Can Climate Campaigns Reach 9 Million MPH?

In haste, but because we were recently asked by a climate campaigner friend; can there be a Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign for climate change?

From memory, MPH persuaded its supporters in the UK to take more than 9 million separate actions (please correct us if our memory is errant) in the run up to Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005. These included sending postcards and text messages to leaders, signing petitions and taking part in a succession of campaigning events and protests.

Whether or not this huge amount of activity ultimately achieved its ends is a question for another day. The MPH evaluation is here, in case you’re interested. But attempts by campaigning groups focussing on climate change to recreate MPH’s level of fervour – notably in the UK through the Stop Climate Chaos (SCC) campaign – have fallen short of the mark and have tended only to engage the ‘green wedge’ who were already engaged anyway.

We’ve been involved in or closely observed both MPH and climate campaigns and we think there are two principal reasons why an MPH for climate has proven elusive.

First, climate change is a very different issue. One of the most oft quoted stastitics during MPH was that a child in the developing world dies every three seconds as a result of extreme poverty. The evidence base for this number was a matter of some dispute, but it stuck. By contrast, the world of climate campaigning is a miasma of numbers: 450 or 350ppm, 2 degrees, 50 per cent, 80 per cent etc.  These sometimes get related to terrible things that might happen in the future, but this doesn’t seem to have the same impact on the public.

One international development agency, Christian Aid, did try to put a human face to climate impacts, but in its associated asks (turn the lights off at the office, turn the thermostat down etc) this campaign seemed to suffer from the second reason why jumping from climate campaigning to MPH is difficult. The solutions to climate change are complex, costly and will have a direct impact on the lives of those whom campaign groups need to engage to be successful – i.e. the public in the rich world. The links between the actions of individuals or the setting by governments of targets for emissions reductions and climate impacts, such as the floods in Pakistan, are obscure, especially in comparison with the links between increasing aid or cutting debts and poverty reduction (even if in reality one does not necessarily beget the other). Plus successful UK action on climate change will directly reduce the household welfare of campaigners.

Of course, there are lots of other reasons why climate campaigning and MPH are different. For instance, MPH emerged from the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which meant development campaign groups had experience of working together; the environmental campaigning sector is apparently less cohesive.

There was also a lot of celebrity muscle behind MPH. Celebrities have been a lot less forthcoming in support of climate campaigns, perhaps because of fears of being caught out driving their Range Rover Sports to the supermarket.

For all the reasons we frequently highlight on this blog, politicians desperately need people’s consent in order to take action on climate change; it simply isn’t an issue on which either a narrow, green wedge of activism or bold leadership can take us as far as is necessary; we’ll simply fail more slowly. So what are the lessons from MPH that are helpful?

The axioms of popular campaigning usually require there to be a clear victim, a clear villain and a clear solution. We might need to tamper with these for successful climate campaigning. Apparently future generations are too distant as victim and government-set emissions caps and lifestyle changes are not cohesive and appealing enough as solutions. However, the biggest problem is that, much as we can point the finger at big oil, or lambast weak political leadership, climate change is a bugger of a campaign issue because the utlimate villain is…



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10 responses to “Can Climate Campaigns Reach 9 Million MPH?

  1. Gents;

    Two things…

    First, this is a provocative piece, but I find it also to be a bit disappointing. Here in the States, where I sit, we have — for as long as there has been a green movement — been troubled by the endless recitation of the cynical wisdom (usually attributed to an old comic book character named “pogo”) that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    Not that there’s not something to this chestnut, but it really does not go very far as an explanation of our predicament. Fact is that there are harder things to say as well, things about class for example. Alas. they are not said here.

    And another thing. You say that “Plus successful UK action on climate change will directly reduce the household welfare of campaigners.” But this I think you mean that people know that they will be poorer in a climate mobilized world. Or that they fear that they will be.

    No time to really discuss this, but what it comes down to is this. If we do not mobilize on the basis of a program and a vision that increases our chances of living in a properly prosperous world, we haven’t got a chance. And if this means that a bit of economic redistribution is part of any successful transition storyline, well then we had best admit it.

    — toma

  2. andrewpendleton

    Hey Toma.

    Thanks for your comment. Your first point is valid and in truth we probably didn’t give the lessons from MPH enough thought. However, I remind you that the post begins ‘in haste’ by way of excusing its occasional superficiality. Plus it is somewhat true that we are all part of the problem in contrast to the MPH campaign that had a clearer villain – governments that were all talk and no trousers on poverty eradication.

    This brings me neatly to your second point. Of course, in an ideal world, the costs of cutting emissions would be borne progressively across income groups, but the mechanisms by which clean energy is currently financed – such as feed-in-tariffs or cap and trade – pass costs through to consumers via their energy bills. More action = more finance = more costs for consumers = a loss in household welfare. A carbon tax wouldn’t be any more progressive.

    We – Matthew and I – think this is the big conundrum climate policy is faced with. People generally do accept the findings of climate science and do give their consent to governments to take action. But when climate policy starts to make them palpably worse off (or even threatens to), the whole thing may unravel very quickly, as has been the case with the French carbon tax, for instance.

    In this respect, climate is a very different issue to global poverty. The former promises real costs for ordinary households; the latter is just an opportunity cost (i.e. taxpayers money could be spent on something else) and also more progressively borne since aid is paid for out of general taxation.

    Andrew P.

    • Andrew;

      Yes, of course you are right. Which is why I believe that we are simply not going to make any real progress — at anything like the size and speed that are necessary — if we don’t develop a “fairness forward” approach to climate funding.

      That is to say, we have to admit the costs, which are large but bearable, and we have debate how best to pay for them in a progressive manner. It should be a constant undercurrent of the debate that without progressivity we will fail.

      This goes for feed-in tariffs as well, a tool that is far too important to be allowed to be regressive, if indeed it is.

      Cheers, toma

  3. Interesting post. I drew similar conclusions the limits of climate campaigning a few months ago when Maldives Presedent Nasheed called for 60s-style direct action. You can read it here:

    Cheers, Leigh

  4. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » The Climate Campaign v Make Poverty History

  5. Eliot Whittington

    Hi Guys,

    I think the short answer is yes. The not quite as short answer is yes, but probably not for the reasons you say. I mean, you make good points, and it is difficult for climate campaigns to deliver the goods in this area – but it was also difficult for development based campaigns.

    If (and it’s a big big big if) climate campaigning organisations could agree to work together with a clear focus on an ask that was specific enough to be meaningful but not so wonky as to be alienating, a clear moment where change can happen, and some kind of crystallisation of the issue as powerful as ‘a child dies every 3 seconds’ then they could do it. All of those are immensely hard to deliver though, and they have to be delivered in a way that supports the campaign at the expense of any individual organisation or specific cause and I don’t see any real appetite for it in the UK.


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  7. I think the article misses two points:

    1. There was no real opposition to the MPH campaign. Even the most exploitative international corporation or suspect government was going to support the goals of erradicating poverty. There were not vested interests openly stating that third world poverty was a myth or that poverty is essential to preserve our way of life. The “sell” was relatively easy to make – everyone wants to be seen to oppose extreme poverty, even if they then don’t do anything about it.

    2. The MPH was a coalition of groups that were able to be disciplined at high levels, while allowing for a lot of variation at a local level. The coalition element of the MPH campaign I think had a great deal to do with why it was so “successful” – lots of different groups were able to sign on to the goals of the campaign, which were broad and mainstream. Even groups that said the MPH goals were “not enough” were basically agreeing that “something had to be done”.

    –> More here:

  8. I am not sure whether this analysis makes any sense without considering the question of “whether or not this huge amount of activity ultimately achieved its ends”? that you postpone to another day.

    Ok, so MPH was good at becoming a brand name, but after all the energy and resources it took to organise five years on what real difference has it made on aid, trade and debt?

    Similarly, we could have another great broad-brush, celebrity-dominated, media-hyped campaign on climate change, but unless it makes a dramatic difference on carbon emissions it is at best an eco-wash and at worst a collusion with the big polluters who would undoubtedly cynically jump on board the bandwagon.

    For what it’s worth, here was my critical take on MPH at the time – coming from seeing at a distance while based in Bolivia:

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