‘Climate Weak’ or ‘every little helps’?

Yesterday morning I attended the launch of Climate Week at Lancaster House. Its nearly fifteen years since I stood in the same Regency ballroom with a few hundred environmental policy and NGO people listening to John Prescott vow that new Labour would be the greenest government ever. This 1820s bling-fest is the UK government’s party venue. Did the people holding ‘greenwash’ banners outside know it was a gift to the nation from soap magnate Lord Lever, named in honour of his home county?

21st March 2011 and a remarkably similar crowd to that new Labour green gathering came to mark the launch of Climate Week. We were offered similar promises to Prescott’s in a telemessage from the PM (though with a novel inflection ‘as one of our sponsors puts it ‘every little helps’…’). The gilt decor had competition from plentiful corporate logos this time around. Climate Week relies on controversial sponsorship: oil sands bankers RBS, French nuclear giant EDF and your friendly neighbourhood grocer Tesco are three of the core funders of this curious for-profit body that is aiming to turn this into an annual event. Hence inside plenty of suits and outside a sprinkling of central-casting protestors.

The Guardian’s Damian Carrington asks if this kind of show does any good? 3000 national events and a pat on the back for some of the people doing great things is all good. Also, comparing today with 1997, it is encouraging to see how widely the principle of climate action has been embraced: schools; the arts; business innovations and more. But these cheery ‘all in it together’ events serve to postpone the larger conversation about how we change the decision environments for big and small businesses, for households and for government ministers such that the long term interests of the natural world and future generations count in every single decision we make today.

A lot of little steps add up to just that – a lot of little steps: we need great big bounds forward. Am I reacting to the corporate logo-fest? Far from it: the presence of the voice of major businesses in climate change debates is one of the most important and positive developments of the last decade. Elsewhere I’ve described the work of the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change in the mid 2000s as the most important climate campaigning and communications of that period. But the sponsored soft-focus T-shirt wearing cheeriness of Climate Week seems wholly at odds with the underlying politics of the issue. Separating this pervasive and complex problem off into a tidy week of awareness raising could compound the weird silence surrounding climate politics.

Cross party support for the long term goals of Labour’s Climate Change Act marked a keystone achievement. But we’ll be back in Lancaster House in fifteen years with not much more to talk about than the meek and inadequate  ‘every little helps’ unless the politics of environment heats up. The bundle of global environmental change issues we face requires that powerful people that understand the scale of these challenges make some ‘difficult decisions’, provoke some arguments and change the way the world works.

PS: To show that I’m not just an old grump can I encourage people to look at the Ashden Awards. Their awards ceremony is the first time I’ve cried with delight in a lecture hall – its that good… They strike me as a model for how to keep the scale of a problem in view while creating a celebratory atmosphere. You really have to dig around in their website to find sign of a corporate sponsor. Most of the funding is via charitable trusts – I’d find the big corporates’ support of these kinds of activities so much more authentic if they shunted money into trusts and stood back. They could then focus their efforts on internal transformations and public lobbying to support decisive political action.

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