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.

For the love of…what exactly?

How can the ‘For the Love Of…’ campaign move from being a slogan to a rallying call for the climate change movement?

At the London Climate March last month, there was one message that seemed to dominate all others: the ‘For the Love of…’ campaign, which was out in force with banners, heart-shaped placards, and a wide variety of things that people were passionate about and wanted to protect from climate change.


COIN carried out the research that informed this campaign, with one of our key recommendations being that the Climate Coalition should focus on making links between the wide variety of things that people love and are passionate about, and the risks that climate change poses to them.

Although we didn’t design the ‘For the Love Of…” slogan, it follows pretty closely from the findings of the research we conducted, with members of the public from a range of backgrounds.

Elena Blackmore at Values & Frames commented on the presence of the campaign at the March, noting that:

It was a genuinely uplifting and inspiring sight, and the atmosphere was palpably positive. It was a real triumph in motivational messaging.”

However, Blackmore also posed the question of whether this positivity and personal connection was enough – in and of itself – to form the basis of a campaign message. Specifically,  she suggested that there was little linking the passion people held to tangible solutions, or meaningful political action.

Blackmore’s analysis rings true: the challenge is to use people’s passion as a springboard for engaging them in a conversation about serious societal change. The value of highlighting the ‘things people love’ that are affected by climate change is that it starts to  break climate change out of its environmentalist niche, showing that a wide range of issues – from flooded football pitches, to the food we eat – are all linked to climate change. It also helps to overcome the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change, by making it more relevant to people’s lives.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail. A flooded football pitch is a reason to start a conversation with someone who might otherwise not have been interested in talking about climate change, but it is not enough of a reason on its own to decarbonise society. Links must be made between the things people love, the things other people love and – most importantly – the kinds of policies that can produce a safe and secure climate for everyone.

Building a bridge between the things people love and the ‘self-transcending’ values that underpin public concern about issues like climate change is the central challenge, ensuring that we don’t unintentionally promote the idea that loving a pair of new shoes or a bigger house is a reason to care about climate change. This kind of ‘self-enhancing’ orientation is likely to lead people to care less about the collective challenge of climate change in the longer term.

The ‘For  the Love of’…campaign feels like a positive step forward, and has been design in line with solid social science evidence.  The challenge now is to breathe life into the campaign so that it doesn’t only exist as a one line slogan but as a social norm and a feeling, because a shared passion for the things we collectively love is a powerful and inclusive rallying call.