New Internationalist

A Week Excuse: Why Climate Week is a cover-up for the climate bullies

climate change cover

The all-new No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change is out this week. Here, its author Danny Chivers explains why we need real action on climate change, not corporate cover-ups like the UK’s upcoming “Climate Week”.

You really couldn’t make it up. March 21st – 27th has been designated as a “Week of Action” on climate change in the UK. The eco-warriors behind this rebellious project? Why, it’s those well-known champions of environmental justice: Tesco, EDF Energy, Kellogg’s, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Tesco, whose entire business model is based on the mass transportation of goods halfway across the globe, and on driving a race-to-the-bottom in environmental and labour standards in farming worldwide. Kellogg’s, who cheerfully champion energy-intensive and chemical-soaked industrial agriculture over small-scale, sustainable farming. EDF, who operate two of the five biggest coal fired power stations in the UK. RBS – RBS! – who are the UK’s leading investor in fossil fuel projects, and one of the world’s biggest financial backers of the disastrous Canadian Tar Sands project. These are the people telling us we need to spend a week “doing our bit” for the climate – essentially, encouraging us all to rally round and help clean up the mess they’re busy making. Sadly, some environmental and social justice groups (though thankfully not too many) seem to have fallen for this spin.

It’s as though the worst gang of bullies at school have announced in assembly that they’re setting up an anti-bullying campaign. They’re hoping to enjoy lots of praise from the teachers all morning, then go out at breaktime and carrying on pushing the rest of us off the swings and nicking our lunch money. Are we really going to let them get away with it?

Pembina Mine

A Tar Sands Mine, Canada, from the Pembina Institute

This whole affair is particularly well-timed for RBS, who have been facing increasing criticism over their support for climate-wrecking TarSands extraction. By pouring a few buckets of cash into Climate Week, they’ve gained more than just a nice bit of eco-sponsorship to help distract us from their dirty funding record – they’ve got Climate Week founder Kevin Steele defending them publicly in the media. This is a real PR coup for the bank – the cherry-picked facts and figures Steele is spouting come straight from RBS headquarters, but appear to be an “independent” assessment of the company’s climate record. It’s not surprising that People & Planet – the environmental campaign network that Steele used to work for – have called for a week of anti-RBS action instead.

Climate Week is, sadly, a perfect example of why big business isn’t going to solve climate change for us. As explained in my new book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change, public corporations are required by law to maximise shareholder profits at all costs. Unless tougher regulations, changes in the economic system, or public protest forces them to do otherwise, they will always choose a bit of green window-dressing over the real change we need - a rapid transition to cleaner (but less profitable) ways of generating energy and growing food. 

While researching the book I found that this transition is not only possible, but highly desirable. If we do this properly, then a zero-carbon world should mean better-quality homes, good public transport, healthier food, and a calmer pace of living, where we work fewer hours and have more leisure time. It should mean access to sustainable energy for the people of the Global South, and a reclamation of the lands and livelihoods of small-scale farmers and Indigenous peoples worldwide. There is enough renewable energy potential to give the whole world a good standard of living – but only if it’s shared out fairly. The wealthy Northern countries (and Southern elites) will need to use significantly less energy to allow the rest of the world to catch up. This can theoretically be done while still preserving all the important things in our lives, but getting there is obviously going to be pretty challenging.

EDF's West Burton coal power station (from Wikipedia Commons)

EDF’s West Burton coal power station (from Wikipedia Commons)

But get there we must – and soon. The first section of the No-Nonsense Guide sets out the current state of the science; I’ve tried to explain in friendly, jargon-free terms how all the different bits of evidence stack up to create an urgent case for action. These chapters also explain why some common misconceptions about climate science aren’t true, and take a peek into the murky world of the people spreading climate change misinformation.

The next bit of the book lays out where we need to get to (we need to pretty much stop using fossil fuels by 2030) and asks the question: why haven’t we managed it yet? The science is clear, the majority of the public agree that change is necessary, the technology we need already exists, and many of the solutions should improve our lives and make the world a significantly fairer place. 

It turns out that the real barriers to change are not a lack of “awareness” but – surprise surprise – the politicians and corporations who are set to lose out in the short-term if we shift away from fossil fuels. Carbon-intensive industries pour millions of dollars into politicians’ campaign funds, and promise them short-term economic boosts to placate the public; in return, governments subsidise dirty industries with billions of dollars, making their fossil-fuelled products and services seem artificially cheap. This all happens within an economic system based on the impossible dream of endless growth on a finite planet; a system that is stripping out the planet’s resources and trashing the climate in order to generate short-term wealth that overwhelmingly benefits the minority at the top. 

We can overcome these barriers and shift to a safer, fairer way of doing things – but only if everyone who cares about this stuff starts working together to challenge the power of corporations and promote genuine alternatives. Initiatives like Climate Week do the very opposite of this – they help polluting businesses deflect blame away from their dirty activities and onto the public instead. “Hey kids, if we can just get everyone to recycle a bit more then RBS can keep profiting from its Tar Sands investments!”

RBS protest

A protest outside an RBS branch, from the UK Tar Sands Network

So to any local action groups, schools, and workplaces thinking of taking part in Climate Week I say: go for it, celebrate your achievements,organise some great events and spread the climate message. But don’t do it under RBS and Tesco’s dirty Climate Week banner – make your own publicity that gives the credit to you and your community instead. And if you’ve not yet got anything lined up, why not join People & Planet in organising some anti-greenwash actions at your local bank or supermarket? The only way to beat the climate bullies is to show them that we’re not afraid, and that we can see through their bluster. Like all bullies, underneath it all they’re just scared - they know that once we stand together we can take them on and win.

You can read the first chapter of The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change for free online, here or browse other books in the series.

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  1. #1 Harold Forbes 21 Mar 11

    Make Them Align Actions and Words

    I think it is brilliant that this group of companies have decided to sponsor Climate Week as it gives a real opportunity to highlight just what is wrong with the way we account for our economic activity. Yes, corporations are obliged to pursue profit but that figure is the result of arithmetic and we the way we account for things right now means that the Earth’s resources and services are considered as free to use. That the economic system is based on endless growth on a finite planet is simple to understand for pretty much anybody: and the children who are going to feel the full impact of that are on the planet NOW.
    The free use of the planet might have made some sense when the original rules of accounting were thought up but it simply isn't fit for purpose now. We simply must make the connection between the economy and the ecology a political issue and Climate Week gives us that opportunity. “Every little helps” but we need some “bigs” to really make a change.

  2. #2 sconwaysmith 08 Jun 11

    Dear Mr Chivers,

    Perhaps you would also like to show the devastating environmental disaster that has happened and is still happening in China where the rare earth metals needed for the magnets in all those windmills are mined and processed.

    Perhaps you would also like to show all the concrete and tarmac factories needed to create the infrastructure for windmills to stand on and for access, laid across areas of outstanding natural beauty with no regard whatsoever to local democracy. You won't of course, yet you talk about rights!

    Basically, you are cherry-picking.

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About the author

Danny Chivers is a climate change researcher, activist and performance poet. He is the author of the New Internationalist's The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change: The science, the solutions, the way forward.

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