Green Alliance and I grew up together. We’re both children of the 1970s, a decade which, according to the New Economics Foundation’s happiness index, included Britain’s happiest year, 1976. Though incomes have risen since then, so have environmental impacts and social inequality, hence their argument that Britain peaked in the mid-seventies. I was definitely happy back then, but probably not thinking about all this very much as I bounced about on my space hopper in the back garden.
I hadn’t heard of Green Alliance when, as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I began an essay that would catapult me into my fascinating and frustrating career. I wrote about why climate change was a more difficult problem to solve than ozone depletion, because unlike ozone-depleting chemicals, fossil fuels and greenhouse gases are woven into the fabric of our economic, social and cultural lives. I remember thinking that this, surely, was the ultimate political challenge. The intervening years have proved me right.
A determination to start with the politics
That’s why, in 1996, I headed for Brussels, to work at the European Parliament. I wanted to throw myself into that politics. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that I first encountered Green Alliance, by stumbling upon its website. Under the impressively tech savvy leadership of Julie Hill, it had been one of the first environmental groups to set up a web presence. Having stalked them online, I took the plunge and wrote a letter asking for a job. They took me on, first in the policy team and then, for a few glorious years, as director.
What struck me was Green Alliance’s determination to start with the politics. The default setting of many campaign groups is to shout as loudly as possible, but Green Alliance is different. It gets under the skin. It understands what motivates decision makers, and works with them to find the best way through. This gets results. I remember the discussions which led to the Renewables Obligation, requiring energy suppliers to source a proportion of their supply from renewables, and kickstarting the UK’s fledgling wind industry. We set up the Energy Entrepreneurs network, bringing together a brilliant group of pioneers who were suggesting outlandish things like domestic solar generation, demand response (when your fridge switches off automatically if there is a spike in demand on the grid) and community energy co-operatives to generate and sell power locally. It was hard to get mainstream energy players, or the government, to listen. This sort of stuff was seen as a niche pursuit. Fast forward a few years, and it has become the orthodoxy.
Green Alliance’s tactics depend on others putting on the pressure
Green Alliance’s effectiveness does not mean that other campaigning and influencing strategies aren’t valid. Quite the contrary. Its insider tactics depend on other, more radical organisations piling on the pressure. It’s when politicians know they have a problem that they turn to Green Alliance to help them through. Yet this, the organisation’s biggest strength, could now become a dilemma. As the climate crisis bites, and the impact of our profligate economics on the natural world becomes ever more acute and damaging, I think there will be two challenges that define Green Alliance over the years ahead.
The first is that we can no longer rely on incrementalism, if we ever could. Scientific warnings about climate and ecosystem destruction keep mounting, and the urgency increases with every passing month. The task now is not about brokering, mediation and compromise, all skills that have served Green Alliance well in the past. There are no compromises to be had with the climate. As US climate scientist Bill McKibben put it, “Physics doesn’t negotiate, physics just does”. What is now needed is nothing less than a reset of the purpose and goal of politics itself.
This doesn’t mean that Green Alliance’s tactics, of working closely with politicians and seeing it from their point of view, are now worthless. But it does mean that it must use those skills without diluting the goal, or denying the radical change that is needed.
Policy has to engage people
The second challenge is to overcome the tendency of climate policy, and climate experts, to conduct technical discussions with each other. Experts tend to say what must be done, and expect that people will passively consent to their prescriptions. But climate action will change our lives, and it’s vital that we listen to people, and involve them in the changes ahead. If we’re not careful, climate action could suffer from the wider sweep of anti-expert sentiment, and the destabilisation of established centres of knowledge and power, which are now a central feature of politics. A key finding of my research is the need to design policies which build engagement and public support. Climate Assembly UK, bringing together 100 representative UK citizens to debate how to reach net zero, is a significant step forward, and one that Green Alliance helped bring to life through its work championing deliberative democracy.
The climate crisis is finally attracting headlines, and political attention. Yet there is a huge gap between declarations and substance, with too much debate still focused on target dates, not the actions that such dates imply. And this – the painstaking work of crafting strategies which politicians can champion, which the public can support, and which wean us off our dependence on environmental degradation – is what Green Alliance can excel at. A good example right now is its current Acting on net zero now work.
I’m nervous about the years ahead. The stakes are high. The debates will be less polite, and more fraught. But the future is ours for the making, and I have no doubt that Green Alliance will rise to the challenge.
This post is part of Green Alliance’s 40th anniversary blog series.