Climate activist energy is a finite resource – should we put it to more effective use than ineffective non-binding online petitions?
- Frustrated at the lack of action on climate change?
- Determined to do your bit to make a difference?
- Looking for a way to make your anger visible to all?
- Wish to raise awareness of the urgent need for climate action?
- Want to educate our leaders, who’ve forgotten they’re supposed to be our servants, not our masters?
The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to satisfy these impulses online.
The less good news is that petitions may not only make no difference, but might even do some net harm.
This article examines the point of climate change petitions in particular, asking whether they’re prime examples of ineffective climate activism.
Are petitions like a concentrated solar power array, focusing sunbeams to drive a turbine?
Or are they like a gas patio heater, dissipating energy into the void to negligible effect, and some harm?
Climate Petitions a go-go
Anyone who’s ever expressed any concern online about the environment will be familiar with climate petitions. Sign up to any climate action organisation, and your inbox will be inundated with appeals and calls to climate action.
Old-school door-to-door petitions, even if they too are non-binding, have clear beneficial side-effects. Face-to-face conversations open different opportunities for two-way communication, canvasing opinion, listening to concerns and educating. This, however, makes them very labour-intensive and – if the goal is as many names as possible – painfully inefficient.
This may explain the explosion of online petitions. Here are some randomly-selected current examples, including their stated target numbers of signatories and status at the time of writing (Aug 20 2023):
- Greenpeace UK has 11 active petitions. ‘Politicians: We’ll judge you at the next election – act on climate NOW! has reached around 85,000 of their target 100,000 signatories.
- US-based The Nature Conservancy’ has 12 petitions on the go. ‘Stand up for Real Climate Action’ has around 270,000 signatories, with 67,000 ‘remaining’.
- Friends of the Earth UK has 13 petitions available for signagure, from the very fuzzy ‘Save our Rights to Save our Planet’ (13,000 ‘action takers’ of a target of 25,000) to the more specific’ Tell Unilever: stop buying conflict palm oil’ (40,000 of the 50,000 signatures that will ‘help push Unilever to act’).
Tough talk, hazy goals
Click on these links, read the text of the petitions, and you’ll feel a similar urgent, emotional, assertive tone. There will be much talk of ‘doing the right thing’ for our species, society, children or planet. Taking responsibility for future generations is a common theme, part of a strong appeal to morality that underpins all the text.
The language is direct, the tone strong and active. They’re addressed to those in power – usually governments, multinational corporations or international bodies. They are peppered with forceful imperatives involving words like demand, require, must, should and need.
Outside the body of the text, these climate petitions share the following characteristics:
- they are framed as a ‘call to action’
- they ask you to publicly state your support
- they ask you to share your public declaration of support
- they ask you to opt in to further such actions, including donations
- they state a specific target number of signatories, and update the current status
These numbers suggest achievable outcomes. Seeing the degree of progress toward these targets is reassuring, impressive, even inspiring.
Almost never, however, does the small print explain the rationale behind them. Why does it take 100,000 signatures before the UK government will take action on one thing, but only 25,000 for another? And where has Unilever said the only thing obstructing a ban on conflict palm oil is 50,000 signatures. 40,000 clearly isn’t enough. The Nature Conservancy target isn’t even a round number – what planet-saving measure exactly is triggered when they reach the magic 337,000 number?
These hard numbers turn out, on closer inspection, to be completely soft. Reaching them has no real-world consequences. This reflects the dubious purpose of such petitions.
Role-play your targets
Consider these petitions from the perspective of a politician, corporate CEO or regulator. It doesn’t really matter how sincere they are in their own desire to measurably reduce carbon, but for the purposes of this thought experiment let’s assume they’re utterly venal, cynical and care only for profit and bonuses.
Imagine you’re a power-hungry politician, seeking to greenwash a few treehugger constituents into voting for them. What is there in these petitions that commits you to doing anything measurable? Is it possible for you to warmly assure all these signatories you earnestly support every word of the petition, without unambiguously committing to a binary, publicly visible outcome?
What these petitions lack are specific, actionable outcomes by particular deadlines, carrying an explicit negative outcome if not enacted.
Without a binary, transparent, public indicator of sincerity, such as voting for a particularly tightly-worded legal clause in upcoming draft legislation, or proposing a specific policy at the next shareholders meeting, what’s the point?
Benefit of the doubt
Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Earth are smart operators. They’re all experienced campaigners with a track record. Many of the people working for them are apostates from the Dark Side of government and corporate obstacles, who know all the vulnerabilities of power. They all have clear measurable outcomes, nearly all of which fall under the same broad aims of the See Through News Goal of:
Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Making the Inactive Become Active.
So if they’re so focused on measurably reducing carbon, why do they place something as demonstrably ineffective as petitions front and centre of their Calls to Action?
They have their reasons, which largely fall into these categories:
- Tactical pressure
These outcomes are fine if they are essential steps to measurably reducing carbon, but introducing proxies, steps, or stages to achieving your goal also risks complicating your mission. Worse, its could distract from your actual goal. Even worse, it could do more harm than good, and actively obstruct it.
Let’s examine each of these reasons, and evaluate if they hinder, or help, the real goal of carbon reduction.
This defines petitions as a political lobbying tool, one of a variety of tactical nudges, which in combination could prompt the desired carbon-reducing outcome. Greenpeace’s petition to get political leaders to ‘act now’ could be a finely-tuned tool to keep the Overton Window of public debate focused on #climateaction at a point when the UK government is signalling its intent to make climate change a culture war issue at the next election.
Seen in this light, the function of petitions becomes clear, but the means of judging their efficacy more obscure. Even if this petition surpasses its goal in double-quick time, how can we ever know if it made a difference, or how much difference it made?
Seen as an activist recruitment tool, the text of of these petitions is a means to an end of all the small print on the side. Signing a petition, a couple of clicks of a mouse, may not take much effort, nor have much effect, but it’s potentially the necessary first rung on a ladder leading to more meaningful actions, usually defined as going on a march, organising an event, or risking arrest and imprisonment for direct action protest.
This function has the benefit of being clearly measurable. Activist organisations should be tracking this in the way commercial businesses track ‘upselling’ – if 100,000 sign a petition, how many can you convert to marchers, and how many of them to organisers, and how many of them to civil disobedient protestors prepared to go to jail?
That’s easy to measure. What’s much harder to measure is the mass of CO2 equivalent this removes from the atmosphere.
The small print also gently introduces the notion that having signed up, you might be interested at some point in upgrading your degree of commitment to take the form of a financial donation.
This is the inconvenient truth of all charities, NGOs and campaigns with bank accounts. Like zoos that discreetly don’t publicise the fact that they either sterilise their exhibits or kill their offspring, charities are reluctant to advertise the fact that a huge proportion of their funding goes towards keeping itself in business, rather than going directly to its stated cause.
The bigger an organisation grows, the higher its overheads rise, and the more intractable this problem becomes.
Unless, of course, you don’t have a bank account and are 100% driven by volunteers, like See Through News.
What about hope?
For activist organisations, there’s an even more precious resource than money – hope. No activist organisation will last long if they can’t convince their members not only that they share their aspiration, but that the shared goal is attainable.
A charity’s worst enemy isn’t recession, oppressive governments or police harassment, but despair.
Collective action, like going on a march, keeps hope alive. Pursuing a common purpose with like-minded people raises spirits, improves mental health. This is important enough if you’re trying to conserve endangered bats, or protect abused donkeys, but when your mission involves an existential threat like climate change, keeping hope alive is particularly critical.
‘Hope’ is hard to measure, but one thing is guaranteed: the mass of CO2 equivalent it removes from the atmosphere is zero.
Doing your bit
Criticising actions like climate petitions as being ineffective is a delicate business.
Many who would agree with everything this article points out will still say it’s not helpful to ‘the cause’. Facing up to such awkward facts, they might argue, risks people giving up in despair that ‘nothing makes any difference’.
Micro-actions, even those as micro as signing an online petition, and circulating the fact you’ve done so on social media, is ‘better than nothing’. Such responses often include phrases like ‘doing your bit’, ‘every little helps’, ‘just in case’ and ‘fly the flag’.
It seems churlish, even cruel, to dismiss such actions as virtue-signalling, preaching to the choir, or self-indulgent. It’s indelicate even to point out that the only guaranteed net carbon impact of online petitions, like any online activity, is to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
But it’s not just a question of being indelicate. Ineffective actions like petitions also carry a real, strategic, and practical, cost.
The gas patio heater problem
Like fossil fuel, activist energy is a finite resource.
Petition signatories may be sincere in their desire to influence politicians, but can they absolutely cross their hearts and promise that when they clicked their endorsement, and circulated the face on social media, they’ve not mentally slightly diminished today’s reserve of activism? Has the petition not depleted their store of ‘doing my bit’ by a little quantum?
Nobody admits to ‘virtue signalling’, but if the only people who notice your action are other choir members, isn’t it worth reconsidering the value of such petitions?
The risk is that by encouraging supporters to sign such petitions, climate activist organisations are wasting that most valuable of resources, activist energy, by pointing it into a void that will suck it up with no discernible effect.
Do that too often, and you risk people giving up in despair that ‘nothing makes any difference’, or losing credibility among those seeking measurable climate action. All that willing activism, vented into a void to no discernible effect.
A bit like a gas patio heater.
The concentrated solar power solution
If activist energy is a finite resource, instead of blowing it on ineffective actions like signing petitions, why not put it to more effective use, that measurably reduces carbon?
This is the approach of pragmatic, metric-based activist organisations like See Through News. Like the mirrors forming a concentrated solar power array, all focused on the same steam-generating turbine, See Through News seeks to coordinate, focus and combine the efforts of many individual volunteers towards a highly specific target.
Liberated from the grind of fundraising, zero-budget movements like See Through News can devote 100% of their volunteer resources and energy to actions which:
- measure carbon reduction accurately, like See Through Carbon
- measurably reduce carbon directly, like The Act Game
- form clear parts of a chain of actions that end in measurably reducing carbon, like The Think Game and The Learn Game
See Through News follows the rule of thumb that if you can’t point to a way of objectively determining the carbon drawdown impact of an action before you start, you shouldn’t be doing it.
This guarantees that even if a project fails to meet its target, or even fails entirely, the outcome is clear. The more precise the metric used to measure success, the better your chances of success.
We believe this concentrated solar power form of activism can bring genuine hope, without the false hope risk of the gas patio-heater actions like non-binding petitions.