NGOs and climate change: shall we all just go home?

by | Aug 28, 2009

And so to, the most pointless NGO campaign of the year, upon whom I heaped ridicule earlier this month for their fabulously vague policy position that Copenhagen should produce “an ambitious, fair and binding climate change agreement”. After a period of silence, TckTckTck have now been in touch via email, and have explained that

We’d been waiting for our site to officially launch so that we could point you and your readers to a resource that specifically addresses your questions. The site launched earlier this week, and we’ve put this page together for that purpose.

And so (drum roll), here’s the real policy platform.


– Reduce developed country emissions by at least 40% by 2020.

– Enable and support poor countries to adapt to the worst consequences of the climate crisis, reduce their emissions and ensure technology sharing including through the provision of sufficient public funds.

– Protect marginalized communities in rich and poor countries.


– Ensure that global greenhouse emissions peak no later than 2017.

– Create a pathway to clean jobs and clean energy for all.

– Establish necessary conditions for a sustainable and prosperous future for people, flora and fauna.


– Agree to a legally binding international agreement that can be verified and enforced

Saints preserve us – that’s the detailed policy position?

OK, we do have two pieces of specificity here in the 40% 2020 target (though they forgot to stipulate 1990 as the baseline – a schoolboy error that the Japanese and others will have immense fun with in a few months’ time), and the 2017 peaking date. But where the hell is the global context – the definition of some kind of overarching objective, like a ppm stabilisation target? Where is it explained how we will achieve stabilisation at any level without quantified targets for developing countries – a subject not even alluded to here via the usual unspecific platitudes about common but differentiated responsibilities?

This “policy position” is no more specific than what we had before; instead, it’s simply more verbose.  We have a call for “sufficient public funds” for developing countries, but no number attached to it.  A reference to “a pathway to clean jobs and clean energy for all”, but no tests so that policymakers or members of the public can determine whether any given set of actions is adequate. The motherhood and apple pie of “necessary conditions for a sustainable and prosperous future for people, flora and fauna”, followed a moment later – with no discernible sense of irony – with calls for an agreement “that can be verified and enforced”.

Um, guys, this isn’t any better. TckTckTck will doubtless say in their defence that they’re trying to communicate a highly complex area in a way that will resonate with the public. But the obvious rejoinder to that is that surely the point of this campaign – if there is a point – is to influence negotiators at Copenhagen. And if the policy asks are so vague that negotiators themselves can’t tell whether they’re meeting NGOs’ headline asks, then you can bet your bottom dollar that those NGOs are failing to influence the process in any meaningful way.

I wasn’t the greatest fan of the Make Poverty History campaign.  But at least MPH made damn sure that politicians were aware at every stage exactly what they wanted. Yes, their headline asks were broad brush narratives (“more and better aid”, etc.) – but beneath those headline asks were detailed papers with highly specific, concrete demands. All of us understood that if the Government failed to deliver them, then that fact would be crystal clear to everyone – which, in turn, gave the NGOs’ mass mobilisation real leverage.

If, by contrast, MPH’s policy platform had been this vague, then there would have been nothing to stop any government from doing exactly what it was planning to do anyway, all while claiming to be delivering MPH’s asks. Which, alas, is exactly what will happen at Copenhagen – and why policymakers think the NGOs are irrelevant.  Sure, ministers will meet campaigners to accept their petitions and have their photos taken with them.  But let’s not for one second mistake that for influence.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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