Lessons for the green movement

In Aspen, Colorado, a while ago some wonks were agonising about climate change. They just couldn’t get many ordinary people to care. Al Gore bashed his fist into his hand, and intoned: “We have 90 months left, and if we don’t get this right” – and Gore pretended to choke himself.

Kumi Naidoo, the South African head of Greenpeace International, interrupted Gore. That day Naidoo happened to be wearing a Martin Luther King T-shirt. He said that movements like King’s, or women’s suffrage, or anti-slavery, had succeeded only “when decent people put their lives on the line for the cause”. Naidoo confronted Gore: was he willing to be jailed or risk his life to fight climate change?

“I haven’t been asked this question before,” Gore replied. “I have to reflect on it, but in principle my answer is yes. But first I’d have to talk to Tipper [then still his wife].”

The pirate-bearded Naidoo tells the story in the cramped booth of a Parisian café over a three-hour dinner. His exchange with Gore went to the heart of the matter: how can environmentalists persuade the world to go green? Naidoo admits: “I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet.” In January, when the Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank 21 political issues, the respondents put “global warming” last. No breakthrough is expected from the coming UN environmental summit in Cancun, Mexico.

Yet Naidoo knows greens can win the argument, because as a young man in Durban he was part of another movement that won an argument. Between 1976 and 1990, anti-apartheid activists persuaded South Africans and the world that apartheid was wrong. After talking to Naidoo, I tried to distil what greens could learn from past struggles:

● Find salespeople who speak to the mainstream. King or Nelson Mandela were perfect: charismatics, martyrs and gentlemen. Greens need someone like that. Gore has potential. Naidoo says: “All the people I met in China recently – ministers, academics, businesspeople – one photograph they have in their offices is Al Gore.”

Gore urges young people to fight climate change with civil disobedience. However, he would help the cause most by getting dragged away in a police van himself. He’s a pillar of the establishment. People would pay attention the way they don’t when scruffy activists get arrested.

● Keep it simple. When Naidoo dropped in on Durban after last year’s environmental summit in Copenhagen, his brother said: “Hey, when I saw you and your people talking on TV about climate change, I thought you had forgotten everything you learnt as a grassroots activist.”

“Why?” asked Naidoo.

“Between your percentages and your parts per million, I was getting completely lost,” his brother said.

Yet the brother is a professor of optometry. The green debate has got too complex for public opinion to handle. That’s one reason why many people now believe that serious scientists disagree about climate change. A new favourite acronym among greens, complains Naidoo, is LULUCF (don’t ask). “They love it,” he sighs. By contrast, Mandela and King generally kept things simple.

Most educated elites understand the green argument. Naidoo often discussed climate change with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “These guys totally get it,” he says. “But their actions never matched their analysis.” Uninformed voters weren’t pushing them to act green.

● Talk about humans. When greens talk about “saving the planet” or “protecting our oceans”, then only people who are already committed greens listen. It reminds Naidoo of his time as an anti-apartheid activist who’d get impatient with the apolitical inhabitants of his ethnic Indian township. Gradually he learnt: “You shouldn’t project your consciousness on the people you’re trying to mobilise.”

He wants greens to talk about “the future of our children and grandchildren”. Then people will think, “This is a conversation about me.”

● Embrace any ally. Mandela embraced Fidel Castro and Colonel Gaddafi. Naidoo has praised Coca-Cola for agreeing to switch to cleaner vending machines and coolers. And he can see other unlikely allies: “The CIA and Pentagon have been saying for years that climate change is the biggest threat to security in the future.”

● Wait for climate change to hit wealthy white people. Naidoo doesn’t want anyone to die. However, whereas the media mostly ignores floods in Pakistan or Bangladesh, it would notice the suffering of the rich. That suffering will come. In Durban, notes Naidoo, many chic apartment blocks by the ocean could become uninhabitable before long.

● Sound optimistic. “We shall overcome,” King’s followers sang. Greens must keep saying that the planet can be fixed, because otherwise nobody will bother trying. Naidoo says: “Take the kind of money that was mobilised virtually overnight to bail out the banks and the automobile industry. Globally, it was about $20 trillion [although little of it was ever used]. If you had 25 per cent of that to invest in renewable energies, you would meet your environmental concerns.”

That can happen. The greens just need to improve their marketing.


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