Love in a changing climate

Why we need a Love-In to get beyond ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in climate change campaigning

This guest post is by Robin Webster, previously of Friends of the Earth and Carbon Brief. Robin asks what the role of ‘love’ in climate change campaigning is, and whether we need to get beyond the ‘goodies vs baddies’ discourse…

I used to have a job as an environmental campaigner for a big NGO. We cared a lot about what we did. And we were often quite angry – shocked, horrified, appalled. We used words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘urgent’.  We lived in a blizzard of information about what humans are doing to the world. We took on the perpetrators. The baddies.

The big climate campaign of the moment – the coal divestment movement – follows the same goodies vs baddies pattern. One of its founders, Bill Mckibben, has made the strategy clear, writing that successful change requires movement-building; and movement building “requires enemies”. The fossil fuels industry is in the sights.

I don’t question the logic; or the numbers clearly showing the oil, coal and gas companies are a good target – a scarily good target. But, as others have pointed out, these kind of campaigns are inevitably limited – because climate change is a much more complicated problem. The profligate way we use energy; emissions associated with the food we eat; the part we play in the global energy system. It isn’t just us vs them – we are all implicated, we are all a part of the story.

In his book on the communication of climate change, “Don’t even think about it” George Marshall addresses this question, concluding that as a result:

“…I have become convinced the real battle for climate change will not be won through enemy narratives and that we need to find narratives based on co-operation, mutual interests, and our common humanity”.

That’s what I think we’re missing.

For the love of…what?

The Climate Coalition – a mass grouping of NGOs campaigning on climate – is making an interesting attempt to address this. The coalition’s “for the love of…” campaign focuses on encouraging people to highlight the things they care about that are threatened by climate change – from football pitches to frozen lakes to fry-ups.

An attempt to break climate change out of the “environmentalist” niche, the campaign is based on COIN’s research. The ‘love’ framing was the only messaging that worked across different political affiliations and viewpoints. We all love something; we’re all passionate about something at risk from climate change.

I really like the idea of integrating love into climate campaigning. But again, as critics have pointed out, the ‘for the love of….’ campaign is fairly apolitical – there’s no focus on what we’re being encouraged to do to solve the problem, or who we’re criticising.

Martin Luther King and refusing to hate

So should we be sitting around the table with energy companies gently asking if they could put another one percent or so of their money into renewables, or willingly engaging in endless conversations about whether, maybe, all the world’s climate scientists are wrong and it’s not happening?

Does integrating love into campaigning mean being apolitical?

I don’t think it does. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King – hardly a pushover – was inspired by the idea of “refusing to co-operate with an evil system”. He learnt from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and promoted the idea of non-violent protest.

For King, the principles of non-violence include “seeking to win the ‘friendship and understanding’ of the opponent, not humiliate him” and avoiding ‘internal violence of spirit’. King writes: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”

Love in this context doesn’t mean some “sentimental or affectionate emotion” for someone you’ve never met – it means “understanding, redemptive good will”.

Starting points

King’s work shows that using love in campaigning doesn’t mean ignoring biased power structures, or injustice. It does mean striving to recognise our common humanity – even, or especially, with those that disagree with us.

In the campaigning world, the Common Cause coalition grew out of social science evidence showing that human being all share a common set of values, expressed to a greater or lesser degree. Its evidence demonstrate the importance of grounding messaging in ‘intrinsic’ values like altruism, rather an ‘extrinsic’ ones like power or authority. Moving away from the idea of people as ‘consumers’ or other benefit-seeking automatons, Common Cause shows how important it is to treat people as people, and assume we are all capable of compassion.

Its certainly not straightforward to convert this into climate campaigning.

But it’s clear that, on this one issue if no other, we really are all in this together.