tl:dr – why do activists with good intentions think that giving liars and greenwashers an open goal is lia good idea?
The truth is, we the “climate community” have been terrible at our self-appointed jobs.
Climate change has been an issue on the public policy agenda since 1988, longer than many of the people reading this had been alive. It has come and gone, waxed and waned. The same arguments get rehearsed, repeated, regurgitated, the same exhortations. Everyday is Groundhog Day. We seem to learn nothing, and our efforts often are counter-productive.
That’s a fancy way of saying sometimes what we do is actually worse than useless.
On that last point – let’s look at Climate Emergency UK’s recent report about local authorities and whether they have climate emergency plans or not. They took up hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers hours doing a survey of local authorities. The headline was that “four fifths of councils have a plan”.
And how did this research get used? What was the outcome?
Well, it has raised Climate Emergency UK’s profile. That no doubt will keep CEUK’s funders happy.
It’s arguable to say that it has somehow kept the issue of climate “on the agenda” but climate change has been on the agenda for over 30 years (see above), so that is not the win some will want to say it is.
How’s it been used? Of course, Manchester City Council has boasted about the fact that it is third on the list, and highest of the unitary councils. They’ve put out a press release and it will be one of their smug diversionary boasts for months to come.
Pats on the back to Manchester City Council. Except, except …
Except MCC’s actual performance is woeful.
The emissions reductions it itself boasts of are largely an artefact of austerity – they cut staff, sold buildings, reduced services. Of COURSE their emissions went down.
Meanwhile, the city’s emissions are not dropping to meet the putative 2038 net zero goal and the Council is blameshifting whenever anyone holds them to account (which rarely happens, given they have 94 of the 96 council seats, and the Green Party is seriously AWOL, almost as vacuous as Friends of the Earth and XR Manchester
And Climate Emergency UK knew this about Manchester City Council because Climate Emergency Manchester (an unaffiliated organisation, which I co-founded but am no longer involved with) told them all this.
Manchester is way behind on delivering its plan and is instead going to – and this is entirely predictable – use the research to continue to tell people who are not paying close attention that somehow everything is in hand.
What would have been useful?
Climate Emergency UK in their press release and report could have pointed out that more prominently the limitations of their research.
Yes, they said this is only looking at plans, they could have easily predicted how the top 5 or 10 councils were going to use it.
Climate Emergency UK could have contacted campaigning groups in those areas for their responses, and quoted them.
This would have taken not much more time, certainly not in comparison to the amount of volunteers’ time already used.
This would have, it’s true, have complicated the message from “one fifth of councils do not have a plan” to “four fifths do have but even the top ones are pretty shit at doing what they promise”
What would the consequence have been?
The story might not have got picked up quite as widely.
It certainly wouldn’t have been retweeted by Manchester City Council.
Nowhere in Climate Emergency UKs report do you find any historical analysis? Nowhere does it point out that we have been through countless cycles of local authority promising.
Let’s fill some of that in. In 1988, the climate issue burst on the agenda, and got added to acid rain, ozone, recycling and the like.
Friends of the Earth and SERA both launched environmental charters to get local authorities to sign up to.
Many did, and then did sweet FA.
You then had the UK Local Government Declaration on Sustainable Development.
You then had, coming out of Rio – the Local Agenda 21 process – which ran into the ground within a few years.
You then had the Nottingham declaration in October 2000. Better to call it the “Nothingham Declaration.” You then had the reheated Nottingham declaration in 2005.
Then you had the late Blair/Brown era stuff, with “Local Area Indicators 186 and 188″ and the like. Manchester was saying it would be the Greenest City in the UK by 2010.
Then you had various pledges before and at COP15 at Copenhagen.
Then you had… oh look, I’ve lost track.
There’s an entire ecosystem, a subculture of bureaucrats devising photo-ops for come-and-go political leaders. Pledges for Paris, ICLEI this, the Local Government Association Climate This That And The OTHER.
Endless making of plans, promises, pledges. And within a year or two, they fall apart, are quietly shelved, then recycled. We have always been at war with Eurasia.
Social scientists have words like “incantatory governance” or even “climate bullshit” (true story). Sociologists invent words that mean industrial disease.
Now crucially ClimateEmergency UK could have said this. It could have educated people.
They could have asked people with local knowledge on the ground.
They could have asked Manchester activists about the Local Agenda 21 process – killed off in 1996 because it dared to suggest the Airport couldn’t expand forever.
They could have asked what happened to 2009’s promise of a “low carbon culture” (the council never even tried to make it happen).
They could have asked whether the City has burned through 40 per cent of its carbon budget for the entire 21st century in three years (spoiler: why yes, yes it has).
They could have asked if the Executive Member for the Environment has had precisely zero meetings with anybody about this carbon budget blow out (why no, no she hasn’t).
I know I am being very hard on Climate Emergency UK and doubtless I will be told that I am jealous or bitter or whatever.
Because people will not want to engage with the fundamental fact that by producing these sorts of league tables with no anticipation of how they’re going to be used by bad faith actors (and Manchester City Council is a bad faith actor in all of this, and has been for decades) then we are responsible for adding to the likelihood that people will continue not to engage with climate change.
Because people in Manchester reading that will have seen things are okay. And most people in the UK will have been able to think “There’s a good chance at my local authority has as a plan, so I don’t need to engage.”
And given how debilitating long-term climate activism is, and how the “movement” has just gone through one of its periodic up-like-a-rocket-down-like-a-stick episodes, was this report really pitched and framed responsibly?
With a little historical perspective and a little detail about the top 5, this did not need to happen. It didn’t need to be like this.
[Here endeth today’s truth bomb Mxxxx – when I catch flak, imma send them your way]
And now, of course, the awful and shameless hacks in Chorlton Labour are using it to greenwash the most ungreen of Councils.
All this could have been avoided.