The search for green meaning

For our confused and cut-off leaders, Copenhagen offered a chance to magic up some historic momentum.

Philip Hammond

Topics Science & Tech

Politicians have tried to spin the Copenhagen summit into a good news story, while campaigners have decried the lack of a legally binding agreement. The apparent clash – dramatised in the physical blows between protesters and the Danish riot police – masks the fact that very little separated the stone-throwing crusties in the streets from the urbane suits inside Copenhagen’s Bella Centre.

In TV interviews at the end of the summit, for example, one commentator complained that there was ‘no agreement on a legally binding treaty’, while another interviewee vowed to ‘campaign around the world… for the legally binding treaty that is the obvious next stage from this’. There was little difference in the two reactions – though the first comment was made by Greenpeace UK director, John Sauven, who described Copenhagen as a ‘crime scene’ (1), while the second came from British prime minister Gordon Brown, who preferred to emphasise the progress that had been made.

‘I keep saying, I will lead a campaign so that we can have a legally-binding treaty following this’, promised Brown, and indeed he did keep saying it – in one five-minute interview he described himself no fewer than five times as ‘campaigning’ on the issue of climate change (2). Similarly, in the run-up to the summit, David Miliband toured European foreign ministries ‘using powerful climate change imagery to concentrate official minds’, as if he were an NGO activist rather than Britain’s foreign secretary (3). While the activists and campaigners are apt to think of themselves as taking a principled stand and putting pressure on sell-out politicians, the fact of the matter is that political leaders are delighted by the authority such ‘pressure’ bestows on them. If such pressure is not forthcoming, they go out of their way to encourage and, if necessary, simulate it.

Last month the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt reported on the ‘Power Shift’ campaign’s US convention, which attracted 12,000 climate activists from all over America. ‘Clearly this is a significant grassroots protest movement’, he observed, but it is also one ‘supported by the president of the United States himself’. The convention was addressed by senior administration personnel, and given advice on campaign tactics by President Bill Clinton’s former chief-of-staff. Rowlatt remarked that ‘the administration is wooing this army of activists to help push their policies through Congress’ (4).

Yet the campaigners are more than just a stage army for particular policies. They provide a vocabulary through which the elite can articulate a sense of purpose and meaning which is otherwise signally absent from today’s narrow and trivial political discourse.

President Barack Obama, for example, claimed to have ‘renewed American leadership’ at Copenhagen. Hailing the accord that he negotiated as a ‘meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough’, he said the summit marked ‘the beginning of a new era of international action’. In case anyone had missed the contrast with his unpopular predecessor, Obama noted pointedly that ‘the time has come for us to get off the sidelines’, since this was ‘an issue that demands our leadership’ (5). In advance of the summit, the language was even more grandiose, as leaders imagined how they would ‘change the course of history’ by negotiating a reduction in carbon emissions (6).

Seizing on climate change as an issue around which they can create the appearance of purposeful activity, it is political elites who are the most zealous campaigners, asking us to join up and pledge our support for their efforts to save the planet. Hence, in the months before the summit the British government attempted to re-present itself as some sort of activist group, launching the ‘Act on Copenhagen’ campaign which urged: ‘Pledge your support for an ambitious global deal here!’ because ‘We need your backing to help us negotiate’ (7).

Behaving like its own pressure group, the government urges us to urge them to act. At the same time, it also berates us for our apathy. Worrying that ‘there isn’t yet that feeling of urgency and drive and animation about the Copenhagen conference’, for example, David Miliband complained that, for the citizenry he wanted to be calling on him to act, ‘the penny hasn’t dropped that this climate change challenge is real and is happening now’ (8).

Miliband was speaking at the launch in October of the Science Museum’s ‘Prove it!’ exhibition – another ersatz ‘campaign’, this time inviting people to sign up to the statement: ‘I want the government to prove they’re serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.’ (9) Yet according to the museum’s director, the exhibition was created in direct response to a briefing from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, when ‘we realised that public interest had flattened out and yet here we were approaching the most historic negotiations in human history’ (10). In other words, it was official concern about a lack of public interest which produced a campaign in which the public would put pressure on officials.

Such is the bizarre relationship between the elite and the electorate today: they urge us to be less apathetic and to put pressure on them. The video produced by the Danish Foreign Ministry for the opening of the summit, depicting children of the world begging the delegates to ‘help the world’, provided a telling insight into the official mindset (11). What appears, at first glance, to be a campaigning film putting pressure on world leaders is really an elite wish-fulfilment fantasy, in which child-citizens across the globe put their faith in parent-politicians engaged in an heroic, planet-saving mission. Climate activists may think they are critics of officialdom, but they are simply fuelling the fantasy.

It seems unlikely that, in the long run, the elite’s search for meaning in green politics will be successful. The vision it offers – of caution and constraint, low ambition and no progress – is a negative, dystopian one which may evoke fear and conformity, but which will never inspire. It is the ideology of a demoralised society, for which, as one climate campaigner puts it, ‘the age of heroism is over’ (12). The elite will no doubt continue to campaign and cajole us about the climate, but they do so precisely because of their inability to engage people in any more positive, forward-looking project.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) Key powers reach compromise at climate summit, BBC News, 19 December 2009

(2) Gordon Brown hails climate change summit “progress”, BBC News, 18 December 2009

(3) David Miliband sets out to shock on global warming tour, Guardian, 7 September 2009

(4) Can Obama Save the Planet?, 25 November 2009, BBC2. Watch the clip on YouTube here.

(5) Obama’s closing statement in full, BBC News, 19 December 2009

(6) See The cheap thrill of global warming, by Tim Black

(7) See the Act On Copenhagen website here.

(8) Foreign Secretary David Miliband accuses public of climate change apathy, The Times (London), 23 October 2009

(9) See the Science Museum Prove It website here.

(10) Foreign Secretary David Miliband accuses public of climate change apathy, The Times (London), 23 October 2009

(11) Watch it on YouTube here.

(12) This is bigger than climate change. It is a battle to redefine humanity, Guardian, 14 December 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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