This blog introduces four chapters of an essay on nature and farming inspired by Jake Fiennes’ 2022 book Land Healer.
Left: Taliban Alley, right, Great Farm a few miles away after Restorative Farming
Chris Rose, September 2022
‘Taliban Alley’ is the not very PC name given to a country-road not far from where I live, in Norfolk, England. It was coined by Jake Fiennes, in Land Healer: How Farming Can Save Britain’s Countryside. The farmland in Taliban Alley is a scene of agri-desolation caused by intensive farming. It contrasts with what Fiennes has achieved on similar land, a few miles far away.
A former game-keeper, Australian sheep ranch hand and London night club PR, Fiennes is a scion of an old landed-gentry family now best known for movie roles played by his actor brothers Ralph and Joseph. But don’t judge him by that. In my view Jake Fiennes has done something rather more important.
Fiennes has shown by deeds not words how the ecological sterilisation caused by agricultural intensification can be put into reverse, not by taking whole farms out of production but by changing agricultural practice within farms, by farmers. His work on East Anglian estates has brought birds and plants back to working farms long hammered by chemical agriculture, while maintaining economic viability. The UK’s mainstream nature and countryside groups need to join the revolution in Taliban Alley.
Not surprisingly, his book is making waves in UK farming and conservation circles. It’s been described as ‘radical’ as it can actually be delivered (in relatively short order), and ‘revolutionizing’, because of the implications. For anyone who cares about nature and biodiversity, and indeed food-security, water-quality or climate change, the implications are huge.
‘Taliban Alley’ gets its name from Fiennes’ moniker for bad-farming: ‘Taliban Farming’, which he defines as farming that kills everything which it does not want. Mostly that means with ‘pesticides’, such as insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, and where they don’t do the trick, pollution by artificial fertiliser. This is not just an English or even a British problem, it’s the unsustainable model exported around the world by agri-business and the agrochemicals industry after World War Two. In other words, ‘conventional farming’ based on max-input max-output.
In the UK Fiennes has become something of a poster-boy for a loosely defined new agricultural revolution, not that the adherents see themselves that way. It brings together the ‘3Rs’ of Regenerative Farming, Rewilding and Restorative Farming, the latter being on-farm restoration of nature (Fiennes’ particular focus).
Groundswell – see Chapter 1
Events such as Britain’s Groundswell agricultural conference and festival are bringing together these often overlapping communities. Land Healer sold out within hours at this year’s Groundswell. Yes there are risks of greenwash and free-riders but the opportunity is considerable, and in my opinion, historic. Fiennes’ work has revolutionary potential because it comes from within, not outside farming.
Britain’s Long Good-Bye To Nature
Outside (top) and inside Winks Meadow, Suffolk, a diminutive Wildlife Trust nature reserve and remnant of what was and what could be (see Chapters 2 and 4)
In a parochial UK perspective, we now live in one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Intensive farming is the main reason. Between them the nature and countryside NGOs have eight million members, over a tenth of the population: most of their supporters are voters, all are consumers, the majority are investors. Dozens of concerned UK NGOs have charted the decline of countryside nature over generations but have not stopped it. There has never been a national campaign to do so, indeed there have been few individual campaigns.
In campaign-design terms, UK conservationists have failed to divide farming into good and bad, and thus failed to triangulate the issue into one where ‘good farmers’ and ‘bad farmers’ argue in a three-cornered fight while others represent the public interest. As a result, the mainstream agri-business lobby has maintained a monopoly in representing farming in politics and the media, and NGOs have lacked the most basic campaign ingredients, the problem and the solution .
At the same time, dwindling cultural connection to nature has rendered even the environmentally-concerned public blind to the difference between nature-rich countryside and green but sterile cropland. So there is no on-the-ground constituency to engage, organise and mobilise in a political ground war. Which could and should be changed.
Fiennes’ cheerful identification of nature-annihilating farmers as ‘the Taliban’ provides a binary frame distinguishing bad and good farming, problem and solution: communications alchemy which opens a Pandora’s Box of potential.
The road to Taliban Alley near my home in North Norfolk
‘Taliban Alley’ is just one locational example of ‘bad’, and Great Farm up the road is an example of the ‘good’ but there are more Taliban Alleys and examples of the opposite, all over the country. This communications gift opens the way to construction of campaigns which British NGOs have long tried but failed to create, or deliberately avoided because they were self-inhibited.
For decades the main UK nature and countryside NGOs worked on the assumption that the best route to influencing what happened the 70-80% of UK land which is farmed, was to promote examples of ‘good farming’ by ‘good farmers’. Their example would gradually inspire others to do likewise. It made some progress but was ultimately a failed strategy. It recruited perhaps 2-5% of farmers.
By the same logic, and because the largest were themselves land-managing organisations, the NGOs set on maintaining ‘credibility’ and good relations with ‘farming’ as a whole rather than ‘good farming’. They effectively handed over the test of their legitimacy to the farming lobby.
No Line In The Sand
To stay within the tent of conventional farming the major NGOs eschewed endorsement of alternative approaches such as organic farming. The price was an inability to draw a line in the sand, and say this or that farming practice is unacceptable.
The only exceptions were illegality and outright destruction of significant areas of wildlife habitats. By the end of the 1980s there weren’t many such places left to convert to intensive farming. The NGOs focused on doing what they could do protect the remnants, amounting to 5 – 8% of the land, well below the 16% or so estimated to be necessary to sustain nature. It’s expanding but oh, so slowly.
A focus on places (sites), and the creation of nature reserve networks which were good in themselves and which pleased their members, meant that most NGOs did not engage with what was happening on farmland, which was a wipe-out of birds, insects, plants and wildlife across the landscape, largely driven by pesticides (see Chapter 3).
Data from the ‘Common Bird Census’, later refined as the Farmland Birds Index, showed that most of the birds present in 1970 had simply vanished by the second decade of the C21st. This happened not so much through big-chunk ‘habitat destruction’ as a fine-grained thinning of the natural fabric within farms, including through every intensifying use of chemicals, a subject all the larger NGOs avoided until very recently.
England’s countryside looks green but …
Most birds disappeared (see Chapter 2)
From the 1990s onwards the NGOs invested hope in AES or Agri-Environment Schemes funded by the EU and government. Eventually they covered the majority of farmland yet the majority of birds still disappeared. This comfort-blanket of hope further stifled ignition of campaigns.
UK AES schemes (as of 2012) – a complex layer of sticking plasters which overall, failed (see Chapter 2).
By 2013-19 the NGOs got together to produce detailed reports itemising this ecological catastrophe in State of Nature reports (see Annexe). But whereas they promoted exemplar good farmers, the ecological wipe-out was represented only in statistics, with very limited emotional resonance. As Stalin famously pointed out, when one man dies it is a tragedy, when a million die, that’s just statistics. The UK conservation formula has been to show the good through human examples, and the bad through anonymous statistics, and that fails.
I explore these and other themes in four parts of an essay on Land Healer, nature and farming in the UK:
Local Resourcing and Organisation. NGOs need to run a ground war campaign and that requires local logistics and assets including people familiar with farming and agrochemicals and resourcing as serious as that given to land management or fundraising.
Nature Ability. The UK needs national campaigns of public education in Natural History (aka ecological literacy), so enough people have the ability to discern the detail of nature to form an effective political constituency. Show people polar opposite examples.
Set up Taliban Farming Demonstrations. As the (good farming) 3Rs begin to take effect we need to demonstrate bad farming, and having their own ‘Taliban Alley’ examples could enable NGOs fearful of farmer conflict to to show that without annoying individual farmers.
Taliban Geography. To create public conversations from which specific campaigns could emerge, go out and map good and bad farming at a Parish level: Taliban through to Restorative.
Develop the Practitioner Lexicon. Systematize and give names to the steps involved in Restorative Farming as described in Land Healer, such as ‘hedge fattening’, to enable the public to recognize and appreciate good farming, and enable farmers to be recognized and rewarded. Create a Farm Nature Code equivalent to the Highway Code.
A New Social Enterprise. Work with 3R farmers and landowners, private investors, food retailers, the catering and hospitality industry, and NGO supporters, to develop business of certified, branded retail outlets supplying nature friendly food. Be a business voice not just an external commentator.
Enable Stake holding in 3R Farming. Trial and introduce a system of private Countryside Contracts in which individuals finance good farming in return for access and agreed influence.
Agrochemical Free Buffer Zones. Campaign for a legal requirement for Regenerative/ Restorative/ Organic farming of up to 2km around all Nature Reserves and Protected Areas and make it mandatory across farmed areas of National Parks and AONBs.
Open Up The Policy Community. Democratize representation of farming to government by requiring Ministers not just to consult the NFU (National Farmers Union) on policy but consult the full range of farming, environmental and civil society organisations.
Reward Everyone Who Helps Nature. Campaign to democratize the use of public money for nature (public goods) so it is not restricted by ‘eligibility rules’ based on agricultural holdings but on outcomes. There in no natural justice in paying a farmer if s/he produces two Song Thrushes where there was one before, and not a householder with a garden.
Treat Farming Like Other Industries. Licence chemical farming by activity and location. Set environmental quality targets based on a return to 1947 levels of ecological health. Impose planning or other controls on any activities producing or likely to produce significant harm.
Part Four also covers recent developments which could be built on to build campaigns that join the 3Rs revolution.
The dramatic contrast between ‘Taliban farming’ outside Winks Meadow and the interior ancient hay meadow – a brief visit in midsummer 2022 as a thunderstorm arrived. As Jake Fiennes said out to me at Great Farm, it’s the contrast between Taliban Farming and rich nature which enables people to ‘really get’ it.
One of our main conclusions is that leadership on responding to issues such as climate change will require respect for the diversity of motivational values. Values-projection by a Pioneer vanguard can backfire, as if conflicts over change polarise along values lines, they will slow or stop the uptake of necessary social change and new behaviours. Once values splits arise, they can threaten social cohesion and prevent rather than catalyse change. We discuss examples such as Brexit and how Pat’s Values Modes model relates to the work of other researchers such as Inglehart, Haidt and Schwarz.
I’ve made an author’s proof of our chapter available for free here.
There are a lot of interesting perspectives and insights in Andrew’s collection, such as The Weaponisation of Climate Change by Elesa Zehndorfer of Roehampton Business School.
Last month I saw a story on Twitter that made me think “that’s a great idea for a movie plot”: an ‘inciting incident’ from which a story unfolds.
Bird researchers had fitted a GPS tracker to an Oystercatcher, a coastal wading bird. First it flew from it’s home near Dublin to the island of Sanday in the Orkneys, north of Scotland.
That was not unusual but then something strange happened. It embarked on a tour of the UK, again not unusual in itself but this time, instead of visiting rocky coastlines, sandy bays or wildlife reserves, it frequented a campsite, a pizza restaurant and a street in Ealing, west London. And from its new base in the London suburbs it was reporting on its whereabouts, every two hours.
Surmising that an unsuspecting tourist had probably found the device on a beach and picked it up (they are designed to fall off after a time and be recovered), the scientists went public, offering a reward for its return.
My point for campaign designers is that this created an interesting story. Your campaign is more likely to ‘work’ and ‘have legs’ in social or other media if it’s interesting. As journalist Mike McCarthy once pointed out, most campaigns are about something significant but few are interesting, which is why news editors often do not cover them.
So think through your campaign as if you were making a movie. Story-board it. What comes first? Try to find a way to create the inciting incident which grabs attention and wants the audience to know more. It doesn’t have to be the very first step in a multi-step campaign, it applies to any important staging post or ‘beat’ in the story of the campaign.
This usually means you have to do-something to make it interesting. Something unusual, surprising, unexpected or strange, or involving a protagonist already of great interest to a target audience, or breaking a record, setting a precedent, recalling a much loved significant moment (significant for the audience): there are lots of ways to be interesting.
That’s why Twitter, essentially a news channel, prompts you with “what’s happening ?” Not (despite the mass of tweets which do just this) “what are you thinking?”. Unless you are incredibly powerful or influential, our opinions are not interesting in themselves, campaign groups included.
Nor does just being about an ‘important issue’ make a campaign interesting. Indeed if it is recognized as ‘an issue’ – a matter of contested opinion – that almost signals the opposite: this is probably complicated, esoteric and with no resolution.
If you want to know what happened next to the GPS tag, check out the BBC story. But why would might you want to know? Because it’s an unfinished story. We don’t know the outcome or the consequences.
If the thing that happens has an obvious conclusion, or you are told the ending by the campaigners, that usually kills the story: there is no drama. Which is why the whole of the campaign plan (your intended story plot) should not be communicated at the start of the campaign but revealed, Scene by Scene and Act by Act, through the things you make happen.
The GPS tag story illustrates one other point which some readers are probably very familiar with. The tag is a ‘thing’, it’s the grit in the oyster of the story. Movie makers call such objects a MacGuffin, an object on which the story hinges, like The Ring in Lord of the Rings. If you can provide one, so much the better. It makes your story-making so much easier. And this was a story not about all birds or even all Oystercatchers or why-the-researchers-were-doing-it but about one bird, one tag and one incident.
What’s that mean for campaign design? Make each step as simple, restricted and binary as possible. Boil it down, crystallise reduce and reduce until it merits no more unpacking. That will make it easier to achieve your immediate objective, whether you are at the stage of (1) generating awareness by showing the problem, (2) revealing the solution, (3) providing a way to engage, or (4) calling people to action
(If you have interesting campaign examples of a McGuffin or a campaign made interesting, please get in touch or tag me @campaignstrat on twitter. See also: ‘be interesting’ in the case of a campaign by Friends of the Earth, and, selling a ‘big idea’; and why campaigners should be story-makers not just tellers).
In the UK there is an ongoing public discussion about the energy crisis precipitated by global ‘post covid’ gas demand, climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both UK media and politicians persistently bracket renewable energy and ‘energy efficiency’ (by which they also mean insulation, or energy conservation) with ‘long term’ or ‘medium term’, rather than seeing them as things that can be done quickly.
In contrast they often talk about new oil or gas wells, or even nuclear power stations, as immediate choices or options. This flies in the face of evidence and probably reflects fossil fuel industry lobbying and simply out-of-date assumptions.
So although I don’t claim to be an energy expert I put together my own list of potential “quick wins’ to cut carbon and or gas. (I’ve put this on twitter @campaignstrat) so if you want to put me right, that’s an opportunity. A longer version with the sources is here. See also E3G doc below.
Insulation and renewable energy refurb for homes. Installation time: 1 – 10 days. In Maldon, Essex the Dutch-originated whole house ‘Energy Jump’ [Energiesprong] refurb system implemented by Moat Housing and Enegie cut home electricity use by 84%, eliminated gas and enabled homes to export surplus power (achieving negative carbon).
Reduce flow temperature on condensing gas boilers. Time to deploy: immediate (or with visit by engineer). Can reduce bills 6-8%. (Reduced flow temperature reduces heat of water sent to radiators but not room temperature).
Stop Speeding. Time to deploy: immediate. An economical driving trial by AA staff cut weekly petrol/diesel fuel bills 10 – 33%. Driving at 70mph uses 9% more fuel than at 60mph. Driving at 80mph uses 25% more. 48% of motorway drivers exceed 70mph. 11% do 80mph (3.8m) so enforcing the speed limit would cut their fuel use 25%.
Tower block Refurbishment: 314 tower flats at Queens Cross, Glasgow built in 1969 were refurbished to cut energy use by 80%. One resident said “I haven’t switched on my heating for two years as there is just no need”. (Time taken unknown)
Return UK national home insulation to 2012 levels. Time to deploy policy: immediate. 2012 installs ran at 2.3m a year before ‘cutting the green crap’ policy crashed it. Homes installs of loft and cavity wall insulation plummeted 92% and 74% in 2013, and have never recovered. UK has worst insulated homes in Europe.
Remove policy block on Onshore Wind Farms. Time to deploy policy: immediate. Time to construct: weeks or months once permitted. 649 wind and solar farms already have planning permission, enough to offset UK Russian gas imports. Compare to 10 years for new nuclear, eg Hinkley Point started 2018, due completed 2027, maybe later.
Solar pv electricity. Time to deploy: days for a small installation to 3 months for a solar farm. Large solar is now subsidy-free and renewable electricity can displace gas use, lowering bills. Gas is used to generate a third of UK electricity, driving up electric bills. Solar on homes can give households free electricity. Compare to 3-28 years for a new gas/oil field.
Heat Pumps: time to deploy: days, weeks/months if changes also made to plumbing or insulation. Heat Pumps generate 2-4 units of energy from 1 unit put in. They use electricity which can be zero carbon and can replace gas which generates 0.9 of a unit from 1 unit put into a boiler. Octopus Energy say 15% of UK homes “could have a heat pump today with zero change – with no more than £500 of change as you get to 34% of homes”.
An easily reportable Climate Change Index for weather comparable to the Nikkei or Dow Jones could help keep the issue at the forefront of public attention. But who will help create and deliver it – the gambling industry perhaps? In this blog I explore why such an index would be a good idea, and some ideas for creating and distributing one.
It’s no exaggeration to say the fate of the world depends on effective action to arrest climate change, and the it’s not news to say the world’s governments are so far falling very short in making the changes necessary. As in other cases, the rate of change delivery is limited by a resolution of two factors: the urgency or need to act, and the perceived feasibility of action.
After governments spent billions and crashed economies in Covid lockdowns, I noticed some plaintive tweets asking why, given that climate is in the end a far bigger threat, it does not merit similar emergency action? The reason of course is that Covid was and is an immediate threat to life, tangible, personal, dreaded and detectable at every level. So action was a political imperative, as it posed an immediate threat to political reputations, positions, careers and entire governments.
The psychological case of climate change is still more like preventative action, with the consequences of failure often perceived to be beyond political terms of office. For the same reason, it will be a struggle to get politicians to devote significant resources to the action needed to stop the next zoonotic jump of a deadly virus from the biodiversity reservoir into humans, or to prepare effectively to prevent or deal with the next pandemic.
Lots is being done to drive urgency and feasibility related to the Climate Emergency, no doubt including by many of the people who read this. Yet many politicians still sense that even with polls showing climate change is a high public priority, they can and need to only go so far in taking action on it. To an extent they are right. There is still a part of every society which denies or pays little attention to climate. And events such as catastrophic fires or floods, and political meetings which generate an episode of media attention push up climate concern but for most, it then recedes behind signals of more immediate concern. Politicians are not just focused on the climate science.
So what more can be done to increase and sustain the level of perceived political feasibility and urgency?
A Daily Reminder
It wouldn’t solve the problem in itself but creating a daily and hard to miss reminder of the damage that climate change is doing to our weather would help, and it is an achievable objective. Including it in all weather forecasts, in the media, apps and online would install it as social fact, creating a floor of salience which climate change would not sink below.
In 2018, following one of those episodic events (a Northern Hemisphere Heat Wave), I argued in ‘A TV Watershed for Climate Change Campaigns’, that the emerging science of ‘climate attribution’ meant the gap between weather and climate had closed and an index for the climate effect in weather should be created to allow easy media reporting in weather forecasts and the news. After all, it’s automatically accepted that the NASDAQ, FTSE100, Dow Jones or other stock exchange indices are important as a significant measure of the health of the global economy. Yet no such daily, weekly or monthly index exists for the health of the global climate.
Three years on climate attribution science has developed, and awareness of it has been spread far and wide by leading practitioners such as Friederike Otto of Oxford University and colleagues at World Weather Attribution but we still have no climate index for weather.
Perhaps that is because expecting climate attribution scientists to invent one may be a fools errand. These people are at the cutting edge of an emerging field and to capturing what they know in a single index is an impossible task. Not surprisingly they are divided (for example) over which bits of attribution science to communicate and how. Perhaps we need to involve practitioners who are nearer a different coalface – public communications of risk and uncertainty?
Activist Weather Forecasters
The most obvious candidates are the public faces of weather forecasting.
Members of Climate Without Borders
Some TV meteorologists and presenters have taken matters into their own hands and started including mentions of climate change in their weather programmes. Climate Without Borders started as a WhatsApp group by Belgian weather forecaster Jill Peeters, the day after the Paris climate conference Agreement was signed in 2017. It includes over 100 forecasters worldwide, who make reference to climate change.
Stripes day: Climate Without Borders member Jeff Berardelli using Ed Hawkins’ Warming Stripes on Warming Stripes Day 21 June
Another network started even earlier, is US-based Climate Matters run by Climate Central. They write:
Knowing that TV meteorologists are among the best and most trusted local science communicators, ClimateMattersbegan in 2010 as a pilot project with a single TV meteorologist in Columbia, South Carolina with funding from the National Science Foundation. Jim Gandy of WXLT gave his viewers regular updates on how climate change was affecting them through the inauguralClimate Matters.
Trailblazer Jim Gandy of WXLT
But to get an index widely used and established it would need institutional buy-in. In 2018 it was suggested that the official German weather forecast system was due to start including climate attribution – I don’t know what happened. The UK Met Office said similar things but I haven’t seen any result. Given the capacity of politicians for prevarication and in some cases even now, their fear of climate denier lobbies, perhaps officially funded national Met’ services are not going to be first off the blocks? In the UK, the commercial channel Sky News now runs a Daily Climate Show (also on Youtube) but there’s no CCI or Climate Change Index for it to report.
The Daily Climate Show from Sky News
Or the international organisations could create such an index system. The IPCC for instance, or the WMO, although they might take a very long time and get too thoroughly immersed in the purely scientific debates over what to include or base it on. More executive agencies like UNEP could facilitate a process.
Other Possible Sources And Channels To Develop An Index
There are of course mainly commercial online weather services with over 20 in the US alone but who else is used to dealing with public communication of risk and uncertainty?
There’s the insurance and re-insurance industries, such as Munich-Re and Swiss-Re, which were among the first, if not the first to recognize that climate change posed an existential risk for their business. But their capacity for foresight is maybe not matched by public liking or trust. Many people don’t understand risk sharing through insurance and resent it as a distress purchase.
Or there’s medicine and health. Research and training in how to understand risk, odds, probabilities and uncertainty and how to communicate it to lay audiences (patients and potential patients) is far more advanced in medicine and public health than in natural sciences, and teaching it is routine in many clinical courses. Yet I suspect the climate and health disciplines have rarely met to discuss practical issues in communicating climate change.
Then there are the news and entertainment media acting as established channels for weather information. Not just broadcasters like the BBC with a global audience of 489m or other supplying the 1.7bn tv households but the far larger number enjoying wider digital access, put at 5.2bn digital phone users and 4.7bn internet users, of a world population of 7.8bn. Online giants such as Google, Apple, Netflix, Youtube and Amazon, certainly have the resources to take on such a project, and many have signed up to climate initiatives such as SBTi.
Another major public-facing industry which presents probabilities in ways that people are used to responding to, is the gambling industry. It’s estimated that around 1.6bn people gamble throughout the year and 2bn have gambled at some point in their lives. Online sports betting might offer a suitable connection. Whether or not punters fully understand ‘odds’ from an academic risk perspective may not be the point. How people do respond is heavily researched and it is likely that the more frequent gamblers are also disproportionately represented among those who resist or avoid ‘climate messaging’ (ie in motivational values terms, some Prospectors and Settlers). Plus the immensely profitable gambling industry is only too aware that it suffers something of an ethical and moral deficit. An opportunity possibly, for it to be seen to do something useful?
Alternatively there are those who already make a business out of supplying index based information, such as the finance industry. Thanks to Bloomberg’s and others it is now closely tied into action on climate, such as the TCFD, and has great ‘convening power’.
What Sort Of Index?
First and foremost it should be simple and understandable, and quick to reference, to maximise the number of channels that carry it and the number of people who notice it, so that it stands the best chance of registering with publics.
As a non-expert it seems to me that two obvious and complementary candidates are:
(1) a measure of polluted and unpolluted temperatures, which could be related to periods eg a year-to-date, or months, or weeks, which are already often referred to in weather broadcasts as in “it’s been an unusually warm …” or “well above the average for … or a record-breaking …” but visualised with a pre-human-warming value and the human-warmed value and explicitly a climate change index.
(2) ratings of extreme events (heat waves, storms etc based on climate attribution of the sort done by Fredi Otto and colleagues), perhaps a 1 – 5 climate change rating in the numerical style of the Hurricane Category Scale.
In the first case the main arguments might be over baselines and regional applicability.
In the second case they might be over whether there is only one parameter or more. The 1-5 Saffir-SimpsonHurricane scale was is wind-speed-based and was originated by an engineer Herbert Saffir, who was developing low-cost housing in hurricane prone areas. He realised there was no simple scale of the likely damage similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, and then worked with meteorologist Robert Simpson to develop the Hurricane grading which was launched in the US in 1973.
That scale gives a good approximation of what counts to people but it’s not about levels of confidence in what the public would call prediction. Attribution analysis is about how likely it is that an event is or was caused by climate change and not necessarily how damaging or large it is.
But what counts in this case would be whether the index gets noticed, is easily recalled, and enters into public consciousness, and then is used as a reference point in public conversation, which of course also has implications for personal or political action.
Maybe sadly for scientists, it does not really matter is the wider public don’t fully grasp the derivation. For instance, how many of those who look at whether the the Dow Jones, FTSE, DAX or Nikkei are going up or down, really understand how the indices are calculated? In dealing with complex and arcane analysis we are all used to delegating authority to others. A well-known case in the UK was the discovery that many people were buying white goods labelled as A-rated because they thought it denoted an overall better product, not realising that the rating was based only on energy efficiency. So long as it has a positive overall effect, it would be worth doing, and for those who want to know the details, those should be made available.
Operationalising An Index
There are lots of ways to approach this but I suggest if possible starting with a set of convenors and candidate sponsors who share a common vision and have or could secure the means to ensure an index is launched and run.
They would then have to oversee a process taking into account three main factors: what the ‘science’, meaning climate scientists and attribution scientists think can be said with confidence; what would be attractive to distribution channels and messengers; and public understanding/ comprehension/ cognitive processing.
A prior question framing the brief is what needs to be communicated (my starting suggestions are above), which could be best answered by climate change campaigners and practitioners, including political analysts and public affairs experts. It would be important that the task did not creep into trying to popularise, summarise or crystallise the state of climate attribution knowledge.
This would require a series of market and formative qualitative research projects, expensive compared to many NGO climate campaign projects but peanuts compared to what’s at stake, or expenditure on climate science research such as modelling. These would include desk research of existing insight, workshops to originate ideas, some testing of assumptions, and production and testing of possible index executions to produce and pilot some options and help develop a communications strategy to roll it out.
Both origination and tests of possible executions would need to take some account of regional differences, cultural communication points, language and norms but most of that tuning would be better done by distributors at a later stage.
Campaign Strategy Blog 24 January 2021. Chris Rose email@example.com
Here’s one for campaign planners, funders and managers. This blog argues for consideration of 5-Es in campaign design adding Evidence and Ethics to the usual Economy, Efficiency and Effectiveness. As campaigning typically requires a bespoke design, acquiring the right evidence is of great importance to test the effectiveness of any proposed critical path. While most cause groups are ‘ethical’, to prevent a debilitating accumulation of objectives simply as they are ethically desirable, identifying and conserving the primary ethical purpose is another test that should be applied. Honing campaign tools, and strategies in the limited case of campaigns that are essentially ‘repeat business’, are the main cases where optimising economy and efficiency are a worthwhile use of resources.
Anyone who’s ever ventured into a conversation with managers versed in ‘value for money’ thinking will probably have come across the ‘3-E’s’: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. These useful distinctions apply to campaigning as much as to anything else, and particularly to making design and investment choices across a programme of campaigns, or between campaigning and other activities.
Economy: Reducing the cost of resources used for an activity, with a regard for maintaining quality.
Efficiency: Increasing output for a given input, or minimising input for a given output, with a regard for maintaining quality.
Effectiveness: Successfully achieving the intended outcomes from an activity.
Seeing as almost any campaign has proponents who think it is of supreme importance, they will always want to prioritise effectiveness: throw everything at it. That’s not very helpful if you have a suite of organisational commitments.
On the other hand it’s very common that campaign resources are spread too thinly for any of them to have much chance of working, especially in organisations with weak leadership (no effective prioritisation, everything is priority) or where there is no practice or culture of finding evidence that something will or won’t work, before committing to campaign design and execution. That may sound obvious but it’s a widespread problem. Such evidence needs to be real, verifiable and independent of the aspirations or preconceptions of the campaigners.
The same issue of under-resourced campaigns arises when organisations fail to distinguish between advocacy and campaigning. This happens most often in organisations which don’t just do campaigning but which do a lot of policy-advocacy work. In these groups ‘campaigning’ may just mean mobilising signs of public support for advocacy positions, and the policy/ advocacy units or staff are often the de facto gatekeepers of target choices, priorities and resources. This may work if for some reason a bit of mobilisation is all that’s needed to tip the balance. In my experience, in many more cases such ‘campaigns’ fail because that isn’t enough to achieve an objective. Yet consciously or unconsciously, the organisation prefers to run such enhanced-advocacy to the alternative of an instrumental campaign which makes changes to outcomes, through making changes in the real world. Such changes of course are often more less popular and more controversial than just advocating change.
Façade villages created by Potemkin to impress Catherine the Great en route to Crimea are a legend or myth which have become a by-word or metaphor for fakery (image Wikimedia Commons)
In other cases ‘campaigns’ are presented as such but in reality are adjuncts to fundraising or membership, for instance as list-building or prospect-acquisition exercises. These are ‘Potemkin’ campaigns, modern, usually digital equivalents of cardboard facades built to create an impression of substance. In this case they can achieve the 3-Es but not for the ostensible purpose presented to the public.
So as a rule instrumental campaign planning also requires a fourth E – evidence.
Use the issue mapping exercise to identify possible interventions (aka dialogue mapping) and the need for evidence.
For example if you want a thing to be stopped, how might it be stopped? Don’t know? Then find out how it works, what things, steps, processes does it need to happen, to continue. Then each of those is a potential way to stop it, if you can take one away or block it. How do those things function? Ask questions of answers from questions (Horst Rittell) until you have a big enough network of potential causes and effects mapped out to start to see possible routes to change – the start of a candidate critical path.
Things put forwards as evidence also need to be questioned. Possible types of evidence of what will make a difference might include:
Observation – we’ve seen it happen, or fail to happen, or someone else has (but was it cause and effect?)
Claim (they say – who? what’s their evidence or is it just a belief?)
Inference (whose ? needs more testing against empirical evidence if possible)
Independent analysis (ie not ours, preferably from a source which is neither for or against us on ‘the issue’, of how the system in question works)
Experimental proof – someone has run an experiment, or de facto experiment whether intended or not
One or more of the above that we know to be accepted by the target decision-maker as likely to lead to the result we want (usually from intelligence about the thinking and preconceptions of others)
In the commercial communications world, when planners are concerned with specific audiences, such evidence is often called ‘insight’. It’s why qualitative research is used to test assumptions made from polling, testing what data actually means.
Asking and trying to answer questions about evidence also reveals the knowns and unknowns. When you do a mapping process to generate a possible critical path, make a list of things that need researching in order to validate assumptions – assumptions are not facts until validated. You or your team may not know something, for instance – does D really lead to E, and if so how ? – but someone else might. The most cost-effective step may be to find that person rather than trying to generate the knowledge from primary research.
Knowns and Unknowns
Many strategists, risk analysts and project managers like to use a known/unknown grid. In 2002 this emerged into the popular media when US Secretary of State for Defense said at a press conference about the Iraq War:
“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know”
Rumsfeld missed out unknown knowns – things your organisation actually knows but you don’t, which is why it’s a good idea to ‘empty the pockets’ of your organisation and allies before making your plan, as this is free but unutilized knowledge. It may be for example that your head campaigner knows more than any one else in your team about the topic but that does not mean s/he knows everything your network knows about it.
On the basis that knowledge you have accessed and used is ‘tapped’, blogger Management Yogi produced the above version of the grid. The things your network knows but you don’t, are the ‘hidden facts’.
Uncovering this reality is one reason why any ‘mapping’ should not become a one-step decision making process (even more so if it uses a closed pre-formed selection of factors such as PEST). A desire for speed can lead you to make a decision based just on what you know for sure, and to wrongly assume that can’t be improved in with a bit of research. As Bill Fournet of Persimmon Group wrote, this known/unknown technique:
‘provides a quick and simple approach to identify and determine which assumptions you need to focus on first. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call or an email to get an answer. Yet, so many teams fail to take that step’
Here’s his version of the grid:
The question obviously arises, how much effort do you invest in trying to shift things into the known-known fact box? The answer to that partly depends on how much ‘getting it right’ is important to you. A priority campaign with a large investment is presumably more important than one with a small investment of resources, and even more so if the opportunity is rare, or so far as you know, unique.
Yet because important is often transposed to urgent, campaigns get launched despite a very weak evidence base. This may also happen simply because the group concerned does not research change mechanisms at all, and only look at the mission-level importance of an objective, find it huge, and assume that ‘we must do something’ > ‘this is something’ > so we’ll do this.
It’s clear though that validating the known unknowns (the unknown facts), and the unknown knowns, (untapped knowledge), ought have first call on your research resource, as these are the most resolvable categories. The unknown unknowns, are harder to investigate and may need to be set aside – triaged out – if there is a deadline for deciding action.
The unknown unknowns are better dealt with in horizon-scanning exercises and include ‘black swans’, unpredictable catastrophic events or those assumed to be impossible.
In practice the divisions between the categories are not always completely impermeable. Some campaigns are largely or wholly about issues with a high degree of ignorance but where existing knowledge means you can infer there may be a big problem. For example a high potential impact from a hazard might be inferred from a known unknown, such as ‘once released, we don’t know how to get this back’, coupled with some known facts, for example ‘things like this have caused serious problems’, even where the probability of occurrence and the specific consequences may not be knowable at present. Some new technologies and chemicals are perhaps the best known examples.
Andy Stirling at Sussex University has separated ignorance into strict uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance, together covered by the term ‘incertitude’. Where there is no evidence basis for assigning a probability of risk and outcomes, a precautionary approach is the appropriate response. He says: ‘dilemmas of incertitude typically mean that no particular policy can be uniquely validated by the available evidence. The idea of a single ‘evidence based policy’ is an oxymoron’. Although writing about policy, Stirling’s point also applies to looking at evidence for campaigns.
Efficiency and Economy
The over-riding importance of effectiveness does not mean there is no place for improving economy or efficiency in campaigning but this is strongest where a campaign is repeat business. In this case, once an effective model has been devised, so long as you can reasonably expect to do much the same thing in the same circumstances, it’s worth investing time and effort in doing it in a cheaper more efficient manner.
This however is more likely to apply to the tools, logistical assets or tactics used in a campaign, for instance means of communication, than the strategy itself. It’s also more likely to apply to non-campaign work, such as service delivery. For example a nature conservation organisation may need to campaign as well as acquiring and running protected areas but each campaign is likely to have particular circumstances not predictable in advance, and to require a bespoke strategy. The land acquisition and management work is more routine and predictable not least as it is largely governed by accepted and regulated frameworks, whereas campaigning may be necessary for the very reason that the established political and social systems have failed, or need changing.
This needs to be understood in the Management and Governance functions of an organisation. You cannot apply the same evaluation metrics placing a lot of emphasis on economy and efficiency (or productivity) to campaigns, as you can for routine repeat business.
As described in How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change (Ch. 11) each organisation needs to develop its own campaign style, including the tone and organisational role played by campaigning, so it feels comfortable within the brand and is understood and accepted in the community of the organisation. Some organisations typically run campaigns that are much more strategically ambitious than others (eg in the nature case, restricted site-defence campaigns at one end of the ambition dimension and changes to the prevailing social and economic model and how it affects nature, at the other end). One way of looking at this is the ambition box.
Ambition Box from How to Win Campaigns Communications for Change (read more)
Finally, it may well be worth looking at the efficiency, economy and effectiveness of the campaign planning, strategy and programming system itself. If that’s not adequate then evaluating the downstream campaigns is a bit of a waste of time, as their failings may be symptoms of the upstream problem.
In the case of cause organisations a fifth E often comes into play: Ethics. If morals are rules given by authority and ethics are self-adopted principles governing our lives, the default campaign design problem is not too little ethics but too much, or rather too many objectives, added for or justified by, ethical purposes.
That’s because most change-campaigners and their organisations are Pioneers, with a psychological commitment to act ethically. Coupled with the Pioneer tendency to think that the more ideas and consultation thrown into the decision-making the better, plus a love of doing things differently, campaign plans and execution can become encrusted with ethical barnacles. This is why I suggest Ethics as the fifth E for campaign planners: so that effectiveness does not fall foul of trying to serve too many ethical purposes at once.
To be clear about this, it’s not an argument about being ethical per se. The very act of deciding to develop, run, support or finance a campaign is in many cases, ethical at root.
It’s a design question. Each campaign needs to have a single clear ultimate change-objective. That objective might serve several ethical purposes but if those would best be served by making a set of different changes, then they should be pursued with different campaigns. Failing because you attempted to do too many ethical things at once is not a very ethical use of time and money.
The same applies if a set of possible changes all serve the same ethical purpose. For pursuing the mission of an organisation set on that purpose, they might all be equally valid but if they involve different targets in different systems (eg social, cultural, temporal economic, or geographic), they will require different critical paths.
This is a simple reality of design, not confined to campaigns. The screwdriver attachment multi-purpose tool is unlikely to be as good at the screwdriver job as a set of screwdrivers made with the same amount of metal and effort. The meal-ready-to-eat nutrition bar designed as survival food is never going to give the sophisticated flavours of a meal in a five star restaurant. And the family saloon car design may be fairly good at lots of things but it’s never going to be as good at high speed travel as a racing car or as good at sustained off-roading as purpose-made 4×4. As form follows intended function, effective design can include zero sum choices. That in turn means that achieving the objective dictates the design, and it can’t take on unlimited ethical tasks along the way. This is easily lost sight of during internal consultation.
It’s tempting for cause organisations to try and add extra ethical functions to a campaign because they all have internal advocates, and decision-makers might like the campaign to deliver on them all. If this is an issue, candidate designs should be tested against real world evidence.
Ethical over-load can also lead to wider unintended consequences. If we signal that we would like others to change behaviours or practices for ethical reasons A B and C, when audiences are far from ready to do so, we may create a values-bombing effect of resentment and opposition (as I have argued Political Correctness did in the case of pre-Brexit developments, particularly but not only with some Settlers). If the campaign also fails to achieve its objectives, we look like failures (especially unattractive to Prospectors) and the overall impact is negative.
Criticisms to Ignore
My advice to groups faced with arguments over ethical objectives is to bear in mind the core mission of your organisation and why you want to run a campaign on a particular issue. There is an almost unlimited universe of ethical causes which could become imperatives, and they are unlikely to be effectively optimised in one campaign.
This risk is mitigated by picking a strategic objective. If you have picked the thing to change because it’s the biggest available and achievable change you can make on subject A, then the fact that your campaign could have also targeted topic B, or B through to F, is not a criticism of it that you need to accept. The critics really need to go away and find an organisation whose primary task is to change B or C or D or E or F, or accept that you will you run a campaign on those another day.
Plus even in an organisation which maybe has a policy on, or advocates for change on a, b, c, d, e and f, running a change campaign is a much heavier duty more resource- and opportunity-focused exercise than advocacy, so the same applies. For practical purposes of producing campaigns that may actually make gains rather than simply drawing attention to the case for making changes, the ethical profile of a campaign often needs to be limited by its primary purpose in order to produce an ethical gain.
The Limitations of Campaigning
This is also one reason why campaigning is a limited tool. It has to focus attention and engagement on a single change, and often seizing a single moment of opportunity or, more onerous, creating one. Similar limitations mean campaigning cannot be a good way of doing education (as education generates increases awareness of possibilities whereas each campaign step necessarily focuses on supporting a specific call to action), and cannot properly substitute for politics and government which involve ongoing negotiated trade-offs.
Finally, ethics, fashions and moral norms are not fixed so at an organisational level, and campaign groups face similar follower-supporter and wider social expectations to companies and public bodies, in moving with the times.
What count as ‘hygiene factors’, expectations that would apply to anything an organisation or brand does, will change over time but not all of these will be motivational factors determining whether a particular campaign or organisation is supported. For instance being low carbon is becoming an expectation of businesses whereas it used to be a distinguishing exception. If not already, this will be expected from all cause groups as well as corporations. Right now however speeding up the elimination of carbon emissions is not the primary purpose of every campaign by every campaign group.
People all over the world love nature, plants and animals. Online and on TV, Natural History films are a hugely popular and profitable genre as they attract family audiences. The BBC has just started public marketing of it’s new Attenborough mega-series Green Planet. Yet the extinction of ‘biodiversity’ has struggled to be taken seriously as a political issue. In this blog I explore what it might take for campaigns to make a difference to this year’s global biodiversity conference, the history and challenges of this ‘Cinderella’ political issue, and the bizarre case of Swanscombe Peninsula, which may become a test case in the UK: a biodiverse site threatened by a theme park with dinosaurs.
[note: some readers have questioned what ‘Cinderella’ means in this context – I meant that it’s neglected, overlooked compared to climate. Journalist Peter Greenfield called the biodiversity the ‘little sister’ COP compared to COP26 on climate]
Will 2022 be the year when governments take the Nature Emergency as seriously as the Climate Emergency? Hopes are focussed on the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD15), due to take place in Kunming China, from 17 – 30 May. Few commentators are optimistic about it.
Ever since the 1992 Earth Summit, governments have promised effective action to stem the loss of biodiversity and then failed. Conservationists have long complained that ‘biodiversity’ is an under-resourced Cinderella issue. Communicators complain that it’s not understood: ‘biodiversity’ is policy-speak not everyday language for nature. Academics identify a plethora of difficulties explaining it but overall, nature still drains away. Scientists fear millions of species will soon be lost.
What Needs To Happen
Perhaps I am stating the obvious but it seems to me that it needs at least three things for nature even to gain the political and social traction that ‘climate’ has through international action:
Getting governments organised. Effective international political and scientific organisation and structure connecting to national economic, land use and natural resource policy
Enabling politicians to understand it. Translation of targets derived from science into shorthands and metrics which non-scientific domestic politicians and decision-makers can understand and communicate at least between themselves (equivalent to climate’s ‘net zero’ and 1.5C ‘safe limit’ and ‘unburnable carbon’)
·Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments. Connection of the top-down agenda for action with bottom-up public support and pressure to protect surviving nature and enhance it, meaning that it must be visible, tangible and tractable where people live, work, rest and play, with outcomes testable through personal experience. This is where campaigns can make the biggest difference.
Late in coming it is, and inadequate it may be but there are signs that an inter governmental infrastructure is now being put in place, partly emulating and drawing energy from that in place for climate. Corporates, NGOs, scientists and politicians have come together in new initiatives and alliances (see Cinderella COP below). The second problem is soluble but it’s unlikely to be sorted by May, although it might just emerge from the CBD process through luck. There’s not much time for the third one but it’s the most realistic opportunity to take for campaigners wanting to improve on the default outcome for biodiversity’s COP15.
COP15 already has a full agenda. It’s reported that:
‘The 21-point draft includes targets on eliminating plastic pollution, reducing pesticide use by two-thirds and halving the rate of invasive species introductions, aimed at cutting the rate of extinctions and protecting life-sustaining ecosystems’.
It’s also said that ‘nature based solutions’ – the obvious cross-over with climate – are in the draft, although president Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil opposes them and they ‘may well be cut in the run up’. And both the UN and a ‘high ambition’ alliance are pushing ideas such as protecting of 30% of the planet for nature by 2030 and stopping the loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP below).
There’s not much to be gained by campaigners trying to push new ideas onto the agenda for CBD15.
In my view, the underlying problem for biodiversity is that politicians still assume it can be saved without having to fundamentally disrupt the way we do things. And if they do think it needs fundamental far-reaching change, it’s not politically possible, just yet. This is a penny that has dropped further and faster on climate than biodiversity.
So whether or not for the conference proves a turning point will depend on whether national politicians attending it already believe they must change their domestic economic, development and planning systems, pollution controls and use of land and the sea. That in turn will depend on manifestation of public demand and support.
If that doesn’t happen CBD15 may just be a small audience spectator sport for environmentalists on zoom, with a zoo of paper tiger commitments let loose in Kunming.
The political temptation is always to agree to vague targets or those with an implementation date well into the future. At the top level ‘biodiversity’ itself is vague, generic and placeless, allowing one dimensional single metric metaphors such as ‘moving the dial’. It’s easy for politicians to attend an international conference and agree we must change the trajectory on biodiversity without it translating into instrumental change on the ground, in how things work in my country, at home. That’s been the history.
It’s much harder for governments to stop something they’ve already started or are accustomed to, than to agree to do something new. So if they do, that really means something. If I was looking for a campaign target to make a difference for CBD15, that’s what I’d look for: something to stop, something already happening or planned but which is incompatible with the Convention ambition that the relevant country would like to align with.
The strongest signal for politicians to receive from a campaign is not seeing opinion polls or being lobbied by experts but the experience of having to do different: whether they themselves decide that or they are forced into it. Seeing an unmistakable change-signal from significant others who cannot be ignored (eg expenditure of corporations or large instrumental changes in public choices and behaviours) can come a close second.
In other words whether it involves a battle or not, I suggest looking for a reversal or abandonment of an existing practice or project, rather than just promoting a target for future change.
Such objectives can be tough to achieve but it doesn’t have to be huge and running across the spectrum of problems and solutions associated with biodiversity. It could be quite discrete but emblematic nonetheless. In practical campaign terms between now and May, such a stop- or save-target has several advantages:
Availability – if the thing already exists, the campaign does not to spend a long time defining and constructing public awareness of it
Comprehension – if it’s real, physical and familiar then the public is more likely to understand it and can respond to a conflict over it by seeing who’s involved without having to be educated about finer points of biodiversity and policy
Speed – if your demand is binary enough, there is time between now and May to engage public as well as elite audiences
Test of intent – in the run up to COP15 it should be a cogent litmus-test of true political intent and working assumptions
And less obviously it might be
Crossing a Rubicon, a defining moment of decision which departs from past assumptions
If you try, and you win, then great. If you try and you lose, too bad but at least you have run the test, and you have created evidence for next time, with a lot of witnesses. Without such moments, a process like the CBD COP15 may go un-noticed by most of the public, or understood only through episodic exchanges of soundbites between biodiversity advocates and politicians rehearsing the usual arguments.
The ideal contest is an event which signals the public support and the essence of the issue, and which is extended enough for a conversation to develop, for days or weeks. Campaigns which achieve this are candidates to trigger a what theorists term a ‘dialectical moment’, a time when two conflicting ‘truths’ are resolved as society rethinks in real time and a new truth emerges. (See Final Thoughts below, on biodiversity and nature as a blank free space).
In terms of timing, for a campaign to now make an impact on politicians who go on to make an impact on COP15 it needs to get ‘inside the loop’ and have its effect faster than the default timescales for preparation, participation, decision making and implementation through the Convention process.
All that’s still fairly generic as the opportunities will vary radically from one country to another so I’ll share an example I know about in the UK. It’s a bit idiosyncratic and it’s in the ‘when in a hole, first stop digging’ category. In other words stop making the problem worse, in this case by not building on an important nature site near London.
Back in 2013 the UK government put a proposal for a huge entertainment park on a ‘fast-track’ for development approval. It still doesn’t have planning consent but if built it would destroy one of the most biodiverse places in the country, at Swanscombe Peninsula in North Kent. Strangely, even the BBC is involved, and on the wrong side. It’s a bizarre microcosm of what happens in the UK, a highly nature-depleted over-developed country, when biodiversity comes up against conventional development thinking.
Swanscombe’s Extinction Theme Park
Local campaigners Donna Zimmer, hairdresser and naturalist (left), Laura Edie, special needs teaching assistant and Councillor (centre), and Karen Lynch, right, of Save Swanscombe Peninsula
By UK standards Swanscombe is an outstanding hotspot of biodiversity. It has many rare plants and in an area about one and a half times the size of Regents Park, a greater number of breeding birds than any major nature reserve in south east England. It’s home to nightingales, water voles, cuckoos, otters and ravens. Foremost among its remarkable 1700 invertebrate species, is the extravagantly named Distinguished Jumping Spider, surviving only here and on the opposite bank of the Thames.
The main habitats of Swanscombe Peninsula – from Natural England
A ‘Nature Reserve’ For Extinct Animals
London Resort PR artists impression of the ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ to be built on Swanscombe Peninsula
Potential nemesis of the Distinguished Jumping Spider comes in the form of larger-than-life ‘PY’ Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, an ex-ice hockey player and something of a travelling salesman for outlandish attraction developments, who made his name with Disneyland Paris and as ‘rescuer’ of the controversial London Millennium Dome. Gerbeau is CEO of LRCH. With his trademark bravado, his latest big idea for the London Resort, alongside six rollercoasters, is a ‘Prehistoric Nature Reserve’ featuring fake dinosaurs.
P Y Gerbeau and the Distinguished Jumping Spider (spider photo – Buglife)
Principal champion of the Distinguished Jumping Spider and the other invertebrate species found on the site, is a small national UK charity called Buglife*. Established in 2000, its name echoes the 1998 Disney Pixar movie ‘Bug’s Life’, which has inspired generations of children to ‘like bugs’, and in which ants fight for their home against a predatory swarm of gangster-style grasshoppers. Buglife has a petition against the development.
“Too Much Democracy”
PY’s boss at LRCH is Chairman Steven Norris, a former MP and Conservative Minister, now a property developer who has twice gone public with his neo-con styleview that there is “far too much democracy” in the UK as it gets in the way of development. He’s also said in a Property Week Magazine video in 2018 that universal suffrage is a “daft idea”.
Steven Norris – “far too much democracy” at 6 secs, NSIPs “very very welcome” at 1min 4 secs
Money behind LRCH comes from oil-rich Kuwait through Dr. Abdulla Al Humaidi, former oil executive, politician and Chairman of Kuwaiti European Holding (KEH). LRCH is ultimately controlled by companies based in Kuwait. London Resort is ‘overseen’ by KEH. Dr Al Humaidi bought the local fooball club, Ebbsfleet in 2013.
The cast of characters extends to blue-chip media companies, all on the wrong side of the biodiversity fence as ‘IP partners’, having signed Development Agreements with LRCH to supply their Intellectual Property for themes and content of rides and attractions. These include Paramount Pictures, ITV Studios, and most extraordinary of all, BBC Studios which signed up in 2014.
David Attenborough And The BBC
The BBC of course is a palace of natural history content and the long-standing HQ of Sir David Attenborough, often referred to as ‘a god’ by BBC insiders, one of the most popular people in Britain, famous for wildlife spectaculars such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, and in recent decades an environmental campaigner backing causes such as The Wildlife Trusts and Prince William’s ‘Earth Shot Prize’, featured in a BBC Studios production, Repairing the Planet. So far the BBC has rejected calls from campaigners to withdraw from the theme park project. (Sign Save Swanscombe Peninsula’s petition to the BBC here). Attenborough has also made several films about dinosaurs but LRCH and BBC publicity suggested the BBC content for the theme park was most likely to be from Dr Who.
How BBC reported the deal with London Resort in 2014
Earthshot Prize featuring David and Attenborough in 2021 – a BBC Studios production
Both the BBC and ITV have featured in an investor marketing promotion for the London Resort
Since 2011 both the BBC and ITV have made much of their commitments to sustainability, although in both cases it focuses mainly on cutting their climate-changing footprints and waste, through adherence to the ‘Albert’ sustainable production system set up by the BBC and now also adopted by Netflix, ITV, Sky and Channel Four. Symptomatic of a wider challenge for biodiversity campaigns, Albert says nothing about biodiversity and the BBC has no policy on biodiversity and nature conservation.
To cap it all, crucial land required for the LRCH project to build its nature reserve for extinct species, car parks, hotels and the rest of the theme park is 50% owned by the world’s largest cement company Holcim (through Swanscombe Development LLP, a partnership with Anglo-American). This is because although originally chalk grasslands and grazing marsh, much of the area was mined to feed a cement works, with land acquired by Lafarge, which then merged with Holcim. Enough flora and fauna survived to recolonize the whole site when the industry shut down, fortuitously also insulated from the chemical onslaught of industrial farming, which explains its biodiversity riches. In recent decades Holcim has set out to be a more sustainable company and in 2021 its CEO Jan Jenisch was one of 20 business leaders [Business for Nature] who wrote an Open Letter to Heads of State on the importance of biodiversity.
Finally, the London Resort theme park project (then Paramount Park) was granted special status in 2014 by then then Conservative Planning Minister Eric Pickles, as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project or NSIP. This by-passes normal democratically controlled local planning process and puts decisions directly in the hands of central government planning inspectors and Ministers to fast-track projects.
Eric Pickles (right) commons.wikimedia.org
Why a theme park, a straightforward commercial development, should qualify as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’, a special treatment normally reserved for major infrastructure like power stations, ports, or large road or rail projects, has puzzled many informed observers. Pickles justification was ‘economic’. If it goes ahead the scheme will destroy several local industrial estates home to 140 small businesses, many of which oppose the theme park, employing over 1500 people. The businesses believe Pickles was ignorant of their existence, and was only told by planning consultants Savills that the area was a ‘mainly post-industrial brownfield land and largely derelict’.
This puts the fate of Swanscombe Peninsula directly in the hands Boris Johnson’s government. After many delays caused by LRCH’s failure to meet deadlines, the NSIP hearings may start in March and run throughout the time the UK government is taking part in the CBD’s COP15. The UK likes to portray itself as an environmental leader at such events and together with France and Costa Rica has been promoting the concept of stopping loss of biodiversity by 2030 (see Cinderella COP, below).
Boris Johnson has adopted the same target as a national objective, saying: “biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate”.
These awkward circumstances are made more acute because following calls from Buglife, the CPRE, RSPB and Kent Wildlife Trust, and over 70 scientists and conservation experts, Swanscombe Peninsula was confirmed as a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in November 2021 by Natural England, the government’s own conservation agency. In normal circumstances that should prevent any damaging development, and the heart of the SSSI would be concreted over if the Theme Park were constructed but an NSIP is not normal circumstances. Consequently Swanscombe is a test case of the UK government’s commitment to biodiversity.
LRCH claims that the theme park can compensate for lost biodiversity with its ‘off-site ecological compensation strategy’ but conservation groups dismiss this as impossible given the scale of the direct footprint (about 100 Hectares) and knock-on indirect effects. Natural England have stated “compensation cannot adequately address the harm that would result to the SSSI from the development proposal, as the feasibility of doing this is considered low and very unlikely to offer an equivalent assemblage and richness of species.”
[For more information – background papers on Swanscombe – one on the value of the site, the other on LRCH and the BBC]
The Cinderella COP – Some Campaign Issues
Climate change emerged as a global political issue in the late 1980s and it became progressively more obvious that protecting biodiversity needed a similar scientific and political commitment-making system to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, est 1988) and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change est 1992). Imperfect though these are, they helped stimulate and frame political action. Although the CBD or Convention on Biological Diversity was first launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it has struggled to translate the global overview of acute need into systematic action at national and regional level.
Grand Targets, Weak Delivery
A 30 December article in The Guardian by Patrick Greenfield was headlined ‘Can 2022 be a super year for nature?’ “Super Year” is the hopeful term that was coined by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen for 2020, before both the CBD COP15 and COP26 on climate got delayed by Covid. It follows decades of failure. Greenfield summarised the state of play like this:
Those failures include a 2002 commitment on the tenth anniversary of the CBD originally signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to ‘significantly slow’ biodiversity loss by 2010. That was incorporated in the Millennium Development Goals but missed and in turn was followed by the 20 biodiversity ‘Aichi Goals’ of 2011 agreed in Japan. None were fully met, including target 5, to ‘at least halve’ the loss of natural habitats by 2020.
The detail shows more protected areas, at least on paper, more cases of individual species brought ‘back from the brink’ of extinction, and more successes of many kinds due to a huge amount of effort, just not enough to outweigh the impacts such as from industrial agriculture, pollution and land use change.
Now the ambition is now to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and set aside 30-50% of the planet for nature. In his 2016 book ‘Half-Earth: The Planet’s Fight for Life’ the eminent biologist E O Wilson** proposed making half the earth’s surface into sanctuaries as the only way to be sure of stemming the loss of biodiversity. In 2019, spurred by the failure of the Aichi targets, conservationists adopted a more direct approach and put forward much the same target for land to be set aside for nature.
In April 2019 20 leading scientists including Tom Lovejoy**, called for a global Deal for Nature with ‘30% of Earth to be formally protected and an additional 20% designated as climate stabilization areas’. Their proposal was framed as a complement to the Paris (climate) Agreement.
In September 2020 leaders of the European Union and 70 countries (now 93)made the commitment in a ‘Leaders’ Pledge for Nature’. The initiative was backed by NGOs, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Belize, Bhutan, Colombia, Costa Rica, the EU, Finland, Kenya, Seychelles, and the UK. It came just before a UN Summit on Biodiversity held at the General Assembly in New York with (due to Covid) leaders sending pre-recorded videos .
In Paris on January 11 2021, ‘30 x 30’ got international political backing with the launch of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People at the One Planet Summit. This committed nations to protecting ‘at least’ 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. Led by Costa Rica, France and the UK, it now includes 70 countries. This is undoubtedly progress in starting to organise a progressive network among governments but it is not enough to create delivery. Soon after his inauguration US President Joe Biden announced ‘America the Beautiful’ his 30 x 30. In the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his 30 x 30 in September 2020, with all the right sentiments:
“We can’t afford dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today, it is happening at a frightening rate … If left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all … Extinction is forever – so our action must be immediate”
But search online for ‘30 by 30’ and you quickly find a forest of criticisms calling such commitments into doubt, from objections that Biden’s plan might not help the environmental struggles of indigenous peoples to campaigners pointing out that Johnson had included England’s National Parks as ‘protected’ areas covering 26% of the country, whereas the RSPB’s Lost Decade report found as little as 5% of the UK was actually well managed for nature. The extent to which such more ambitious targets actually produce bigger and better results will depend on how much politicians believe the public want it.
There is growing engagement of corporations with biodiversity but, as with the BBC, it is generally much lower level or an earlier stage than that on climate. Against that, companies have a track record of being able to move much faster than most governments when they want to.
A 2018 study found one third of the sustainability reports of the top 100 (largest) Fortune 500 companies had some sort of commitment to biodiversity. However the researchers, from Oxford and Kent University, also noted:
Of the top Fortune 100 companies, 86 have publicly available sustainability reports … almost half (49) … mentioned biodiversity … and 31 made clear biodiversity commitments and an additional 12 made clear fishing or forestry commitments. However, only five of these companies made biodiversity commitments that could be considered specific, measurable and time-bound. This is unlike the much greater adoption of science-based climate commitments made by companies committing to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement within the next decade (https://sciencebasedtargets.org/), emphasising that biodiversity loss remains a less pressing issue to the private sector compared to climate change.
‘when we took a closer look at which companies were making commitments that were specific, measurable & time bound, we found that only 5 of the Fortune 100 did so (Walmart, Hewlett Packard, AXA, Nestlé and Carrefour). For example, Walmart’s commitment: “To conserve one acre of wildlife habitat for every acre of land occupied by Walmart U.S. through 2015″. Beyond Walmart’s commitment, none of the remaining Fortune 100 had adopted quantifiable biodiversity commitments (e.g., no net loss or better), unlike the small but rising number of businesses outside of the Fortune 100’
A 2020 German study also suggested that biodiversity is still a Cinderella topic compared to climate. It examined corporate engagement of 618 firms in halting loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. It found
‘a favourable attitude, driven by perceived business relevance and benefit prospects, fosters engagement. Perceived difficulties, such as lacking finances and knowledge, hinder the engagement. Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement. Nevertheless, the expectation levels of virtually all stakeholders were found to be quite low and as such inadequate for the ecological crisis we face’.
The observation that ‘Customers, employees and the general public are presently the only stakeholder groups that drive corporate conservation engagement’ is not surprising given that few governments have yet legislated to require actions comparable to those stipulated in climate-related regulation, such as car manufacturers facing heavy fines of up to €30,000 per vehicle if their model range does not meet EU targets on reduced carbon emissions.
Translating that to biodiversity would be more complex but the experience of other issues suggests that it’s only a carrot and stick approach which really stimulates comprehensive change. The latest post-Brexit UK scheme for increasing biodiversity on farmland seems to be all carrot and involves paying farm businesses to do so. According to The Wildlife Trusts, it also relies on them to self-evaluate.
Act for Nature is a French biodiversity initiative aimed at global actors including businesses, NGOs, academic institutions and public bodies. 57 companies have made commitments which Act for Nature considers SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound). It is associated with Business for Nature which has over 1000 corporate members with revenues totally over $4.7 trillion, including Holcim, and has called on governments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
In 2021 nine philanthropic organizations , including Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged to give $5 billion by 2030 to help reach the 30×30 goal of protecting 30 % of biodiversity.
A Risk For Campaigns
Earlier in this blog I suggested that we needed governments to get organised, to enable politicians to understand biodiversity (for instance it’s said that none of the 650 UK MPs have a degree in biology, and ‘biodiversity’ is really nature for biologists), and ‘Enabling people to put pressure on politicians to act on commitments’.
Track 1 and 2: advocacy can work on the slow analytical track 2, public campaigns must work on Track 1
The first two of those are mainly in what I’ve called the Track 2 World (see this blog), of policy communities and professional elites, in this case including diplomats and NGO advocates, international scientific networks and executives in corporate ESG (Environment Social and Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) roles.
NGOs can have an important role in catalysing these things but there is always a risk of adopting concepts and language which work fine in the ‘policy community’ but do not cross-over into everyday life, which is the context for public campaigns. Or as communications researchers say, they are not ‘portable’ and don’t function in Track 1 terms where communication is not conscious and analytical (Track 2) but intuitive and dominated by unconscious processes such as framing, heuristics and values.
Given time and education, people can learn the meaning of concepts such as Biodiversity Net Gain or even more arcane ideas, and the biodiversity and climate issues are littered with their acronyms but in everyday life there usually is no time or opportunity for education or training to decode glossaries, certainly not during live campaigns.
So if NGOs approach the CBD on the assumption that they can rouse political support for key demands beyond their most dedicated core base with such concepts, their efforts are unlikely to succeed. That’s a risk which NGOs could mostly control themselves.
Of course, it is possible for simple repetition to create understanding without analytical education, most often based purely on association. For example a thing understood to be connected to nature or climate without necessarily having to understand exactly how.
Although not very useful, this happened in the UK with COP26 (held in Glasgow) and climate. ‘COP’ got repeated so often in the media and social media that I’ve even seen politicians wanting to criticise climate measures referring to them as ‘COP’ without mentioning climate.
A more useful example is the Carbon Footprint. In the 2000s I was surprised to find that volunteer crew of the local RNLI (lifeboat service) who had shown no prior interest in ‘climate’ beyond gentle scepticism, were enthusiastically trying to fall into line with a request from headquarters to save energy and cut emissions. When I asked why, the answer was just “carbon footprint”.
Happisburgh (pron. Haze-burr) footprints in Norfolk UK from 900,000 years ago. A footprint is an intuitively understandable metaphor – an imprint we leave.
Some campaigners don’t like the carbon footprint because it was originated by Ogilvy and Mather for an advertising campaign which associated BP with climate action (and copied the format of the personal rather than corporate responsibility used in many advertising campaigns including the 1970 ‘litter’ packaging campaign, discussed in a previous blog, A Beautiful If Evil Strategy). However it was preceded by the concept of an Ecological Footprint, which campaigners rather did like, and the same basic idea of source specific responsibility has been turned to good use in assessing the footprint of countries (eg the Living Planet Index/ reports by WWF et al) and by campaigners such as Greenpeace (which has its own carbon footprint calculator) to target corporations.
It seems likely that such carbon-responsibility campaigning helped drive corporates to sign up to initiatives such as the SBTi or Science Based Targets Initiative (begun 2015) and the Carbon Disclosure Project (which also includes forests and started in 2000), and these in turn may even have influenced other initiatives such as the TCFD (Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure, 2015) which has also influenced regulation.
A strength of the footprint concept is that it relates responsibility to an entity, right down to the individual. If policy measures adopted by governments or even international initiatives have expression at the regional, local, organisational and individual level, the gulf between elite analytical discourses and personal street corner conversations and actions disappears.
One of my favourite examples of a visible, tangible, personal action that was begun to address a national nature problem, is the American Duck Stamp. The Duck Stamp Act was passed by Congress in 1934. It requires ‘each waterfowl hunter to purchase a stamp, thereby generating revenue for wetland acquisition. The Act has resulted in 4.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat protection’.
I’m not a duck shooter but I can’t help thinking that the basic idea could be turned to advantage in the modern nature emergency context.
Is Biodiversity Understood?
It isn’t safe to assume that the public as opposed to professionals in the sector, know what ‘biodiversity’ actually means. Back in 2009 I analysed a huge opinion poll used by the European Commission to plan its Action Plan ‘Halting The loss Of Biodiversity By 2010 – And Beyond’.
At the time it was claimed that the poll showed 65% of the EU public understood the term and could explain what “loss of biodiversity” meant “in their own words” but in reality the question format had already provided (prompted) them with the answer. A small but more penetrating 2007 survey from the UK had tested unprompted understanding of the term. That found only 9% got the ‘right’ answer.
The UK study also gave people four possible meanings of biodiversity and asked which was correct. These were ‘waste that breaks down naturally’, ‘the variety of living things’, ‘rubbish that can be burnt for fuel’ and, ‘the use of trees to off-set carbon emissions’. Of these the most popular was “waste that breaks down naturally” at 33% (37% amongst women).
Bio-d … Bio-degradable. From vecteezy.com
This suggested people were guessing, and using cues like “bio” and “d-something”, “biodegradable” as an easy gut option, with the most likely everyday source of reference being adverts for “biodegradable” products such as washing up liquid. 31% ‘got the right answer’ but as pure guesswork would have given a 1 in 4 chance of selecting each option, or 25%, I’d say 9% was a more realistic figure for true understanding than 65%.
Maybe now people are genuinely better informed but I would not bank on it. In 2020 Robb Ogilvie published a LinkedIn article ‘The greatest problem in communicating the biodiversity crisis is the word biodiversity’ [a quote from journalist @_richardblack]. After scouring international research Ogilvie concluded that:
‘Biodiversity conservation is in trouble … hobbled by a ‘wonky’ name, 85+ definitions, an inconsistent media more interested in climate change, a public -30% of whom have never heard of the word, a concept that has too many ‘moving parts’ for a 30 second sound bite and aspirational mainstreaming that has to fight its way into institutional thinking and into the lifestyle choices of individual members of the public’.
Personally I’d have similar misgivings about assuming the public understand terms like ‘nature positive’, which is now popular in the biodiversity community along with ‘nature positive 2030’, and is used to garner support for numerous initiatives, has it’s own international alliance at www.naturepositive.org and will no doubt feature around CBD15 (I withdraw my misgivings if it’s been rigorously tested for public use in qualitative research).
Given that most of the relevant policy world has been using the word biodiversity for decades I’d also question the utility of inventing new but similarly not understood terms.
This stuff is all very interesting to some but is it a problem?
Yes but only if advocacy specialists are asked to do public communications and they try to use Track 2 jargon to engage the public operating on Track 1 rules. What works in advocacy to politicians with advisers and officials to analyse things, or who may even know their stuff, does not often work in public campaigning.
Use Terms People Already Understand
The simplest and cheapest workaround, indeed something of a golden rule in campaigns, is to use concepts and language the public already understand (and given that all the foregoing is about English language terms, for many, those will anyway have to vary). In English these might be things like nature, the ‘balance of nature’, leaving space for nature, keeping nature intact, responding to the nature emergency, and so on.
In a similar way, use species that people already know and understand, and human supporters, brands and associations people already know and like, to make the case for a place or practice that helps biodiversity. In the case of Swanscombe, in the UK, creatures water voles, nightingales and otters have (in the UK) a wider appeal than spiders, although in news values terms the Distinguished Jumping Spider has the virtue of being almost totally dependent on that one site.
Water Vole by P G Trimming (Creative Commons) – aka ‘Ratty’- much loved in the UK from Wind in the Willows, a children’s book
Language is a problem but not the problem for getting politicians to start to take the nature emergency as seriously as the climate emergency.
Two Shifting Baselines
Attempts to protect biodiversity suffer from two shifting baselines: political and perceptual.
The political one is the can-kicking-down-the-road, in which political targets are set in the future, and become an agenda for deferred action rather than stimulating immediate real action. This is compounded if new baselines are adopted after we fail to meet targets on old baselines. Hence my suggestions about interventions to stop existing practices.
The perceptual one is more insidious. It’s resetting expectations in line with experience, in this case meaning we no longer expect to see plants or wildlife that disappeared from where we live before our memories started, or we set an expectation of abundance of nature lower than previous generations, or simply get used to not seeing things around any more. In his book The Moth Snowstorm, journalist Michael McCarthy called the gradual loss of abundance “the great thinning’.
The Moth Snowstorm takes its name from the once-common now largely lost experience of drivers in the UK seeing a ‘snowstorm of moths’ in car headlights at night.
Both of these have been much discussed in the nature and biodiversity community, and the latter was one of the inspirations for the rewilding movement. Having emerged ‘left field’ from outside the biodiversity policy mainstream, rewilding and its language has side-stepped many of the issues entangling biodiversity communication efforts. By accident or design it hasn’t tried to take on fundamental social, political and economic questions (the polar opposite in some ways of ‘Sustainable Development’) but has taken ground by direct action, often enabled by the support of wealthy property owners.
In so doing rewilders have come up with explanations or causal stories with an everyday intuitive Track 1 logic such as “rewilding – large-scale restoration of nature to the point where it can take care of itself – will help reverse this collapse in biodiversity”. The key ideas here are that left to it’s own devices and given its own space ‘nature’ will take on responsibility, and that there is an inbuilt success mechanism which will swing into action once there’s enough extra nature. Both are intuitively attractive ideas.
But there is another lesson that biodiversity campaigners might draw from the current success of rewilding which is that it may well be easier and more effective to generate public engagement to support the practical actions needed to save and restore biodiversity, than to escalate political pressure within the machinery and constraints of the CBD itself, worthwhile though that is.
I would argue that the same has been true of climate change. Progress, including through enhanced political will, started to escalate once renewable energy began to look successful and capable. That had the effect of marginalising the efforts of ‘climate sceptics’ funded by fossil fuel interests. They haven’t entirely gone away but having lost in the energy market they also have lost their ability to use the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a theatre in which to stymie progress by conjuring a ‘scientific debate’.
So more campaigns to support practical action for biodiversity could make more political space for biodiversity, in other words make it easier for politicians to be bold, without having to be brave.
Wolves are now spreading back across Europe, not entirely due to rewilding. Photo (in A Barvarian National Park) by Aconcagua Creative Commons. ‘Rewilding was originally envisionedas a continental-scale effort in North America with protection of large wilderness cores, suitable habitat corridors for wildlife movement, and recovery of large carnivores’ – https://rewilding.orgAccording to Wikipedia, first use of the term ‘rewilding’came from Earth First in a 1990 Newsweek article, ‘Trying to take back the planet’.
Getting Time On Our Side
Complex environmental issues which can only be fully perceived through science –technological and industrial risks as Ulrich Beck called them – are difficult to get a handle on directly, not least as they are usually populated by scientists pushing the boundaries of knowledge and constantly producing new uncertainties. Climate change and biodiversity are both like this and it makes it hard for decision-makers to tell not just what should be done but how much and how quickly.
Systems modelling is one tool which has helped convert forests of evidence into scenarios and projections that enable politicians to make policy choices. Climate examples include work by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in the early 1990s which related greenhouse gas heating of the atmosphere to the ability of ecosystems to adapt naturally (ie survive intact) which is where the 1.5.C target ‘limit’ originated, and the subsequent IPCC reports. Around the same time others related the warming gases in the atmosphere to carbon released from fossil fuels, and the amount of such fuels in the ground, which is where concepts such as the carbon logic, unburnable carbon, and carbon ‘wedges’ (referring to graphs) came from.
These gave an idea of how much global heating could be tolerated, and how much carbon could be burnt and more recent work has tried to show how much time might be left to act on these, offering decision makers a rationale for when they must act.
In 2019 Peter Schellenhuber, director of the Potsdam institute and an adviser to the EU and German government, combined the decision-logic of air traffic controllers on urgency, and insurers on risk, with climate modelling on tipping points, to produce an equation reproduced in a Nature paper with Timothy Lenton and others, aimed at politicians piloting their nations.
The Schellenhuber emergency equation
It reads ‘we define emergency as the product of risk and urgency … Risk is defined by insurers as probability multiplied by damage …urgency is defined in emergency situations as reaction time to an alert divided by the intervention time left to avoid a bad outcome … the situation is an emergency if both risk and urgency are high. If reaction time is longer than the intervention time left, we have lost control’.
The authors were talking about the global climate system although many of the modelled tipping points are living ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest. Perhaps such analyses will be presented as part of CBD15 but campaigners could do much more at a local and national level to relate nature understandable without resort of scientific models, to risk and damage and particularly to time and urgency.
For example communications analysts have pointed out that in western societies, ‘time’ is metaphorically treated as a substance having value, for instance we talk about having ‘wasted’ or ‘saved’ time, or ‘running out of time’. Yet protecting ancient nature is often not afforded the same importance as protecting human-made artefacts such as ancient buildings. It has been shown in the UK, for instance, that once damaged or destroyed, ancient grasslands do not fully recover their species and integrity even after more than 100 years. The oldest yew tree in the UK, at Fortingall in Scotland, may be 5,000 years old. Fungal networks and seagrass beds in other countries have been found to be even older.
“It’s not bringing in the new ideas that’s so hard; it’s getting rid of the old ones”
John Maynard Keynes
In many campaigns there’s the foreground story and the background story. The real significance, if it has one, usually lies in the background. In the case of Swanscombe and battles like it, whether campaigners win or lose, the true significance is about how politicians view nature, and how they allow the systems they control such as planning, to treat it.
Steven Norris’s frustrations about ‘democracy’ getting in the way of conventional development and his breezy approval of NSIPs for large developments as “very very welcome” were expressed with the deep confidence that nature and open space are basically blanks on the map, better filled with new infrastructure.
Norris is not particularly unusual, his assumptions are just typical of conventional past thinking. This ecosystem-or-nature-as-free space assumption underpins the no-limits politics which led to the nature and climate emergencies. It has to go and be replaced with something more akin to a circular economy operating more organically, like a properly functioning ecosystem. And, as Rebecca Willis said in Too Hot To Handle, her brilliant little book on finding democratic solutions to climate change (such as Citizen’s Assemblies), “the problem is not too much democracy, it is too little”.
‘The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
The BBC has improved since then but to come good on that responsibility it at least has to switch sides over Swanscombe Peninsula.
As part of its PR launch for Green Planet, the BBC ‘took over’ Green Park tube station in London
* I did some work for Buglife on Swanscombe in 2021 but these are my own views
**Wilson was often compared to Charles Darwin for his insights, and along with ecologist Tom Lovejoy, was credited with inventing the term ‘biodiversity’. Wilson died on 26 December 2021, Lovejoy on Christmas Day 2021.
Have you seen Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’, a satirical story about what happens when a ‘planet-killing’ asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with earth? If not, I recommend it to campaigners, if only because it might become a widespread cultural reference point for climate change, without climate change ever getting a mention in the film.
News of the impending end of the world gets a positive spin on mainstream news
With an A-list cast, the film parallels many of the stages of human reaction following the scientific ‘discovery’ of human induced climate change in the 1980s, including denial, obfuscation, prevarication, political and commercial exploitation and so on, right up to today’s billionaire dreams of escape into space.
Stripped of the asteroid plot flesh, the narrative skeleton of Don’t Look Up is a potted history of climate change in terms of motivated reasoning in the political and media response to climate science. That makes it very different from previous attempts to take climate change to the big screen, by either attempting to explain the science or bring to life one or another possible future. It seems to me that Don’t Look Up has the potential to make a real difference but first, a recap.
The Scientists: “This Is Our Story!”
After a limited theatrical release in the US on 10 December the film appeared on Netflix on 24 December where it has since been the most watched movie. Movie critics described it as a black-comedy, a disaster movie, science fiction, comedy or satire. Some panned it (see below) but climate scientists and campaigners have loved it.
The first effect it had on me was that it brought back that horrible feeling you get when it suddenly dawns on you that humanity faces a huge threat which most others are blissfully unaware of: a sensation I remember having more than once as a campaigner, and then immediately feeling “we must do something about this but how?” The second was to think if that’s how it affected me, then this really is about others who have spent almost the whole of their working life struggling to convince others to act on the ‘climate science’. I tweeted:
Soon a succession of social media posts and articles showed a growing number of scientists and campaigners recognizing it as a pretty faithful analogue of their own experience in trying to get society to respond to ‘the climate science’.
No surprise because as it turns out, Director Adam McKay and collaborator David Sirota were motivated to make Don’t Look Up by through frustration with the lack of media and political attention given to the climate crisis, and McKay spent a lot of time talking to climate scientists about their perspectives in order to write the film.
“I started talking to a lot of [climate] scientists. I kept looking for good news, and I never got it. Everything I was hearing was worse than what I was hearing on the mainstream media. So I was talking to [David Sirota, who asked him to write the film], and we were both just like, “can you believe that this isn’t being covered in the media? That it’s being pushed to the end of the story? That there’s no headlines?” And Sirota just offhandedly said, “it’s like a comet is heading to Earth and it’s going to destroy us all and no one cares.” And I was like, “that’s the idea!”
Author of the New Climate War climate scientist Michael Mann took to the columns of The Boston Globe and twitter to promote the film and was credited with being the inspiration for Leonardo di Caprio’s astronomer character, Randall Mindy. On 29 December another climate scientist, Peter Klamus, wrote in The Guardian that it’s ‘the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen’.
(@neiltyson is an astrophysicist)
What The Reviews Said
Reviews were ‘mixed’. Many of those most cross about the film took issue with it because they did not think, or could see how it would ‘make a difference’. So although entangled with their views about the film-making technique, professional reviewers became amateur political scientists and campaigners.
On 8 December 2021 The Guardian title a review, ‘Slapstick Apocalypse According To DiCaprio and Lawrence …’ and the reviewer (on my browser it has appeared under two different names) wrote
‘Adam McKay’s laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire Don’t Look Up is like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession, which McKay co-produces, nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require. It is as if the sheer unthinkability of the crisis can only be contained and represented in self-aware slapstick mode ..”
and so it went on, although it did end with: ‘… But if the movie helps to do something about climate change, such critical objections are unimportant’.
‘It’s hard to think about who, exactly, is going to be moved to make changes to how they live their lives by Don’t Look Up, a climate-change allegory that acquired accidental COVID-19 relevance, but that doesn’t really end up being about much at all, beyond that humanity sucks.’
A slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays… This might have been great fun if it had been executed with some respect for our intelligence, and for the power of sharpshooting satire, rather than glib nihilism.”
‘In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message… The champions of science must always try to leave politics at the door. Otherwise, the task is not just convincing people that the comet is coming, the planet is rapidly overheating or the vaccine will protect them. It is also forcing huge swathes of the population to accept that a cornerstone of their personal ideology is wrong. And when the comet is this close, there just isn’t time for that’.
The reviews were followed by a small maelstrom of online comment about reviews, between scientists and reviewers, and comment about the comment. Different people have read different things in the film.
In Current Affairs, Nathan J Robinson took issue with the allegation of nihilism writing: ‘The point is not that the working class are sheep who don’t care about the future, but that the rich manipulate people’s perceptions of one another to serve their own self-interest’. On 30 December Forbes magazine carried an appeal by Paul Tassi, ‘The ‘Don’t Look Up’ Critics Versus Scientists Narrative Has To Stop’. Tassi wrote
‘…the success of the movie, compared to its relatively lukewarm reception by critics, has resulted in a pretty bizarre new narrative [apparently referring to arguments between McKay and critics, no doubt online] . The idea is that if critics didn’t like the movie, they must hate its message, the idea that climate change is a clear and present danger to our planet …I do not agree that I must declare that Don’t Look Up is a great film, or else I’m contributing to “damaging” its message, and this view somehow puts me at odds with climate science. That is simply not how this works’.
Well if that’s what’s happening, I am with Tassi on that one but unless the scientists – film maker – critics argument begins to determine the public impact of the film, it perhaps does not matter that much.
How Don’t Look Up May Make A Difference
Here are five reasons.
First, Don’t Look Up is really quite funny. It’s entertaining, it has big stars, and now it’s well known so it’s likely to get watched again, including by people who would might watch a political satire or ‘just’ a disaster movie but would never choose to watch a straight-up documentary on climate change. It can reach a totally different, or at least far wider audience, than AnInconvenient Truth Mark 2 (or 3 if you include the sequel).
Second, it’s well nigh impossible to watch it and not to buy into the thickly-laid-on conceit and narrative of the film – the impending asteroid doom scenario. That in turn makes it hard not to be emotionally on the side of the would-be truth-teller scientists. For me that makes it more of a parable than a straight satire, black comedy or documentary: ‘a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles’, in this case that politicians and the media should take science seriously.
Third in terms of effect, the swayable audience is not those who are dead set against climate action and who might (well) be offended if they recognize themselves in some of the thinly disguised Trumpian characters but those who are neither active deniers nor pro climate activists. For that reason I am not so worried as the CNN reviewer about it alienating audiences.
Fourth, because it is not overtly about climate change, it will be hard for the denier lobby to ‘deal with’. Already some would be critics have tried to attack the ‘science’ in the asteroid story, which just makes them seem ridiculous.
Fifth, the title “Don’t look up” is a brilliant and entirely plausible call to action, or inaction, made possible by the simplicity of the story structure (unlike climate change) in which a straightforward specific danger comes from above. I can imagine “Don’t look up!” becoming a cipher for evidence-denial, a cultural reference point heard in places from pub conversations to newsrooms and Parliamentary or Presidential debates, even in public demonstrations. It will be understood by politicians and media.
The aviation industry and airlines in particular have had a pretty free-ride on climate change so far but the covid pandemic has created a new reality: it turned out that most air travel for business was not needed. The economic case for air travel and thus airport capacity and pubic subsidies to airlines, has been severely weakened and it’s the attitude of corporate customers rather than airlines that will be key deciding any post-covid ‘new normal’.
On top of that, a significant side-effect of the near-shut down of passenger aviation, is the revelation that FFPs or Frequent Flier Programmes are critical to the economics of many airlines*. Sometimes they are worth more than the transport activity of flying passengers. This was covered in the financial press but seems not to have filtered through to political thinking on transport.
In other words, aviation Business as Usual is being sustained by a marketing exercise, which extends to hundreds of banks and retailers outside aviation. So far this seems to have escaped any scrutiny in terms of carbon accounting. One professional in the business travel industry who is concerned about climate change said to me that allowing FFPs in the context of a Climate Emergency is “equivalent to promoting Frequent Smoker Programmes”.
Should they chose to use it, this new context provides climate change-makers with a golden opportunity, and not just around the coming COP26 climate summit.
The Great Grounding Experiment
Flying for business was running hot before covid struck in early 2020. Since then it has reduced 70 – 90%, yet business itself has continued. The pandemic created what was otherwise impossible: a vast experiment in interruption of a behaviour so taken for granted and unquestioned that stopping it would have seemed, unthinkable.
The rapid replacement of air travel with Zoom, MS Teams and dozens of other digital communications tools, coupled with lock-down working from home, has fast-tracked change that otherwise might have taken decades. This has gone on long enough for the new behaviours to spread to all levels in companies and across sectors and countries. Like climate change itself, it’s become a new ‘social fact’, and video-conferencing may be to aviation what renewables have been to fossil fuels.
Those in the behaviour change business, from social marketers to market entrants with new products, know only too well that it’s very hard to stop an established behaviour but once a new one becomes a habit, it’s rarely reversed. The extended covid great-grounding has revealed the potential for business benefits, such as huge reductions in T&E (Travel and Expenses) budgets and greater productivity. Where these coincide with a desire to ‘be green’, corporates have unexpected headroom in cutting carbon.
This is pretty much unassailable evidence of feasibility, far stronger than arguments, modelling scenarios, proof-of-concept pilot studies or campaign demonstrations. The only question is how much of this windfall will be retained, and that partly depends on what advocates and politicians do.
“Now is the time for responsible companies to commit to keeping their business-travel carbon emissions way below pre-covid levels. We will also ask them to rethink any involvement in frequent flier programmes. This is climate action that the corporate world can lead on, quickly and easily: it’s already been market-tested”.
Jump On A Zoom, Not On A Plane
The international business travel world has been awash with discussions about what the ‘new normal’ for air travel will look like ‘after Covid’.
Bill Gates sparked a vigorous debate when he opined that 50% of it will never return. This matches the long-standing weary acceptance in many organisations that ‘half of it is un-necessary’. See for instance this interesting podcast from Business Travel News. Guesstimates vary (eg Ideaworks are more bullish about recovery, putting permanent losses at ‘just’ 19 – 36%) and I’m told that executives at London Heathrow are expecting any recovery to take at least two to three years. Lufthansa also says not until 2024.
Supplier sectors like training have been almost completely substituted by video-conferencing and in some businesses intra-company meetings, presentations and project work have been systematically replaced. Releasing budget (only 17% of an ‘average’ business travel budget is the actual air-ticket cost) and saving staff time spent traveling to, from and recovering from international trips, is increasing productivity.
What is certain is that as legacy carriers in particular rely on the higher spend of business travel for much of their profit, their viability and that of the associated sector of business-focused hotels, exhibitions and conference centres are deeply affected. Only about a fifth of passenger air travel is for business but it makes up around three quarters of the profits.
The first lockdowns brought a ‘Spring of Zoom’ (or more often, Teams), giving many senior managers their first taste of self-controlled remote-working. Their “it actually works!” experience happened at the same time as many costly city-centre offices were running almost empty and new commercial office developments were being postponed: mutual reinforcement for the idea that ‘things really will be different’.
After experiencing a switch to online board meetings, Maurice Gallagher, chairman and CEO of Allegiant Travel Company acknowledged that video is a “viable alternative to business travel”. He told shareholders:
“streaming capabilities from companies such as Zoom, Googleand Microsoft have come into their own …
“Just like all things new, there were problems in the first few tries but when you have to use it, when you have no choice, you figure it out … I now appreciate the tremendous savings of time and additional productivity”
He added that unlike past episodes of reduced air travel, this time senior executives “understand the power of this technology and appreciate the ability to reduce travel and entertainment expenses in the coming months and years … Conferences and trade shows still have merit and there are businesses who believe face-to-face meetings are critical competitive requirements” but financial savings and greater productivity “has to have an impact on the return of business travel”.
The top 100 business travellers by company – from Business Travel News based on air tickets bought in the US.
The top 10 biggest corporate fliers listed above are all in the digital and knowledge economy, such as consulting, in which face-to-face contact was assumed to be vital but much of it turns out not to be. The carbon footprints of these companies are largely made up of indirect or ‘Scope 3’ emissions, such as business travel.
Many of the companies on this list also have specific carbon-reduction targets. Some have targets that break out or specify business travel reductions.
Deloitte is among the 43 companies for example, listing ‘business travel’ as a component in their commitments to meet a ‘1.5C’ climate target submitted under the SBTI or Science Based Targets Initiative. 271 companies appear on the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) ‘A List’ for climate commitments, for example including Apple, Bayer, Pfizer, Microsoft and Unilever. Over 30 companies have joined the Climate Pledge to achieve net zero ahead of the Paris requirement, initiated by Amazon and Global Optimism. This includes Atos, Brooks, Canary Wharf Group, Coca-Cola European Partners, ERM, Groupe SEB France, Harbour Air, ITV, Microsoft, Neste, Rubicon, Unilever, and Vaude.
In short, the corporates leading the charge on climate are now in a good position to consolidate the climate-dividend of the covid grounding and break the trend of rising emissions from business travel. And in a bad position not to do so.
The covid grounding effect has landed on top an existing trend to factor in sustainability in corporate Travel Policies. Numerous blogs, statements and surveys in the business travel sector note that while, spend on business travel had reached record levels, it was already widely accepted that one of the main future drivers would be sustainability. Before the 2009 Copenhagen climate COP, Paul Tillstone of travel company Festive Road which advocates ‘purposeful travel’, started ‘Project Icarus’ which tried to get the business travel industry to address climate change. Following the 2008 financial crash such initiatives fell off the corporate agenda but the general agreement is this time it’s different.
He and other travel management experts take part in CACTUS (Climate Action for Corporate Travel Urgent Solutions group), launched by Helen Hodgkinson, formerly of Barclaycard, which has engaged corporate travel customers on issues such as setting carbon budgets for travel.
Greta Thunberg’s leadership of the climate movement in 2018-19 has been credited as stimulating corporate action. A retrospective on 2019 in Harvard Business Review stated:
‘another critical protest movement that grew this year came from employees. More than 8,700 Amazon associates signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the company develop an aggressive climate action plan. Microsoft employees staged a walk-out in September to protest the company’s “complicity in the climate crisis.” Companies that want to attract and retain the best talent must have a strong climate strategy’.
Total business travel spend for the largest 100 corporate travel programs measured by U.S.-booked travel volume rose again in 2019. U.S.-originating travel as estimated by BTN for these programs hit $11.8 billion, its highest point ever.
… Deloitte again captured the top spot in BTN’s annual list with $583.1 million in U.S.-originating air spend …
She added that:
There was just one trend other than managing through the Covid-19 crisis that dominated the psychology of Corporate Travel 100 companies in 2019 and 2020: How to make business travel more environmentally sustainable. Even for companies that significantly expanded their travel spend in 2019—like Deloitte and EY and Microsoft—the drive to reduce emissions was palpable among these large global corporations.
EY is looking to cut net carbon emissions to zero by the end of 2020; the Covid-19 crisis and travel suspension will likely contribute handily … Oracle has implemented a stringent policy that limits employee travel to “business-critical” trips. Likewise, Dell’s travel strategy also now puts a much heavier emphasis on meeting the company’s longer-term sustainability goals.
She goes on to mention Siemens, Novartis, SAP and Citibank, concluding: “ The message from global companies is clear on the sustainability issue: Business travel may be largely suspended for now, but when it comes back, it’s going to look different”.
‘But It’s A Perk’
George Clooney in the movie Up in the Air. [Photograph: Allstar/Dreamworks pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd]
In the 2009 Hollywood movie ‘Up In The Air’ George Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a specialist in firing people in corporate restructures, who rarely stops flying. He ‘aspires to earn ten million frequent flyermiles with American Airlines’. Romance and tragedies are precipitated when Bingham is challenged by younger exec Natalie Keener who advocates cost-cutting through video-conferences.
Until recently, air travel was seen as in the “too difficult box”: a hard to change ‘perk’ on the one hand and assumed to be critical for winning new business, project management, auditing and other vital functions. Yet companies have survived managed without it.
True, some corporate executives will rail against any loss of business flying perks. One in a vast multinational told me:
For senior execs, as a generalization, traveling on business is a defining feature of their life. … Not being on a plane twice a week is really denting their identity. A senior XXXX guy in Singapore told me half jokingly that as soon as they reopened Australia he would go there to meet customers, even though customers didn’t want to meet in person and he may have to do it over Zoom from a hotel room in Sydney. These guys aren’t used to spending time at home with families, it’s just not who they are [of course some will love it, but I think many don’t].
Yet such changes can be achieved. It’s largely forgotten now but in the UK at least, any suggestion that corporates might change their car fleets for environmental reasons used to be met with the ‘perk’ argument: a company car formed part of the remuneration package, from top exec’s to ‘travelling salesmen’. But the tax rules got changed and company car fleets, and remuneration packages changed.
Pivotal to flying for business as a perk, is membership of a ‘Frequent Flier Programme’. Anyone can join one and you may not even need to do any flying these days but it tends to be people flying for business who are the most ‘frequent fliers’.
At present most companies (German ones possible excepted?) allow staff flying on tickets paid for by the company, to keep the ‘points’ or ‘miles’ generated by individual membership in FFPs or Frequent Flying Programmes, which all airlines seem to have. (Technically, the points are probably the property of the company paying for them). The top 100 airline loyalty programs are together worth around $200 billion.
FFPs are a fascinating case study in brand extension and clever marketing incentives which play on social reflexes established in the ‘jet set’ age of the 1960s and 1970s as mass air travel took off: creating a feeling of exclusivity.
To begin with (1970s) FFPs were simple loyalty programmes – you could redeem points and generate a new air ticket. Over time, airlines changed the value of miles so you had to fly more to ‘earn’ a ticket and also over time, they became ways of generating cash more than loyalty. ‘Partners’ such as banks (which issue airline-branded credit cards commanding a premium) and a host of other companies from fashion to electronics, provided deals and discounts to FFP members in which they can ‘redeem’ points against almost anything, from food and drink, to luxury goods, petrol or hotel rooms.
FFPs enable members to access a host of small esteem-generating advantages in the stressful and annoying airport environment hosted by airlines: priority boarding, access to lounges, upgrades, easier changes to tickets etc., even in an extreme case, a limousine to ferry you to the aircraft. Today it’s said the ‘real value’ lies in acquiring personal data, and the most valuable data is from people who fly a lot, as they are generally the wealthiest. Apparently people are more willing in the air travel environment to share data in order to get ‘free perks’ than they would be in the normal world.
The remarkable thing about FFPs (which are usually owned not by an airline but within an airline group, such as Avios which is part of the IAG group which also owns British Airways) is that they can now have a higher market value than the flying business of the airline. This only emerged because airlines facing bankruptcy once flights were grounded by covid, had to use the value of their FFPs as collateral, in order to raise loans from governments and the markets. Papers filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission by Delta and United laid out the ‘licence-to-print-money’ financial model of the FFPs, which are akin to a private currency whose value and exchange rate is set by the airlines, in great detail.
“The profitability and the size of these loyalty programmes, it’s the only reason American Airlines isn’t in bankruptcy right now,” Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi told the FT in 2020. The FT noted that MileagePlus, the United FFP, ‘was valued at just under $22bn in bond documents, while United’s stock market capitalisation is just $10.6bn’, and:
‘Valuations recently put on the loyalty schemes have exceeded the market capitalisations for the airlines themselves — implying that investors value the business of flying passengers at less than zero’.
In October 2020 Bloomberg reported that JP Morgan announced it was working with Affinity Capital Exchange to enable investments in FFPs be traded as an asset class.
Many corporates act as ‘Partners’, buying and then giving away ‘miles’ or ‘points’ (and seats) as incentives. These include many banks and hundreds of other companies. The British Airways online points shop for instance includes 158 brands such as Dell, GAP, Gucci, Harvey Nichols, John Lewis, Microsoft, Oakley, Tommy Hilfiger and Vodafone. The Quantas points store features over 500 brands including Apple, Bang and Olufsen, Bosch, Calvin Klein, Google, Lego, National Geographic, Penguin, Sony, Swarovski and XBOX. And so it goes on. All these companies are not only profiting from frequent flying but lend the soft-power of their brands to the aviation industry. Many of course have their own carbon reduction policies, yet are complicit in promotion of frequent flying.
Some of the brands supporting frequent flying with the IAG Avios currency (issued by British Airways, Iberia and Are Lingus but usable on 27 airlines)
What does this mean? Perhaps that without FFPs, a large part of the passenger aviation business would evaporate.
Which for the climate and thus the great majority of people on the planet who are not ‘frequent fliers’, could be a very good thing. The airlines don’t want that, and nor do the participating banks who make a ‘staggering’ profit on cards glossed with a flying-brand [see a scathing recent analysis of airlines skirting bankruptcy by industry analyst Hubert Horan in the journal American Affairs].
Global air travel is not a huge contributor to climate change (about 3.5%) but as other sectors decarbonize, it is becoming one. Business travel is a small part of recent air travel but it is pivotal to the profitability of the current model. And the freedom to jump-on-a-plane and go without a care, is a legacy of petrol-head days.
Faced with the climate crisis, the strategy of the aviation industry has been to re-assert old assumptions about the value-add of air travel for businesses to maintain political commitment, while framing possible solutions in technical terms: wait for new engines, new aircraft, new fuels.
At a global level the sector has committed itself to a strategy of PR promises that multiple analysts have recognized it cannot keep [eg Evan Davis, BBC] . That worked, until the great covid grounding but the new reality has now shifted who gets to decide.
The airline industry is starting to look a bit ‘stranded’, rather like fossil fuel assets. Carbon is now on the agenda of Chief Financial Officers through initiatives like the TFCD (Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures), itself a creature of the G20’s Financial Stability Board. In February 2020 it had the support of over 1,000 organisations from financial management companies to governments and central banks. A year later that had grown to 1,700. It would be interesting to listen in to what the TCFD makes of businesses like FFPs. Politicians may have yet to grasp the scale and depth of what has happened but it’s the airline’s corporate customers who may decide what happens next.
single aircraft during the first UK lockdown in March 2020
*This surprised me. In the interests of disclosure, I started looking into flying-for-business late last year because the Brussels-based group Transport and Environment asked me to, as it had spotted the potential to realise significant reductions in emissions from business travel. (This ‘T & E’ is Europe’s expert network on environment and transport matters, and were the first to spot ‘dieselgate’, the emissions-test cheating by companies such as VW). You can contact Andrew Murphy of T & E here.
True to form the UK (England) badger-TB issue has repeated its familiar cycle since I wrote this blog in December 2020. A new govt consultation is due to close on 24 March. When it was briefed to the media, the government managed to make it sound as if badger culling was being abandoned in 2022, in favour of vaccination of cattle and badgers, and control of cattle movements. in reality, as The Wildlife Trusts have pointed out, the proposal allows badger killing to continue until 2026 and ‘could see the death of 130,000 more badgers in England’.
What do you do with a long-running campaign that’s got stuck ? The English civil war over badger-culling and TB in cattle is one such case: an issue trapped in attrition and trench-warfare.
It’s a long running struggle, going back at least to 1971 when a dead badger was found in the West of England, infected with bovine TB. Because culling (shooting, trapping or gassing) badgers was proposed very quickly, animal welfare groups soon adopted an anti-cull position, and farmers a pro-cull position. Each side has since tried to prove themselves right, leaving fewer and fewer people in ‘the middle ground’.
Politicians immediately detected a tricky public communications issue: it could boil down to a popularity contest between farmers and badgers; a competition they did not want to have to oversee. So they looked to ‘Science’ to decide. A series of ‘Scientific Reviews’ were held – at least seven major ones to date and many Parliamentary and other Inquiries (see Chronology).
Scientists found it was all very complicated and the narrow question that politicians wanted answers to – ‘can badger culling stop TB in cattle’ ? – was not at all easy to answer because it was not clear how much TB was passing from cattle to badgers and vice-versa and within the cattle herds and within the badger population, and what effect that had on cattle TB. These questions have arguably still not been completely answered but scientific opinion is overwhelmingly that culling cannot eliminate TB, whereas cattle movement and health controls and biosecurity measures probably can, and only perhaps 0-6% of TB in cattle is directly passed to them by badgers (see supporting documents and particularly Science).
As a result, the battling factions of farmers on one side, and animal welfare groups, and conservationists on the other, have fought almost to a standstill over an issue which converts in the media to ‘who is to blame for TB in cattle: is it farmers or badgers?’ Both lobbies exchange fire using scientific research as ammunition. Often the same research has been used to draw diametrically opposed conclusions.
Involved scientists include those who believe they could yet sort it out if only politicians and the opposed lobbies stayed out of things, and those who plaintively try to tell politicians that it’s a question of value-judgements, which science as such cannot answer. Politicians of course know this but it’s not something they want to hear, and not something governments have to hear, so the various independent expert panels have been set up and then abolished. In this respect it is very like long-running science-heavy arguments over subjects such as GMOs or even aspects of contemporary Covid strategy.
So almost every year (see Chronology), the two sides mount new offensives and counter-offensives but like opposing armies deadlocked on the Western Front of World War One, neither scores a decisive victory.
Change of Strategy
Barring a sudden technical breakthrough such as widespread deployment of effective vaccines for cattle or badgers, neither of which looks imminent, unless there is a change in strategy, the stalemate seems likely to continue.
In this post (more detail in supporting papers) I argue that the best option for wildlife groups is to ‘go up a scale’ and refocus and reframe their efforts on not just on TB in badgers and cattle but in terms of the de-escalation of conventional (intensive) cattle farming itself.
In particular this means dairy farming, which has become progressively more intensive, larger-scale and more polluting, over the period of the cattle-badger TB issue. Strangely, although it is accepted that many elements of intensification are causes of higher TB in cattle (such as contaminated slurry, larger herds kept indoors, maize growing for feed, leaking silage and frequent movements of large numbers of cattle with inadequate testing), this has hardly been considered as a cause of England’s ‘intractable’ cattle TB problem. Successive Conservative Ministers and the National Farmers Union have fixed on attacking badgers as the cause instead.
Many aspects of those intensive farming elements are undisputed causes of damage to public goods’ such as healthy air, soil or water as well as known risk factors for TB. The global imperative to cut climate-heating gases from livestock farming and cattle provides an additional imperative to downsize cattle farming in favour of rewilding, biodiversity, ecosystem regeneration and a more plant-based diet.
Badgers were gassed with cyanide by the Ministry of Agriculture until it was ruled inhumane when it was discovered that they did not die quickly like rabbits – cover from ECOS magazine 1981. Shooting them with rifles above ground was substituted, and continues despite the fact that a scientific appraisal found it also to be inhumane (see Chronology).
A Long Running Policy Failure
England’s country’s chronic bovine TB problem has eluded government attempts at eradication since the 1930s. It almost succeeded when by using the agricultural equivalents of ‘test track trace and isolate’ now familiar with coronavirus (only with slaughter thrown in for infected livestock, which is frustrating and upsetting for farmers) all of the UK was declared free from cattle TB in 1960. The disease fell to just 0.6% in 1965.
Transfer of TB from cattle to the human UK population was effectively stopped by meat inspection and milk treatment by the 1960s but TB was never eliminated from the national cattle herd. Controls were relaxed and it slowly started to regrow from a small chronically infected areas including but not only at West Penwith, near the SW tip of Cornwall.
Slaughter of TB-infected UK cattle 1956 – 2017 (Source RSPCA) ‘reactors’ = cattle reacting to a test. Numbers slaughtered blue line, testing positive red line.
Then in 1971, vets discovered a dead badger with TB in Gloucestershire. Badgers were suggested as a ‘maintenance reservoir’ of the disease in wildlife, which might be infected-by and reinfect cattle. Many farmers and landowners had long regarded badgers as pests and vermin, and from 1973 fell in behind killing (‘culling’) badgers, often with enthusiasm. It was widely assumed that badgers must be the reason why TB in cattle had not been eliminated, and while the previously conventional tools of movement control, testing and sanitation on farms were never completely forgotten, culling badgers became the default ‘missing ingredient’ of policy.
So what had been seen as a human health and agricultural disease problem, became reframed as a farming and wildlife problem. The current campaign battle-lines were established.
A research and management policy community developed in which farm vets, animal disease epidemiologists and microbiologists were joined by academic ecologists and zoologists. Government began what would become a long series of badger culls and research projects to establish whether or not culling ‘worked’ or could work but the meaning of the results was contested. One reason for this was that most of the ‘research’ projects served a political dual purpose of also being badger ‘control’ and so very few were designed in such a way as to be properly controlled or rule out ‘confounding’ factors or auto-correlations.
Some government scientists and most politicians became implicit or explicit proponents of culling. They saw research as a way to test how culling could best work, as opposed to whether it worked at all or alternatives might be better.
To begin with the default was ‘reactive’ culling, meaning culling in response to problems with TB in cattle herds. Nevertheless, TB rates in cattle increased. A 1997 review led by ecologist Professor John Krebs recommended what became a ten-year scientific trial to test the effectiveness of reactive or proactive badger culling against non-intervention controls: the RBCT or Randomized Badger Culling Trial. An ‘Independent Scientific Group’ (ISG) led by Professor John Bourne ran the RBCT and it was soon found that ‘reactive’ culling made matters worse not better because it disrupted badger society and increased TB. In 2007 the ISG reported:
‘‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’’ and ‘scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone’.
‘There was a very definite view from the outset that future policy was going to be the reactive culling. That was it. And when it was shown that it was not gonna work there was all hell let loose’’.
Culling itself was shown to disrupt badger communities (‘perturbation’), and although rates of infection in badgers fell inside the cull area, they went up outside it. Meanwhile TB rates in English cattle went on rising and the ‘pro-badger’ camp started to promote badger vaccination, which had first been raised as an idea by vets back in 1971.
TB in cattle spread after the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic, when cattle carrying TB were used to restock areas such as the Midlands and Cumbria (Source)
After many twists and turns (see Chronology), by a process of campaign focus, political polarisation (with Britain’s Labour Party becoming pro-vaccine, anti-cull and Conservative governments resolutely pro-cull), fierce pro-cull lobbying by the NFU as the champion of the farming side, and media simplification, ‘the issue’ was boiled down to the current bipolar framing of ‘culling versus vaccination’. Positions became entrenched, deadlocked like the Western Front of WWI.
The Western Front in WWI left and English battle lines on TB in 2016 right. Derbyshire, the site of one of the latest clashes, is at the top right corner of the ochre coloured zone (Wikipedia and APHA).
Over time, the weight of scientific opinion among first ecologists, and then vets, shifted against the idea that badger culling could be effective and humane in eliminating TB in cattle. Many studies continued to show that most transmission was down to TB spreading within cattle herds and by cattle movements but the political influence of farmers on Conservative governments meant that culling continued on the grounds that badgers played some role, even if this was hard to quantify, and any subsequent reduction in cattle TB was even harder to pin down.
Alternatives to culling have been side-lined by the pragmatic government imperative of trying to suppress the disease while appeasing both sides of the debate in public. Aside from a short interlude under a Labour Government which favoured vaccination over culling, government has bowed to farming pressure and continued killing badgers.
The stand-off has gone on so long that the issue now also has its own historians. Many have pointed out, as did the government-commissioned 2018 Godfray Review, that the fixation on badgers has largely excluded policy options of sanitation, biosecurity and husbandry which successfully controlled cattle TB in other countries (and until the 1970s, in the UK).
Currently the government policy is to intermittently cull badgers, back development of a usable cattle vaccine, and allow but not seriously pursue badger vaccination, leaving that to mostly to NGOs such as the Wildlife Trusts. There is little TB in Scotland, and Wales has switched to badger vaccination, while England’s government (confusingly the ‘UK’ Westminster government) has steered itself into an uncomfortable no-man’s land between the two dug-in camps. Because culling and vaccination are often in conflict, this has sent conflicting signals and led to criticism of the government and legal actions against it by both sides.
Badgers are popular animals in the UK and the issue is sometimes hard to ignore. In 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself got involved and intervened to restrict a cull in Derbyshire after being lobbied by his now wife, conservationist Carrie Symonds, because of a Derbyshire Wildlife Trust vaccination project (see document on vaccination).
In March 2020 Johnson’s government announced a ‘shift’ in policy to phase out culling in favour of badger vaccination, and in July 2020 it hailed a ‘scientific breakthrough’ of a test which could enable a cattle vaccine to be used (a test is needed which can distinguish between infected and vaccinated cattle, otherwise they cannot be exported). Then in September, it suddenly announced a new and much larger cull of over 60,000 badgers, taking the number sanctioned to be killed since 2013 to 170,000, or 35% of all badgers in the UK. Unsurprisingly, it was accused of a u-turn.
A ‘Cultural Divide’
The badger-cattle issue splits opinion across an ancient English cultural divide, about who has the right to determine what happens to wildlife in the countryside: landowners or the public? It’s a proxy conflict for a well-financed but numerically weak landowning and hunting lobby which promotes a largely mythical idea that England divides into ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ tribes with irreconcilably different values (see supporting document on Rural Politics).
In the court of public opinion, the pro-badger lobby wins easily, and politically, farmers are electorally insignificant in population terms, so why hasn’t culling been abandoned or reduced to a relatively minor tool of policy ? For several reasons.
First because farming and landowning interests are heavily over-represented in the policy-making corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. Second, because the ‘popular vote’ counts for nothing in the English electoral system, and in a sprinkling of Britain’s first-past-the-post geographic constituencies, the farming vote is important. Third because the ‘rural’ vote is very important electorally to the Conservative Party and although only 17% of the population live in what are classified as rural areas, they elect all the MPs who can claim to speak on and for ‘rural’ issues. (Polling actually shows that ‘rural people’ are slightly more likely to see ‘animal welfare’ as important than ‘urban’ people but the ‘countryside’ lobby claims the opposite).
This makes for a stand-off of complementary strengths and weaknesses in which the NGOs have mostly won the air war and lost the ground war but neither side has proved able to achieve an outright win. To make matters worse (see Conclusions in the supporting papers), the larger NGOs are shy of taking on agri-business and perhaps intimidated by the NFU, which exploits the myth of rural-urban divides for its own purposes.
Advocating their right to ‘control’ wildlife as a political ideology – the ‘Countryside Alliance’ promotes field sports and badger culling and revels in accentuating perceptions of a rural-urban divide
What Next ?
The pro-badger faction could opt to continue the battle of attrition and hope that a majority Labour government is elected in 2024 (the last one stopped culling and brought in six vaccination trials, five of which were cancelled by an incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition) but there is no guarantee of that. So is there a way to fix the pro-badger campaign?
I suggest that the opportunity for the ‘pro-badger’ side is to step up a scale, shift the battle ground and change the players by putting the badger-TB-cattle issue into a wider frame around the sustainability-or-not of intensive farming and specifically, dairy farming, for three reasons.
First, the progressive narrowing of focus so that TB in cattle is seen as a choice of badger culling v badger vaccination excludes an array of cattle-focused measures which worked before in the UK and abroad. No convincing evidence has been produced to show why the involvement of badgers means these measures cannot work now. They need to be revisited.
Second, the same restricted political lens means that ‘the badger/ cattle TB issue’ also routinely excludes a nexus of intensification factors which changed farming fundamentally. The UK joined the EU in 1973, and farm intensification was encouraged by government in order to cash in on the Common Agricultural Policy of the time. At the same moment, bovine TB had just started to bounce back (see Farm Intensification and Science and TB papers). Land use change and farming practice very possibly made cattle farming, and especially dairy farming, more susceptible to TB. Geographically, dairy intensification has involved specialisation and concentration. At a farm enterprise level it has brought conversion of hay meadows to silage, indoor and ever larger herds, massive slurry production and maize-growing. (See paper on Farm Intensification). All these are known risk factors encouraging TB but by default, are little investigated because egged on by the National Farmers Union, badgers have been nailed as the villains of the TB story by politicians.
Third and perhaps most important, the cattle TB issue is isolated in its own little silo. It’s not being ‘joined up’ to other issues where there are bigger and urgent political imperatives in play which at least nominally, are now accepted by the current UK Government. The top one is that acting on climate targets demands a radical change in farming and diet, including less dairy and less beef, meaning fewer cattle, and requires land for carbon sequestration.
In addition many Conservatives and others support more rewilding, a shift from farm subsidy to payment for delivering public goods (eg clean rivers, in which respect farm pollution is a current disaster in England), rather than just paying farmers to produce more crops and meat, or simply exist as a farm. These aims have been advocated by influential Cabinet Minister Michael Gove since 2018, and are now expressed in new Environment and Agriculture Bills and a Plan to overhaul farming.
In short, the ‘productivist’ model which lives on as the assumed purpose behind both subsidising cattle farming and culling badgers is, to put it in political terms, already subject to radical revision. It’s a weak door, if NGOs have the nerve to kick it.
Strategic elements that could be drawn into this include:
The policy imperative, already embraced by the UK Government, of achieving net zero carbon by 2050, which requires radical changes in farming practice and diet, particularly regarding beef and dairy
The COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in 2021
The parallel commitment to ‘rebuilding biodiversity’ and the popularity of rewilding, which could quickly take high risk areas with persistent recurrences of TB out of conventional dairy farming altogether
The chronic and extreme river, groundwater caused by large volumes of slurry from livestock and particularly intensive lowland dairy farms, which have been getting bigger and fewer
Severe damage to soils and to rivers and even the sea (as soil runoff), resulting from heavy machinery and crops such as maize, which is grown either for silage, particularly for dairy cows (replacing hay), or for subsidised AD (Anaerobic Digestion) for renewable energy but which has disputed green credentials
The growing importance of air pollution from intensive farming, particularly from ammonia emissions from dairying and poultry, which is damaging to public health
The government’s radical plans to reform farming so that subsidy is only paid for ‘public goods, ie public benefits such as flood reduction, clean air and water, increased biodiversity and cutting climate change emissions (dairying is one of UK farming’s most profitable sectors but it is still heavily subsidised)
The shift in consumer demand from liquid milk and beef to plant-based alternatives
All of these points are already actively in play in other policy fora and communities. Put together, they could redefine the political question from ‘how do we eliminate bovine TB in badgers and cattle to help the cattle industry produce more cheap meat and milk?’ to ‘how do we maximise public goods from the land currently used for cattle farming?’. The underlying predicate switches from ‘we need to promote cattle farming’ to ‘we need to reduce cattle farming’.
In 2020 former DEFRA Chief Scientist Ian Boyd (a sceptic of badger vaccination) argued (see Chronology) that the UK needs to convert half its farmland to other uses such as carbon storage for climate reasons, for health and recreation and biodiversity recovery and that half of all farming is not viable without subsidy. “Moving to the Lancet Diet” (a 50% cut in meat) will “have to be done” and on current trends and with these drivers we would “take most cattle farming out of production”. So, he asked, given that bovine TB is a disease of cattle and people are “the transferers of the disease” through moving cattle, “if the whole point is to protect cattle and [very few] cattle [will be] left, then why are we culling badgers?” In these circumstances “living with TB is a much more attractive option”.
Campaigning on elements such as those above could reframe the issue so that it exposes the assumptions that still underly current policy, such as the idea that dairying is an essentially a benign activity and that farm intensification is in the public interest.
In terms of the long-running stalemate involving the small policy community immersed in arcane arguments about cattle/badger TB transmission, it would lend heavyweight reinforcement in the shape of bigger policy drivers and engage a wider community.
Many of the above elements could be directly translated into specific tactical objectives which campaigns could use as specific ‘can-openers’.
Finally, for campaigners who struggle to convert the techy world of improving agricultural sustainability into terms that can immediately engage the public, the opportunity to do so in ways that also stop the unjustified slaughter of thousands of badgers – the closest Britain has to living Teddy Bears – could also be interesting.
Culled – ie shot – Eurasian badgers in the UK Photo @BadgerCrowd
Account of a badger funeral, from The Badger, Ernest Neal, Collins New Naturalist, 1948: