Climate of Despair: The past, present and future of the UK climate “movement”

I wrote this for the last issue of a (frankly unlamented) magazine called “Shift.” They’ve put it on their website, with no link to the main page, and no comments box.  Which tells you what they think of it, or perhaps its author.  Maybe they’re right.

Climate of despair

Climate of despair: the past, present and ‘future’ of climate activism

Dwight Towers

A note on methodology/terminology. In this essay I use “Climate Camp” as a proxy for the nvda movement – of course there were also groups like Plane Stupid and local campaigns that used nvda either as a prominent tactic or as part of their identity-building.
I use Campaign against Climate Change as a proxy for the “revolutionary socialist” frame, though there were other groups (Socialist Resistance, The Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, the People’s Eco-Front of Judea).
I use “Friends of the Earth” and “Stop Climate Chaos” as proxies for the liberal-reformist frame. This is the most problematic of my three proxies, since the picture within that frame had far more players. That said, all the players were operating on a fairly narrow strip of political space. I ignore “Transition Towns,” since they were not aiming, it appears, to have a policy impact. And in that much they can be said to have succeeded.

This essay takes its time outlining some of the climate-related events in England between 2005 and 2010. It briefly touches on why things so Horribly Wrong before looking at what – if anything – is to be done now, in the backwash of failure.

Past: 2005 to 2008

Stop Climate Chaos – a classic umbrella organisation of NGOs – launches, with a photo-op at the London Eye. Promises are made about policy documents being forth coming. These promises continue to be made, intermittently, for years. Beyond “something must be done” and holding celebrity rallies in Trafalgar square (2006), SCC consistently punches below its weight. A 2006 analysis of the prominence that member organisations gave to climate change on their websites reveals that you can sign up and do nothing. Which is what most signatories appear to have done.

Climate Camp (emerging from Gleneagles 2005 discussions) is the moment many people got onboard. The August-September camp, at Drax power station happened at the end of media’s silly season (Parliament is in recess, and they are desperate for stories). This was a new enough story – “bunch of hippies and, lawks, normal people, against coal-fired power station” and being “sympathetic” suited the Independent and the Guardian. Hot on the heels of the Camp came Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth. In September Plane Stupid did its first airport action.

The year opened with the Stern Review and IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Climate Camp received an influx of new people, some of them obviously journalists looking for a story and curious careerists.
There was also a series of short-lived groups with names like “Leave it in the Ground”. At Heathrow Climate Camp had a “good year”, thanks to BAA trying to injunct half the population of the UK.
Meanwhile, in December the UNFCCC process set up a beautiful two year narrative- the “Bali Roadmap” to Copenhagen. This was to dominate people’s “thinking” over the following two years.
The Stop Climate Chaos lot were campaigning for a Climate Change Act (with, let it be remembered, some support from even elements of the Conservative Party). The Trotskyists were intent on “days of action” and (are you sitting down) holding marches.

2008 We didn’t fight the Law, and the Law won.
This was probably the high-water mark of action over-all (though some groups were already showing clear signs of exhaustion and over-reach).
The reformist work around getting a Climate Bill through parliament came to a head. It was extraordinary how little play Friends of the Earth made of what was really their success with getting the Climate Change Act through a year earlier than expected and with the 80% figure rather than the 60% figure. They SHOULD have called a massive party/celebration and tried to get people along.
Perhaps they knew what would have happened though – the Trots would have turned up in force to sell papers and to lecture everyone that there’s only one solution (revolution) and the nvda crowd would have come along and muttered about co-optation and reformism while spoiling the safe, don’t-scare-the-horses middle-class vibe. The more well-read among these two groups would have been denouncing “ecological modernisation.” Not much of a celebration then.

Of course, what all of us should have seen was that getting the Act through was going to get massively more difficult for the coalition of NGOs to keep together. (For earlier examples of post-legislation problems for social movements; feminist movements relative decline after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, see Sawyers and Mayer (1999); UK peace movement’s implosion after the 1987 INF Treaty, (see Maguire 1992). Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are locked in a decades long struggle over the same patch of turf and finite number of supporters. RSPB were deathly scared of losing their “responsible” niche via contamination with such louts as Greenpeace (even the 2009 march was a bit daring for them). When the elephants fight the grass – the smaller NGOs in this case – get trampled. The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition managed to stagger on until Copenhagen, but Friends of the Earth, pissed off that it had to share the credit for what was, essentially, its Climate Bill, withdrew, if not formally.

For the NVDA crowd, in hindsight it is easy to see the Kingsnorth camp as the last (big) hurrah for the camp. From the outside it resembled nothing more than a giant game of capture the flag, with success being the fact that four people managed to briefly breach the innermost security cordon.
Kingsnorth was, lest we forget, also the scene of the absurd letter denouncing the “liberals” for taking over. When I read it, after I was done laughing, I wanted to grab the nearest soi-disant “radical” and say “What did you think was going to happen, if you kept holding national annual camps? Did you think the careerists and the confused would stay away? Really?”

The 2008 London march (coinciding with the ‘place-holder’ UNFCCC conference in Poznan) was possibly the single most depressing political protest of my life. Walking around London in the rain and damp with people watching us in disbelief and bewilderment. We didn’t even have any decent propaganda to hand out.

In hindsight, the only thing that kept climate change on the media’s radar into 2009 (their attention spans make goldfish look like those memory-experts) was the Copenhagen narrative established at Bali in December 2007.

It was – or should have been – obvious to everyone that the chances of any meaningful “success” at Copenhagen was negligible, and that the whole thing was exactly the sort of summit-hopping trap that Climate Camp’s original proposers had sought to avoid. One early nvda call to mobilisation actually used the fact that the (original – later altered) start date of the conference – November 30 th – was the tenth anniversary of the battle for Seattle, as if this was somehow a coherent reason for focussing on the global.

The policing of Climate Camp seemed to move from smears and physical/psychological intimidation up to a much higher level (though of course, Mark Stone had been committing crimes within the movement since 2003). The 2009 camp probably (and this is a counter-factual) would not have been possible if the Met weren’t on their “best” behaviour in the aftermath of the Ian Tomlinson death at the April 2009 G20 protests. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the accompanying action to the camp was separated into the “Great Climate Swoop” at Ratcliffe, where 114 protestors had been pre-emptively arrested at Easter. (Regardless of Stone, I’ve got to say – the idea of maintaining operational security with 114 people is… interesting.)

2009 also saw the miserable spectacle of “The Age of Stupid” – easily the most incoherent, self-indulgent and worse-than-useless “issue” film this side of… this side of… sorry, I am struggling to compare it to anything. I suppose “Just Do It” would give it a run for its money. And from this, the potentially useful 10:10 campaign emerged. Is it dead yet?

The Big Wave – lots of froth and then all washed up.
The NGOs spent all of their resources, focussed all their supporters’ attention, on what was initially called “March in December” and then “The Big Wave”. You couldn’t move that year but for people with postcards imploring you to get on a coach/train to London. I said to one such eager-young-thing “But marches don’t build social movements – if they did the SWP would be running the country by now. And we need a social movement.” They agreed, and then – of course – kept handing out the postcards. When I proposed, in a meeting with people from both the revolutionary socialist end of things and the liberal reformists, that we prepare people for the likelihood that Copenhagen would be a damp squib, one revolutionary socialist impatiently explained to me that it wouldn’t help mobilise people if we told them Copenhagen might not be the answer to the world’s problems. Evidently getting a few more people on a coach was more important to him than his self-respect, and – far more importantly – his organisation’s credibility and longevity.

2010 to 2011
So, as we know, the air went out of the climate balloon pretty sharpish in early 2010. The General Election and austerity took over everyone’s attention, and in the absence of anything to agree on, the various groups, which had been haemorraghing established activists and unable to recruit fast enough to replace the disconsolate burnouts, entered a death spiral. Once a movement organisation starts holding demonstrations that are smaller than the last, the effect is non-linear (oh the irony.)

The Campaign against Climate Change held an embarrassing -”we’re having an event in London but we daren’t call it a march” – farce last December. In the event, about 3 to 500 people took part. This, two years on from 60,000 or so. This is what happens when the media caravan moves on, and the big institutional NGOs withdraw their labour. CaCC have also been trying to re-heat the souffle that was “Stop Climate Chaos”, but their efforts have been singularly unsuccessful (that should tell them something about how they are regarded, but hasn’t).

Friends of the Earth has no real opportunities at present, given the nature of the Coalition. It has therefore been focussing on heating bills and bees.

Campaign against Climate Change is running its “anti-fracking” stuff – the recent national gathering in Manchester was, frankly, the most depressing public meeting I’ve been to in … well, maybe forever,
and that’s against some serious opposition. They also ran a “Million Jobs Campaign”, which gained no traction and has had no follow up. They, as ever, lurch from moral posture to moral posture, constantly proclaiming the need to make links with local and international struggles without ever quite managing to do so.

The Climate Justice Collective, the encapsulation of encapsulation (see the references for this), spent all its time telling people to come to a ”Big Energy Bash”. In the end, even a sympathetic journalist for Peace News could find nothing positive to say. It held a national meeting in Manchester recently, and several weeks later has not updated its website to inform potential supporters of what – if anything – it is planning. It’s no way to build a movement.

Why is it so? Did it have to be like this?
No. “We” could have done much better at establishing short-term winnable goals, modifying the pathologies in our cultures to be more welcoming to new people (while keeping the good stuff) and
building wider networks (rather than getting more of the same people on board). But we didn’t – because we focussed on the next Media Opportunity, because we aren’t as smart as we think, nor as attractive to Joe and Jane Punter. Now we are paying the price for the neglect of the bread-and-butter of movement-building. The real price of our failure, naturally, will be paid by the usual suspects – the poor, other species, unborn generations.

Quickly though, Friends of the Earth etc. can’t step too far away from gentle critiques of specific stupidities. An analysis of the ecocidal machine that is 21st century industrialisation would alienate the middle-class supporters on which such charities rely. Those middle-class supporters do not like being told they are the problem.
The Trotskyists have no ability to do anything other than marches, petitions and eye-stabbingly boring public meetings. Their frame is Workers Good, Industrialisation Good. For every union they can point to that is “on-board” there is another – of extractive industry, or airports – that needs More Growth Now.
The NVDA crowd have many fine qualities, but persistence when the political opportunities are absent is not among them. Nor is it very good at attracting or keeping people outside a very narrow band of the precariat. [Nothing in what I have written is meant as a criticism of the brave and necessary work being done by groups like Coal Action Scotland, who, between drafts of this essay, temporarily stopped work at Mainshill mine site.)

The Future (or “what is to be done?”)
There’s not going to be a global deal. Certainly not before we cross the threshold of committing to two degrees (and that is almost certainly long-gone anyway). The second half of the twenty-first century (and maybe even the second half of the first half of the twenty-first century) is going to be extremely interesting.

So, as far as I can see now we are left with
a) “preparing for the worst” at a local and regional level
b) trying to make the inevitable (?) eco-fascist response less likely
c) trying to imagine what practical solidarity looks like in the medium term, before it all goes horribly wrong.

But to “re-heat” the movement would require more intellectual and emotional courage than I think we have, and would also come up against the “once bitten, twice shy” problem. Climate Camp went from disdaining summit-hopping to, well, summit-hopping, in four years. On the way it inspired a bunch of people, gave them new connections and new tools. But the focus on big set-pieces was
always going to drain the energy away from the local, and give the state dozens of opportunities to monkey-wrench the monkey-wrenchers. Which is, surprise!, just what they did.

And seriously, perhaps we should be trying to tell people what’s coming so they can make informed decisions about whether to breed or not. Not because of what those new people will “do to the planet,” but rather because of what the planet will do to those people. But then again, maybe that’s just me.


“One of the ways in which social movements fail. It is marked by an increasing inability for movements to grow because close-knit, highly dedicated activist groups become difficult for new adherents to penetrate.” Christansen

Issue Attention Cycle
The media – and the public – go from ignorance to alarm to boredom (especially when it becomes clear that real action will cost real money) and back to a (slightly higher) level of ignorance again.

Radical Flank Effect
A mainstream organisation will have more effect if there are some “loonies” outside the tent.  The loonies can also make ‘extreme’ (but probably very rational!) arguments such as “leave it in the ground.”

“Meyer and Whittier try to understand how social movements can affect the contours of other movements across different cycles and in response to changing opportunities: “The ideas, tactics, style, participants,and organizations of one movement often spill over its boundaries to affect other social movements.”

Jonathan Christiansen “Four Stages of Social Movements”

Sun-Chul Kim “Crisis and Innovation in Social Movement Processes”

Diarmuid Maguire (1992) “When the streets begin to empty: the demobilisation of the British Peace Movement after 1983” West European Politics Vol. 15, no 4, pp. 75-94

Traci M. Sawyers and David S. Mayer (1999) “Missed Opportunities: Social Movement Abeyance and Public Policy” Social Problems Vol. 46, 2 pp. 187-206

oblems Vol. 46, 2 pp. 187-206


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in activism, climate, competence and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Climate of Despair: The past, present and future of the UK climate “movement”

  1. Jonathan Atkinson says:

    Never has the Dwight Towers pseudonymn been more apt, this could have been written from the beech!

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