In the UK there is an ongoing public discussion about the energy crisis precipitated by global ‘post covid’ gas demand, climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both UK media and politicians persistently bracket renewable energy and ‘energy efficiency’ (by which they also mean insulation, or energy conservation) with ‘long term’ or ‘medium term’, rather than seeing them as things that can be done quickly.
In contrast they often talk about new oil or gas wells, or even nuclear power stations, as immediate choices or options. This flies in the face of evidence and probably reflects fossil fuel industry lobbying and simply out-of-date assumptions.
So although I don’t claim to be an energy expert I put together my own list of potential “quick wins’ to cut carbon and or gas. (I’ve put this on twitter @campaignstrat) so if you want to put me right, that’s an opportunity. A longer version with the sources is here. See also E3G doc below.
Insulation and renewable energy refurb for homes. Installation time: 1 – 10 days. In Maldon, Essex the Dutch-originated whole house ‘Energy Jump’ [Energiesprong] refurb system implemented by Moat Housing and Enegie cut home electricity use by 84%, eliminated gas and enabled homes to export surplus power (achieving negative carbon).
Reduce flow temperature on condensing gas boilers. Time to deploy: immediate (or with visit by engineer). Can reduce bills 6-8%. (Reduced flow temperature reduces heat of water sent to radiators but not room temperature).
Stop Speeding. Time to deploy: immediate. An economical driving trial by AA staff cut weekly petrol/diesel fuel bills 10 – 33%. Driving at 70mph uses 9% more fuel than at 60mph. Driving at 80mph uses 25% more. 48% of motorway drivers exceed 70mph. 11% do 80mph (3.8m) so enforcing the speed limit would cut their fuel use 25%.
Tower block Refurbishment: 314 tower flats at Queens Cross, Glasgow built in 1969 were refurbished to cut energy use by 80%. One resident said “I haven’t switched on my heating for two years as there is just no need”. (Time taken unknown)
Return UK national home insulation to 2012 levels. Time to deploy policy: immediate. 2012 installs ran at 2.3m a year before ‘cutting the green crap’ policy crashed it. Homes installs of loft and cavity wall insulation plummeted 92% and 74% in 2013, and have never recovered. UK has worst insulated homes in Europe.
Remove policy block on Onshore Wind Farms. Time to deploy policy: immediate. Time to construct: weeks or months once permitted. 649 wind and solar farms already have planning permission, enough to offset UK Russian gas imports. Compare to 10 years for new nuclear, eg Hinkley Point started 2018, due completed 2027, maybe later.
Solar pv electricity. Time to deploy: days for a small installation to 3 months for a solar farm. Large solar is now subsidy-free and renewable electricity can displace gas use, lowering bills. Gas is used to generate a third of UK electricity, driving up electric bills. Solar on homes can give households free electricity. Compare to 3-28 years for a new gas/oil field.
Heat Pumps: time to deploy: days, weeks/months if changes also made to plumbing or insulation. Heat Pumps generate 2-4 units of energy from 1 unit put in. They use electricity which can be zero carbon and can replace gas which generates 0.9 of a unit from 1 unit put into a boiler. Octopus Energy say 15% of UK homes “could have a heat pump today with zero change – with no more than £500 of change as you get to 34% of homes”.
An easily reportable Climate Change Index for weather comparable to the Nikkei or Dow Jones could help keep the issue at the forefront of public attention. But who will help create and deliver it – the gambling industry perhaps? In this blog I explore why such an index would be a good idea, and some ideas for creating and distributing one.
It’s no exaggeration to say the fate of the world depends on effective action to arrest climate change, and the it’s not news to say the world’s governments are so far falling very short in making the changes necessary. As in other cases, the rate of change delivery is limited by a resolution of two factors: the urgency or need to act, and the perceived feasibility of action.
After governments spent billions and crashed economies in Covid lockdowns, I noticed some plaintive tweets asking why, given that climate is in the end a far bigger threat, it does not merit similar emergency action? The reason of course is that Covid was and is an immediate threat to life, tangible, personal, dreaded and detectable at every level. So action was a political imperative, as it posed an immediate threat to political reputations, positions, careers and entire governments.
The psychological case of climate change is still more like preventative action, with the consequences of failure often perceived to be beyond political terms of office. For the same reason, it will be a struggle to get politicians to devote significant resources to the action needed to stop the next zoonotic jump of a deadly virus from the biodiversity reservoir into humans, or to prepare effectively to prevent or deal with the next pandemic.
Lots is being done to drive urgency and feasibility related to the Climate Emergency, no doubt including by many of the people who read this. Yet many politicians still sense that even with polls showing climate change is a high public priority, they can and need to only go so far in taking action on it. To an extent they are right. There is still a part of every society which denies or pays little attention to climate. And events such as catastrophic fires or floods, and political meetings which generate an episode of media attention push up climate concern but for most, it then recedes behind signals of more immediate concern. Politicians are not just focused on the climate science.
So what more can be done to increase and sustain the level of perceived political feasibility and urgency?
A Daily Reminder
It wouldn’t solve the problem in itself but creating a daily and hard to miss reminder of the damage that climate change is doing to our weather would help, and it is an achievable objective. Including it in all weather forecasts, in the media, apps and online would install it as social fact, creating a floor of salience which climate change would not sink below.
In 2018, following one of those episodic events (a Northern Hemisphere Heat Wave), I argued in ‘A TV Watershed for Climate Change Campaigns’, that the emerging science of ‘climate attribution’ meant the gap between weather and climate had closed and an index for the climate effect in weather should be created to allow easy media reporting in weather forecasts and the news. After all, it’s automatically accepted that the NASDAQ, FTSE100, Dow Jones or other stock exchange indices are important as a significant measure of the health of the global economy. Yet no such daily, weekly or monthly index exists for the health of the global climate.
Three years on climate attribution science has developed, and awareness of it has been spread far and wide by leading practitioners such as Friederike Otto of Oxford University and colleagues at World Weather Attribution but we still have no climate index for weather.
Perhaps that is because expecting climate attribution scientists to invent one may be a fools errand. These people are at the cutting edge of an emerging field and to capturing what they know in a single index is an impossible task. Not surprisingly they are divided (for example) over which bits of attribution science to communicate and how. Perhaps we need to involve practitioners who are nearer a different coalface – public communications of risk and uncertainty?
Activist Weather Forecasters
The most obvious candidates are the public faces of weather forecasting.
Members of Climate Without Borders
Some TV meteorologists and presenters have taken matters into their own hands and started including mentions of climate change in their weather programmes. Climate Without Borders started as a WhatsApp group by Belgian weather forecaster Jill Peeters, the day after the Paris climate conference Agreement was signed in 2017. It includes over 100 forecasters worldwide, who make reference to climate change.
Stripes day: Climate Without Borders member Jeff Berardelli using Ed Hawkins’ Warming Stripes on Warming Stripes Day 21 June
Another network started even earlier, is US-based Climate Matters run by Climate Central. They write:
Knowing that TV meteorologists are among the best and most trusted local science communicators, ClimateMattersbegan in 2010 as a pilot project with a single TV meteorologist in Columbia, South Carolina with funding from the National Science Foundation. Jim Gandy of WXLT gave his viewers regular updates on how climate change was affecting them through the inauguralClimate Matters.
Trailblazer Jim Gandy of WXLT
But to get an index widely used and established it would need institutional buy-in. In 2018 it was suggested that the official German weather forecast system was due to start including climate attribution – I don’t know what happened. The UK Met Office said similar things but I haven’t seen any result. Given the capacity of politicians for prevarication and in some cases even now, their fear of climate denier lobbies, perhaps officially funded national Met’ services are not going to be first off the blocks? In the UK, the commercial channel Sky News now runs a Daily Climate Show (also on Youtube) but there’s no CCI or Climate Change Index for it to report.
The Daily Climate Show from Sky News
Or the international organisations could create such an index system. The IPCC for instance, or the WMO, although they might take a very long time and get too thoroughly immersed in the purely scientific debates over what to include or base it on. More executive agencies like UNEP could facilitate a process.
Other Possible Sources And Channels To Develop An Index
There are of course mainly commercial online weather services with over 20 in the US alone but who else is used to dealing with public communication of risk and uncertainty?
There’s the insurance and re-insurance industries, such as Munich-Re and Swiss-Re, which were among the first, if not the first to recognize that climate change posed an existential risk for their business. But their capacity for foresight is maybe not matched by public liking or trust. Many people don’t understand risk sharing through insurance and resent it as a distress purchase.
Or there’s medicine and health. Research and training in how to understand risk, odds, probabilities and uncertainty and how to communicate it to lay audiences (patients and potential patients) is far more advanced in medicine and public health than in natural sciences, and teaching it is routine in many clinical courses. Yet I suspect the climate and health disciplines have rarely met to discuss practical issues in communicating climate change.
Then there are the news and entertainment media acting as established channels for weather information. Not just broadcasters like the BBC with a global audience of 489m or other supplying the 1.7bn tv households but the far larger number enjoying wider digital access, put at 5.2bn digital phone users and 4.7bn internet users, of a world population of 7.8bn. Online giants such as Google, Apple, Netflix, Youtube and Amazon, certainly have the resources to take on such a project, and many have signed up to climate initiatives such as SBTi.
Another major public-facing industry which presents probabilities in ways that people are used to responding to, is the gambling industry. It’s estimated that around 1.6bn people gamble throughout the year and 2bn have gambled at some point in their lives. Online sports betting might offer a suitable connection. Whether or not punters fully understand ‘odds’ from an academic risk perspective may not be the point. How people do respond is heavily researched and it is likely that the more frequent gamblers are also disproportionately represented among those who resist or avoid ‘climate messaging’ (ie in motivational values terms, some Prospectors and Settlers). Plus the immensely profitable gambling industry is only too aware that it suffers something of an ethical and moral deficit. An opportunity possibly, for it to be seen to do something useful?
Alternatively there are those who already make a business out of supplying index based information, such as the finance industry. Thanks to Bloomberg’s and others it is now closely tied into action on climate, such as the TCFD, and has great ‘convening power’.
What Sort Of Index?
First and foremost it should be simple and understandable, and quick to reference, to maximise the number of channels that carry it and the number of people who notice it, so that it stands the best chance of registering with publics.
As a non-expert it seems to me that two obvious and complementary candidates are:
(1) a measure of polluted and unpolluted temperatures, which could be related to periods eg a year-to-date, or months, or weeks, which are already often referred to in weather broadcasts as in “it’s been an unusually warm …” or “well above the average for … or a record-breaking …” but visualised with a pre-human-warming value and the human-warmed value and explicitly a climate change index.
(2) ratings of extreme events (heat waves, storms etc based on climate attribution of the sort done by Fredi Otto and colleagues), perhaps a 1 – 5 climate change rating in the numerical style of the Hurricane Category Scale.
In the first case the main arguments might be over baselines and regional applicability.
In the second case they might be over whether there is only one parameter or more. The 1-5 Saffir-SimpsonHurricane scale was is wind-speed-based and was originated by an engineer Herbert Saffir, who was developing low-cost housing in hurricane prone areas. He realised there was no simple scale of the likely damage similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, and then worked with meteorologist Robert Simpson to develop the Hurricane grading which was launched in the US in 1973.
That scale gives a good approximation of what counts to people but it’s not about levels of confidence in what the public would call prediction. Attribution analysis is about how likely it is that an event is or was caused by climate change and not necessarily how damaging or large it is.
But what counts in this case would be whether the index gets noticed, is easily recalled, and enters into public consciousness, and then is used as a reference point in public conversation, which of course also has implications for personal or political action.
Maybe sadly for scientists, it does not really matter is the wider public don’t fully grasp the derivation. For instance, how many of those who look at whether the the Dow Jones, FTSE, DAX or Nikkei are going up or down, really understand how the indices are calculated? In dealing with complex and arcane analysis we are all used to delegating authority to others. A well-known case in the UK was the discovery that many people were buying white goods labelled as A-rated because they thought it denoted an overall better product, not realising that the rating was based only on energy efficiency. So long as it has a positive overall effect, it would be worth doing, and for those who want to know the details, those should be made available.
Operationalising An Index
There are lots of ways to approach this but I suggest if possible starting with a set of convenors and candidate sponsors who share a common vision and have or could secure the means to ensure an index is launched and run.
They would then have to oversee a process taking into account three main factors: what the ‘science’, meaning climate scientists and attribution scientists think can be said with confidence; what would be attractive to distribution channels and messengers; and public understanding/ comprehension/ cognitive processing.
A prior question framing the brief is what needs to be communicated (my starting suggestions are above), which could be best answered by climate change campaigners and practitioners, including political analysts and public affairs experts. It would be important that the task did not creep into trying to popularise, summarise or crystallise the state of climate attribution knowledge.
This would require a series of market and formative qualitative research projects, expensive compared to many NGO climate campaign projects but peanuts compared to what’s at stake, or expenditure on climate science research such as modelling. These would include desk research of existing insight, workshops to originate ideas, some testing of assumptions, and production and testing of possible index executions to produce and pilot some options and help develop a communications strategy to roll it out.
Both origination and tests of possible executions would need to take some account of regional differences, cultural communication points, language and norms but most of that tuning would be better done by distributors at a later stage.
Campaign Strategy Blog 24 January 2021. Chris Rose firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s one for campaign planners, funders and managers. This blog argues for consideration of 5-Es in campaign design adding Evidence and Ethics to the usual Economy, Efficiency and Effectiveness. As campaigning typically requires a bespoke design, acquiring the right evidence is of great importance to test the effectiveness of any proposed critical path. While most cause groups are ‘ethical’, to prevent a debilitating accumulation of objectives simply as they are ethically desirable, identifying and conserving the primary ethical purpose is another test that should be applied. Honing campaign tools, and strategies in the limited case of campaigns that are essentially ‘repeat business’, are the main cases where optimising economy and efficiency are a worthwhile use of resources.
Anyone who’s ever ventured into a conversation with managers versed in ‘value for money’ thinking will probably have come across the ‘3-E’s’: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. These useful distinctions apply to campaigning as much as to anything else, and particularly to making design and investment choices across a programme of campaigns, or between campaigning and other activities.
Economy: Reducing the cost of resources used for an activity, with a regard for maintaining quality.
Efficiency: Increasing output for a given input, or minimising input for a given output, with a regard for maintaining quality.
Effectiveness: Successfully achieving the intended outcomes from an activity.
Seeing as almost any campaign has proponents who think it is of supreme importance, they will always want to prioritise effectiveness: throw everything at it. That’s not very helpful if you have a suite of organisational commitments.
On the other hand it’s very common that campaign resources are spread too thinly for any of them to have much chance of working, especially in organisations with weak leadership (no effective prioritisation, everything is priority) or where there is no practice or culture of finding evidence that something will or won’t work, before committing to campaign design and execution. That may sound obvious but it’s a widespread problem. Such evidence needs to be real, verifiable and independent of the aspirations or preconceptions of the campaigners.
The same issue of under-resourced campaigns arises when organisations fail to distinguish between advocacy and campaigning. This happens most often in organisations which don’t just do campaigning but which do a lot of policy-advocacy work. In these groups ‘campaigning’ may just mean mobilising signs of public support for advocacy positions, and the policy/ advocacy units or staff are often the de facto gatekeepers of target choices, priorities and resources. This may work if for some reason a bit of mobilisation is all that’s needed to tip the balance. In my experience, in many more cases such ‘campaigns’ fail because that isn’t enough to achieve an objective. Yet consciously or unconsciously, the organisation prefers to run such enhanced-advocacy to the alternative of an instrumental campaign which makes changes to outcomes, through making changes in the real world. Such changes of course are often more less popular and more controversial than just advocating change.
Façade villages created by Potemkin to impress Catherine the Great en route to Crimea are a legend or myth which have become a by-word or metaphor for fakery (image Wikimedia Commons)
In other cases ‘campaigns’ are presented as such but in reality are adjuncts to fundraising or membership, for instance as list-building or prospect-acquisition exercises. These are ‘Potemkin’ campaigns, modern, usually digital equivalents of cardboard facades built to create an impression of substance. In this case they can achieve the 3-Es but not for the ostensible purpose presented to the public.
So as a rule instrumental campaign planning also requires a fourth E – evidence.
Use the issue mapping exercise to identify possible interventions (aka dialogue mapping) and the need for evidence.
For example if you want a thing to be stopped, how might it be stopped? Don’t know? Then find out how it works, what things, steps, processes does it need to happen, to continue. Then each of those is a potential way to stop it, if you can take one away or block it. How do those things function? Ask questions of answers from questions (Horst Rittell) until you have a big enough network of potential causes and effects mapped out to start to see possible routes to change – the start of a candidate critical path.
Things put forwards as evidence also need to be questioned. Possible types of evidence of what will make a difference might include:
Observation – we’ve seen it happen, or fail to happen, or someone else has (but was it cause and effect?)
Claim (they say – who? what’s their evidence or is it just a belief?)
Inference (whose ? needs more testing against empirical evidence if possible)
Independent analysis (ie not ours, preferably from a source which is neither for or against us on ‘the issue’, of how the system in question works)
Experimental proof – someone has run an experiment, or de facto experiment whether intended or not
One or more of the above that we know to be accepted by the target decision-maker as likely to lead to the result we want (usually from intelligence about the thinking and preconceptions of others)
In the commercial communications world, when planners are concerned with specific audiences, such evidence is often called ‘insight’. It’s why qualitative research is used to test assumptions made from polling, testing what data actually means.
Asking and trying to answer questions about evidence also reveals the knowns and unknowns. When you do a mapping process to generate a possible critical path, make a list of things that need researching in order to validate assumptions – assumptions are not facts until validated. You or your team may not know something, for instance – does D really lead to E, and if so how ? – but someone else might. The most cost-effective step may be to find that person rather than trying to generate the knowledge from primary research.
Knowns and Unknowns
Many strategists, risk analysts and project managers like to use a known/unknown grid. In 2002 this emerged into the popular media when US Secretary of State for Defense said at a press conference about the Iraq War:
“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know”
Rumsfeld missed out unknown knowns – things your organisation actually knows but you don’t, which is why it’s a good idea to ‘empty the pockets’ of your organisation and allies before making your plan, as this is free but unutilized knowledge. It may be for example that your head campaigner knows more than any one else in your team about the topic but that does not mean s/he knows everything your network knows about it.
On the basis that knowledge you have accessed and used is ‘tapped’, blogger Management Yogi produced the above version of the grid. The things your network knows but you don’t, are the ‘hidden facts’.
Uncovering this reality is one reason why any ‘mapping’ should not become a one-step decision making process (even more so if it uses a closed pre-formed selection of factors such as PEST). A desire for speed can lead you to make a decision based just on what you know for sure, and to wrongly assume that can’t be improved in with a bit of research. As Bill Fournet of Persimmon Group wrote, this known/unknown technique:
‘provides a quick and simple approach to identify and determine which assumptions you need to focus on first. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call or an email to get an answer. Yet, so many teams fail to take that step’
Here’s his version of the grid:
The question obviously arises, how much effort do you invest in trying to shift things into the known-known fact box? The answer to that partly depends on how much ‘getting it right’ is important to you. A priority campaign with a large investment is presumably more important than one with a small investment of resources, and even more so if the opportunity is rare, or so far as you know, unique.
Yet because important is often transposed to urgent, campaigns get launched despite a very weak evidence base. This may also happen simply because the group concerned does not research change mechanisms at all, and only look at the mission-level importance of an objective, find it huge, and assume that ‘we must do something’ > ‘this is something’ > so we’ll do this.
It’s clear though that validating the known unknowns (the unknown facts), and the unknown knowns, (untapped knowledge), ought have first call on your research resource, as these are the most resolvable categories. The unknown unknowns, are harder to investigate and may need to be set aside – triaged out – if there is a deadline for deciding action.
The unknown unknowns are better dealt with in horizon-scanning exercises and include ‘black swans’, unpredictable catastrophic events or those assumed to be impossible.
In practice the divisions between the categories are not always completely impermeable. Some campaigns are largely or wholly about issues with a high degree of ignorance but where existing knowledge means you can infer there may be a big problem. For example a high potential impact from a hazard might be inferred from a known unknown, such as ‘once released, we don’t know how to get this back’, coupled with some known facts, for example ‘things like this have caused serious problems’, even where the probability of occurrence and the specific consequences may not be knowable at present. Some new technologies and chemicals are perhaps the best known examples.
Andy Stirling at Sussex University has separated ignorance into strict uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance, together covered by the term ‘incertitude’. Where there is no evidence basis for assigning a probability of risk and outcomes, a precautionary approach is the appropriate response. He says: ‘dilemmas of incertitude typically mean that no particular policy can be uniquely validated by the available evidence. The idea of a single ‘evidence based policy’ is an oxymoron’. Although writing about policy, Stirling’s point also applies to looking at evidence for campaigns.
Efficiency and Economy
The over-riding importance of effectiveness does not mean there is no place for improving economy or efficiency in campaigning but this is strongest where a campaign is repeat business. In this case, once an effective model has been devised, so long as you can reasonably expect to do much the same thing in the same circumstances, it’s worth investing time and effort in doing it in a cheaper more efficient manner.
This however is more likely to apply to the tools, logistical assets or tactics used in a campaign, for instance means of communication, than the strategy itself. It’s also more likely to apply to non-campaign work, such as service delivery. For example a nature conservation organisation may need to campaign as well as acquiring and running protected areas but each campaign is likely to have particular circumstances not predictable in advance, and to require a bespoke strategy. The land acquisition and management work is more routine and predictable not least as it is largely governed by accepted and regulated frameworks, whereas campaigning may be necessary for the very reason that the established political and social systems have failed, or need changing.
This needs to be understood in the Management and Governance functions of an organisation. You cannot apply the same evaluation metrics placing a lot of emphasis on economy and efficiency (or productivity) to campaigns, as you can for routine repeat business.
As described in How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change (Ch. 11) each organisation needs to develop its own campaign style, including the tone and organisational role played by campaigning, so it feels comfortable within the brand and is understood and accepted in the community of the organisation. Some organisations typically run campaigns that are much more strategically ambitious than others (eg in the nature case, restricted site-defence campaigns at one end of the ambition dimension and changes to the prevailing social and economic model and how it affects nature, at the other end). One way of looking at this is the ambition box.
Ambition Box from How to Win Campaigns Communications for Change (read more)
Finally, it may well be worth looking at the efficiency, economy and effectiveness of the campaign planning, strategy and programming system itself. If that’s not adequate then evaluating the downstream campaigns is a bit of a waste of time, as their failings may be symptoms of the upstream problem.
In the case of cause organisations a fifth E often comes into play: Ethics. If morals are rules given by authority and ethics are self-adopted principles governing our lives, the default campaign design problem is not too little ethics but too much, or rather too many objectives, added for or justified by, ethical purposes.
That’s because most change-campaigners and their organisations are Pioneers, with a psychological commitment to act ethically. Coupled with the Pioneer tendency to think that the more ideas and consultation thrown into the decision-making the better, plus a love of doing things differently, campaign plans and execution can become encrusted with ethical barnacles. This is why I suggest Ethics as the fifth E for campaign planners: so that effectiveness does not fall foul of trying to serve too many ethical purposes at once.
To be clear about this, it’s not an argument about being ethical per se. The very act of deciding to develop, run, support or finance a campaign is in many cases, ethical at root.
It’s a design question. Each campaign needs to have a single clear ultimate change-objective. That objective might serve several ethical purposes but if those would best be served by making a set of different changes, then they should be pursued with different campaigns. Failing because you attempted to do too many ethical things at once is not a very ethical use of time and money.
The same applies if a set of possible changes all serve the same ethical purpose. For pursuing the mission of an organisation set on that purpose, they might all be equally valid but if they involve different targets in different systems (eg social, cultural, temporal economic, or geographic), they will require different critical paths.
This is a simple reality of design, not confined to campaigns. The screwdriver attachment multi-purpose tool is unlikely to be as good at the screwdriver job as a set of screwdrivers made with the same amount of metal and effort. The meal-ready-to-eat nutrition bar designed as survival food is never going to give the sophisticated flavours of a meal in a five star restaurant. And the family saloon car design may be fairly good at lots of things but it’s never going to be as good at high speed travel as a racing car or as good at sustained off-roading as purpose-made 4×4. As form follows intended function, effective design can include zero sum choices. That in turn means that achieving the objective dictates the design, and it can’t take on unlimited ethical tasks along the way. This is easily lost sight of during internal consultation.
It’s tempting for cause organisations to try and add extra ethical functions to a campaign because they all have internal advocates, and decision-makers might like the campaign to deliver on them all. If this is an issue, candidate designs should be tested against real world evidence.
Ethical over-load can also lead to wider unintended consequences. If we signal that we would like others to change behaviours or practices for ethical reasons A B and C, when audiences are far from ready to do so, we may create a values-bombing effect of resentment and opposition (as I have argued Political Correctness did in the case of pre-Brexit developments, particularly but not only with some Settlers). If the campaign also fails to achieve its objectives, we look like failures (especially unattractive to Prospectors) and the overall impact is negative.
Criticisms to Ignore
My advice to groups faced with arguments over ethical objectives is to bear in mind the core mission of your organisation and why you want to run a campaign on a particular issue. There is an almost unlimited universe of ethical causes which could become imperatives, and they are unlikely to be effectively optimised in one campaign.
This risk is mitigated by picking a strategic objective. If you have picked the thing to change because it’s the biggest available and achievable change you can make on subject A, then the fact that your campaign could have also targeted topic B, or B through to F, is not a criticism of it that you need to accept. The critics really need to go away and find an organisation whose primary task is to change B or C or D or E or F, or accept that you will you run a campaign on those another day.
Plus even in an organisation which maybe has a policy on, or advocates for change on a, b, c, d, e and f, running a change campaign is a much heavier duty more resource- and opportunity-focused exercise than advocacy, so the same applies. For practical purposes of producing campaigns that may actually make gains rather than simply drawing attention to the case for making changes, the ethical profile of a campaign often needs to be limited by its primary purpose in order to produce an ethical gain.
The Limitations of Campaigning
This is also one reason why campaigning is a limited tool. It has to focus attention and engagement on a single change, and often seizing a single moment of opportunity or, more onerous, creating one. Similar limitations mean campaigning cannot be a good way of doing education (as education generates increases awareness of possibilities whereas each campaign step necessarily focuses on supporting a specific call to action), and cannot properly substitute for politics and government which involve ongoing negotiated trade-offs.
Finally, ethics, fashions and moral norms are not fixed so at an organisational level, and campaign groups face similar follower-supporter and wider social expectations to companies and public bodies, in moving with the times.
What count as ‘hygiene factors’, expectations that would apply to anything an organisation or brand does, will change over time but not all of these will be motivational factors determining whether a particular campaign or organisation is supported. For instance being low carbon is becoming an expectation of businesses whereas it used to be a distinguishing exception. If not already, this will be expected from all cause groups as well as corporations. Right now however speeding up the elimination of carbon emissions is not the primary purpose of every campaign by every campaign group.
People all over the world love nature, plants and animals. Online and on TV, Natural History films are a hugely popular and profitable genre as they attract family audiences. The BBC has just started public marketing of it’s new Attenborough mega-series Green Planet. Yet the extinction of ‘biodiversity’ has struggled to be taken seriously as a political issue. In this blog I explore what it might take for campaigns to make a difference to this year’s global biodiversity conference, the history and challenges of this ‘Cinderella’ political issue, and the bizarre case of Swanscombe Peninsula, which may become a test case in the UK: a biodiverse site threatened by a theme park with dinosaurs.
[note: some readers have questioned what ‘Cinderella’ means in this context – I meant that it’s neglected, overlooked compared to climate. Journalist Peter Greenfield called the biodiversity the ‘little sister’ COP compared to COP26 on climate]
Will 2022 be the year when governments take the Nature Emergency as seriously as the Climate Emergency? Hopes are focussed on the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD15), due to take place in Kunming China, from 17 – 30 May. Few commentators are optimistic about it.
Ever since the 1992 Earth Summit, governments have promised effective action to stem the loss of biodiversity and then failed. Conservationists have long complained that ‘biodiversity’ is an under-resourced Cinderella issue. Communicators complain that it’s not understood: ‘biodiversity’ is policy-speak not everyday language for nature. Academics identify a plethora of difficulties explaining it but overall, nature still drains away. Scientists fear millions of species will soon be lost.
What Needs To Happen
Perhaps I am stating the obvious but it seems to me that it needs at least three things for nature even to gain the political and social traction that ‘climate’ has through international action:
Getting governments organised. Effective international political and scientific organisation and structure connecting to national economic, land use and natural resource policy
Enabling politicians to understand it. Translation of targets derived from science into shorthands and metrics which non-scientific domestic politicians and decision-makers can understand and communicate at least between themselves (equivalent to climate’s ‘net zero’ and 1.5C ‘safe limit’ and ‘unburnable carbon’)
·Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments. Connection of the top-down agenda for action with bottom-up public support and pressure to protect surviving nature and enhance it, meaning that it must be visible, tangible and tractable where people live, work, rest and play, with outcomes testable through personal experience. This is where campaigns can make the biggest difference.
Late in coming it is, and inadequate it may be but there are signs that an inter governmental infrastructure is now being put in place, partly emulating and drawing energy from that in place for climate. Corporates, NGOs, scientists and politicians have come together in new initiatives and alliances (see Cinderella COP below). The second problem is soluble but it’s unlikely to be sorted by May, although it might just emerge from the CBD process through luck. There’s not much time for the third one but it’s the most realistic opportunity to take for campaigners wanting to improve on the default outcome for biodiversity’s COP15.
COP15 already has a full agenda. It’s reported that:
‘The 21-point draft includes targets on eliminating plastic pollution, reducing pesticide use by two-thirds and halving the rate of invasive species introductions, aimed at cutting the rate of extinctions and protecting life-sustaining ecosystems’.
It’s also said that ‘nature based solutions’ – the obvious cross-over with climate – are in the draft, although president Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil opposes them and they ‘may well be cut in the run up’. And both the UN and a ‘high ambition’ alliance are pushing ideas such as protecting of 30% of the planet for nature by 2030 and stopping the loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP below).
There’s not much to be gained by campaigners trying to push new ideas onto the agenda for CBD15.
In my view, the underlying problem for biodiversity is that politicians still assume it can be saved without having to fundamentally disrupt the way we do things. And if they do think it needs fundamental far-reaching change, it’s not politically possible, just yet. This is a penny that has dropped further and faster on climate than biodiversity.
So whether or not for the conference proves a turning point will depend on whether national politicians attending it already believe they must change their domestic economic, development and planning systems, pollution controls and use of land and the sea. That in turn will depend on manifestation of public demand and support.
If that doesn’t happen CBD15 may just be a small audience spectator sport for environmentalists on zoom, with a zoo of paper tiger commitments let loose in Kunming.
The political temptation is always to agree to vague targets or those with an implementation date well into the future. At the top level ‘biodiversity’ itself is vague, generic and placeless, allowing one dimensional single metric metaphors such as ‘moving the dial’. It’s easy for politicians to attend an international conference and agree we must change the trajectory on biodiversity without it translating into instrumental change on the ground, in how things work in my country, at home. That’s been the history.
It’s much harder for governments to stop something they’ve already started or are accustomed to, than to agree to do something new. So if they do, that really means something. If I was looking for a campaign target to make a difference for CBD15, that’s what I’d look for: something to stop, something already happening or planned but which is incompatible with the Convention ambition that the relevant country would like to align with.
The strongest signal for politicians to receive from a campaign is not seeing opinion polls or being lobbied by experts but the experience of having to do different: whether they themselves decide that or they are forced into it. Seeing an unmistakable change-signal from significant others who cannot be ignored (eg expenditure of corporations or large instrumental changes in public choices and behaviours) can come a close second.
In other words whether it involves a battle or not, I suggest looking for a reversal or abandonment of an existing practice or project, rather than just promoting a target for future change.
Such objectives can be tough to achieve but it doesn’t have to be huge and running across the spectrum of problems and solutions associated with biodiversity. It could be quite discrete but emblematic nonetheless. In practical campaign terms between now and May, such a stop- or save-target has several advantages:
Availability – if the thing already exists, the campaign does not to spend a long time defining and constructing public awareness of it
Comprehension – if it’s real, physical and familiar then the public is more likely to understand it and can respond to a conflict over it by seeing who’s involved without having to be educated about finer points of biodiversity and policy
Speed – if your demand is binary enough, there is time between now and May to engage public as well as elite audiences
Test of intent – in the run up to COP15 it should be a cogent litmus-test of true political intent and working assumptions
And less obviously it might be
Crossing a Rubicon, a defining moment of decision which departs from past assumptions
If you try, and you win, then great. If you try and you lose, too bad but at least you have run the test, and you have created evidence for next time, with a lot of witnesses. Without such moments, a process like the CBD COP15 may go un-noticed by most of the public, or understood only through episodic exchanges of soundbites between biodiversity advocates and politicians rehearsing the usual arguments.
The ideal contest is an event which signals the public support and the essence of the issue, and which is extended enough for a conversation to develop, for days or weeks. Campaigns which achieve this are candidates to trigger a what theorists term a ‘dialectical moment’, a time when two conflicting ‘truths’ are resolved as society rethinks in real time and a new truth emerges. (See Final Thoughts below, on biodiversity and nature as a blank free space).
In terms of timing, for a campaign to now make an impact on politicians who go on to make an impact on COP15 it needs to get ‘inside the loop’ and have its effect faster than the default timescales for preparation, participation, decision making and implementation through the Convention process.
All that’s still fairly generic as the opportunities will vary radically from one country to another so I’ll share an example I know about in the UK. It’s a bit idiosyncratic and it’s in the ‘when in a hole, first stop digging’ category. In other words stop making the problem worse, in this case by not building on an important nature site near London.
Back in 2013 the UK government put a proposal for a huge entertainment park on a ‘fast-track’ for development approval. It still doesn’t have planning consent but if built it would destroy one of the most biodiverse places in the country, at Swanscombe Peninsula in North Kent. Strangely, even the BBC is involved, and on the wrong side. It’s a bizarre microcosm of what happens in the UK, a highly nature-depleted over-developed country, when biodiversity comes up against conventional development thinking.
Swanscombe’s Extinction Theme Park
Local campaigners Donna Zimmer, hairdresser and naturalist (left), Laura Edie, special needs teaching assistant and Councillor (centre), and Karen Lynch, right, of Save Swanscombe Peninsula
By UK standards Swanscombe is an outstanding hotspot of biodiversity. It has many rare plants and in an area about one and a half times the size of Regents Park, a greater number of breeding birds than any major nature reserve in south east England. It’s home to nightingales, water voles, cuckoos, otters and ravens. Foremost among its remarkable 1700 invertebrate species, is the extravagantly named Distinguished Jumping Spider, surviving only here and on the opposite bank of the Thames.
The main habitats of Swanscombe Peninsula – from Natural England
A ‘Nature Reserve’ For Extinct Animals
London Resort PR artists impression of the ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ to be built on Swanscombe Peninsula
Potential nemesis of the Distinguished Jumping Spider comes in the form of larger-than-life ‘PY’ Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, an ex-ice hockey player and something of a travelling salesman for outlandish attraction developments, who made his name with Disneyland Paris and as ‘rescuer’ of the controversial London Millennium Dome. Gerbeau is CEO of LRCH. With his trademark bravado, his latest big idea for the London Resort, alongside six rollercoasters, is a ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ featuring fake dinosaurs.
P Y Gerbeau and the Distinguished Jumping Spider (spider photo – Buglife)
Principal champion of the Distinguished Jumping Spider and the other invertebrate species found on the site, is a small national UK charity called Buglife*. Established in 2000, its name echoes the 1998 Disney Pixar movie ‘Bug’s Life’, which has inspired generations of children to ‘like bugs’, and in which ants fight for their home against a predatory swarm of gangster-style grasshoppers. Buglife has a petition against the development.
“Too Much Democracy”
PY’s boss at LRCH is Chairman Steven Norris, a former MP and Conservative Minister, now a property developer who has twice gone public with his neo-con styleview that there is “far too much democracy” in the UK as it gets in the way of development. He’s also said in a Property Week Magazine video in 2018 that universal suffrage is a “daft idea”.
Steven Norris – “far too much democracy” at 6 secs, NSIPs “very very welcome” at 1min 4 secs
Money behind LRCH comes from oil-rich Kuwait through Dr. Abdulla Al Humaidi, former oil executive, politician and Chairman of Kuwaiti European Holding (KEH). LRCH is ultimately controlled by companies based in Kuwait. London Resort is ‘overseen’ by KEH. Dr Al Humaidi bought the local fooball club, Ebbsfleet in 2013.
The cast of characters extends to blue-chip media companies, all on the wrong side of the biodiversity fence as ‘IP partners’, having signed Development Agreements with LRCH to supply their Intellectual Property for themes and content of rides and attractions. These include Paramount Pictures, ITV Studios, and most extraordinary of all, BBC Studios which signed up in 2014.
David Attenborough And The BBC
The BBC of course is a palace of natural history content and the long-standing HQ of Sir David Attenborough, often referred to as ‘a god’ by BBC insiders, one of the most popular people in Britain, famous for wildlife spectaculars such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, and in recent decades an environmental campaigner backing causes such as The Wildlife Trusts and Prince William’s ‘Earth Shot Prize’, featured in a BBC Studios production, Repairing the Planet. So far the BBC has rejected calls from campaigners to withdraw from the theme park project. (Sign Save Swanscombe Peninsula’s petition to the BBC here). Attenborough has also made several films about dinosaurs but LRCH and BBC publicity suggested the BBC content for the theme park was most likely to be from Dr Who.
How BBC reported the deal with London Resort in 2014
Earthshot Prize featuring David and Attenborough in 2021 – a BBC Studios production
Both the BBC and ITV have featured in an investor marketing promotion for the London Resort
Since 2011 both the BBC and ITV have made much of their commitments to sustainability, although in both cases it focuses mainly on cutting their climate-changing footprints and waste, through adherence to the ‘Albert’ sustainable production system set up by the BBC and now also adopted by Netflix, ITV, Sky and Channel Four. Symptomatic of a wider challenge for biodiversity campaigns, Albert says nothing about biodiversity and the BBC has no policy on biodiversity and nature conservation.
To cap it all, crucial land required for the LRCH project to build its nature reserve for extinct species, car parks, hotels and the rest of the theme park is 50% owned by the world’s largest cement company Holcim (through Swanscombe Development LLP, a partnership with Anglo-American). This is because although originally chalk grasslands and grazing marsh, much of the area was mined to feed a cement works, with land acquired by Lafarge, which then merged with Holcim. Enough flora and fauna survived to recolonize the whole site when the industry shut down, fortuitously also insulated from the chemical onslaught of industrial farming, which explains its biodiversity riches. In recent decades Holcim has set out to be a more sustainable company and in 2021 its CEO Jan Jenisch was one of 20 business leaders [Business for Nature] who wrote an Open Letter to Heads of State on the importance of biodiversity.
Finally, the London Resort theme park project (then Paramount Park) was granted special status in 2014 by then then Conservative Planning Minister Eric Pickles, as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project or NSIP. This by-passes normal democratically controlled local planning process and puts decisions directly in the hands of central government planning inspectors and Ministers to fast-track projects.
Eric Pickles (right) commons.wikimedia.org
Why a theme park, a straightforward commercial development, should qualify as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’, a special treatment normally reserved for major infrastructure like power stations, ports, or large road or rail projects, has puzzled many informed observers. Pickles justification was ‘economic’. If it goes ahead the scheme will destroy several local industrial estates home to 140 small businesses, many of which oppose the theme park, employing over 1500 people. The businesses believe Pickles was ignorant of their existence, and was only told by planning consultants Savills that the area was a ‘mainly post-industrial brownfield land and largely derelict’.
This puts the fate of Swanscombe Peninsula directly in the hands Boris Johnson’s government. After many delays caused by LRCH’s failure to meet deadlines, the NSIP hearings may start in March and run throughout the time the UK government is taking part in the CBD’s COP15. The UK likes to portray itself as an environmental leader at such events and together with France and Costa Rica has been promoting the concept of stopping loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP, below).
Boris Johnson has adopted the same target as a national objective, saying: “biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate”.
These awkward circumstances are made more acute because following calls from Buglife, the CPRE, RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust, and over 70 scientists and conservation experts, Swanscombe Peninsula was confirmed as a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in November 2021 by Natural England, the government’s own conservation agency. In normal circumstances that should prevent any damaging development, and the heart of the SSSI would be concreted over if the Theme Park were constructed but an NSIP is not normal circumstances. Consequently Swanscombe is a test case of the UK government’s commitment to biodiversity.
LRCH claims that the theme park can compensate for lost biodiversity with its ‘off-site ecological compensation strategy’ but conservation groups dismiss this as impossible given the scale of the direct footprint (about 100 Hectares) and knock-on indirect effects. Natural England have stated “compensation cannot adequately address the harm that would result to the SSSI from the development proposal, as the feasibility of doing this is considered low and very unlikely to offer an equivalent assemblage and richness of species.”
[For more information – background papers on Swanscombe – one on the value of the site, the other on LRCH and the BBC]
The Cinderella COP – Some Campaign Issues
Climate change emerged as a global political issue in the late 1980s and it became progressively more obvious that protecting biodiversity needed a similar scientific and political commitment-making system to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, est 1988) and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change est 1992). Imperfect though these are, they helped stimulate and frame political action. Although the CBD or Convention on Biological Diversity was first launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it has struggled to translate the global overview of acute need into systematic action at national and regional level.
Grand Targets, Weak Delivery
A 30 December article in The Guardian by Patrick Greenfield was headlined ‘Can 2022 be a super year for nature?’ “Super Year” is the hopeful term that was coined by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen for 2020, before both the CBD COP15 and COP26 on climate got delayed by Covid. It follows decades of failure. Greenfield summarised the state of play like this:
Those failures include a 2002 commitment on the tenth anniversary of the CBD originally signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to ‘significantly slow’ biodiversity loss by 2010. That was incorporated in the Millennium Development Goals but missed and in turn was followed by the 20 biodiversity ‘Aichi Goals’ of 2011 agreed in Japan. None were fully met, including target 5, to ‘at least halve’ the loss of natural habitats by 2020.
The detail shows more protected areas, at least on paper, more cases of individual species brought ‘back from the brink’ of extinction, and more successes of many kinds due to a huge amount of effort, just not enough to outweigh the impacts such as from industrial agriculture, pollution and land use change.
Now the ambition is now to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and set aside 30-50% of the planet for nature. In his 2016 book ‘Half-Earth: The Planet’s Fight for Life’ the eminent biologist E O Wilson** proposed making half the earth’s surface into sanctuaries as the only way to be sure of stemming the loss of biodiversity. In 2019, spurred by the failure of the Aichi targets, conservationists adopted a more direct approach and put forward much the same target for land to be set aside for nature.
In April 2019 20 leading scientists including Tom Lovejoy**, called for a global Deal for Nature with ‘30% of Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as climate stabilization areas’. Their proposal was framed as a complement to the Paris (climate) Agreement.
In September 2020 leaders of the European Union and 70 countries (now 93)made the commitment in a ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’. The initiative was backed by NGOs, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Belize, Bhutan, Colombia, Costa Rica, the EU, Finland, Kenya, Seychelles, and the UK. It came just before a UN Summit on Biodiversity held at the General Assembly in New York with (due to Covid) leaders sending pre-recorded videos .
In Paris on January 11 2021, ‘30 x 30’ got international political backing with the launch of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People at the One Planet Summit. This committed nations to protecting ‘at least’ 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. Led by Costa Rica, France and the UK, it now includes 70 countries. This is undoubtedly progress in starting to organise a progressive network among governments but it is not enough to create delivery. Soon after his inauguration US President Joe Biden announced ‘America the Beautiful’ his 30 x 30. In the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his 30 x 30 in September 2020, with all the right sentiments:
“We can’t afford dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate … If left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all … Extinction is forever – so our action must be immediate”
But search online for ‘30 by 30’ and you quickly find a forest of criticisms calling such commitments into doubt, from objections that Biden’s plan might not help the environmental struggles of indigenous peoples to campaigners pointing out that Johnson had included England’s National Parks as ‘protected’ areas covering 26% of the country, whereas the RSPB’s Lost Decade report found as little as 5% of the UK was actually well managed for nature. The extent to which such more ambitious targets actually produce bigger and better results will depend on how much politicians believe the public want it.
There is growing engagement of corporations with biodiversity but, as with the BBC, it is generally much lower level or an earlier stage than that on climate. Against that, companies have a track record of being able to move much faster than most governments when they want to.
A 2018 study found one third of the sustainability reports of the top 100 (largest) Fortune 500 companies had some sort of commitment to biodiversity. However the researchers, from Oxford and Kent University, also noted:
Of the top Fortune 100 companies, 86 have publicly available sustainability reports … almost half (49) … mentioned biodiversity … and 31 made clear biodiversity commitments and an additional 12 made clear fishing or forestry commitments. However, only five of these companies made biodiversity commitments that could be considered specific, measurable and time-bound. This is unlike the much greater adoption of science-based climate commitments made by companies committing to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement within the next decade (https://sciencebasedtargets.org/), emphasising that biodiversity loss remains a less pressing issue to the private sector compared to climate change.
‘when we took a closer look at which companies were making commitments that were specific, measurable & time bound, we found that only 5 of the Fortune 100 did so (Walmart, Hewlett Packard, AXA, Nestlé and Carrefour). For example, Walmart’s commitment: “To conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land occupied by Walmart U.S. through 2015″. Beyond Walmart’s commitment, none of the remaining Fortune 100 had adopted quantifiable biodiversity commitments (e.g., no net loss or better), unlike the small but rising number of businesses outside of the Fortune 100’
A 2020 German study also suggested that biodiversity is still a Cinderella topic compared to climate. It examined corporate engagement of 618 firms in halting loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It found
‘a favourable attitude, driven by perceived business relevance and benefit prospects, fosters engagement. Perceived difficulties, such as lacking finances and knowledge, hinder the engagement. Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement. Nevertheless, the expectation levels of virtually all stakeholders were found to be quite low and as such inadequate for the ecological crisis we face’.
The observation that ‘Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement’ is not surprising given that few governments have yet legislated to require actions comparable to those stipulated in climate-related regulation, such as car manufacturers facing heavy fines of up to €30,000 per vehicle if their model range does not meet EU targets on reduced carbon emissions.
Translating that to biodiversity would be more complex but the experience of other issues suggests that it’s only a carrot and stick approach which really stimulates comprehensive change. The latest post-Brexit UK scheme for increasing biodiversity on farmland seems to be all carrot and involves paying farm businesses to do so. According to The Wildlife Trusts, it also relies on them to self-evaluate.
Act for Nature is a French biodiversity initiative aimed at global actors including businesses, NGOs, academic institutions and public bodies. 57 companies have made commitments which Act for Nature considers SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound). It is associated with Business for Nature which has over 1000 corporate members with revenues totally over $4.7 trillion, including Holcim, and has called on governments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
In 2021 nine philanthropic organizations , including Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged to give $5 billion by 2030 to help reach the 30×30 goal of protecting 30 % of biodiversity.
A Risk For Campaigns
Earlier in this blog I suggested that we needed governments to get organised, to enable politicians to understand biodiversity (for instance it’s said that none of the 650 UK MPs have a degree in biology, and ‘biodiversity’ is really nature for biologists), and ‘Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments’.
Track 1 and 2: advocacy can work on the slow analytical track 2, public campaigns must work on Track 1
The first two of those are mainly in what I’ve called the Track 2 World (see this blog), of policy communities and professional elites, in this case including diplomats and NGO advocates, international scientific networks and executives in corporate ESG (Environment Social and Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) roles.
NGOs can have an important role in catalysing these things but there is always a risk of adopting concepts and language which work fine in the ‘policy community’ but do not cross-over into everyday life, which is the context for public campaigns. Or as communications researchers say, they are not ‘portable’ and don’t function in Track 1 terms where communication is not conscious and analytical (Track 2) but intuitive and dominated by unconscious processes such as framing, heuristics and values.
Given time and education, people can learn the meaning of concepts such as Biodiversity Net Gain or even more arcane ideas, and the biodiversity and climate issues are littered with their acronyms but in everyday life there usually is no time or opportunity for education or training to decode glossaries, certainly not during live campaigns.
So if NGOs approach the CBD on the assumption that they can rouse political support for key demands beyond their most dedicated core base with such concepts, their efforts are unlikely to succeed. That’s a risk which NGOs could mostly control themselves.
Of course, it is possible for simple repetition to create understanding without analytical education, most often based purely on association. For example a thing understood to be connected to nature or climate without necessarily having to understand exactly how.
Although not very useful, this happened in the UK with COP26 (held in Glasgow) and climate. ‘COP’ got repeated so often in the media and social media that I’ve even seen politicians wanting to criticise climate measures referring to them as ‘COP’ without mentioning climate.
A more useful example is the Carbon Footprint. In the 2000s I was surprised to find that volunteer crew of the local RNLI (lifeboat service) who had shown no prior interest in ‘climate’ beyond gentle scepticism, were enthusiastically trying to fall into line with a request from headquarters to save energy and cut emissions. When I asked why, the answer was just “carbon footprint”.
Happisburgh (pron. Haze-burr) footprints in Norfolk UK from 900,000 years ago. A footprint is an intuitively understandable metaphor – an imprint we leave.
Some campaigners don’t like the carbon footprint because it was originated by Ogilvy and Mather for an advertising campaign which associated BP with climate action (and copied the format of the personal rather than corporate responsibility used in many advertising campaigns including the 1970 ‘litter’ packaging campaign, discussed in a previous blog, A Beautiful If Evil Strategy). However it was preceded by the concept of an Ecological Footprint, which campaigners rather did like, and the same basic idea of source specific responsibility has been turned to good use in assessing the footprint of countries (eg the Living Planet Index/ reports by WWF et al) and by campaigners such as Greenpeace (which has its own carbon footprint calculator) to target corporations.
It seems likely that such carbon-responsibility campaigning helped drive corporates to sign up to initiatives such as the SBTi or Science Based Targets Initiative (begun 2015) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (which also includes forests and started in 2000), and these in turn may even have influenced other initiatives such as the TCFD (Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure, 2015) which has also influenced regulation.
A strength of the footprint concept is that it relates responsibility to an entity, right down to the individual. If policy measures adopted by governments or even international initiatives have expression at the regional, local, organisational and individual level, the gulf between elite analytical discourses and personal street corner conversations and actions disappears.
One of my favourite examples of a visible, tangible, personal action that was begun to address a national nature problem, is the American Duck Stamp. The Duck Stamp Act was passed by Congress in 1934. It requires ‘each waterfowl hunter to purchase a stamp, thereby generating revenue for wetland acquisition. The Act has resulted in 4.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat protection’.
I’m not a duck shooter but I can’t help thinking that the basic idea could be turned to advantage in the modern nature emergency context.
Is Biodiversity Understood?
It isn’t safe to assume that the public as opposed to professionals in the sector, know what ‘biodiversity’ actually means. Back in 2009 I analysed a huge opinion poll used by the European Commission to plan its Action Plan ‘Halting The loss Of Biodiversity By 2010 – And Beyond’.
At the time it was claimed that the poll showed 65% of the EU public understood the term and could explain what “loss of biodiversity” meant “in their own words” but in reality the question format had already provided (prompted) them with the answer. A small but more penetrating 2007 survey from the UK had tested unprompted understanding of the term. That found only 9% got the ‘right’ answer.
The UK study also gave people four possible meanings of biodiversity and asked which was correct. These were ‘waste that breaks down naturally’, ‘the variety of living things’, ‘rubbish that can be burnt for fuel’ and, ‘the use of trees to off-set carbon emissions’. Of these the most popular was “waste that breaks down naturally” at 33% (37% amongst women).
Bio-d … Bio-degradable. From vecteezy.com
This suggested people were guessing, and using cues like “bio” and “d-something”, “biodegradable” as an easy gut option, with the most likely everyday source of reference being adverts for “biodegradable” products such as washing up liquid. 31% ‘got the right answer’ but as pure guesswork would have given a 1 in 4 chance of selecting each option, or 25%, I’d say 9% was a more realistic figure for true understanding than 65%.
Maybe now people are genuinely better informed but I would not bank on it. In 2020 Robb Ogilvie published a LinkedIn article ‘The greatest problem in communicating the biodiversity crisis is the word biodiversity’ [a quote from journalist @_richardblack]. After scouring international research Ogilvie concluded that:
‘Biodiversity conservation is in trouble … hobbled by a ‘wonky’ name, 85+ definitions, an inconsistent media more interested in climate change, a public -30% of whom have never heard of the word, a concept that has too many ‘moving parts’ for a 30 second sound bite and aspirational mainstreaming that has to fight its way into institutional thinking and into the lifestyle choices of individual members of the public’.
Personally I’d have similar misgivings about assuming the public understand terms like ‘nature positive’, which is now popular in the biodiversity community along with ‘nature positive 2030’, and is used to garner support for numerous initiatives, has it’s own international alliance at www.naturepositive.org and will no doubt feature around CBD15 (I withdraw my misgivings if it’s been rigorously tested for public use in qualitative research).
Given that most of the relevant policy world has been using the word biodiversity for decades I’d also question the utility of inventing new but similarly not understood terms.
This stuff is all very interesting to some but is it a problem?
Yes but only if advocacy specialists are asked to do public communications and they try to use Track 2 jargon to engage the public operating on Track 1 rules. What works in advocacy to politicians with advisers and officials to analyse things, or who may even know their stuff, does not often work in public campaigning.
Use Terms People Already Understand
The simplest and cheapest workaround, indeed something of a golden rule in campaigns, is to use concepts and language the public already understand (and given that all the foregoing is about English language terms, for many, those will anyway have to vary). In English these might be things like nature, the ‘balance of nature’, leaving space for nature, keeping nature intact, responding to the nature emergency, and so on.
In a similar way, use species that people already know and understand, and human supporters, brands and associations people already know and like, to make the case for a place or practice that helps biodiversity. In the case of Swanscombe, in the UK, creatures water voles, nightingales and otters have (in the UK) a wider appeal than spiders, although in news values terms the Distinguished Jumping Spider has the virtue of being almost totally dependent on that one site.
Water Vole by P G Trimming (Creative Commons) – aka ‘Ratty’- much loved in the UK from Wind in the Willows, a children’s book
Language is a problem but not the problem for getting politicians to start to take the nature emergency as seriously as the climate emergency.
Two Shifting Baselines
Attempts to protect biodiversity suffer from two shifting baselines: political and perceptual.
The political one is the can-kicking-down-the-road, in which political targets are set in the future, and become an agenda for deferred action rather than stimulating immediate real action. This is compounded if new baselines are adopted after we fail to meet targets on old baselines. Hence my suggestions about interventions to stop existing practices.
The perceptual one is more insidious. It’s resetting expectations in line with experience, in this case meaning we no longer expect to see plants or wildlife that disappeared from where we live before our memories started, or we set an expectation of abundance of nature lower than previous generations, or simply get used to not seeing things around any more. In his book The Moth Snowstorm, journalist Michael McCarthy called the gradual loss of abundance “the great thinning’.
The Moth Snowstorm takes its name from the once-common now largely lost experience of drivers in the UK seeing a ‘snowstorm of moths’ in car headlights at night.
Both of these have been much discussed in the nature and biodiversity community, and the latter was one of the inspirations for the rewilding movement. Having emerged ‘left field’ from outside the biodiversity policy mainstream, rewilding and its language has side-stepped many of the issues entangling biodiversity communication efforts. By accident or design it hasn’t tried to take on fundamental social, political and economic questions (the polar opposite in some ways of ‘Sustainable Development’) but has taken ground by direct action, often enabled by the support of wealthy property owners.
In so doing rewilders have come up with explanations or causal stories with an everyday intuitive Track 1 logic such as “rewilding – large-scale restoration of nature to the point where it can take care of itself – will help reverse this collapse in biodiversity”. The key ideas here are that left to it’s own devices and given its own space ‘nature’ will take on responsibility, and that there is an inbuilt success mechanism which will swing into action once there’s enough extra nature. Both are intuitively attractive ideas.
But there is another lesson that biodiversity campaigners might draw from the current success of rewilding which is that it may well be easier and more effective to generate public engagement to support the practical actions needed to save and restore biodiversity, than to escalate political pressure within the machinery and constraints of the CBD itself, worthwhile though that is.
I would argue that the same has been true of climate change. Progress, including through enhanced political will, started to escalate once renewable energy began to look successful and capable. That had the effect of marginalising the efforts of ‘climate sceptics’ funded by fossil fuel interests. They haven’t entirely gone away but having lost in the energy market they also have lost their ability to use the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a theatre in which to stymie progress by conjuring a ‘scientific debate’.
So more campaigns to support practical action for biodiversity could make more political space for biodiversity, in other words make it easier for politicians to be bold, without having to be brave.
Wolves are now spreading back across Europe, not entirely due to rewilding. Photo (in A Barvarian National Park) by Aconcagua Creative Commons. ‘Rewilding was originally envisionedas a continental-scale effort in North America with protection of large wilderness cores, suitable habitat corridors for wildlife movement, and recovery of large carnivores’ – https://rewilding.orgAccording to Wikipedia, first use of the term ‘rewilding’came from Earth First in a 1990 Newsweek article, ‘Trying to take back the planet’.
Getting Time On Our Side
Complex environmental issues which can only be fully perceived through science –technological and industrial risks as Ulrich Beck called them – are difficult to get a handle on directly, not least as they are usually populated by scientists pushing the boundaries of knowledge and constantly producing new uncertainties. Climate change and biodiversity are both like this and it makes it hard for decision-makers to tell not just what should be done but how much and how quickly.
Systems modelling is one tool which has helped convert forests of evidence into scenarios and projections that enable politicians to make policy choices. Climate examples include work by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in the early 1990s which related greenhouse gas heating of the atmosphere to the ability of ecosystems to adapt naturally (ie survive intact) which is where the 1.5.C target ‘limit’ originated, and the subsequent IPCC reports. Around the same time others related the warming gases in the atmosphere to carbon released from fossil fuels, and the amount of such fuels in the ground, which is where concepts such as the carbon logic, unburnable carbon, and carbon ‘wedges’ (referring to graphs) came from.
These gave an idea of how much global heating could be tolerated, and how much carbon could be burnt and more recent work has tried to show how much time might be left to act on these, offering decision makers a rationale for when they must act.
In 2019 Peter Schellenhuber, director of the Potsdam institute and an adviser to the EU and German government, combined the decision-logic of air traffic controllers on urgency, and insurers on risk, with climate modelling on tipping points, to produce an equation reproduced in a Nature paper with Timothy Lenton and others, aimed at politicians piloting their nations.
The Schellenhuber emergency equation
It reads ‘we define emergency as the product of risk and urgency … Risk is defined by insurers as probability multiplied by damage …urgency is defined in emergency situations as reaction time to an alert divided by the intervention time left to avoid a bad outcome … the situation is an emergency if both risk and urgency are high. If reaction time is longer than the intervention time left, we have lost control’.
The authors were talking about the global climate system although many of the modelled tipping points are living ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest. Perhaps such analyses will be presented as part of CBD15 but campaigners could do much more at a local and national level to relate nature understandable without resort of scientific models, to risk and damage and particularly to time and urgency.
For example communications analysts have pointed out that in western societies, ‘time’ is metaphorically treated as a substance having value, for instance we talk about having ‘wasted’ or ‘saved’ time, or ‘running out of time’. Yet protecting ancient nature is often not afforded the same importance as protecting human-made artefacts such as ancient buildings. It has been shown in the UK, for instance, that once damaged or destroyed, ancient grasslands do not fully recover their species and integrity even after more than 100 years. The oldest yew tree in the UK, at Fortingall in Scotland, may be 5,000 years old. Fungal networks and seagrass beds in other countries have been found to be even older.
“It’s not bringing in the new ideas that’s so hard; it’s getting rid of the old ones”
John Maynard Keynes
In many campaigns there’s the foreground story and the background story. The real significance, if it has one, usually lies in the background. In the case of Swanscombe and battles like it, whether campaigners win or lose, the true significance is about how politicians view nature, and how they allow the systems they control such as planning, to treat it.
Steven Norris’s frustrations about ‘democracy’ getting in the way of conventional development and his breezy approval of NSIPs for large developments as “very very welcome” were expressed with the deep confidence that nature and open space are basically blanks on the map, better filled with new infrastructure.
Norris is not particularly unusual, his assumptions are just typical of conventional past thinking. This ecosystem-or-nature-as-free space assumption underpins the no-limits politics which led to the nature and climate emergencies. It has to go and be replaced with something more akin to a circular economy operating more organically, like a properly functioning ecosystem. And, as Rebecca Willis said in Too Hot To Handle, her brilliant little book on finding democratic solutions to climate change (such as Citizen’s Assemblies), “the problem is not too much democracy, it is too little”.
‘The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
The BBC has improved since then but to come good on that responsibility it at least has to switch sides over Swanscombe Peninsula.
As part of its PR launch for Green Planet, the BBC ‘took over’ Green Park tube station in London
* I did some work for Buglife on Swanscombe in 2021 but these are my own views
**Wilson was often compared to Charles Darwin for his insights, and along with ecologist Tom Lovejoy, was credited with inventing the term ‘biodiversity’. Wilson died on 26 December 2021, Lovejoy on Christmas Day 2021.
Have you seen Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’, a satirical story about what happens when a ‘planet-killing’ asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with earth? If not, I recommend it to campaigners, if only because it might become a widespread cultural reference point for climate change, without climate change ever getting a mention in the film.
News of the impending end of the world gets a positive spin on mainstream news
With an A-list cast, the film parallels many of the stages of human reaction following the scientific ‘discovery’ of human induced climate change in the 1980s, including denial, obfuscation, prevarication, political and commercial exploitation and so on, right up to today’s billionaire dreams of escape into space.
Stripped of the asteroid plot flesh, the narrative skeleton of Don’t Look Up is a potted history of climate change in terms of motivated reasoning in the political and media response to climate science. That makes it very different from previous attempts to take climate change to the big screen, by either attempting to explain the science or bring to life one or another possible future. It seems to me that Don’t Look Up has the potential to make a real difference but first, a recap.
The Scientists: “This Is Our Story!”
After a limited theatrical release in the US on 10 December the film appeared on Netflix on 24 December where it has since been the most watched movie. Movie critics described it as a black-comedy, a disaster movie, science fiction, comedy or satire. Some panned it (see below) but climate scientists and campaigners have loved it.
The first effect it had on me was that it brought back that horrible feeling you get when it suddenly dawns on you that humanity faces a huge threat which most others are blissfully unaware of: a sensation I remember having more than once as a campaigner, and then immediately feeling “we must do something about this but how?” The second was to think if that’s how it affected me, then this really is about others who have spent almost the whole of their working life struggling to convince others to act on the ‘climate science’. I tweeted:
Soon a succession of social media posts and articles showed a growing number of scientists and campaigners recognizing it as a pretty faithful analogue of their own experience in trying to get society to respond to ‘the climate science’.
No surprise because as it turns out, Director Adam McKay and collaborator David Sirota were motivated to make Don’t Look Up by through frustration with the lack of media and political attention given to the climate crisis, and McKay spent a lot of time talking to climate scientists about their perspectives in order to write the film.
“I started talking to a lot of [climate] scientists. I kept looking for good news, and I never got it. Everything I was hearing was worse than what I was hearing on the mainstream media. So I was talking to [David Sirota, who asked him to write the film], and we were both just like, “can you believe that this isn’t being covered in the media? That it’s being pushed to the end of the story? That there’s no headlines?” And Sirota just offhandedly said, “it’s like a comet is heading to Earth and it’s going to destroy us all and no one cares.” And I was like, “that’s the idea!”
Author of the New Climate War climate scientist Michael Mann took to the columns of The Boston Globe and twitter to promote the film and was credited with being the inspiration for Leonardo di Caprio’s astronomer character, Randall Mindy. On 29 December another climate scientist, Peter Klamus, wrote in The Guardian that it’s ‘the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen’.
(@neiltyson is an astrophysicist)
What The Reviews Said
Reviews were ‘mixed’. Many of those most cross about the film took issue with it because they did not think, or could see how it would ‘make a difference’. So although entangled with their views about the film-making technique, professional reviewers became amateur political scientists and campaigners.
On 8 December 2021 The Guardian title a review, ‘Slapstick Apocalypse According To DiCaprio and Lawrence …’ and the reviewer (on my browser it has appeared under two different names) wrote
‘Adam McKay’s laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire Don’t Look Up is like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession, which McKay co-produces, nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require. It is as if the sheer unthinkability of the crisis can only be contained and represented in self-aware slapstick mode ..”
and so it went on, although it did end with: ‘… But if the movie helps to do something about climate change, such critical objections are unimportant’.
‘It’s hard to think about who, exactly, is going to be moved to make changes to how they live their lives by Don’t Look Up, a climate-change allegory that acquired accidental COVID-19 relevance, but that doesn’t really end up being about much at all, beyond that humanity sucks.’
A slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays… This might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism.”
‘In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message… The champions of science must always try to leave politics at the door. Otherwise, the task is not just convincing people that the comet is coming, the planet is rapidly overheating or the vaccine will protect them. It is also forcing huge swathes of the population to accept that a cornerstone of their personal ideology is wrong. And when the comet is this close, there just isn’t time for that’.
The reviews were followed by a small maelstrom of online comment about reviews, between scientists and reviewers, and comment about the comment. Different people have read different things in the film.
In Current Affairs, Nathan J Robinson took issue with the allegation of nihilism writing: ‘The point is not that the working class are sheep who don’t care about the future, but that the rich manipulate people’s perceptions of one another to serve their own self-interest’. On 30 December Forbes magazine carried an appeal by Paul Tassi, ‘The ‘Don’t Look Up’ Critics Versus Scientists Narrative Has To Stop’. Tassi wrote
‘…the success of the movie, compared to its relatively lukewarm reception by critics, has resulted in a pretty bizarre new narrative [apparently referring to arguments between McKay and critics, no doubt online] . The idea is that if critics didn’t like the movie, they must hate its message, the idea that climate change is a clear and present danger to our planet …I do not agree that I must declare that Don’t Look Up is a great film, or else I’m contributing to “damaging” its message, and this view somehow puts me at odds with climate science. That is simply not how this works’.
Well if that’s what’s happening, I am with Tassi on that one but unless the scientists – film maker – critics argument begins to determine the public impact of the film, it perhaps does not matter that much.
How Don’t Look Up May Make A Difference
Here are five reasons.
First, Don’t Look Up is really quite funny. It’s entertaining, it has big stars, and now it’s well known so it’s likely to get watched again, including by people who would might watch a political satire or ‘just’ a disaster movie but would never choose to watch a straight-up documentary on climate change. It can reach a totally different, or at least far wider audience, than AnInconvenient Truth Mark 2 (or 3 if you include the sequel).
Second, it’s well nigh impossible to watch it and not to buy into the thickly-laid-on conceit and narrative of the film – the impending asteroid doom scenario. That in turn makes it hard not to be emotionally on the side of the would-be truth-teller scientists. For me that makes it more of a parable than a straight satire, black comedy or documentary: ‘a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles’, in this case that politicians and the media should take science seriously.
Third in terms of effect, the swayable audience is not those who are dead set against climate action and who might (well) be offended if they recognize themselves in some of the thinly disguised Trumpian characters but those who are neither active deniers nor pro climate activists. For that reason I am not so worried as the CNN reviewer about it alienating audiences.
Fourth, because it is not overtly about climate change, it will be hard for the denier lobby to ‘deal with’. Already some would be critics have tried to attack the ‘science’ in the asteroid story, which just makes them seem ridiculous.
Fifth, the title “Don’t look up” is a brilliant and entirely plausible call to action, or inaction, made possible by the simplicity of the story structure (unlike climate change) in which a straightforward specific danger comes from above. I can imagine “Don’t look up!” becoming a cipher for evidence-denial, a cultural reference point heard in places from pub conversations to newsrooms and Parliamentary or Presidential debates, even in public demonstrations. It will be understood by politicians and media.
The aviation industry and airlines in particular have had a pretty free-ride on climate change so far but the covid pandemic has created a new reality: it turned out that most air travel for business was not needed. The economic case for air travel and thus airport capacity and pubic subsidies to airlines, has been severely weakened and it’s the attitude of corporate customers rather than airlines that will be key deciding any post-covid ‘new normal’.
On top of that, a significant side-effect of the near-shut down of passenger aviation, is the revelation that FFPs or Frequent Flier Programmes are critical to the economics of many airlines*. Sometimes they are worth more than the transport activity of flying passengers. This was covered in the financial press but seems not to have filtered through to political thinking on transport.
In other words, aviation Business as Usual is being sustained by a marketing exercise, which extends to hundreds of banks and retailers outside aviation. So far this seems to have escaped any scrutiny in terms of carbon accounting. One professional in the business travel industry who is concerned about climate change said to me that allowing FFPs in the context of a Climate Emergency is “equivalent to promoting Frequent Smoker Programmes”.
Should they chose to use it, this new context provides climate change-makers with a golden opportunity, and not just around the coming COP26 climate summit.
The Great Grounding Experiment
Flying for business was running hot before covid struck in early 2020. Since then it has reduced 70 – 90%, yet business itself has continued. The pandemic created what was otherwise impossible: a vast experiment in interruption of a behaviour so taken for granted and unquestioned that stopping it would have seemed, unthinkable.
The rapid replacement of air travel with Zoom, MS Teams and dozens of other digital communications tools, coupled with lock-down working from home, has fast-tracked change that otherwise might have taken decades. This has gone on long enough for the new behaviours to spread to all levels in companies and across sectors and countries. Like climate change itself, it’s become a new ‘social fact’, and video-conferencing may be to aviation what renewables have been to fossil fuels.
Those in the behaviour change business, from social marketers to market entrants with new products, know only too well that it’s very hard to stop an established behaviour but once a new one becomes a habit, it’s rarely reversed. The extended covid great-grounding has revealed the potential for business benefits, such as huge reductions in T&E (Travel and Expenses) budgets and greater productivity. Where these coincide with a desire to ‘be green’, corporates have unexpected headroom in cutting carbon.
This is pretty much unassailable evidence of feasibility, far stronger than arguments, modelling scenarios, proof-of-concept pilot studies or campaign demonstrations. The only question is how much of this windfall will be retained, and that partly depends on what advocates and politicians do.
“Now is the time for responsible companies to commit to keeping their business-travel carbon emissions way below pre-covid levels. We will also ask them to rethink any involvement in frequent flier programmes. This is climate action that the corporate world can lead on, quickly and easily: it’s already been market-tested”.
Jump On A Zoom, Not On A Plane
The international business travel world has been awash with discussions about what the ‘new normal’ for air travel will look like ‘after Covid’.
Bill Gates sparked a vigorous debate when he opined that 50% of it will never return. This matches the long-standing weary acceptance in many organisations that ‘half of it is un-necessary’. See for instance this interesting podcast from Business Travel News. Guesstimates vary (eg Ideaworks are more bullish about recovery, putting permanent losses at ‘just’ 19 – 36%) and I’m told that executives at London Heathrow are expecting any recovery to take at least two to three years. Lufthansa also says not until 2024.
Supplier sectors like training have been almost completely substituted by video-conferencing and in some businesses intra-company meetings, presentations and project work have been systematically replaced. Releasing budget (only 17% of an ‘average’ business travel budget is the actual air-ticket cost) and saving staff time spent traveling to, from and recovering from international trips, is increasing productivity.
What is certain is that as legacy carriers in particular rely on the higher spend of business travel for much of their profit, their viability and that of the associated sector of business-focused hotels, exhibitions and conference centres are deeply affected. Only about a fifth of passenger air travel is for business but it makes up around three quarters of the profits.
The first lockdowns brought a ‘Spring of Zoom’ (or more often, Teams), giving many senior managers their first taste of self-controlled remote-working. Their “it actually works!” experience happened at the same time as many costly city-centre offices were running almost empty and new commercial office developments were being postponed: mutual reinforcement for the idea that ‘things really will be different’.
After experiencing a switch to online board meetings, Maurice Gallagher, chairman and CEO of Allegiant Travel Company acknowledged that video is a “viable alternative to business travel”. He told shareholders:
“streaming capabilities from companies such as Zoom, Googleand Microsoft have come into their own …
“Just like all things new, there were problems in the first few tries but when you have to use it, when you have no choice, you figure it out … I now appreciate the tremendous savings of time and additional productivity”
He added that unlike past episodes of reduced air travel, this time senior executives “understand the power of this technology and appreciate the ability to reduce travel and entertainment expenses in the coming months and years … Conferences and trade shows still have merit and there are businesses who believe face-to-face meetings are critical competitive requirements” but financial savings and greater productivity “has to have an impact on the return of business travel”.
The top 100 business travellers by company – from Business Travel News based on air tickets bought in the US.
The top 10 biggest corporate fliers listed above are all in the digital and knowledge economy, such as consulting, in which face-to-face contact was assumed to be vital but much of it turns out not to be. The carbon footprints of these companies are largely made up of indirect or ‘Scope 3’ emissions, such as business travel.
Many of the companies on this list also have specific carbon-reduction targets. Some have targets that break out or specify business travel reductions.
Deloitte is among the 43 companies for example, listing ‘business travel’ as a component in their commitments to meet a ‘1.5C’ climate target submitted under the SBTI or Science Based Targets Initiative. 271 companies appear on the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) ‘A List’ for climate commitments, for example including Apple, Bayer, Pfizer, Microsoft and Unilever. Over 30 companies have joined the Climate Pledge to achieve net zero ahead of the Paris requirement, initiated by Amazon and Global Optimism. This includes Atos, Brooks, Canary Wharf Group, Coca-Cola European Partners, ERM, Groupe SEB France, Harbour Air, ITV, Microsoft, Neste, Rubicon, Unilever, and Vaude.
In short, the corporates leading the charge on climate are now in a good position to consolidate the climate-dividend of the covid grounding and break the trend of rising emissions from business travel. And in a bad position not to do so.
The covid grounding effect has landed on top an existing trend to factor in sustainability in corporate Travel Policies. Numerous blogs, statements and surveys in the business travel sector note that while, spend on business travel had reached record levels, it was already widely accepted that one of the main future drivers would be sustainability. Before the 2009 Copenhagen climate COP, Paul Tillstone of travel company Festive Road which advocates ‘purposeful travel’, started ‘Project Icarus’ which tried to get the business travel industry to address climate change. Following the 2008 financial crash such initiatives fell off the corporate agenda but the general agreement is this time it’s different.
He and other travel management experts take part in CACTUS (Climate Action for Corporate Travel Urgent Solutions group), launched by Helen Hodgkinson, formerly of Barclaycard, which has engaged corporate travel customers on issues such as setting carbon budgets for travel.
Greta Thunberg’s leadership of the climate movement in 2018-19 has been credited as stimulating corporate action. A retrospective on 2019 in Harvard Business Review stated:
‘another critical protest movement that grew this year came from employees. More than 8,700 Amazon associates signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the company develop an aggressive climate action plan. Microsoft employees staged a walk-out in September to protest the company’s “complicity in the climate crisis.” Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must have a strong climate strategy’.
Total business travel spend for the largest 100 corporate travel programs measured by U.S.-booked travel volume rose again in 2019. U.S.-originating travel as estimated by BTN for these programs hit $11.8 billion, its highest point ever.
… Deloitte again captured the top spot in BTN’s annual list with $583.1 million in U.S.-originating air spend …
She added that:
There was just one trend other than managing through the Covid-19 crisis that dominated the psychology of Corporate Travel 100 companies in 2019 and 2020: How to make business travel more environmentally sustainable. Even for companies that significantly expanded their travel spend in 2019—like Deloitte and EY and Microsoft—the drive to reduce emissions was palpable among these large global corporations.
EY is looking to cut net carbon emissions to zero by the end of 2020; the Covid-19 crisis and travel suspension will likely contribute handily … Oracle has implemented a stringent policy that limits employee travel to “business-critical” trips. Likewise, Dell’s travel strategy also now puts a much heavier emphasis on meeting the company’s longer-term sustainability goals.
She goes on to mention Siemens, Novartis, SAP and Citibank, concluding: “ The message from global companies is clear on the sustainability issue: Business travel may be largely suspended for now, but when it comes back, it’s going to look different”.
‘But It’s A Perk’
George Clooney in the movie Up in the Air. [Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd]
In the 2009 Hollywood movie ‘Up In The Air’ George Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a specialist in firing people in corporate restructures, who rarely stops flying. He ‘aspires to earn ten million frequent flyermiles with American Airlines’. Romance and tragedies are precipitated when Bingham is challenged by younger exec Natalie Keener who advocates cost-cutting through video-conferences.
Until recently, air travel was seen as in the “too difficult box”: a hard to change ‘perk’ on the one hand and assumed to be critical for winning new business, project management, auditing and other vital functions. Yet companies have survived managed without it.
True, some corporate executives will rail against any loss of business flying perks. One in a vast multinational told me:
For senior execs, as a generalization, traveling on business is a defining feature of their life. … Not being on a plane twice a week is really denting their identity. A senior XXXX guy in Singapore told me half jokingly that as soon as they reopened Australia he would go there to meet customers, even though customers didn’t want to meet in person and he may have to do it over Zoom from a hotel room in Sydney. These guys aren’t used to spending time at home with families, it’s just not who they are [of course some will love it, but I think many don’t].
Yet such changes can be achieved. It’s largely forgotten now but in the UK at least, any suggestion that corporates might change their car fleets for environmental reasons used to be met with the ‘perk’ argument: a company car formed part of the remuneration package, from top exec’s to ‘travelling salesmen’. But the tax rules got changed and company car fleets, and remuneration packages changed.
Pivotal to flying for business as a perk, is membership of a ‘Frequent Flier Programme’. Anyone can join one and you may not even need to do any flying these days but it tends to be people flying for business who are the most ‘frequent fliers’.
At present most companies (German ones possible excepted?) allow staff flying on tickets paid for by the company, to keep the ‘points’ or ‘miles’ generated by individual membership in FFPs or Frequent Flying Programmes, which all airlines seem to have. (Technically, the points are probably the property of the company paying for them). The top 100 airline loyalty programs are together worth around $200 billion.
FFPs are a fascinating case study in brand extension and clever marketing incentives which play on social reflexes established in the ‘jet set’ age of the 1960s and 1970s as mass air travel took off: creating a feeling of exclusivity.
To begin with (1970s) FFPs were simple loyalty programmes – you could redeem points and generate a new air ticket. Over time, airlines changed the value of miles so you had to fly more to ‘earn’ a ticket and also over time, they became ways of generating cash more than loyalty. ‘Partners’ such as banks (which issue airline-branded credit cards commanding a premium) and a host of other companies from fashion to electronics, provided deals and discounts to FFP members in which they can ‘redeem’ points against almost anything, from food and drink, to luxury goods, petrol or hotel rooms.
FFPs enable members to access a host of small esteem-generating advantages in the stressful and annoying airport environment hosted by airlines: priority boarding, access to lounges, upgrades, easier changes to tickets etc., even in an extreme case, a limousine to ferry you to the aircraft. Today it’s said the ‘real value’ lies in acquiring personal data, and the most valuable data is from people who fly a lot, as they are generally the wealthiest. Apparently people are more willing in the air travel environment to share data in order to get ‘free perks’ than they would be in the normal world.
The remarkable thing about FFPs (which are usually owned not by an airline but within an airline group, such as Avios which is part of the IAG group which also owns British Airways) is that they can now have a higher market value than the flying business of the airline. This only emerged because airlines facing bankruptcy once flights were grounded by covid, had to use the value of their FFPs as collateral, in order to raise loans from governments and the markets. Papers filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission by Delta and United laid out the ‘licence-to-print-money’ financial model of the FFPs, which are akin to a private currency whose value and exchange rate is set by the airlines, in great detail.
“The profitability and the size of these loyalty programmes, it’s the only reason American Airlines isn’t in bankruptcy right now,” Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi told the FT in 2020. The FT noted that MileagePlus, the United FFP, ‘was valued at just under $22bn in bond documents, while United’s stock market capitalisation is just $10.6bn’, and:
‘Valuations recently put on the loyalty schemes have exceeded the market capitalisations for the airlines themselves — implying that investors value the business of flying passengers at less than zero’.
In October 2020 Bloomberg reported that JP Morgan announced it was working with Affinity Capital Exchange to enable investments in FFPs be traded as an asset class.
Many corporates act as ‘Partners’, buying and then giving away ‘miles’ or ‘points’ (and seats) as incentives. These include many banks and hundreds of other companies. The British Airways online points shop for instance includes 158 brands such as Dell, GAP, Gucci, Harvey Nichols, John Lewis, Microsoft, Oakley, Tommy Hilfiger and Vodafone. The Quantas points store features over 500 brands including Apple, Bang and Olufsen, Bosch, Calvin Klein, Google, Lego, National Geographic, Penguin, Sony, Swarovski and XBOX. And so it goes on. All these companies are not only profiting from frequent flying but lend the soft-power of their brands to the aviation industry. Many of course have their own carbon reduction policies, yet are complicit in promotion of frequent flying.
Some of the brands supporting frequent flying with the IAG Avios currency (issued by British Airways, Iberia and Are Lingus but usable on 27 airlines)
What does this mean? Perhaps that without FFPs, a large part of the passenger aviation business would evaporate.
Which for the climate and thus the great majority of people on the planet who are not ‘frequent fliers’, could be a very good thing. The airlines don’t want that, and nor do the participating banks who make a ‘staggering’ profit on cards glossed with a flying-brand [see a scathing recent analysis of airlines skirting bankruptcy by industry analyst Hubert Horan in the journal American Affairs].
Global air travel is not a huge contributor to climate change (about 3.5%) but as other sectors decarbonize, it is becoming one. Business travel is a small part of recent air travel but it is pivotal to the profitability of the current model. And the freedom to jump-on-a-plane and go without a care, is a legacy of petrol-head days.
Faced with the climate crisis, the strategy of the aviation industry has been to re-assert old assumptions about the value-add of air travel for businesses to maintain political commitment, while framing possible solutions in technical terms: wait for new engines, new aircraft, new fuels.
At a global level the sector has committed itself to a strategy of PR promises that multiple analysts have recognized it cannot keep [eg Evan Davis, BBC] . That worked, until the great covid grounding but the new reality has now shifted who gets to decide.
The airline industry is starting to look a bit ‘stranded’, rather like fossil fuel assets. Carbon is now on the agenda of Chief Financial Officers through initiatives like the TFCD (Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures), itself a creature of the G20’s Financial Stability Board. In February 2020 it had the support of over 1,000 organisations from financial management companies to governments and central banks. A year later that had grown to 1,700. It would be interesting to listen in to what the TCFD makes of businesses like FFPs. Politicians may have yet to grasp the scale and depth of what has happened but it’s the airline’s corporate customers who may decide what happens next.
single aircraft during the first UK lockdown in March 2020
*This surprised me. In the interests of disclosure, I started looking into flying-for-business late last year because the Brussels-based group Transport and Environment asked me to, as it had spotted the potential to realise significant reductions in emissions from business travel. (This ‘T & E’ is Europe’s expert network on environment and transport matters, and were the first to spot ‘dieselgate’, the emissions-test cheating by companies such as VW). You can contact Andrew Murphy of T & E here.
True to form the UK (England) badger-TB issue has repeated its familiar cycle since I wrote this blog in December 2020. A new govt consultation is due to close on 24 March. When it was briefed to the media, the government managed to make it sound as if badger culling was being abandoned in 2022, in favour of vaccination of cattle and badgers, and control of cattle movements. in reality, as The Wildlife Trusts have pointed out, the proposal allows badger killing to continue until 2026 and ‘could see the death of 130,000 more badgers in England’.
What do you do with a long-running campaign that’s got stuck ? The English civil war over badger-culling and TB in cattle is one such case: an issue trapped in attrition and trench-warfare.
It’s a long running struggle, going back at least to 1971 when a dead badger was found in the West of England, infected with bovine TB. Because culling (shooting, trapping or gassing) badgers was proposed very quickly, animal welfare groups soon adopted an anti-cull position, and farmers a pro-cull position. Each side has since tried to prove themselves right, leaving fewer and fewer people in ‘the middle ground’.
Politicians immediately detected a tricky public communications issue: it could boil down to a popularity contest between farmers and badgers; a competition they did not want to have to oversee. So they looked to ‘Science’ to decide. A series of ‘Scientific Reviews’ were held – at least seven major ones to date and many Parliamentary and other Inquiries (see Chronology).
Scientists found it was all very complicated and the narrow question that politicians wanted answers to – ‘can badger culling stop TB in cattle’ ? – was not at all easy to answer because it was not clear how much TB was passing from cattle to badgers and vice-versa and within the cattle herds and within the badger population, and what effect that had on cattle TB. These questions have arguably still not been completely answered but scientific opinion is overwhelmingly that culling cannot eliminate TB, whereas cattle movement and health controls and biosecurity measures probably can, and only perhaps 0-6% of TB in cattle is directly passed to them by badgers (see supporting documents and particularly Science).
As a result, the battling factions of farmers on one side, and animal welfare groups, and conservationists on the other, have fought almost to a standstill over an issue which converts in the media to ‘who is to blame for TB in cattle: is it farmers or badgers?’ Both lobbies exchange fire using scientific research as ammunition. Often the same research has been used to draw diametrically opposed conclusions.
Involved scientists include those who believe they could yet sort it out if only politicians and the opposed lobbies stayed out of things, and those who plaintively try to tell politicians that it’s a question of value-judgements, which science as such cannot answer. Politicians of course know this but it’s not something they want to hear, and not something governments have to hear, so the various independent expert panels have been set up and then abolished. In this respect it is very like long-running science-heavy arguments over subjects such as GMOs or even aspects of contemporary Covid strategy.
So almost every year (see Chronology), the two sides mount new offensives and counter-offensives but like opposing armies deadlocked on the Western Front of World War One, neither scores a decisive victory.
Change of Strategy
Barring a sudden technical breakthrough such as widespread deployment of effective vaccines for cattle or badgers, neither of which looks imminent, unless there is a change in strategy, the stalemate seems likely to continue.
In this post (more detail in supporting papers) I argue that the best option for wildlife groups is to ‘go up a scale’ and refocus and reframe their efforts on not just on TB in badgers and cattle but in terms of the de-escalation of conventional (intensive) cattle farming itself.
In particular this means dairy farming, which has become progressively more intensive, larger-scale and more polluting, over the period of the cattle-badger TB issue. Strangely, although it is accepted that many elements of intensification are causes of higher TB in cattle (such as contaminated slurry, larger herds kept indoors, maize growing for feed, leaking silage and frequent movements of large numbers of cattle with inadequate testing), this has hardly been considered as a cause of England’s ‘intractable’ cattle TB problem. Successive Conservative Ministers and the National Farmers Union have fixed on attacking badgers as the cause instead.
Many aspects of those intensive farming elements are undisputed causes of damage to public goods’ such as healthy air, soil or water as well as known risk factors for TB. The global imperative to cut climate-heating gases from livestock farming and cattle provides an additional imperative to downsize cattle farming in favour of rewilding, biodiversity, ecosystem regeneration and a more plant-based diet.
Badgers were gassed with cyanide by the Ministry of Agriculture until it was ruled inhumane when it was discovered that they did not die quickly like rabbits – cover from ECOS magazine 1981. Shooting them with rifles above ground was substituted, and continues despite the fact that a scientific appraisal found it also to be inhumane (see Chronology).
A Long Running Policy Failure
England’s country’s chronic bovine TB problem has eluded government attempts at eradication since the 1930s. It almost succeeded when by using the agricultural equivalents of ‘test track trace and isolate’ now familiar with coronavirus (only with slaughter thrown in for infected livestock, which is frustrating and upsetting for farmers) all of the UK was declared free from cattle TB in 1960. The disease fell to just 0.6% in 1965.
Transfer of TB from cattle to the human UK population was effectively stopped by meat inspection and milk treatment by the 1960s but TB was never eliminated from the national cattle herd. Controls were relaxed and it slowly started to regrow from a small chronically infected areas including but not only at West Penwith, near the SW tip of Cornwall.
Slaughter of TB-infected UK cattle 1956 – 2017 (Source RSPCA) ‘reactors’ = cattle reacting to a test. Numbers slaughtered blue line, testing positive red line.
Then in 1971, vets discovered a dead badger with TB in Gloucestershire. Badgers were suggested as a ‘maintenance reservoir’ of the disease in wildlife, which might be infected-by and reinfect cattle. Many farmers and landowners had long regarded badgers as pests and vermin, and from 1973 fell in behind killing (‘culling’) badgers, often with enthusiasm. It was widely assumed that badgers must be the reason why TB in cattle had not been eliminated, and while the previously conventional tools of movement control, testing and sanitation on farms were never completely forgotten, culling badgers became the default ‘missing ingredient’ of policy.
So what had been seen as a human health and agricultural disease problem, became reframed as a farming and wildlife problem. The current campaign battle-lines were established.
A research and management policy community developed in which farm vets, animal disease epidemiologists and microbiologists were joined by academic ecologists and zoologists. Government began what would become a long series of badger culls and research projects to establish whether or not culling ‘worked’ or could work but the meaning of the results was contested. One reason for this was that most of the ‘research’ projects served a political dual purpose of also being badger ‘control’ and so very few were designed in such a way as to be properly controlled or rule out ‘confounding’ factors or auto-correlations.
Some government scientists and most politicians became implicit or explicit proponents of culling. They saw research as a way to test how culling could best work, as opposed to whether it worked at all or alternatives might be better.
To begin with the default was ‘reactive’ culling, meaning culling in response to problems with TB in cattle herds. Nevertheless, TB rates in cattle increased. A 1997 review led by ecologist Professor John Krebs recommended what became a ten-year scientific trial to test the effectiveness of reactive or proactive badger culling against non-intervention controls: the RBCT or Randomized Badger Culling Trial. An ‘Independent Scientific Group’ (ISG) led by Professor John Bourne ran the RBCT and it was soon found that ‘reactive’ culling made matters worse not better because it disrupted badger society and increased TB. In 2007 the ISG reported:
‘‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’’ and ‘scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone’.
‘There was a very definite view from the outset that future policy was going to be the reactive culling. That was it. And when it was shown that it was not gonna work there was all hell let loose’’.
Culling itself was shown to disrupt badger communities (‘perturbation’), and although rates of infection in badgers fell inside the cull area, they went up outside it. Meanwhile TB rates in English cattle went on rising and the ‘pro-badger’ camp started to promote badger vaccination, which had first been raised as an idea by vets back in 1971.
TB in cattle spread after the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic, when cattle carrying TB were used to restock areas such as the Midlands and Cumbria (Source)
After many twists and turns (see Chronology), by a process of campaign focus, political polarisation (with Britain’s Labour Party becoming pro-vaccine, anti-cull and Conservative governments resolutely pro-cull), fierce pro-cull lobbying by the NFU as the champion of the farming side, and media simplification, ‘the issue’ was boiled down to the current bipolar framing of ‘culling versus vaccination’. Positions became entrenched, deadlocked like the Western Front of WWI.
The Western Front in WWI left and English battle lines on TB in 2016 right. Derbyshire, the site of one of the latest clashes, is at the top right corner of the ochre coloured zone (Wikipedia and APHA).
Over time, the weight of scientific opinion among first ecologists, and then vets, shifted against the idea that badger culling could be effective and humane in eliminating TB in cattle. Many studies continued to show that most transmission was down to TB spreading within cattle herds and by cattle movements but the political influence of farmers on Conservative governments meant that culling continued on the grounds that badgers played some role, even if this was hard to quantify, and any subsequent reduction in cattle TB was even harder to pin down.
Alternatives to culling have been side-lined by the pragmatic government imperative of trying to suppress the disease while appeasing both sides of the debate in public. Aside from a short interlude under a Labour Government which favoured vaccination over culling, government has bowed to farming pressure and continued killing badgers.
The stand-off has gone on so long that the issue now also has its own historians. Many have pointed out, as did the government-commissioned 2018 Godfray Review, that the fixation on badgers has largely excluded policy options of sanitation, biosecurity and husbandry which successfully controlled cattle TB in other countries (and until the 1970s, in the UK).
Currently the government policy is to intermittently cull badgers, back development of a usable cattle vaccine, and allow but not seriously pursue badger vaccination, leaving that to mostly to NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts. There is little TB in Scotland, and Wales has switched to badger vaccination, while England’s government (confusingly the ‘UK’ Westminster government) has steered itself into an uncomfortable no-man’s land between the two dug-in camps. Because culling and vaccination are often in conflict, this has sent conflicting signals and led to criticism of the government and legal actions against it by both sides.
Badgers are popular animals in the UK and the issue is sometimes hard to ignore. In 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself got involved and intervened to restrict a cull in Derbyshire after being lobbied by his now wife, conservationist Carrie Symonds, because of a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust vaccination project (see document on vaccination).
In March 2020 Johnson’s government announced a ‘shift’ in policy to phase out culling in favour of badger vaccination, and in July 2020 it hailed a ‘scientific breakthrough’ of a test which could enable a cattle vaccine to be used (a test is needed which can distinguish between infected and vaccinated cattle, otherwise they cannot be exported). Then in September, it suddenly announced a new and much larger cull of over 60,000 badgers, taking the number sanctioned to be killed since 2013 to 170,000, or 35% of all badgers in the UK. Unsurprisingly, it was accused of a u-turn.
A ‘Cultural Divide’
The badger-cattle issue splits opinion across an ancient English cultural divide, about who has the right to determine what happens to wildlife in the countryside: landowners or the public? It’s a proxy conflict for a well-financed but numerically weak landowning and hunting lobby which promotes a largely mythical idea that England divides into ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ tribes with irreconcilably different values (see supporting document on Rural Politics).
In the court of public opinion, the pro-badger lobby wins easily, and politically, farmers are electorally insignificant in population terms, so why hasn’t culling been abandoned or reduced to a relatively minor tool of policy ? For several reasons.
First because farming and landowning interests are heavily over-represented in the policy-making corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. Second, because the ‘popular vote’ counts for nothing in the English electoral system, and in a sprinkling of Britain’s first-past-the-post geographic constituencies, the farming vote is important. Third because the ‘rural’ vote is very important electorally to the Conservative Party and although only 17% of the population live in what are classified as rural areas, they elect all the MPs who can claim to speak on and for ‘rural’ issues. (Polling actually shows that ‘rural people’ are slightly more likely to see ‘animal welfare’ as important than ‘urban’ people but the ‘countryside’ lobby claims the opposite).
This makes for a stand-off of complementary strengths and weaknesses in which the NGOs have mostly won the air war and lost the ground war but neither side has proved able to achieve an outright win. To make matters worse (see Conclusions in the supporting papers), the larger NGOs are shy of taking on agri-business and perhaps intimidated by the NFU, which exploits the myth of rural-urban divides for its own purposes.
Advocating their right to ‘control’ wildlife as a political ideology – the ‘Countryside Alliance’ promotes field sports and badger culling and revels in accentuating perceptions of a rural-urban divide
What Next ?
The pro-badger faction could opt to continue the battle of attrition and hope that a majority Labour government is elected in 2024 (the last one stopped culling and brought in six vaccination trials, five of which were cancelled by an incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition) but there is no guarantee of that. So is there a way to fix the pro-badger campaign?
I suggest that the opportunity for the ‘pro-badger’ side is to step up a scale, shift the battle ground and change the players by putting the badger-TB-cattle issue into a wider frame around the sustainability-or-not of intensive farming and specifically, dairy farming, for three reasons.
First, the progressive narrowing of focus so that TB in cattle is seen as a choice of badger culling v badger vaccination excludes an array of cattle-focused measures which worked before in the UK and abroad. No convincing evidence has been produced to show why the involvement of badgers means these measures cannot work now. They need to be revisited.
Second, the same restricted political lens means that ‘the badger/ cattle TB issue’ also routinely excludes a nexus of intensification factors which changed farming fundamentally. The UK joined the EU in 1973, and farm intensification was encouraged by government in order to cash in on the Common Agricultural Policy of the time. At the same moment, bovine TB had just started to bounce back (see Farm Intensification and Science and TB papers). Land use change and farming practice very possibly made cattle farming, and especially dairy farming, more susceptible to TB. Geographically, dairy intensification has involved specialisation and concentration. At a farm enterprise level it has brought conversion of hay meadows to silage, indoor and ever larger herds, massive slurry production and maize-growing. (See paper on Farm Intensification). All these are known risk factors encouraging TB but by default, are little investigated because egged on by the National Farmers Union, badgers have been nailed as the villains of the TB story by politicians.
Third and perhaps most important, the cattle TB issue is isolated in its own little silo. It’s not being ‘joined up’ to other issues where there are bigger and urgent political imperatives in play which at least nominally, are now accepted by the current UK Government. The top one is that acting on climate targets demands a radical change in farming and diet, including less dairy and less beef, meaning fewer cattle, and requires land for carbon sequestration.
In addition many Conservatives and others support more rewilding, a shift from farm subsidy to payment for delivering public goods (eg clean rivers, in which respect farm pollution is a current disaster in England), rather than just paying farmers to produce more crops and meat, or simply exist as a farm. These aims have been advocated by influential Cabinet Minister Michael Gove since 2018, and are now expressed in new Environment and Agriculture Bills and a Plan to overhaul farming.
In short, the ‘productivist’ model which lives on as the assumed purpose behind both subsidising cattle farming and culling badgers is, to put it in political terms, already subject to radical revision. It’s a weak door, if NGOs have the nerve to kick it.
Strategic elements that could be drawn into this include:
The policy imperative, already embraced by the UK Government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050, which requires radical changes in farming practice and diet, particularly regarding beef and dairy
The COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in 2021
The parallel commitment to ‘rebuilding biodiversity’ and the popularity of rewilding, which could quickly take high risk areas with persistent recurrences of TB out of conventional dairy farming altogether
The chronic and extreme river, groundwater caused by large volumes of slurry from livestock and particularly intensive lowland dairy farms, which have been getting bigger and fewer
Severe damage to soils and to rivers and even the sea (as soil runoff), resulting from heavy machinery and crops such as maize, which is grown either for silage, particularly for dairy cows (replacing hay), or for subsidised AD (Anaerobic Digestion) for renewable energy but which has disputed green credentials
The growing importance of air pollution from intensive farming, particularly from ammonia emissions from dairying and poultry, which is damaging to public health
The government’s radical plans to reform farming so that subsidy is only paid for ‘public goods, ie public benefits such as flood reduction, clean air and water, increased biodiversity and cutting climate change emissions (dairying is one of UK farming’s most profitable sectors but it is still heavily subsidised)
The shift in consumer demand from liquid milk and beef to plant-based alternatives
All of these points are already actively in play in other policy fora and communities. Put together, they could redefine the political question from ‘how do we eliminate bovine TB in badgers and cattle to help the cattle industry produce more cheap meat and milk?’ to ‘how do we maximise public goods from the land currently used for cattle farming?’. The underlying predicate switches from ‘we need to promote cattle farming’ to ‘we need to reduce cattle farming’.
In 2020 former DEFRA Chief Scientist Ian Boyd (a sceptic of badger vaccination) argued (see Chronology) that the UK needs to convert half its farmland to other uses such as carbon storage for climate reasons, for health and recreation and biodiversity recovery and that half of all farming is not viable without subsidy. “Moving to the Lancet Diet” (a 50% cut in meat) will “have to be done” and on current trends and with these drivers we would “take most cattle farming out of production”. So, he asked, given that bovine TB is a disease of cattle and people are “the transferers of the disease” through moving cattle, “if the whole point is to protect cattle and [very few] cattle [will be] left, then why are we culling badgers?” In these circumstances “living with TB is a much more attractive option”.
Campaigning on elements such as those above could reframe the issue so that it exposes the assumptions that still underly current policy, such as the idea that dairying is an essentially a benign activity and that farm intensification is in the public interest.
In terms of the long-running stalemate involving the small policy community immersed in arcane arguments about cattle/badger TB transmission, it would lend heavyweight reinforcement in the shape of bigger policy drivers and engage a wider community.
Many of the above elements could be directly translated into specific tactical objectives which campaigns could use as specific ‘can-openers’.
Finally, for campaigners who struggle to convert the techy world of improving agricultural sustainability into terms that can immediately engage the public, the opportunity to do so in ways that also stop the unjustified slaughter of thousands of badgers – the closest Britain has to living Teddy Bears – could also be interesting.
Culled – ie shot – Eurasian badgers in the UK Photo @BadgerCrowd
Account of a badger funeral, from The Badger, Ernest Neal, Collins New Naturalist, 1948:
How do you get people to take covid seriously? In England, that’s a question which pre-occupies many scientists, medics and politicians. They are fearful that festive Christmas drinks and family gatherings will lead to a re-escalation of the epidemic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an obvious problem. His ‘mixed messages’ populate an ever-enlarging case study of how not to do pro-precautionary communications. His tone as much as his inconsistency is the problem. He urges caution and justifies restrictions in one sentence while telling the nation that he, and they, are freedom loving libertarians in the next. He seems unable to resist the urge to emotionally distance himself from the life-saving controls he announces, by saying how much he regrets them. He says he thinks this is the right thing to do but his qualifications say he feels it is the wrong thing to do.
Another issue is the combination of presentations of Johnson and his government scientific advisers. He deploys sub-Churchillian flowery rhetoric and Trumpian bombast as if he thinks he can bluster the virus into submission: a progressively less effective approach. Then the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and their assistants deliver death-by-PowerPoint presentations filled with statistics, which then have to be summarised by journalists, by which time many of the public have switched off or zoned out. Neither the English governments’ politicians or its scientists seem to have the capacity of Angela Merkel to calmly explain key scientific facts in a way which makes the policies make sense.
Today it was announced that NHS intends to make the vaccination case with ‘sensible celebrities’ as messengers. Not a bad idea, although it’s debatable whether it helps to share the strategy as opposed to the content, and probably reminds us about Johnson who obviously wouldn’t pass the audition.
What Else ?
You could fill a communications strategy book with could-have-done-better illustrations drawn from the Johnson Government’s handling of the epidemic but some of the might-be-better next steps are hiding in plain sight. During the first wave ‘lockdown’ the ‘clap for carers’ became a weekly public ritual on streets across the UK, after it was started by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch national living in south London. It focused attention on something that the statistics lack: empathetic victims, in the shape of health workers. And it was mobile phone videos shared by exhausted Italian doctors and nurses and repeated in media interviews, that first convinced the British that coronavirus was not “just like the ‘flu”.
Communicators should hardly need reminding that Joseph Stalin once said “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic” but simply repeating, as England’s Ministers do relentlessly, that ‘every death is a tragedy’, reinforces rather than avoids this problem.
In the UK at least, these difficulties are compounded by the fact that the deaths are largely invisible. Funerals are themselves constrained by the need to limit gatherings to stop more lives being lost, deleting the emotional impact that surely would be felt, if they were larger and more visible. My suggestion is that England needs to find a way to make this reality more visible, and to do so before it is too late to have a beneficial effect on this epidemic.
Some years ago I met a man who attended a training event I worked at, who was trying to raise funds for armed services charities. What could they do, he asked, to overcome public reluctance to engage with them because many individuals were against the wars they were sent to fight in – such as Iraq and Afghanistan. For many, soldiers and airmen and women were not empathetic figures.
This, together with official reluctance to allow members of the armed forces to wear their uniforms off-duty because of terror attacks, meant that the services were effectively invisible except when seen fighting on the tv news. I suggested that they make the families visible, who were, after all, the people they were trying to help. I don’t know what happened to that charity but what changed the social picture was what happened in the small English market town of Wootton Bassett.
By an accident of geography, military fatalities were landed at an airfield the near the town and then taken in hearses to an Oxford mortuary for post-mortem. Draped in flags, the passing coffins became the focus of spontaneous shows of respect by towns people, and that grew into a local and then (through media), a national phenomenon of grief and respect. When the airbase closed and the coffins were landed elsewhere and took a different route, there was controversy. (Read this brilliant account in the Daily Mail from 2011). But by that time, in my view at least, the Wootton Bassett experiences had done their work and rebuilt an emotional link between ordinary members of the public and ordinary individual service women and men, and their families, whatever they thought about the politics of the wars.
Sensibly, so far as I know, no politicians or senior military ever appeared at the events in Wootton Bassett.
I’m not suggesting processions of hearses of covid victims. Only that visual social signals of the reality of covid’s impact are a missing ingredient.
People who died in road accidents are often commemorated by friends and relatives tying ribbons and flowers around at tree near the site of the accident. Yellow ribbons have been used to signify emotional connection to a very wide range of causes around the world. Those who have gone missing or become casualties have also been signified in many other ways: Amnesty International for example has used empty shoes to symbolise the ‘disappeared’, and others have adopted that to represent other victims.
The thank you ‘clap’ for health workers came from the people (and wasn’t restricted to the UK). Some sort of authentic local sign that covid is taking friends and relatives might have a similar impact.
Will the New York Times revelations around Donald Trump’s tiny tax payments make any significant difference to the US Presidential Election campaign? I can’t say, although it is perhaps obvious that they’d have a bit more traction with some voters in ‘fly over’ States if they’d been surfaced by a less Democrat and metropolitan publication. But the extent to which they do will partly depend on what people think of taxes: are they a good thing or not? In other words, how they are framed.
‘Going forward’ this communications issue still applies to very many campaigns whose objectives depend upon raising and spending public money.
For this reason I’m republishing an essay that first appeared in Campaign Strategy Newsletter back in 2008. It was written in the immediate outwash of the 2008 financial crash but in most countries, the argument for re-framing tax still applies in the climate and covid-challenged world of today.
Campaign Strategy Newsletter No 47, December 2008 Re-Framing Tax: Why It’s A Strategic Target For Campaigners
Tax is a bad thing. That is the conventional dominant frame now used by politicians, media and the public. Or at best it is a necessary evil, a constraint on our aspirations, a corrective to our instincts, a burden which must be shared, and so on. Framing maestro George Lakoff uses tax as the most obvious example of the power of a ‘frame’ in his elegant little essay “Simple Framing” .
Investment, in contrast, is a ‘good thing’, and so although you could be talking about the same policy issue (eg public spending on education), it can be approached from two directions with opposite results. Moreinvestmentisgenerallybetter. Startadiscussionfromthereandmorespendingisthelikely result. More tax is bad so start from there and the conclusion is likely to be less spending.
This presents a problem for political communicators, governments and, I’d argue, campaign groups, for we need tax. We therefore need a new and more positive way to talk about tax. While this has always been the case, the new American political conviction that we need more, different and bigger government intervention, means there is not only a need for tax but at least temporarily, an almost open field in which to develop a new ‘narrative’ about tax.
We Need Tax But …
Much is in flux and it’s unclear how our societies will change as a result of recession but one thing is certain, if we emerge from it with democratic economies intact, then after the borrowing and the short term tax cuts, taxes will be needed to pay the bill.
Right now most UK, US and many other politicians who have spent decades immersed in a liberal free- market economic political ‘reality’ in which tax was demonised, are still suffering something like Post- Capitalist Collapse Trauma. While they no longer simply espouse the ‘free market’ as the preferred solution to everything, their conceptual and communications locker is pretty empty.
Their instinct too, will be to tiptoe around tax and migrate us to new or more taxes by stealth or fine graduations, avoiding sharp movements that may attract attention, burying ‘bad news’ in the feel good of public holidays and so on. This is unlikely to work – governments are in a classic strategy trap  where they had economies that were, once you ignored externalities like climate change and a few other problems, generally seen to be ‘working’. Now they don’t have that and they need to disengage from that model and rebuild a revised economy. But to migrate to that place, they need to traverse uncomfortable territory of dysfunction. Far better, on that journey, to have a positive vision of what that will be like, and to have the communications tools to do so. Tax needs to be seen as part of the solution and a doorway to benefits , not as the problem.
The Case For Tax
Try these what-if tests of tax. What if we were in a situation where we need massive public investment to rebuild our economies in a more sustainable fashion? What if the track record of private investment is that it can backfill, and run infrastructure once it is there but that major public spending is necessary for societies to revise their infrastructure – for example putting in place new electric grids suitable for distributed generation? What if we need to invest now for future generations? What if public borrowing cannot go on forever – in the end we need to pay for investment from our taxes?
What if without tax, and in particular a ‘high’ level of taxation, we cannot build societies which are equitable and just, as well as ‘green’? What if sustained tax and public expenditure is an essential ingredient in establishing the sorts of societies that people, like the economic refugees crossing to Europe from North Africa, are prepared to risk dying trying to get into?
What if the market will never deal effectively with protecting public goods such as the environment because of dynamics such as the ‘tyranny of small choices’, the practical impossibility of commodifying or monetizing environmental externalities, and the tragedy of the commons?
Or what if, like the British Liberal Democrats and perhaps now the British Labour Party, you want to raise taxes on the rich and lessen those on the poor?
Or what if none of the above is true but you are a fiscal conservative who wants to adopt progressive policies, perhaps like Obama’s Peter Orszag, who will head his Office of Management and Budget? You might still need to raise some taxes, maybe on pollution, while reducing others.
Or what if you run a campaigning organisation concerned with raising an issue as a public priority but you don’t want to end up having to raise the necessary funds from an altruistic few? What if it can only be solved by, say, public investment in medical drugs or education?
For all sorts of reasons there is a case for tax. Yet with only negative frames available to talk about tax, political platforms are constructed in ways which either demonize tax or dance around it as the subject- which-must-not-be-named for fear of being labelled a ‘high tax party’. This is not conducive to good democracy or good governance. So how could tax be re-framed?
Let’s start with the heroes of the piece: those who pay tax. Given freely, voluntarily, their sacrifice resonates with a host of positive frames. They help build communities, they invest in our children, they care for each other and care for the carers. They pay for our defence. They aid the poor and protect the weak.
Without tax payers there would be no public schools, hospitals, roads or armies, no public broadcasting, no judiciary, nowhere for the elected representatives to meet, and precious few railways, roads or water treatment systems, not to mention overseas aid budgets, bail outs of banks, help to mortgage owners or an Apollo Programme for renewable energy.
So why not talk about these people in more positive terms? Not ‘tax-payers’ as if they are fined, implying bad behaviour or other victim hood, but contributors, the funders and builders of our society.
Such language would make the issue with tax evasion and avoidance much easier to talk about, and for politicianstodosomethingabout. IntheUKthe‘non-dom’issuehasattractedspasmodicattention because it attaches to Gordon Brown and questions over his strategic economic judgement. But the real gain to be made is not an enhanced ability to demonize the ‘stateless’ super-rich who manage to avoid tax almost altogether but to help create a new politics of sustainability built on more of a common sense of purpose.
“a new interest group made up of the willing taxpayers …“
During the last few decades in which tax was a government function to be ashamed of, only a few super- richemergedastaxchampions. In2007TheTimesreportedhowsuper-investorWarrenBuffetsaw the subject:
Speaking at a $4,600-a-seat fundraiser in New York for Senator Hillary Clinton, Mr Buffett, who is worth an estimated $52 billion (£26 billion), said: “The 400 of us [here] pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.”
This ‘narrative’ chimes with the basic message of practically every health, development or justice cause group in the world, and tax is one element in operationalising that thought. Buffet drew his inspiration partly from Nicholas Ferguson, the head of SVG Capital, investors in private equity firms, who said in June2007thatitwasunfairthatprivateequitypartnerspaidlesstaxthantheircleaners. Taxbreaks, said Ferguson, had been introduced “not to make private equity executives very rich but to encourage investment and entrepreneurship”.
Others from the very rich have made the case for being taxed before Buffet and Ferguson. In 2000 Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution pointed out that Warren Buffet, George Soros and William Gates Sr had campaigned against the Bush Administration’s proposed repeal of estate tax. Here’s some of what he wrote in an op-ed in USA Today  in a piece entitled ‘Taxes: Most Pay With Pride’:
“you [Soros et al] have given me cover to float an idea that surely escaped the architects of the Bush tax cut and its Capitol Hill supporters: What’s really needed is a new interest group made up of the willing taxpayers of America.
I know all the reasons it’s a silly idea. Our libertarian, anti-government streak. The dreaded IRS and tax day. The California tax revolt that propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency. George Bush Sr.’s banishment for not keeping his “no new taxes” promise.
Americans don’t like paying any more taxes than they have to, and they certainly resent it when some don’t pay their fair share. But there’s a deeper reality that gets lost in the scramble to distribute the budget surplus.
Not only are most Americans of ordinary means unexcited about a tax cut, but they willingly pay their taxes — and derive some satisfaction from doing so. Cutting taxes may bind together Republican activists of varying ideological hues, but paying taxes is how we as a people foster the public goods that contribute to our individual and collective well-being”
Who are the heroes then? I searched Google in vain to find out who are the biggest individual contributors to our tax income in the UK or the highest proportionate contributor. I couldn’t find anything although it is easy to find lists of the top 1000 richest – which is perhaps indicative of the problem.
There are a host of simple ways in which this tide could be turned in a new direction. Tax contributors could be sent a thank you for, example, or a certificate to display. HMRC (UK tax) envelopes could be colour coded so that the postman or woman would know what scale of contributor he or she was delivering to … and so on. Instead of a tax ‘demand’ government might send you your contribution calculation. Financial rewards would be – well, counter-productive – but the full panoply of psychological rewards, incentives and heuristics could be deployed to establish being a contributor as a good thing.
I’ll leave those of you who think about values to ponder how this could be played out around the map of Values Modes . Presidents and Prime Ministers could invite high contributors to receptions – the Queen (where does she fit in?) might have them to a Garden Party based on cumulative contributions? Accountancy or a career in the Inland Revenue could take on a whole new friendlier tone.
It is not hard to put this issue into domestic terms.
In 2008, Nigel Farndale  wrote in the right-wing Daily Telegraph:
“Taxes are the glue that holds society together. The high water mark of civilisation. Cicero called them the sinews of the state.
Without taxes there would be no education for all, no health care from cradle to grave, no armed forces to defend us.
Yet canvass your friends and colleagues and it becomes apparent that there are taxes and there are taxes. There is a general assumption that we should be allowed to pick and choose which we pay. When I point out that I prefer to pay VAT to builders, friends look at me as if I am eccentric, and possibly a little perverted.
There seems to be no taboo about not paying VAT these days, no sense of having crossed a moral line. In a conspiracy of silence and petty crime, the customer nudges and winks, and then heads off to the cashpoint. Yet think what it is doing. Either you believe in taxes/society/civilisation or you don’t. If you do, and you try and get out of paying VAT, then you are a hypocrite.
… You might well disagree with how governments spend taxes and what levels they set taxation at, but those are separate issues. They are what elections are for.
… you are breaking the law if you use the black economy. Why do we resent lawbreakers of every other kind but chuckle indulgently when someone tells you they managed to get out of paying VAT?
Like taxes, laws are a good thing. They are the opposite of anarchy. Again, if you don’t like them, elect a government that will legislate in a way you do like. Until then, pay your taxes with joy in your heart. It’s not a perfect system, but it does work”
The Great Rethink occasioned by the Recession may make such a move easier or simply more necessary. Not only do we need to encourage more productive, less risky use of money and public investment with long term benefits but the fact that in countries like the US and UK a disproportionate majority of taxes are paid by the ‘middleincomes’ rather than the rich, maybe causing a new dynamic all of its own. This could be brought to a head by growing joblessness amongst the educated ‘middle classes’ (ie aspiring professionals).
In an article  in the 1 December New Statesman Iain Macwhirter noted:
“The new global economy is beginning to erode class differentiation and has left many middle-income earners exposed to the kinds of insecurities that formerly afflicted only lower-class workers”
Macwhirter points to ‘a remarkable forecast’ by a UK Ministry of Defence Think Tank in 2007:
“the world’s middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest”
As Macwhirter says, Britain has an indebted, educated, and now increasingly unemployed generation of under 35s who ‘look to the state for security, but the state may not be able to deliver’. If that State is to deliver, and if they are to see virtue in being part of that capability, the idea of good tax would be a good idea.
Non-Contributors and Non-Combatants
In the war on climate change, most non-contributors are equivalent to non-combatants.
The same can be said of any pursuit of major public goods.
Re-framing tax as solution building and tax payers as contributors would enable governments and society to depict non-contributors as non-combatants. Rhetoricyesbutnotspinasithasanunderlyingtruth. Perhapsthetimehascometodeploysuch rhetoric to counter that which says that any wealth creation, however extreme and however non- contributing, somehow is justified by trickle down from the invisible hand ?
In his book Who Runs Britain? , BBC Business Editor Robert Peston discusses the super-rich and their political influence but it is their attitude to contributing to society through tax which is the point here. These people have been promoted as role-models. Peston writes:
“Many of the super-rich actually feel it is their moral duty not to pay tax. This is not malicious hearsay. I know these guys pretty well, and they regularly moan about paying any tax. But whatever you think about the waste and inefficiency of public services … my strong conviction is that no one should use a club’s facilities who is not prepared to pay the subscription fee. Here’s the point. Any particularly wealthy individual may have used state schools and hospitals while growing up. Or their employees may still use them. And their ability to generate wealth today depends in large part on the stability of the state and expensive physical infrastructure. All of which costs money …”
Perhaps instead of just advocating what governments should do in terms of delivery objectives – be it providing drugs for HIV AIDS, the terms of aid or investing in renewable energy or education – NGO campaigners should utilise their political advocacy networks to help reframe the tax that is needed to createthewherewithalforgovernmentspending. Ashasbeensaidathousandtimes,NGOslack political power but they and their brands have great moral authority. It’s time to deploy a bit of that influence to help reframe tax.
On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. Let us look in detail at the framing evoked by this term.
The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain.
The Relief frame is an instance of a more general Rescue scenario, in which there a Hero (The Reliever-of- pain), a Victim (the Afflicted), a Crime (the Affliction), A Villain (the Cause-of-affliction), and a Rescue (the Pain Relief). The Hero is inherently good, the Villain is evil, and the Victim after the Rescue owes gratitude to the Hero.
The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of “tax relief” are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers’ gratitude.
Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.
 See for example Kelly’s discussion of company ‘fitness’ and the work of MIT economist James Utterback, chapter 6 in New Rules For The New Economy, Kevin Kelly, Fourth Estate, London 1998
 I mean benefits for society not social security http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/tax/article1996735.ece
 See Using Values Modes at www.campaignstrategy.org
 There’s only one way to pay tax: with joy, Nigel Farndale http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/02/24/do2403.xml
 Ian Macwhirter, How safe is your job? NEW STATESMAN Dec 1 2008 pp 16 – 20
 Who Runs Britain?, Robert Peston 2008 pub Hodder
Earlier this year I posted a critical analysis of XR UK’s ‘revolutionary’ theory of change, mostly on grounds that it was unlikely to work and posed many risks including a values culture war. Since the New Year, XR has apparently dropped the government-overthrow theory and adopted a new if more vaguely defined ‘strategy’.
So a revolution may not be being televised but XR UK’s post-revolutionary tactics are creating a public campaign laboratory, with a very public debate of it’s campaign tactics and strategy, rather than what to do about climate change. What happened after its last high profile experiment action has at least one straightforward lesson for almost any campaign.
I got a fundraising email from XR the other day complaining about how it was being attacked in the media and declaring Extinction Rebellion was ‘not the story’ but in reality that is exactly the position, following its blockade of newspaper distribution on 5 September.
What Happened ?
For the benefit of readers outside the UK or others who may have missed it, XRUK held a ‘rebellion’ in early September, consisting of a fortnight of protest, mostly in London. One action provoked a small storm of media and political debate and some public attention, when XR delayed the distribution of five national newspapers, The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, all targeted because of their coverage of climate change.
The newspaper distribution blockade got XR back ‘in the headlines’ and resulted not only in predictable criticism from the Conservative Government but also from the opposition Labour Party, and provoked a mixture of support and overt and coded criticism from previously supportive climate campaigners. These included Craig Bennett at The Wildlife Trusts (formerly of Friends of the Earth) and John Sauven at Greenpeace.
Much of the wider comment was very similar to the reaction to XR’s ill-fated disruption of electric tube travel which hit London commuters at Canning Town in October 2019: people questioned XR’s tactics and strategy, based on the assumption that an effective campaign picks targets for action which win over rather than alienate key audiences.
Thinking Through The Third Step
At its simplest level, even the most straightforward skirmish in a public campaign usually aims to create a story which engages a public wider than just a debate between the campaign entity and the target.
Whether it’s done by taking direct action, by making a public claim, instigating a legal action or releasing the results of an investigation, campaigns attempt to create an ‘inciting incident’ which gains attention, causes a reaction, and invites judgement in the court of public opinion. All three steps need to be thought through in advance. Beyond that you are into territory that you can’t expect to plan for in a deterministic way, and the longer term strategy, route maps, critical paths and the like is another topic. This much though is campaign basics:
Step 1: intervention – intended as the inciting incident
Step 2: generate public attention
Step 3: use the attention – shift public opinion your way
In this case, XR’s newspaper blockade achieved steps 1 and 2 but not step 3.
XR’s first-step was to set up the blockade. Unlike many attempts by campaign groups, this successfully created public attention: step two.
It was a disruptive act with consequences for a target which could be relied upon to react, and was well equipped to do so in terms that would be widely noticed. The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Daily Telegraph for example, are almost ‘joined at the hip’. All the targeted newspapers responded along with most of Britain’s media.
Yet that’s where things immediately started to go wrong, or wrong at least if you assumed that XR is trying to conduct a change campaign and not continuing with its original strategy of ‘movement’ revolution through disruption and personal ‘sacrifice’ to build public support.
Retaining The Frame
In communication terms the opportunity to frame the story is in what you say and do at step 1, and it must be sustained through step 2 and 3.
For the longer campaign to gain rather than lose momentum as a result of the skirmish, the attention created needs to validate the proposition manifest at step 1: for instance through endorsement by third parties, by generating popular acclaim, by emulation, through swelling numbers participating, or by trusted voices saying “they are right – here’s why – this is what it means”.
In this case the public attention got used alright but not so much by XR as by their chosen opposition: what it called the ‘billionaire press’, which immediately reframed it in terms that the rest of the media found hard to resist: as an attack on press freedom.
That reframing created an alternative narrative which pitched two freedoms against one another, freedom to protest against freedom of speech. With each pulse of reaction, the story then unravelled in those terms, dividing XR’s naturally supportive values-base.
As a micro campaign-study, it’s an object lesson in what happens if you lose control of the story framing once you have generated public attention. Did XR think this through? That’s hard to say but it happened.
5 September: in The Metro the newspaper block gives Boris Johnson an opportunity to say a free press is ‘vital’ to hold his government to account
Once the story was reframed as an action against press freedom, even XR-friendly campaigners faced a dilemma. Public campaigning is a form of politics, and like politicians campaigners have a deeply pragmatic relationship with the media: a marriage of convenience based not on love but mutual advantage.
For campaigners to say nothing might imply agreement with the idea that the media should be muzzled. The online Daily Telegraph was able to report on 6 September that:
‘Greenpeace, who backed the group when it shut down parts of central London last year, said that while XR’s core message was “undisputed”, “a free, diverse press and the right to peaceful protest are both expressions of free speech and hallmarks of a healthy democracy.”
Its executive director John Sauven added: “Greenpeace has been working with the news media for five decades, and we know the absolutely vital role they play in informing the public, exposing environmental abuse, and holding powerful interests to account”.’
The Telegraph quoted Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change as saying: “The criticism XR make of these newspapers is legitimate. But this is not the right way to tackle that problem” and Richard Black, of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit:
“These actions obviously get climate change in the headlines but they’re highly polarising – surveys show that while support for a clean energy transition is higher than it’s ever been across British society, a substantial proportion of the public finds XR’s methods off-putting”.
Ben Caldecott, a Government adviser on climate finance was reported as saying Extinction Rebellion risked setting back environmental policy. “It’s very hard immediately after that kind of thing to want to give the green movement, the environment movement, a big win” … “Whoever made the calls on this action made a really bad one”.
“When Extinction Rebellion appeared on the scene a year and a half ago it was fresh and brought a new energy and sense of urgency to the debate. I would hope and urge that they would always continue to do that – what they can’t be involved with is censorship …
“It’s so incredibly important that they take the public with them and try and build support, rather than distancing the public. So I hope that they are thinking very carefully about how they make sure they do that”
Announcing the action, XR said that Rupert Murdoch’s papers had ignored climate change to such an extent that his son James had complained – citing an article in The Telegraphas evidence of the family’s climate tension.
The problem here is that, along with Murdoch’s Timesand Sun, XR activists blockaded The Telegraph, which had provided them with ammunition for their cause’.
Some influential environmental voices were raised in support of XR, for example E3G’s chairman Tom Burke (see his blog) who argued on LBC radio on 6 September that:
‘The media are getting upset that somebody is holding them to account. Extinction Rebellion is making a point that the press is unaccountable for the role it is playing in climate denial. They are not attacking the free press they are making a point’
Burke made several important points but he was having to argue against a frame that was already dominant.
Was It Predictable ?
Given that XR had visibly interrupted publication of newspapers, the ‘freedom of the press’ response was rather predictable. Stopping newspaper production is not like blockading an oil refinery, fracking site or coal mine whose sole function is to provide things that the media and public already know to be primary sources of climate change pollution.
Although as XR itself pointed out, quoting from a YouGov poll, many people suspect that large parts of the UK media underplay climate change or still give space to deniers, the press would not feature in a list of most people’s existing convictions of the causes of climate emergency.
Making the case that these newspapers are a contributing cause of climate change is a complex analytical process: a multi-step story and therefore not possible to do in real-time in the outwash of an action (that reportedly lasted twelve hours). In contrast, it was self-evident that XR had impeded the free operation of the press, and to see that as justified on climate grounds, required existing convictions or some pretty clear proof.
If at Step 3 in the little schematic above, XR had been able to point to third party evidence such as a political or academic enquiry into the power of climate sceptic media coverage by the targeted newspapers in driving political anti-climate decisions, or even in just significantly influencing public opinion, it might have succeeded in ‘showing justification’ but it did not.
To have ‘counted’ in the media-political news conversation, that evidence would have either had to be new, or authoritative, or both but it wasn’t. XR explained:
‘We targeted the billionaire-owned media because they are not responding to the scale and the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and the main reason for this is that our press is in the hands of the powerful who have vested interests, who are set on dividing us, and are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. A free press is about speaking truth to power, but how can we do this when the press is owned by a powerful few?’
This is a point of view but it’s more rhetorical than evidenced. If there had been clear binary true-or-not evidence that the press was ‘in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry’ for example, it was not provided.
If such evidence was available, another option would have been to first put the issue in play in the news agenda, for instance working with other pro-climate organisations. For that, it would only have needed to passed a test of ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than the binary requirement of visual news. For example if organisations like learned bodies or some widely supported NGOs such as WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Oxfam or Greenpeace had just launched a campaign against the same newspapers on climate grounds. They could then have jumped in to make use of the attention generated.
Or the media or politicians might have conducted an investigation exposing evidence that particular climate-denying editors or owners had exercised a malign effect on climate outcomes. None of this happened.
One reason that did not happen may be that while some of the targeted newspapers are guilty of a long and damaging record on climate content, it’s a battle many campaigners may feel is essentially won, and much of the strongest evidence is old.
The main tent of the UK climate sceptic camp started to sag back in 2018. That’s when Fran Unsworth, head of BBC News, removed it’s main storm-guy, by ending the BBC’s policy of reporting climate change as a two-sided scientific debate. After that, it became far harder for sceptics to get attention for their agenda, and all the newspapers XR targeted, have started running more coverage of the reality of climate change.
Along the lines of Napoleon’s dictum “don’t interrupt your enemy when it’s in the course of making a mistake”, campaigners may have concluded that even if these publications do sometimes still give space to sceptic views, there’s little to be gained by focusing attention on that battlefront instead of, for example, issues of implementation of decarbonization of economy and society. Indeed if XR had succeeded in making newspaper content the climate issue, it might even help sceptics by giving them the oxygen of publicity.
Kicking The Wasps Nest
Like politicians, campaigners are wary of criticizing the media unless they have very strong evidence, on the basis “don’t getting into a pissing match with a skunk”. You may often feel it treats you unfairly but it’s a reality you need to learn to navigate. As one politician said, ‘for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea’.
Holding a particular news platform, editor or journalist to account over demonstrable deception is one thing. Attacking news organisations en bloc is the communications equivalent of kicking a wasps nest. A coal company may have a few press officers and a Public Affairs agency but it is mainly full of mining engineers, accountants and technical staff who know little or nothing about communications. A news organisation is stuffed full of news communications experts, adept at playing on public perceptions, with deep and constant political access, and with little else to do but to spin stories.
The media story of XR’s blockade was immediately populated with evidence that their action was questionable. It emerged that environmental icon David Attenborough had recorded an interview for The Sun, Britain’s biggest newspaper and owned by the Murdoch Group. Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute, probably Britain’s leading ‘climate hawk’, tweeted “unfortunately it means readers of The Sun will not see this interview with David Attenborough about climate change”.
In 2019 Attenborough spoke up for Greta Thunberg and for disruptive climate activism, saying “‘You can say, “It gets you nowhere, just stopping the traffic”. But it gets you noticed. People listen to what you say. And that you’re important”. After the newspaper blockade he said: “I don’t think it’s sensible politics to break the law”.
A Human Political Thermometer?
Does it matter that XR created headlines about itself and alienated fellow climate activists ? That depends on what you think XR is for. Perhaps not, if XR’s function is merely to act as a human political thermometer of public frustration about climate change. The Newspaper blockade was probably the single biggest climate-related story in the UK in 2020 to date, aside from the more elite and diverse conversations around green recovery and ‘building back better’ after Covid.
One commentator has argued that XR’s critics misunderstand how campaigns work and that being unpopular with the public is a cost worth paying if you are effective. That can be true, if you are effective but unpopularity is not in itself a measure of effectiveness. As many journalists have done, he also cited a rising wave of public conviction for climate as a national issue as evidence of XR’s effectiveness in 2019 but that wave was growing before XR appeared, and seems more likely to have been driven by real-world climate impacts than protest.
Just generating spectacle without results, is only effective if others can exploit the attention created, and in that respect not all publicity is good publicity. In the case of XR’s Newsgate, it created a debate about ‘protest’, mostly exploited by the opposition, not by its natural allies.
It was noticeable that neither Johnson nor any of his Ministers felt the need to justify their record on action to tackle climate change (or to disown media denial of climate change) as a result of the XR newspaper blockade. Instead they could comfortably position XR as putting climate-action in peril by stifling a ‘free press’.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s threat to classify XR as an ‘organised crime’ group was widely ridiculed on the Left and may just be the flying of an impractical kite. But Boris Johnson’s stated desire to ‘impose tighter restrictions on mass gatherings, in particular where it threatens the freedom of the press’ as “a key tenet of democracy and the law”, could lead to new police powers similar to but going beyond the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which helped finish off the 1990s ‘roads movement’ by criminalising previously civil offences.
It could also create a tempting dog-whistle opportunity for many in the ruling Conservative party. Knowing that XR’s methods are unpopular with most of the public, and aware that they owe their political majority to MPs elected in seats such as the ‘Red Wall’ by ex-Labour voters who are strongly authoritarian, many Conservative MPs would probably support a legal crackdown on ‘climate anarchists’.
Most of the public might not support new laws to stifle protest but most of the government’s potential voters might well do so.
The Newsgate action is also unlikely to have done anything to persuade such MPs to support the proposed Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, promoted by XR, along with environmental luminaries such as Kumi Naidoo, Carolyn Lucas MP and 350’s Bill McKibben.
XRUK does have a lot of supporters who will come to its defence but they are mostly not influential with Britain’s government or its large Parliamentary majority. To be effective it will need to think and act a lot more carefully, and working more closely with other pro-climate groups could be a good starting point.