Activism & Volunteering

The Golden Fist and the Crippled Voice: Unification and Persuasion - Why Advocacy is Failing

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This article is the second in a series authored by Luke Kemp, looking at how the environmental movement could and should reform to learn from their enemies and achieve environmental justice. The first two articles look at the problems surrounding the current approaches of activism and advocacy, and the final articles will look at the lessons that can be learned from the very organisations the movement works against.

Advocacy and lobbying for the environment has potential; but currently in this battle Goliath is crushing a self-defeating David.

Democracy has been smashed open by a golden fist. Economic power and social skills have become influence within politics- an influence that often shapes the fate of nations as much as, if not more than the will of the people does.

Naturally, the intrusion of the golden fist of vested interests is something that most of us lament about. But we should keep in mind that environmental concerns themselves are a type of ‘vested interest’. Interestingly, our environmental advocacy movement has often made good use of lobbying within politics.

downloadClimate change advocates had surprising initial success in pushing for a binding targets and timetables approach rather than a simple ‘pledge and review’ system (which has now, unfortunately, been revived by the US) at the beginning of the UNFCCC climate negotiations. And the fight against “Proposition 23” to repeal previous agreed global warming laws in California was successful. It cost Green groups almost $40 million, but it got the job done.

Yet, despite some battles won, we are losing the war. Emissions trading legislation has been defeated in the US, fixing the carbon price in the EU was vetoed and the Carbon Tax in Australia is being repealed. All of these incidences have the fingerprints of effective corporate - particularly fossil-fuel - lobbying. Why are we being beaten so thoroughly?

The Power of Persuasion

The first, and most obvious reason is a simple imbalance in the power of each side for put pressure on decision makers (i.e. to lobby).

Take monetary power for example; in the US the fossil fuel lobby outspends Green groups by a factor of five.

This is a true David and Goliath battle, but without the happy ending. The fossil fuel lobby is one of the most experienced, ruthless and well-funded advocacy groups, backing up vast monetary resources with an army of some of the oldest and most well-connected lobbyists and networks.

And who can blame them, when lobbying makes good business sense? One recent study found that for every $1 spent on lobbying in the US there was an average return of $220.

Despite the amazing return rate, environmental organisations have often focused on ‘indirect lobbying’ (marketing and advertising) over the direct approach. Why? One clear factor is a moral objection that many members of the environmental movement feel towards traditional lobbying. Most advocates for climate action are well versed in Twitter and ‘media strategy’, rather than in power politics and Machiavelli. I can’t recall the last time I saw any organisers host a ‘social skills and charisma as applied for lobbying’ workshop.

But even where organisations do choose to lobby decision-makers, they fight a losing battle. Even before the economic downturn that has seen non-governmental organisations and campaign groups struggle to maintain their core income stream from public contributions, green groups just never had the power to outspend the fossil fuel lobby.

On top of that, environmental groups face another big barrier: the velvet glove. As I wrote in my last article, whilst environmental concerns remain on voters’ minds, other worries are crowding climate change and environmental justice off the podium. Decision makers know that they don’t need to be pro-environment to win votes or stay in office, leaving lobbyists for the environmental movement without the reinforcement of a groundswell of social pressure.

We lack superiority over our enemies in any of the three key resources for advocacy - economic, social or political power. Our power of persuasion just doesn’t match up to that of our enemies. If that wasn’t bad enough, our strategy has only made things worse.

A Blind Strategy: Fragmentation and Failures

As always, a lack of unity has been a fundamental factor contributing to failure. Noted environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomberg refers to an ‘unholy alliance’ between self-interested green businesses, attention seeking politicians and climate activists. However, his claims really are short on evidence. Instead of (any sort of) alliance to balance the power against Goliath we have seen fragmentation and in-fighting.

Most of the environmental organisations tend to have separate advocates lobbying on separate interests (just check any national lobbyist registry). A pooling of resources rarely happens and cooperation with other industries and groups is rarer still. For most campaign groups, a sense of isolationism and protectionism exists, driven by a need to stand out from the crowd to garner more funding.

In contrast the ‘fossil fuel lobby’ is known as ‘the fossil fuel lobby’ for a reason: they tend to pool their resources and lobbyists together on a consistent and sustained basis. They often employ lobbyists from the same law firms or have their own shared in-house specialists. Despite being industrial competitors they are willing to forget their struggle for market dominance and integrate their forces and messages to influence the political process.

download (1)A typical example is the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN) , otherwise known as the ‘Greenhouse Mafia’, which is a common lobbying body has been instrumental in preventing climate legislation being introduced into Australia, and even (at first) preventing the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

It’s frankly a damning absurdity that industries seeking to maintain profit have been more successful at putting aside their differences and combining their forces than advocacy groups seeking to save Earth from a fiery fate.

Aside from our lack of unity, we have often just made very poor choices in advocacy, often seeking symbolism over substance. In Australia, environmental organisations and the Greens party were overly focused upon how to price carbon rather than increasing our actual emissions reductions targets. It unnecessarily polarised the debate over pricing when we probably could have negotiated bipartisan support for a higher target.

The green lobbyists and politicians were so fixated upon the approach that they forget about the actual goal.

At Copenhagen, and in Cancun the year after, both behind-the-scenes lobbyists as well as activists worked on pushing for a ‘fair, ambitious and legally binding’ deal. Unfortunately, groups failed to go further in presenting a clearly defined message as to what the phrase meant. Even where there was clarity, priorities were confused. ‘Fair’, for example - perceived as the acceptance of ‘common but differentiated responsibility as the basis for any agreement - was often the priority over ambition. China ultimately used the naivety of our messaging as a public shield as they silently knifed the fledgling accord with impunity.

Anyone with even a bit of knowledge around US institutions and politics could tell you that you aren’t going to see the US ratify a binding, progressive deal anytime soon. It would have been much smarter to pressure the EU and China for leadership (probably around a ‘contraction and convergence’ model) and politically isolate the US. Unfortunately it’s a mistake we appear to be intent on making again with the 2015 climate agreement.

For both of our movements- our advocates and our protestors- our moral conviction, passion and urgency blinded our strategy and undermined our deeper interests and the long-term goals and vision we all share.

Too often we’ve ended up sabotaging ourselves. In the halls of power we speak with a crippled voice while facing an enemy that is better resources, better coordinated, and that has become so deeply entrenched within the political system that it will be extremely difficult to now beat it on its own turf.


By this stage I’m sure many readers are left wondering what is left? If mass mobilisation is a dead-end and advocacy is failing us then what can we possibly do?My next two articles will outline a new approach to success that will seek to both reinvigorate our two movements and go beyond them. This vision is built upon one radical notion: that we need to learn from our enemies on the political Right.

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