Telling India the hard facts on climate – a lone voice

On climate, campaigners are unbelievably craven when it comes to the big emerging economies. China, in particular, gets treated with kid gloves. Within NGO circles, it is now more or less obligatory to kowtow to Beijing’s domestic track record on clean energy. Which is all very well – but I see absolutely no signs of Chinese leadership internationally (although its track record in the G20 shows how quickly it can pull out its finger when hard economic issues are at stake).

Weakness on China is especially egregious now that the country is above average global per capita emissions. Campaigners should be demanding that China ties itself to a date when its emissions will peak and then to commits to deep cuts by mid-century. (Armed with such a commitment, of course, China itself could then begin to turn the heat up on America – rather than allowing the US congress to bleat about US competitiveness.)

A failure to ask hard questions of China is bad for lower income countries. Not only will they suffer worst as the climate changes, they are going to wake up in ten years’ time to find that most of the global carbon budget for 2 degrees has been spent. Their interests are being sacrificed on the altar of G77 solidarity, with the global NGO community helping sharpen the knife.

The problem is similar, if less extreme, for the world’s other rising powers. Their per capita emissions may be lower than China’s and NGOs less terrified of offending them. But still, a country like India has 17% of the world’s population – which gives it quite a stake in our collective future. It is also massively vulnerable to a changing climate (especially as a lack of water disrupts food production).

Malini Mehra

But yet India is notoriously rubbish at international climate talks. So all the more credit to Malini Mehra, from the Center for Social Markets, for her persistent (and unusual) attempts to shine a light on India’s failings.

“In recent months, India has sought to challenge its image overseas, and in growing quarters at home, as recalcitrant and obstructionist on climate change,” she writes in her latest critique.

“[But] in a showdown this week with the old guard, the reformist environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had to tone down his climate advice to India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Political correctness won, but the loser was India’s climate security.”

Here’s the rest of her analysis: (more…)

Tcktcktck? Tsk tsk tsk

Back in February, I figured that the pre-G20 “Jobs, Justice, Climate” NGO campaign was probably the “pointless NGO campaign of the year”, naively arguing that,

Yes, it’s only February, but it seems pretty unlikely that anything will top this for sheer pointlessness and banality.

Alas, would that it were so.  With 121 days to go until December’s critical UN climate summit, it’s clear that Jobs, Justice, Climate was merely a prototype, a limbering up for the road to Copenhagen.

And so to ““, who profess themselves to be building “the world’s biggest mandate for change”. They’re determined to “show our leaders people are ready for bold climate action, now”. So you might suppose that with that end in mind, they’d have some kind of idea of what constitutes sufficiently “bold climate action, now”.  But you’d be wrong.  Here’s their full policy platform, in glorious technicolour:

“An ambitious, fair and binding climate change agreement.”

That’s it. I tweeted tcktcktck HQ to ask if there was any more than this, and the reply I got said “Bear with us” – this from a campaign whose entire brand is built on the “there’s not a second to lose” vibe.

Not that this lack of specificity has stopped tcktcktck from fanning out in pursuit of its fabulously vague objectives – oh no. Thus for example their “adopt a negotiator” platform:

…as we really want all of our countries to agree to a safe and fair Climate Change treaty in December, we decided to do something about it. That’s why we thought we would Adopt a Negotiator, and follow them through the many meetings, conference and events that they will take part in from now to December…

I asked an actual negotiator whether they had been adopted.  The reply: “Oh yes, them! They seem very nice, but I’m not sure what they actually want.”

Sigh. Welcome to NGO campaigning in 2009 – where it doesn’t matter whether you have anything to say, as long as you’re getting the donations, attention, members and airtime.

Update (28 August) – TckTckTck have just emailed to say:

Thanks for your blog post looking at TckTckTck. 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:

Come on, NGOs, raise your game!

In comments on Jules’s post on the Put People First march, the Bretton Woods Project’s Peter Chowla takes me to task for what he argued was a sloppy and unfair critique of PPF’s policy platform that I made in my own comment on Jules’s post. 

Actually, Peter’s right.  I said PPF had a “shockingly weak policy position: just warmed up leftovers from Make Poverty History”, and that there was almost nothing to it other than the traditional calls for more aid and less conditionality.  In fact, as Peter accurately points out, there IS more to PPF’s platform than that: he cites its positions on tax havens, reform of the IMF and World Bank, Green New Deals and investing in public services, for instance.

On the other hand, I don’t think I was exaggerating that much.  On some of these areas, as Peter admits, work is still underway within the PPF coalition to clarify its policy position.  And I stand by my argument that PPF’s position on a post-Kyoto climate deal really is shocking: the 2 degree C temperature limit it advocates has been EU policy since 1998, and says nothing about the much more fundamental issues of (a) what this means in terms of a climate stabilisation target expressed in parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent and (b) how the resulting global emissions budget ought to be shared out.

Still, fair’s fair: it was a snippy comment, and I should have reflected PPF more accurately.  But my deeper frustration with NGO coalitions like PPF remains. NGOs are supposed to set agendas; to open up new political space; to dream up big ideas about possible futures. Sure, you can’t pursue big ideas without big coalitions.  But equally, what’s the point of big coalitions without big ideas?

 What we have today is a situation in which civil society always seems to be one step behind the curve.  Back at the time of the Make Poverty History, for instance, it was clear to anyone that wanted to see it that climate change was the coming issue in international development.  Yet it was absent from MPH’s policy position; ironically, DFID’s 2006 White Paper was way ahead of where development NGOs had got to on climate.  (I remember thinking at the time: isn’t this supposed to work the other way round?)

Now, the context has changed again: and again, civil society is lagging.  Look around the international development landscape.  Scarcity issues like energy security, water scarcity and food prices are joining climate change as defining features on the map.  There’s serious cause for concern that the post-Cold War decline in conflict in developing countries may be bottoming out. The real discussion about power-shift in the international economy is finally starting. Security of supply is set to become the biggest issue in international trade (and has already led to the collapse of a developing country government.) Emissions trading holds out the potential to become the most important source of finance for development. And so on.

So where are all of these issues in the PPF policy platform? Nowhere!  Instead of opening up new agendas – at a time when vast tracts of virgin political space are opening up – NGOs are staying right in their comfort zone, articulating the same policy positions as they were five years ago. (more…)

Where next for NGOs?

What’s a single issue NGO to do in a multi-issue world? It’s no easy balancing act.

On one hand, funding departments argue that members want to see them campaigning on the issues they’re known for. Too much scope creep, they say, could lead to falling subscriptions, legacies and income. (Sometimes, members are in fact surpisingly open-minded and ready to understand interconnections between issues, and it’s actually conservatively minded staff members, rather than grassroots members, who want to keep things ‘as they’ve always been’.)

On the other hand, the brighter NGO policy departments understand very well that as issues like environment, conflict, development and human rights become increasingly intertwined, it makes less and less sense to focus resolutely on just one piece of the puzzle. Will the Oxfam / Greenpeace / Amnesty generation of NGOs be able to make the shift? Or are we heading towards a new – and perhaps less ‘vertically integrated’ – model of NGO campaigning?