Ten reflections on a decade in the climate community




By Tom Brookes, Executive Director, Strategic Communications at European Climate Foundation

June 1st, 2019 marked ten years since I joined the climate movement, just six months before the now infamous COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen.

Back then, I was a climate newbie. What I knew about was political communications. I came from the private sector, the tech industry primarily, and I had never worked in civil society, for a philanthropy, or on these issues. The only thing I had a clear sense of was that I was walking into a massive learning experience, though even knowing that I couldn’t have predicted quite how much the next ten years would teach me.

Ten years on, I wanted to take a moment to reflect a little on some of the key lessons I learned. They are not comprehensive, and they are not absolute, but I hope they may be of some use to the community as we enter the last ten years of the fight to halt the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. They are:

  1. We will not win because we are right, we will win because we are organized
  2. Good policy doesn’t adopt itself, it’s about politics
  3. Don’t mistake access for influence
  4. Don’t see change as linear, no political battle ever ends
  5. We often behave like we don’t have an opposition
  6. There is no “correct” next step or “right” intervention – theory of change is not the right functional alignment, alignment happens around objectives
  7. We have 10 years to prevent catastrophe. Let’s act like it
  8. The movement is not a series of projects. It must be an ecosystem of change
  9. Funders need to be conscious of how they wear their wings
  10. Never allow an institutions’ approach or ongoing existence to become its primary objective

1/ We will not win because we are right, we will win because we are organized.

At their core, many (and possibly most) of the theories of change adopted by our community are based on the misconception that we will win because we are right. This view is deeply embedded: How often have you been in a meeting where someone suggests we need to deepen the evidence base, or communicate the results of a study more effectively, or try and get people to understand the trade-offs inherent in a given projection of the low-carbon transition? These approaches suppose that we will win because we are right, and the more right we become, the more winning we will do.

Now, it is completely understandable to believe that we are right, and that if we explain to everyone else in enough detail and in language that they can relate to why, they will understand and agree – not only with our analysis of the problem but also with our proposed solution.

But it doesn’t work. It has never worked, and it never will. We absolutely need detailed analysis to understand what it is that we are trying to do, and to educate and inform our strategy. But, when it comes to the debate and the politics, a facts-first approach will not prevail. It’s more important to know your enemy, identify your friends, understand their values, work out what will open the window for the solution you need and go at it.

I learned to understand the difference between changing perceptions and winning arguments. We don’t need to be proved right; we need to make other people believe they are right by wanting the same thing we do. It’s different.

I have seen that we win when we appreciate the need for a coordinated inside and outside game, that different actors have different roles and that we never know which approach will be decisive. We win when we support and adopt a multiplicity of approaches. in practical terms, this means we need to organise to ensure we have policy, politics, comms and public mobilisation effectively working together to deliver the result. No approach ever works in isolation.

2/ Good policy doesn’t adopt itself, it’s about politics.

Although much of the disagreement about climate claims to be about facts, the climate fight is inherently political. There is next to no actual debate over the science, the causes or the solutions to the climate crisis, only manufactured debate.

Though there are exceptions, it is rarely a question of whether we need one solution or another – we most often need them all. We have no time and the biggest problem in human history to solve.

The blockers to policy are not a lack of understanding (see my first point), they are a lack of power. People and polluting corporations have used their power to defeat climate policy. We must use power to enable the adoption of effective and ambitious climate policy. The calculation and understanding of political power and the ability to exert it on multiple fronts is what will decide the outcome. If we insist on remaining “above politics”, we will surely remain above winning. Politics is the system by which human society organises itself, and we need to reorganise it – we should not avoid that conclusion for fear of being ‘partisan’. We are engaged in a political endeavour whether we like it or not, and we need to embrace that.

3/ Don’t mistake access for influence.

This happens a lot. The example I come across most often is when advocates who are working an inside game policy-led strategy tell communications practitioners that they shouldn’t put anything in the papers that criticizes the policy maker they are working with, even if that policy maker is in the process of watering the policy down to nothing, because it’s the only shot they have.

An effective inside game only ever works with an effective outside game. The outside game creates leverage, the inside game provides a graceful landing zone, and the wheel turns towards progress. Neither approach works alone, and we should do better in recognising that they are peers in the process of change. Policy folks shouldn’t discount the role of communications and campaigns, and nor should comms and campaigns folks discount the policy wonks. They are two critical pieces of the same system.

This also needs to extend to our approach. Access is important, but it mustn’t prevent others from being critical, and naming names when necessary. Likewise, when a policymaker does do something right, we must sing it from the tree-tops. We need to apply pressure where it’s needed and celebrate success where it occurs.

4/ Don’t see change as linear, no political battle ever ends.

We still have a tendency, particularly funders and strategists, to constantly ask what we can stop doing, as if we were marshalling a set of projects, rather than trying to change the world. I don’t think it’s the right way to look at the field. No battle is ever definitively won. If we scrape it through by one vote, it only takes one vote to undo the win., Our opposition will always be resourced to make the same tired old arguments over the costs of climate action and technology neutrality. It’s whack-a-mole and it always will be.

What we need to do is learn from the opposition, which has learned this lesson. While they keep us busy by sowing uncertainty and confusion, our opponents also invest in people, organisational infrastructure and long-term capacity, not just outcomes. Building expertise and capacity and investing for the long-term creates infrastructure we know we will always need – infrastructure that can adapt to changing conditions and work for the long term.

It’s this kind of infrastructure that can go beyond the reversible ‘winning moment’ to embed cultural change as part of the outcome of a political win. By building long-term attention, expertise and engagement, we can change the frame of the debate and change the way key communities feel about an issue. This is change that is resilient, locks in forward motion and wins for the long term.

5/ We often behave like we don’t have an opposition.

There are moments where our campaign decisions take for granted that the political system functions, that the public interest is its primary driver, and that broadly people want to do the right thing. This is, in itself, a form of denial.

Take, for example, the US political system. Political science has shown us empirically that it does not favour the public interest. The same will be true in many other places – perhaps all of them.

What we are opposed by is a carefully constructed web of personal and institutional financial interest, ideology, political power, campaigning expertise and vast resources. There is not a single central driver of the campaign to undermine climate action, but a set of over-lapping interests and beliefs and a willingness by many actors to ignore what they disagree with in order to get part of what they want. It is implicitly co-ordinated and deeply powerful.

The question: “What will the opposition do next?” should be near the top of the list in all our planning and strategy meetings, alongside “How will the opposition respond to our latest strategic decision?”. But we rarely discuss these questions. We need to build proactive opposition management into the core of the way the movement operates.

6/ There is no “correct” next step or “right” intervention – theory of change is not the right functional alignment; alignment happens around objectives.

I believe there should be a set of principles that you sign up to when you join the climate movement. We have one in the GSCC and it has proved very useful.

One of those community principles should be that no two people representing different organisations or perspectives will ever have a meeting to agree on a “theory of change”. Let’s avoid endless circular conversations about who is more right about the best way to do something and focus discussion on what it is that we want to change. Everyone will come with their own view, based on their own experience and their own capacities and skills.

We should align around objectives and let people get on with it. We should invest in people whose judgement we trust and vest decision-making to them, precisely because their approach may well be different to ours. By aiming for the same targets (and keeping them high level) we create space for diverse approaches, and still enable ourselves to scale by creating an effective peer network. We recognise our limits and know when there is a gap that someone else needs to fill.

This requires that the community incentivises collaboration and undertakes gap identification in a straightforward and low-drama way. But if we get it right, we relieve the pressure on all members of the community to constantly change, chameleon-like, to fit the latest theory of change.

7/ We have 10 years to prevent catastrophe. Let’s act like it.

We now face the final ten years of the critical time window for setting the trajectory of the future. Over the next decade, we must make the climate fight about mitigation at a scale and pace that can prevent social and political breakdown of our societies. In this context, the calculation of risk becomes a very different proposition. Some will courageously go and chain themselves to the gates of coal fired power stations, lie down in the face of construction of gas pipelines, and otherwise escalate radical tactics. In the more “mainstream” work we do as a movement – shareholder pressure, creating narratives for the centre, empowering the voice of businesses, backing new and different actors – we also need to embrace radical strategy. That won’t always mean radical tactics, but it must mean setting our priorities and allocating our resources against what we know needs to happen, rather than what we think can happen. We have left the world of the politics of the possible and entered the world of the politics of the necessary. Things will get broken, including some relationships, and we need to be ready for that.

8/ The movement is not a series of projects. It must be an ecosystem of change.

The movement, and the organisations within it, have a tendency to silo very quickly. Almost for our own sanity, we lean into the instinct to put barriers and boundaries around the work we do.

But, as we all know, everything is connected – particularly when it comes to solving a global-scale, systems-level problem like climate change. The challenge for us all is that building connective tissue across our movement is hard and made even harder when advocates are measured by their individual impacts rather than their ability to collaborate and put impact above brand. Meaningful policy change almost always happens through collective effort, not via the individual heroics of any one organization.

Not everyone needs to work on everything and not everyone needs to be part of every decision – indeed that would paralyse us – but we do need to think smartly about how to structure around and otherwise deconstruct silos. One example that addresses this need directly is the PIE/ALFIE model on coal – some people with a helicopter view whose job is not to go and explain to everyone what they should be doing (nobody is that clever) but to spot where gaps are being left or a single issue is taking up too much resource and collaboratively plan around that.

Leaders of organisations and those with a influence inside the community need to be conscious of their power, and not try and get everyone to focus on whatever is their latest source of ire, grievance or the latest “silver bullet” theory, as that approach risks a form of whiplash of attention and resource. We must be aware our community is at its best when it functions as an ecosystem – including with a degree of overlap, redundancy that drives resilience and creativity, and enabled capacity that can help the community think forward – and embrace the many different strategies and diversity in people and approach.

9/ Funders need to be conscious of how they wear their wings.

Funders, to a great extent, dictate what gets worked on. That’s OK, but only if they effectively co-ordinate, consult, listen and resist the tendency to follow fashion. Nothing gets in the way of clear strategic thought like money. Not that funders don’t have very important insights to contribute, they do. But no funder has a monopoly on truth and righteousness, and in a resource-constrained movement where the prospect of more resources has a massive gravitational pull, the reality is that you usually get most money out of most funders by agreeing with them. Hence funders tend to distort the strategy of the field. There may be no way to avoid this, but what we can do is be aware. Every funder has to appreciate and be conscious of the fact that they have “funder wings” – they get treated differently and protected from criticism, and it’s not just because of their inherent beauty and intellect. We would serve ourselves better as a community if every grantee was enabled to go into those funder conversations with a peer-to-peer approach.

The field often looks like a buyer’s market where information only flows in one direction, with grantees peddling unique nuggets of strategic insight in a zero-sum competition for resources, and funders being cagey about their strategy and intentions. But everyone, funders and grantees alike, brings something unique and important to the table. The best response to the “funder-wings” issue is to approach all field interactions assuming that each one of those contributions is truly equally important.

My father, who has been a grant-maker in the arts for much of his professional life, gave me a piece of advice when I joined the European Climate Foundation. He said: “Your grantees will never love you, and they may not even like you, but that’s ok. They just need to trust you. Always tell everyone everything that’s going on, don’t hide the ball, be clear and transparent in your decision making, and they will trust you. Then you can work together.” It was sound advice.

10/ Never allow an institutions’ approach or ongoing existence to become its primary objective.

In the business of making change in the world, beliefs and vision and commitment matter a lot. Institutions matter less. There is a very common disease that we have partially caught from the commercial world and, partially is just a feature of the human desire for belonging. We invest heavily in symbols of who we are as people, and that includes for many of us the organisation for which we work. We, understandably, want to feel our values align with others and are represented by our brand, something I experienced very directly when I worked for Apple, a company with a hugely powerful brand image and the loyalty in its workforce that can inspire.

But in our world, with a few exceptions, institutions are built around particular people or ways of doing things and they run their course. The question should be not whether X or Y group will exist next year but is it important to strategy and making change effectively. We can quickly fall into the trap of feeling like our own value and livelihood is dependent on the ongoing existence of an organisation. At that point strategy begins to fail because the decision-making process gets polluted by the desire to just keep going and maintain stability.

This is challenging – within the GSCC, which was in some sense founded on the principle that it was not and should never become an institution – we struggle with this all the time. But this is another place where we need to invest in people, to provide reassurance that people can be brave, think beyond the limitations of their current positions and institutional boundaries. That’s where real creativity and impact lie, where ambition is de-risked and not limited by what we did last year.

In summary, it seems to me that we have to take a new approach to the next, last ten years of the fight for a stabilised climate. We need to think bigger, focus on power and building it, bring people along and not be afraid to bet on multiple approaches. If we build a community or ecosystem of capable people who trust each other and can move fast and not have to worry about whether others have their back, we have a chance of winning. We need to embrace the fact that radical is the new normal, we need to look ahead and plan for the next fight, not the last war. And we need to take care of people and realise that the psychological effects of this decade and its implications are profound, for all of us. We know that if we lose our best strategic talent to constantly having to sell and resell itself just to keep the lights on, we won’t have a shot at winning – we will have a very dark, if mercifully short, future.

If we can keep our heads while all around us are losing theirs, we have a shot at changing human society in the most wonderful way.

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