or by needing financial stability. We see the millennials wanting a work-life balance and this lifestyle is what creates the space to make change.
When you start thinking of putting a price on the environment, do we lose the ethical side? And how does law bring this ethical part back?
Gita: Our society is now one taken over by measuring and quantifying in almost every aspect of our lives. Our relationship with nature has eroded and this isn’t making people any happier. Our society is run not on what people need, but on what the market needs, and this needs to change. If a Pacific island goes underwater, there aren’t just economic damages to consider, but lost traditions and culture. How do you take them into account? There is a need to go back to the knowledge of the indigenous people in order to tackle climate change. We need to see what we’ve lost.
Damian: The system can be set up in such a way that the economic aspect is a useful tool to have, carbon pricing for example. A biofuel working group includes social and non-financial indicators in order to ensure that biofuel meets up to the standards.
Have you seen a change in the attitude to companies with large historical emissions now that climate litigation is being put in place?
Gita: My instinct is that it would instill some fear, whether a case is successful or not.
Damian: I think their first reaction would be to get the lawyers in. I don’t think they’re putting money aside, if they are public companies and they started doing this it would almost be an admission of guilt. There are however many companies divesting, BHP for example is ending their use of coal to move towards renewables. However, I think that this is driven mainly by economics rather than litigation.
A concern with taking a positive approach to businesses is that, do we have enough time? The companies in the global north don’t care enough about the people in the global south who are feeling the impacts of climate change. Volkswagen, for example, tried to get away with it and just put on a good public image. Do we need to pursue radical change?
Damian: It is important to engage businesses. Even if they are part of the problem, they also need to be part of the solution. Ultimately, it is our daily activities which drive climate change, and this is why community activism is so important. We are seeing changes occur, decarbonisation for example, but we need to get to zero emissions and so we go first to the energy sector and then onto transport, buildings, industry, agriculture etc. Economic drivers are causing these changes and fossil fuels are now viewed by many as a sunset industry. Five years ago, no one in the energy sector would have seen this coming and this shows how important it is to engage businesses in order to make change happen.
Gita: Although individual actions are important, there is only so much we can do as individuals living in this current political system. We need large scale structural change.
Peter: Climate change needs to be seen as a social justice issue, how it accelerates poverty and inequality. We need change from the bottom up and this is why we need community; one big change can be made as a result of years of non-violent protests and this can go on to set a blueprint for the rest of the world. We need to share stories of what individual people can do and the changes they can make.
Damian: On fossil fuel divestment, an amazing example is the Carbon Tracker Initiative, an NGO based in London who work on looking at stranded assets. They wouldn’t call themselves activists because they need to relate with the businesses they are working with, but they work as part of the system to change it from the inside. We need change from the top down as well as the bottom up if we want to change the system.
Gita: Carbon tracker is a great example of financial activism; they campaign using a language that businesses understand.
As activists we are often on the outside and don’t see the causal link or the moment where our actions
make an actual change. Have you seen this happen and where do the changes normally come from?
Damian: I personally haven’t seen it, I think that change comes about as a result of many actions. One example would be the Paris Agreement, there was a tipping point which led to it being created but it is difficult to say when or why exactly this tipping point occurred. We don’t know exactly where the moments come from, but they are a sum of many moments and businesses come to us because they see this result from the power of community.
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