Charting a new course:  How the “#climate emergency” petition helped make a difference in #Manchester

A couple of weeks ago I wrote – with help from a couple of very smart people – something called “2020 – how we started winning in Manchester.”  A few people said very kind things about it.  This is a bit more specific – it’s about a new effort, to get 4000 signatures on a petition so that Manchester City Council has to debate a climate emergency motion with a zero carbon by 2030 deadline.  It’s similar in format,to the “2020” piece, but is on a shorter timescale. Fwiw, I don’t think anything in this below is unrealistic. I’m looking not just for comments and criticism (though those are welcome), but also for people who want to make something like this come true. or fill in the contact form with the skills you have, the skills you want]

[sign the petition here. then share it/rt it/facebook it etc]

October 2019

It was all over.  The gathering of the four thousand (plus) signatures.  The countless hours that dozens of people had spent emailing, facebooking, tweeting, gathering signatures from friends and family. Discussions with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. At the churches, at the bus-stops, in the parks and at venues usual and unusual. The motion – that the Council declare a climate emergency with a zero-carbon target of 2030 (including a proportionate amount from the airport) had made it onto the formal agenda.  A packed visitors’ gallery, and many watching online had seen it unfold.

The Labour Party, with its overwhelming control of the Council had,  of course, been dismissive. And its campaign had started long before the actual motion in the Council Chamber in October. 2019: there had been the usual mix of soothing blandishments and injured “but we’re doing all we can”s, the blaming of central government while simultaneously taking credit for national-level decarbonisation.  They had tried saying they’d already declared a climate emergency, and had a perfectly reasonable and achievable 2038 decarbonisation target – that had been laughed out of court. Then there had been whispering campaigns and the finding of (a few) willing fig leaves. And on the day, the motion had been very heavily defeated. The Council had its plan. It was a good plan, a “realistic” plan. A world-leading plan, they said. The motion was lost.

But it didn’t matter.  Because it was not, in fact, all over.  Because – ironically given that the “petition” asked the council to do something – the whole point of the exercise had not been about the Council. It had been an exercise in creating networks, in creating opportunities for people and groups to exchange ideas, skills, knowledge, to gain confidence and ability.  Even though the word “petition” has implications of begging, of asking sweetly to trusted bosses, this was not what had happened.

The petition had been sincere, but not naive.  Its organisers and most who signed it knew that what was more important than the raw number of signatures was the manner in which they were collected, the conversations enabled, the skills and confidence

Things had gotten off to a steady if unspectacular start.  By the end of the first week there were a hundred signatures – 70 online and 30 in paper form.

Everyone who signed, or thought about signing was given basic written information about the campaign, which included at the very least the email address – and the website – which had been set up, with some basic resources. People added an email signature to the their emails, others changed their social media image.

 Progress quickened over the following weeks, as more events at which signatures could be gathered were spotted.  There was the School Strike on April 12th, obviously, and the “Letters to the Earth” at the Royal Exchange that evening.

On Thursday 18th April David Attenborough’s climate change documentary was shown on the BBC. A co-ordinated Twitter campaign, using the hashtag #climateemergencymcr had helped capture some of the interest and concern, boosting the online petition’s numbers considerably. It also alleviated frustration that Attenborough had mentioned the C-word…

While other environmental events (such as Envirolution – May 25 and Groundswell– June 1) were on the organisers’ wish list, they also sought to move beyond the usual suspects.  They put calls out for invitations to do spiels (anything from 3 minutes) to workshops at school assemblies, mosques, churches, community groups, whatever. Wherever they were invited, the speakers would thank the organisers and the attendees, keep to time, and stick around afterwards to answer what questions they could.  Mostly they were interested in how they might be able to put people in touch with each other across the city, rather than saying “follow us.”

Artists, graphic designers and video makers were approached to produce supporting materials which could spread the message wider.  Podcasts were done. A quiz night, held to celebrate the 2000th signature, raised some money, but was more an excuse to have fun and make new friends.

People who got in touch to help out were asked how much time they had, when they had it, what skills and knowledge they had that they’d be willing to use and/or teach to others, and what skills and knowledge they wanted. They were asked to identify as novices, practitioners, experts or ninjas on several “core skills”, but if people had other skills they wanted to use, the organisers would try to figure out a way of making it work for everyone.


[click here for the online contact form]

People were offered specific jobs which were simple and quick, simple and long, complex and quick or complex and long. When people wanted to know more about the climate science, more about how local government “works”, then a new collective – “Academics Acting As Activist Allies Against Atmospheric Apocalypse regional group – Hulme” (AAAAAAARGH for short) was on hand to deliver clear accurate information in useful formats., inspired in part by Professor Julia Steinberger’s excellent interview.

One of the obvious always-needed tasks was helping to do  signature collecting at makers’ markets, farmers markets, festivals and, well, you name it.

Meanwhile, teachers and students were busy encouraging students to sign the petition, because there was no lower age limit.  Indeed, anyone who lived, worked or studied in Manchester could sign the petition.

Every time a “round number” milestone was reached, an interview was posted with someone who had signed up, asking for their ideas about how to advance the campaign, what the Council should do after declaring an emergency (see for example this one).

Media interest was, truth be told, relatively sparse.  Journalists were drawn to the more dramatic and picture-worthy blocking of roads and colourful protest.  That was fine – the petition wasn’t reliant on attention, but just quietly getting on with the creation of conversations. And the signatures. That mattered too.

And what mattered even more than that was the conversations that were made possible

  • It gave people who sign the petition an “excuse” to talk to their friends, families and colleagues, breaking the silence around climate change and what we could/should do at a local level.

  • It gave people who were worried but couldn’t simply afford to get arrested something concrete to do, something to get involved in at a regular, low-intensity manner.

The organisers knew that the Council was keeping a close eye, and developing its own attempts to contain the debate,  Every comment was designed to obscure or deflect. The past ten years of abject failure were ignored, shiny promises of future engagement made.  And, boldly, the Council said that they’d already admitted that there was a gap between their aspiration and where the plans would take them.  They found a couple of new activists willing, but everyone else had decided that enough was enough, that seeking to change the system from within had simply not delivered the goods.. And those activists realised.they were trashing their credibility for precisely nothing.

Did it work perfectly? No, of course not. There were missed opportunities for gathering signatures. Not every speech went smoothly. A couple of  volunteers felt under-supported despite the best efforts of the organisers. Some completed paper petitions got left on a tram, which was demoralising and a privacy breach to boot.

But there were successes, overall. In synergy with the schools strikes, the Fridays for the Future, the Five Minute Fridays and other initiatives, the petition helped

  • put a climate emergency “on the (policy and cultural) agenda” in a way that the Council and GMCA could not fobb off.
  • individuals  talk to other people about what was happening locally, what COULD happen
  • people learn new skills, especially around public speaking, meeting design, facilitation.

It also  began to get Greater Manchester activists talking to each other more.  Other petitions started, in selected other local authority areas (tailored to local circumstances). Although there was no attempt to have a petition in every borough just for the sake of completeness – a poor petition without many signatures would only be a demonstration of weakness, and a morale s and credibility suck –  if people in a borough felt it would help, they could at least benefit from the experience of the Manchester activists.

So, on that day in October it really didn’t matter that the Council was determined to keep playing the same stupid games that it had been playing for a decade.  Glossy brochures and vague promises were no longer go to be enough. Too many mums, too many pensioners, too many students were alert and aware now.

Thirty years of listening to the incrementalists telling us to be “practical” were over. In any case, we already knew that mere words would count for nothing, It was always the case that the Council  would have to be grabbed kicking, screaming, co-opting and blame-shifting, towards “real action.” The difference was now that there were enough people, with enough connections and confidence to do that.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Charting a new course:  How the “#climate emergency” petition helped make a difference in #Manchester

  1. Louise says:

    I know it’s not really a laughing matter, but I lol’d at AAAAAAARGH. 😀

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