Tragedy or scandal? How to reframe the climate emergency to achieve the best outcomes

Meta-analysis of the strategies of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the New Climate Movement

Things stay the same for a long time. Then they rapidly change. As campaigners, we seek to understand and facilitate cultural evolution and guide our peer group towards progressive outcomes. I did an MSc in Environment Technology in 2006 and the world was very different. Climate denialists were still on the news and we studied the Kyoto Protocol - a global cap and trade scheme that could have slowed and reversed climate change if it hadn't been jettisoned by world "leaders". Chris Rose of delivered a series of lectures that had a big influence on me. Since then, whenever I am starting out working on a new campaign I circulate his invaluable 12 Basic Guidelines.

For those of us that have worked on environmental issues for a long time the last few years have been very exciting. No one cared about single use plastics and then suddenly most people do. This isn't just because we became increasingly aware that waste plastic is everywhere. It is also down to the dedicated work of smart campaigners who found the right places to push to drive widespread changes in opinions, behaviours and ultimately laws. Even corporate behemoths like Coca Cola are starting looking exposed with their bogus claims and ruinous business model.

The meteoric rise of Greta Thunberg , Extinction Rebellion and the New Climate Movement indicate that the ideas and demands of the environmental movement are finally shifting into the mainstream. However, getting headlines is one thing, driving actual real world change and desired outcomes is another. Therefore it is timely and useful that Chris Rose has put together a gigantic meta-analysis of this new wave of environmentalism - Tragedy Or Scandal? Strategies Of GT, XR and the New Climate Movement. [The analysis is based on the statements and activities of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion up to January 2020 and in the case of XR it refers to XRUK].

A major point of the piece is it that Extinction Rebellion is very focussed on the tragedy of what is happening to our world. Clearly ringing the alarm bell and processing the pain is important from from a campaign perspective but it may well be the scandal that more isn't being done when it so easily should, that could entice regular people to join the calls for radical change. Shifting focus onto the specific changes we need to see happen in the world rather than repeatedly ringing the alarm bell may lead to better results.

All 139 pages are worth a read. For those short of time I am pasting some particularly interesting excerpts below.

PART 1 - Introduction

Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, or ‘GT’ and ‘XR’ have made a huge impression on the public debate about climate change. Greta Thunberg and the ‘school strikes’ because of the emotional power children and the young over adults and parents, Extinction Rebellion because of their energy and disruptive ‘rebellions’. The celebrity status which massive attention has conferred on Thunberg should not distract attention from the fact that as well as unsettling parental assumptions about climate, she is is an inspiration to young people, and in particular to women and girls, all over the world.

Even if she stops now, her legacy will roll on. That prominence has also brought vicious attacks on Thunberg, particularly from a fringe of older white male commentators (such as in Australia), perhaps because she threatens their adherence to the ‘strict father’ framing of parenthood and its patriarchy, as well as lunatic chatter such as the idea that she is a time traveller.

Greta Thunberg probably isn't a time traveler sent from the future to save us

Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s movement have significant differences but so far neither is treating inadequate official responses to the climate emergency as a scandal. Extinction Rebellion in particular communicates the climate emergency as the mother of all tragedies. My suggestion is that this is a pivotal strategy issue for GT, XR and other parts of the ‘new climate movement’.

Having created valuable new social capital, it’s time for these players in the new climate movement to move on from just sounding the alarm about the threat, to driving real change by focusing on what can be done, and yet is not being done: the elements of a scandal, not a tragedy. The house is on fire, and simply ringing the alarm bell louder, will not extinguish it. ‘XR’ and ‘GT’ have done the world a massive favour but would be doing a far greater one if they were now to align their efforts with those trying to displace the problem with solutions, through targeted pressure on governments and corporates, in communities, and from within government and businesses at all levels. For XR, this need not, indeed should not mean abandoning ‘rebellion’ but changing what it’s a rebellion against.

A tweet from Chris Rose_ - is the government response to the crisis proportional to the risk we all face?_

Attacking the efforts of NGOs, trying to coerce them into supporting the revolutionary pathway, dismissing all governments as incapable of making a significant difference, denying the existence of solutions, claiming that nothing has been done and nothing has worked, gloom-picking the science and promoting grief and despair, are all hostages to fortune which in my view, will not survive the scrutiny that will come through more ‘contact with the enemy’. Picking fights with the IPCC and talking up the problem of climate anxiety are diversions not winning strategies. It also needs to tone down its exceptionalism which gets in the way of working with or at least alongside others, and deludes its followers.

Greta Thunberg’s ‘Nuclear Umbrella’*

[*During the Cold War, politicians used to refer to Europe as sheltering under the protective ‘nuclear umbrella’ of the United States. In my view other parts of the ‘new climate movement’ have been sheltered by the emotional power of Greta Thunberg]

In Communications terms, the ‘new climate movement’ has reframed the challenge of climate change as being ‘about’ the planet to being ‘about’ children and families.

Climate change - this time its personal - (TIME magazine covers 1989 and 2019 - reframing)

We know most politicians don’t want to talk to us. Good, we don’t want to talk to them either. We want them to talk to the scientists instead. Listen to them because we are just repeating what they are saying and have been saying for decades.

– Greta Thunberg, European Economic and Social Committee, Brussels, 21 February 2019

Mobilisation of children and youth will also have unsettled the assumptions of millions of parents with psychological, and sometimes social results. This is a qualitatively new magnifier and in my opinion, the most significant contribution so far of the ‘new climate movement’. It has not only moved ‘the issue’ from a technical and political space into a personal one but into a domestic one in which generations interact within families. This has often been tried for before by myself and others but it’s never succeeded on the scale Greta Thunberg has achieved.

The ‘true’ test of the awareness driving capacity of the ‘new climate movement’ will be not what it can do to elevate or sustain a wave of public concern but what assets and resources it can deploy to create impact if and when that wave subsides. Right now that may feel like an impossibility but it’s not. This first wave subsided once there seemed to be a big political response, and this one could too.

For instance, imagine what will happen if, and I fervently hope it does happen, the graphs of global CO2 emissions and concentrations start to fall, year on year. Given the news media’s stock-in-trade of “first simplify then exaggerate” it’s very possible that, say around year 3 of the decline (or whenever there is any political popping of champagne corks), some will start saying “the problem’s being solved” which gets reduced to “the problem’s solved”.

News Media Attention: A Lagging Indicator

The mounting wave of extreme climate events in recent years has caused increasing public disquiet, probably including a feeling that climate change was being under-reported by the media. News coverage tends to act as a ‘lagging indicator’ of trends and public opinion and then amplify any change. This is because editors tend to be conservative, watch what each other are doing and follow ‘the agenda’, like a herd of sociable grazing animals, such as sheep. Once a ‘new trend’ is ‘discovered’, for a time the “first simplify, then exaggerate’ reflex boosts the trend. It also means that it can take a long time for the news media as a herd, to respond to a real change, remaining ‘sceptics’ before flipping to enthusiastic converts.

34 In 2010 after NASA and NOA announced that 2009 had been ‘the warmest year on this planet since annual records began in the late 19th century’ Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute wrote an article ‘Why have UK media ignored climate change announcements?’ in The Guardian (initially the only national ‘paper to report the finding). ‘Believe it or not’ said Ward, ‘record warming of the Earth no longer seems to be news as far as the UK media are concerned’.

As recently as 2017, The Guardian lamented that:

Even in a year when we’ve had string of hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires worthy of the Book of Revelation – just what climate scientists have told us to expect – the effect of climate change on extreme weather has been dramatically under covered. Some of Trump’s tweets generate more national coverage than devastating disasters.

The UK media herd finally started to trot if not stampede in the other direction in 2018, during a the month-long Northern Heatwave. In July Climate Home News reported several commentators who had noticed a recent change in the attitude of news editors and journalists. On 25 July the Sun, Britain’s biggest circulation newspaper, splashed the story over its front page.

Possible Green Wave Considerations For the New Climate Movement

1. Context: you are operating on a new wave, a climate emergency wave. In recent years there has been a deluge of real-world evidences of the horrible reality of climate change taking effect. Extreme weather including droughts and floods, disappearing sea-ice, melting land-ice, fires, coral bleaching and, consequent human deaths, social and economic losses, lost rainfall from lost forests, and species extinctions. That and scientific confirmation is what’s ultimately been driving the wave you are riding, not only your own actions, even though these have made it real and personal through mass participation – a significant new contribution of great importance. This context means your movement can ‘easily’ generate social agreement, expressed for instance in polling. And as in the first green wave [1988-90], almost all of the media are back onside. Even during the recent dramas of the UK General Election, the BBC carried almost daily headline news stories about climate change. But agreement’s not meaningful change in itself, unless you are sure that it is a step up along Roger Hallam’s revolutionary path, and unless that in turn will inevitably lead to emission elimination and creation of an entirely new social-economic system.

2. Politics: during the previous ‘green wave’, the governing political class did react in the UK and elsewhere. But an international moment of opportunity was lost on climate and a domestic UK political moment too. There are many reasons for that. For one thing, aside from a handful of US environmental lobbyists, NGOs representing civil society were not ready to play a significant role in influencing the international climate process. That was kicked off by activist diplomats and scientists, and by the time any significant public campaigns began, the die was largely cast, as a science dependent and so, easily-gamed political process, and an effective fight back by vested fossil fuel interests had begun. This was based on sowing doubt, using techniques and teams previously applied to undermine control of tobacco and chemicals. The greening of mainstream politics did not occur in the UK or the US, and the residual post-UNCED ‘sustainability’ process could not deliver.

Directly or indirectly, if you are not to miss the opportunities of this new wave, your movement needs to segue or work in tandem with the existing NGOs and political actors who share your environmental aims. And with businesses and public bodies (ie governments and agencies at all levels) which can provide the means to translate them into achievable objectives of eliminating emissions. Plus for political push and pull reasons, people will need to be with you: and not just the small fraction who are most like you. Most of all you must avoid polarisation.

Here lies a problem because at least in the case of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, it has doctrinal baggage which makes this difficult. It comes in the shape of a rejection of democratic representative politics, a ‘pathway’ strategy designed to overthrow and replace government rather than deliver instrumental emission reduction, and, albeit inconsistently, a rejection and dismissal of campaigning and ‘NGOs’, and sometimes, advocacy of polarisation. This dogmatic ‘theory of change’ also rejects ‘incrementalism’ on the grounds that so far it has not delivered the goods but it has next to nothing to say about how real change could actually be delivered step by step (ie incrementally). This is in contrast for example to the ‘Green New Deal’ type ideas of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, and XR is in denial of the decades of successful campaigning to bring about solutions reducing the climate problem (see sections below). You have created a powerful new force but unless XR in particular makes its ship more politically seaworthy, that resource will be at risk.

A scandal demands something be done


If nothing can be done then no matter how urgent the problem feels or how severe the problem impact may be, there is no scandal, only a tragedy. Bendell’s Deep Adaptation makes climate change a tragedy. It takes ‘as its starting point the inevitability of societal collapse’, because it is ‘too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today’.

XR indulges in systematic solutions-denial by asserting that ‘political systems’ worldwide, the UK government specifically, and NGO campaigns, have all failed and proved themselves incapable of making a difference to climate change. That’s wrong but it’s done to leave just one possible escape route open – that of ‘rebellion’.

For there to be a scandal, the problem needs to be understood as avoidable. For that there needs to be a proven solution. Proof that “it doesn’t have to be like this”. The party to blame is then the one with the power to implement that solution but which is not doing so.

The effective policy measures and campaigns mentioned above, are examples of proven solutions: cases showing what can-be-done. There are many more, and it is these which XR and GT could use to put far greater pressure on politicians and governments. Those could also form a series of escalating steps, driving down emissions and changing ‘the system’. By not doing so, they are failing to utilise one of the most powerful campaign opportunities. Of course you can’t do it if you deny the existence of solutions.

See The Scandal Equation

Issues With XR’s Social Change Theory

In October 2019, on Medium, Nafeez Ahmed of Insurge Intelligence took XR to task for ‘the flawed social science behind its change strategy’. Explaining that he is a supporter of the new climate movement, Ahmed says he’d nevertheless long had ‘concerns about XR’s strategy’.

He remained silent about his concerns but felt he had to speak out after the Canning Town debacle which: ‘alienated commuters from East London, where many are black and ethnic minorities in poor housing with low paid jobs and often zero hour contracts’.

‘The basic problem with the ‘logic underlying XR’s method’ says Ahmed ‘is that it is based on flawed science — specifically, demonstrably flawed misreadings of the social science. It’s not that the entire method is wholly wrong; it’s that the failure to grasp its wider context and limitations means that without an upgrade, it will lead to XR’s failure’. He adds:

‘Despite ostensibly being derived from studies of nonviolent movements around the world (overwhelmingly though not exclusively by people of colour), the most important learnings from these movements have been overlooked’.

The first of these shortcomings (read his post for detail) concerns the mass arrests strategy. Beneath the criticism that XR’s go-to-prison-it’s-ok approach effectively marginalises black and ethnic minorities as they are worse-treated in the criminal justice system, a ‘fundamental problem’ with the analysis, ‘is that the black civil rights and Indian independence movements were not about pushing for comprehensive system-change, but had more specific goals’.

He goes on to argue that XR has misunderstood and expropriated the iconic movements ‘it draws its inspiration from’, giving as examples, the American civil rights movement, and the ‘Indian independence movement’ which inspired it:

‘These movements were designed to disrupt an existing, highly visible regime of repressive violence … and which already therefore lacked legitimacy in the hearts and minds of those communities. Both were cases of resistance by people of colour against systems of white supremacism. In both cases, disruption actions aimed at directly increasing the costs of the repressive violence that those communities were resisting’.

‘Hence, they were successful because the institutions they disrupted were precisely the institutions of violence that needed to be overwhelmed by mass disruption in order for them to change, so that the costs of continuing that repressive violence would be increasingly difficult to sustain or justify.

This model cannot be simplistically transplanted to the modern Western context, where structures of power are far more complex, repression more invisible, and the institutions being targeted have no intuitively obvious connection to the demand being made’.

As he points out,

White people are not being brutalised en masse by a repressive state apparatus... the idea that mass arrests of largely privileged white people will overwhelm the police system — paving the way for the government to capitulate to XR’s demands about climate change — does not follow from the logic of these historical cases.

Communications like this are confusing and put a lot of people (especially from minorities) off Extinction Rebellion


Many campaign organisations learnt the hard way that just driving the problem, just driving up the sense of concern and urgency, becomes a strategy with diminishing returns. After a time, you need to drive change through proving feasibility.

Well-founded hope that tractable practical actions can make a difference is essential to motivating individual action. Proofs that government or corporates are not acting when they could, generate scandal rather than tragedy, give people something to get constructively angry about, and create a lever to produce results. XR and GT need to focus on such scandals and help progressively drive change that way.

Showing feasibility is particularly important for the large and significant part of the population that is aspirational and success oriented. Most will not support what look like futile actions or those which risk personal failure: proof is needed that change will work, not just that it’s necessary for the greater good.

It’s also vital for government and corporates as it is often central to resolving internal arguments over what voters, consumers or shareholders will accept. The solutions-driving phase of campaigning raises willingness of those with a low sense of self-agency to themselves change and accept change: it creates more political space (ie broader public support). These are not ideological alternatives but two synergistic forces whose resolution drives change.

It is bizarre that by denying solutions, XR aligns itself not with NGO climate campaigners trying to decarbonize the economy, nor businesses actually doing it, nor even green politicians, but the lobbyists of the fossil fuel industry and their professional climate sceptics who also want to deny, even now, that such climate solutions are available, proven effective and affordable.

Now we are in the climate end-game, we must force through the changes necessary to zero out emissions and the means to do that are pretty well known but we will also need to restore and repair our climate as best we can, and for that we need a vision.


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