How can Faith Groups get better at campaigning on climate change?

November 7, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

On Monday, I had not two fascinating big picture conversations under Chatham House Rules – these are a gift to bloggers as you don’t have to remember who said what, 

God and Climate Changeand can take all the credit for anything clever. I’ve already blogged the discussion on theories of change and the Middle East. The second was run by a faith-based NGO in the middle of a big rethink of its campaigning on climate and development. OK, it was Tear Fund – they don’t mind me saying. The format was interesting – get about a dozen assorted wonks from NGOs, thinktanks, academia and government in a room for two hours to discuss a draft paper, then continue over drinks and dinner. I might even adopt it for the book.

The background paper, by Alex Evans (they really don’t take the Chatham House thing very seriously) is here. Alex asked me to invite comments and stressed that ‘the paper is definitely not the first draft of a report, but much more just a starter for ten to help get a conversation going and help us scope out the ground.’

The effect of these conversations is to test, tweak and strengthen your existing ideas, get a feel for where the current zeitgeist conversation is going, update you on the latest in-words (and people – I must have missed the canonization of Martin Wolf, but since the global financial crisis, he is now quoted reverentially as the guru on almost everything) and drop in the odd lightbulb/aha moment + references to new books and papers. There were plenty of those on Monday – some highlights:

To get real movement on climate change, we need a grand narrative on One World, sustainability and the need for environmental stewardship. But campaigners also need quick wins to build optimism and momentum. Those often have to be much less ambitious and system-shaking to have a chance of being adopted. The danger is that watered down quick wins will undermine the grand narrative (agreeing to more comfortable slave ships rather than total abolition). We need to make sure quick wins are aligned with the end goal, and develop the ground for a subsequent set of policy changes that are currently ‘just beyond the possibility horizon’ and make sure they fit the big narrative too.

What is the point of page after page of policy recommendations that no-one reads or believes? Their purpose is to prove that the campaign organization is across the detail of the issue, and give a sense of what practical steps are necessary. A set of illustrative examples of where governments, corporations and others have successfully taken action would meet those criteria, be more interesting, and would acknowledge the fact that boilerplate policy blueprints make no sense in complex systems where the right policies will depend on context. So could we replace the boring Recommendations section in all our reports with ’10 real world examples of what works’ please?

Grey Panthers are scary

Grey Panthers are scary

Cities not States? Partly in reaction to the failure of national governments and global institutions to tackle the big issues, there is a growing buzz about the transformative potential of cities, with discussions of convening a World Parliament of Mayors. See this Benjamin Barber Ted Talk or Hugh Cole’s recent blog for more.

Personal critical junctures: not only are windows of opportunity a crucial part of change at political and social levels, they are also critical for individuals’ views and actions. The interesting thing is that they are partly predictable – research suggests three big ones: leaving home/going to university, having your first child, and retiring. We design campaigns around the first, but what about the other two? (Cue my customary doomed attempt to get people interested in a Grey Panthers movement).

Is social capital really withering on the vine? An interesting discussion on the state of ‘congregational spaces’ that act as islands of social capital. Some (trade unions, traditional churches in the UK) may be fading, but many aren’t (schools, nurseries, healthcare centres, Women’s Institutes) while others (social networks, food growers, transition towns, book clubs, sports clubs, even the Girl Guides) are booming. Such spaces both provide ‘safety in numbers’ for people wanting to take action on a collective problem, and the threat of sanctions (mainly social) to help them stick to their promises. It’s the difference between dieting alone, and knowing you have to go to weight watchers.

The hair shirt community, who like the idea of giving up stuff, rationing, making sacrifices etc, is well represented among Church activists, but stressing the need for sacrifice is probably not a good tactic in a public campaign, let alone with policy makers (‘with the grain, and not too much pain’). Instead, some nice thoughts on which climate change narratives work with which constituencies within the Christian churches;

  • For centre-left: fairness and justice
  • For conservatives: Stewardship
  • For neoliberals: Property Rights also bring Property Responsibilities – if you use it or burn it, you are responsible for the pollution that results


Finally, what lessons could we learn from the Jubilee 2000 movement on debt relief? At Alex’s suggestion (see his blog), I went back to the Biblical Chapter that inspired the debt campaigners, and was struck by how much it contains that could form the basis of an environmental Jubilee movement:

‘The land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.’

True that. The planet really needs some time off right now. The whole church tradition of tithing is also worth looking at. Why not reframe a carbon tax or other environmental taxes as a climate change tithe to protect the planet for future generations?

Leviticus, tithes, world parliaments of mayors – the joy of these kinds of conversations is that you end up in the most unexpected places. That and the free dinner.

Update: Read Alex Evans blog on the meeting and (more important) a brilliant, highly theological reflection on the c0nversations

November 7, 2014
Duncan Green