Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Climate Change Activism Debate: Jamie Henn vs George Monbiot

Is this the start of a major debate within the climate change activist community? Veteran activist and commentator George Monbiot has been taken to task by the co-founder of climate change campaigning website, Jamie Henn. The debate so far is interesting, not only because it may be the beginning of a debate within the climate change activist community in general, but also because of what it suggests about media strategy and tactics in the fight against global warming - or more specifically, the fight to get governments to act over global warming.  To explain...

Henn's article in the Huffington Post attacks an article of Monbiot's on In the original, Monbiot discussed the poor prospects of any sort of meaningful deal on climate change at the upcoming summit in Mexico in December. Monbiot - not being one to mince his words - argues that, with the failure of Copenhagen and the impending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, "there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth. The response to climate change, which was described by Lord Stern as 'a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen', is the greatest political failure the world has ever seen."

It's not hard to see why Henn would take this personally., founded last year, grew from the Step it Up campaign founded by Bill McKibben in 2007. It exists, according to their website, in order to "create a grassroots movement connected by the web and active all over the world. We will focus on the systemic barriers to climate solutions, changing political dynamics whenever possible. At the same time, we'll get to work implementing real climate solutions in our communities, demonstrating the benefits of moving to a clean energy economy." Just the sort of instrument that George finds lacking in the current Green Movement, then.

To this Henn replies: "I think there is an instrument, but it isn't policy prescriptions or solar panels: it's the Internet." Henn continues: "Thankfully, there's a new movement that's been building up outside and inside the established environmental groups. All around the world, there's a new set of Young (twittering) Turks that are shaking up the status quo and offering a new way forward."

This debate raises questions about the centrality of new media to contemporary political activism, especially within the environmental movement. The 10:10 campaign, founded by McLibel and Age of Stupid director Franny Armstrong, is a good example of the strengths and limitations of this brand of Internet activism. The 10:10 campaign proposes a global day of action on the 10th October 2010 and the idea quickly spread across the world through the power of the Internet. At the same time, beyond creating press coverage, giving celebrities opportunities to demonstrate their green credentials and persuading people to recycle, its potential as a political force is unclear. In Britain it is so radical that David Cameron signed the British government up for it like a shot. How much of an effective or lasting impact will the campaign have on October the 11th? states that "we think the voice of ordinary people will be heard, if it's loud enough." But without an effective political force to channel that voice the danger, surely, is that it will be ignored among thousands of other decentralised and local actions. The Internet may be a useful tool to spread and coordinate activities, but it is surely a mistake to see it of itself as an effective instrument for containing man-made global warming. Monbiot asks "So what do we do now?"  Hyperbole aside, Henn is forced to answer "I don't really know either." 

Henn finishes by asking "we're doing our work, what about you?" This seems a bit rich considering Monbiot's record: founder of The Land is Ours campaign, banned from Indonesia and so on. While he can be a polarising figure his commitment to fighting climate change and finding effective solutions and strategies cannot be denied. Further, he has always championed direct action alongside strategies that aim to work within established political channels.

It will be interesting to see how this conversation pans out.

Finally, to do my bit and spread the word, the video:

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