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Campaigning on Hot v Cold Issues – what’s the difference?

July 31, 2013
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I recently began an interesting conversation with our new campaigns and policy czar, Ben Phillips, who then asked me to pick the FP2P collective brain-hive for further ideas. Here goes.

The issue is ‘cold’ v ‘hot’ campaigning. Over the next couple of years, we will be doing a lot of campaigning on climate change and inequality. Inequality is flavour of the month, with an avalanche of policy papers, shifting institutional positions at the IMF etc highlighting its negative impacts on growth, wellbeing, poverty reduction, and just about everything else. That makes for a ‘hot campaign’, pushing on (slightly more) open doors on tax, social protection etc.

In contrast, climate change is (paradoxically) a pretty cold campaign. Emissions continue to rise, as do global temperatures and the unpredictability ofworld CC media coverage the weather, but you wouldn’t think so in terms of political agendas or press coverage (see graph). The UN process, focus of huge attention over the last 15 years, is becalmed. Politicians make occasional reference to ‘green growth’, but that is becoming as vacuous as its predecessor ‘sustainable development.’

The distinction is not so clear cut, of course. Hot campaigns can suddenly go cold and vice versa (politicians and officials are able to go from saying ‘no, don’t be ridiculous’ to ‘we’ve always supported this’ with bewildering ease, when the moment is right). You could argue that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign was one of those. But a campaign needs to get seriously hot if it involves a major redistribution of power and influence (like taxation/inequality or climate change, but not, I would argue, the Arms Trade Treaty).

So the essay question is: do you campaign differently on hot v cold campaigns, and if so, how? Here are some initial thoughts:

A hot campaign is about stuff happening in real time – issues ripe and approaching policy tipping points; public and media attention at high levels; politicians looking to put themselves at the head of public opinion and looking for ideas. In those circumstances, I think we pretty much know what to do – build as wide a coalition as possible; make a lot of loud noise through press work, ‘pop mob’ (popular mobilization) and online activism; back it up with short term research, policy ideas and sensible solutions; lace with killer facts and infographics; use joint insider-outsider strategy to exert pressure on decision Robin Hood personmakers and keep it there. Think Robin Hood Tax (left).

I don’t think we’re nearly as clear on cold campaigning. If we’re aiming to prepare the ground so that things move quickly and in the right direction when climate change does finally make it onto the agenda (through a change of heart among political or business leaders, in response to massive climate shocks or some other development), I think that implies a very different campaign:

  1. We’re nowhere near a tipping point, so don’t dissipate what energy there is by doing ‘one more heave’ style campaigns that try and get people out on the streets. Instead go back and build the movement: upsurges in civil society are rare and short-lived, and when you look more closely at events like the Arab Spring, it rapidly becomes apparent that these mass movements are not homogeneous. As Sidney Tarrow showed (wrt European social movements), they are granular, made up of small, more durable grains such as trade unions, faith organizations, professional associations or, in the case of climate change, local movements like transition towns. So preparing for a distant pop mob means broadening the number of grains – finding new allies through slow patient recruitment of a widening circle of organizations.
  2. Linked to this point, you can try and identify smaller, more winnable hot spots within a generally cold landscape, or piggy back on hotter campaigns (if you can do so without damaging your credibility). Some wins, however small, could become the nuclei of broader mobilisation later on.
  3. There are some influential communities who totally get the gravity of the situation. Insurance Companies. Or scientists – I was struck by the ferocity of an attack by various eminent scientists on government officials at a dinner I attended a few months ago. ‘Growth is exponential; natural resources are finite. It doesn’t add up’ one said, almost shouting. We should be spending more time building relationships with these enlightened insiders.
  4. Jubilee-2000-001Getting the framing right: President Obama recently started framing climate change as an issue of our children’s future, rather than (as previously) a way of getting a green growth competitive edge over rival economies. That seems a prescient move, aimed at building a common language that will resonate deeply with a much wider group of people. Strengthening the links with faith teaching on stewardship is another (think what Jubilee 2000 did for debt campaigning). Highlighting the impact of people’s consumption choices may be an exercise in reframing too – not so sure on that one.
  5. Start identifying and weakening the blockers. I find the 3i framework useful for this – what are the ideas, interests and institutions that are blocking progress on climate change? What tools, evidence and allies do we need to neutralise each category?
  6. Research: Political shifts of the magnitude required on climate change are very unlikely to occur because of evidence (or they would have happened already), but when the political stars for action come into alignment, decision-makers will need research and policy solutions, and the quicker the better. Cold campaigning should therefore be as much about assembling the ammunition for when that happens. Readiness is all, rather than trying to flog your climate change papers to an indifferent press and political class.
  7. Next generation: if this is a generational shift, then take the next generation much more seriously. That includes influencing what is taught in schools (UK education minister Michael Gove clearly gets this, judging by his recent failed effort to remove climate change from school curricula), but also identifying and working with tomorrow’s leaders, maybe recruiting and supporting climate change ambassadors in key faculties and universities.
  8. Ambulance chasing. If this is a long-term guerrilla fight, rather than a war of position, we need to be more agile, unpredictable and opportunistic. Grab opportunities, drip the climate change message out whenever there is a credible example of its impact on the weather (and the evidence is steadily growing stronger on attribution).
  9. Set up watchdogs: large organizations find it hard to sustain work on cold issues – they are better at the broad movement, tipping point stuff. So why not put some resources into keepers of the flame, small specialist watchdogs that will monitor developments and ensure evidence and ideas keep getting into the public domain. The Bretton Woods Project is a great example of such an initiative, but there are lots of others.

And now for the controversial bit – what should a cold campaign not do? I reckon

–          Don’t go for pop mob unless you have a damned good reason. Nothing more dispiriting that a couple of thousand people trudging through the rain and no-one taking much notice. But does that also apply to online activism?

–          Be very sceptical about the ‘invited spaces’ of official process. Yes you can take part in yet another consultation, or rock up at yet anotherlast chance saloon‘conference of the parties’, but is that really the best use of resources when nothing is going to happen there?

–          Be very careful about using ‘last chance saloon’ type language, when you know we are very likely to be still here, in a worsening situation, in 10-20 years time.

OK, there’s some initial thoughts – over to you.

4 comments

  1. Great post. But aren’t poverty and inequality the same thing? And isn’t the Robin Hood Tax an example that campaigning’s an art not a science – some great tactics led to defeat in some countries, like the UK, and success in others, like France.

    1. Yes! Build social movement and values change. Face up to it being a long haul. You can still have political asks, but be clear the main job is changing common sense.

    2. You definitely need some wins as mileposts that build a sense of getting somewhere. But they don’t need to be policy wins, they can be movement-building asks like a new group joining in or a new tactic being fun or or a piece of media coverage – ‘give us a wave’ type asks.

    4. Framing. Protecting our children (and grandchildren) is a powerful frame but not an urgent one. If climate change requires major emissions cuts (and major amounts of climate finance to flow southwards) in the next few years, where’s the urgency coming from? We’ll need more than one frame, more like a small gallery.

    6. Yes! But that needs us to be more patient than we like to be.

    7. Tomorrow’s leaders are worth working with, thinking 20 somethings as well as students.

    8. Let’s get the climate message out better whenever there’s a climate-related disaster. Hope Oxfam are readying their research as we speak.

    9. I’m more optimistic about large organisations being able to be persistent…

    and not doing?

    I think pop mobs in cold campaigns can work, but you’ve got to frame it as keeping the issue alive and waking people up to it more than focusing on the immediate political decisions. Can you do that without drifting? If you do use immediate climate decisions to make it urgent, (like fracking, or Arctic drilling, or starting to cough up the promised $100b) can you sustain and increase the movement in the face of a few defeats in a row? Can you fight each battle knowing the point is to make the next fight easier even if you lose the current one? There might be some lessons from opponents of onshore windfarms in the UK.

  2. Another excellent post on an issue that preoccupies me, with lots of very insightful points.

    My main quibble is the definition of ‘pop mob’ as either ‘trudging through the rain’ or ‘online activism’. There are many many other options of course. For example, letter writing may not be glamorous but some focussed medium-level campaigning on particular current issues, as Ben mentions, can be really valuable at chipping away the preconception that there isn’t public support for these measures and for seeking interim wins.

    I’d also agree that young people are important and would appear to take climate change more seriously, but a lot of campaigning organisations have a sizeable older demographic who might have the time to commit to activism in retirement or once children have left home. I think organisations can under estimate the potential of these groups – whom elected decision makers know are more likely to vote – and one problem might be the average age of many NGO staff campaigners who are often 20-30 somethings. How do we draw better on the potential powerhouse of older campaigners?

  3. “Don’t go for pop mob unless you have a damned good reason”. Wise words indeed.

    The problem is that in the vast number of cases INGO’s popular mobilisation is neither popular nor does it mobilise.

    The reasons for this are numerous and complex but high on the list are institutional and ‘mind set’issues.

    Institutionally the agencies have a commitment to campaign and have employed an army of campaigners who need to be doing things therefore to keep them busy they need to be doing popular mobilisation whether it is relevant or not.

    With some notable exceptions INGO campaigns are generally at odds with the public’s interest. They not only fail to take into account what their audience think, feels or does but see this attitude as a virtue. The purity of purpose over takes any consideration as to where the public may be at and how far the public may be willing to travel.

    So great is the purity of purpose, so important is the issue, so just is the call, means that any counter evidence is seen some how as moral weakness and rejected.

  4. I wonder if your terms are wrong. “hot” campaigning is just “campaigning”. Whereas “cold” campaigning might be called “movement building” or “patient advocacy” or something else. I think a campaign is a discrete set of activities and shouldn’t be confused with other things. Campaigns shouldn’t go on for years and years. In my definition, they should be defined by a) clarity of objective, b) be time-limited, c) integrate a range of sectoral activities (research, policy, media, mass communications, mobilizations, events, etc etc etc.), d) ideally have an action-forcing event, deadline, or climax.

    In that vein – I think we’re back to climate movement-building. At least for a few years. Maybe more.

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