Peak weather overcooks climate campaigns

The El Nino phenomenon has stretched the envelope of weather extremes, delivering an unforeseen flow of headline drama. These are halcyon days for climate campaigns, or would be, if only the script were followed.

It’s no secret that the bedrock strategy of climate activism is to latch on to any story of extreme weather, amplifying the implied causation of global warming. This approach is inspired by an accepted theory of change – that a prolonged drip-feed of contextual campaign messaging will eventually sway public opinion and government policy.

The movement’s most shrewd and successful campaigner, Bill McKibben, leads by example. His twitter stream is punctuated by sardonic commentary on the latest flood, drought and thermometer reading. Last week was typical:

This campaign tactic has been turbocharged over recent months by a series of extreme events and record-breaking data. Last week we learned that February’s global temperature was the highest on record, by a margin of scary magnitude. A week earlier it was the storm in Fiji, its intensity unprecedented.

Yet problems may be piling up behind this apparent fulfilment of disaster foretold. It’s surely now or never for the strategy to yield results. And can the drip-feed be sustained in the aftermath of such devastating records – or will climate activists hooked on the hottest, wettest, driest adjectives become as impotent as long-jumpers who followed Bob Beamon? We’ve already seen in recent weeks how the over-egged culture of climate communications has had nothing left in its language toolbox to convey the alarm we should be feeling about data sets which are off the scale.

The question about results is the more pertinent. The current circus of the US presidential election is an indictment of climate activism. Of the three leading candidates for the Republican nomination, not one has passed the potty training stage of climate science.

We all wanted to believe that Hurricane Sandy in 2012 would put an end to this embarrassment. But New York picked itself up, raised tens of billions of dollars to repair the damage and construct new defences, and then carried on. I fear this will be the future pattern – that rich countries will tackle the climate threat with dollars, not votes.

Those of us who have been uneasy about weather-based advocacy will not be sorry if it stumbles. Climate change is an accelerator and booster of extreme events, not their cause. This inconvenient truth plays back into the hands of those who, like Republican politicians, hide behind the non-linear complexities of climate science.

The campaign teams at the big environmental groups like and Greenpeace are certainly smart enough to know all this. They will be looking beyond this peak weather year and I hope they make radical changes in their core strategy.

The lesson of history of environmental activism suggests that it’s the health impact of pollution that finally tips the balance of public opinion. And for corporations, the threat of litigation is most feared. There’s plenty of scope for these targets, especially in North America.

I wondered last week if Bill McKibben is already making a move towards the personal health and safety front. You have to hand it to the guy, he does go straight for the jugular:

Here in the UK, our island status should protect us from invasive reptilian species. But insects are a different matter. The real prospect of a disease-carrying mosquito or two buzzing around the bedroom darkness of suburban London taps deeper fears than the wind and rain.


February Smashes Global Temperature RecordsIndependent

Plague of mosquitos carrying deadly diseases is headed for BritainTelegraph