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Campaigning on Hot v Cold Issues – What’s the Difference?

Duncan Green's picture

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 of 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 makers 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. Getting 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 another‘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.

This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power
Photo Credit: Oxfam International

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