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…..us.