It’s no surprise that he's not in the most optimistic frame of mind. But when Labour's former leader spoke at Sandbag’s relaunch a few weeks ago, his disappointment wasn’t directed at the party's election defeat; it was aimed at environmental NGOs. “Where is the climate movement, he asked. There’s no pressure on governments,” he bemoaned to an audience made up of this allegedly non-existent climate movement.
Claiming public pressure was “nothing” compared with during the run-up to 2009’s Copenhagen conference (the last time the world's governments tried to sign a global climate deal), Miliband declared December’s summit in Paris would “fail” to reach a deal capable of avoiding further catastrophic climate change. So much for a politics of hope…
But this isn’t about needing to provide a positive vision for the sake of it. Letting this kind of disillusionment go unchallenged does no credit to the hard work and real wins achieved by the climate movement leading up to Paris and far beyond international negotiations. Comments that undermine our collective agency to tackle climate change can all too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not prepared to accept the ‘we're doomed and there's nothing we can do about it’ line, so here's how I challenged him on it afterwards.
Losing is hard
The key fact that Miliband glossed over was that the conference did not end in a ‘FAB’ global climate deal that’s fair, ambitious and binding (although the acronym alone neatly captures Copenhagen the hype built up beforehand). This left thousands of people who'd mobilised with the expectation that world leaders would ‘solve’ climate change angry and disillusioned.
The disappointment of 2015’s general election for Labour has strong parallels with the mood among climate campaigners after Copenhagen. After hopes have been built up, the loss of what ‘would have been possible’ is hard to take. But shifting the blame and hitting out at potential allies won’t solve the pressing and growing problems still facing us – whether that’s global climate change or cuts in public services.
Just as Labour is finding post-election, it takes time to rebuild a movement. It took the climate movement time to rebuild after Copenhagen – or rather, to build differently. Wondering why carbon-copy mobilisations (excuse the pun) aren’t taking place this year is at best ignorant and at worst irresponsible.
Paris is not Copenhagen
Six years on from Copenhagen, the world – and the climate movement – is in a very different place. I do believe Paris is important, and that the deal is far from done. The conference may not seal a perfect ‘victory’ over climate change, but if the hard work going on pays off, Paris will capture the momentum from national debates across the world and stitch this into an international agreement that can build confidence to go further and faster with climate action worldwide.
However, this is premised on the understanding that Paris is not the only battleground for decisive climate action – or for the ‘climate movement’. So besides not being the climate and energy minister as in 2009, and thus no longer the focal point for NGO advocacy, there’s no wonder Miliband can’t see pressure building if he's only looking at public mobilisations directed towards the Paris conference (although I’m not sure how he managed to miss the biggest global climate mobilisation ever last September …).
Where is the climate movement?
Miliband's comments do touch on an interesting debate going on among campaigners. When most people get that climate change is a problem and when the Bank of England, the G7 and the Pope are all talking about it, what does mobilising look like when it has to go beyond simply highlighting that a problem exists and we need to act?
This is where it gets tougher. The problem is shifting: as decarbonisation becomes the inevitable direction of travel and clean energy breaks through everyone's predictions, the pushback from fossil fuel companies and incumbent high carbon interests is intensifying.
It’s also where it gets more interesting. This is where we need as many campaigners, activists and supporters as possible, engaging in a multitude of ways. The falling trust in political elites since 2009 means we no longer rely on or trust our governments to sign a treaty that ‘saves the world’ in a distant conference centre. That doesn't mean the climate movement isn’t engaged politically. Some of the most exciting campaigns (and wins) I've seen have been in response to these shifts. These include local people urging their councils to resist the lobbying might of fracking companies; students, cities and pension holders rolling back fossil fuel companies’ social licence through divestment campaigns; or communities starting up their own renewable energy schemes.
Ed, you are part of the movement too
These are all examples of people getting stuck in and creating change that isn't contingent on being a member of the government. As the Conservatives’ initial bad-news-for-the-climate energy policy announcements look like just the beginning of big fights to come, there's plenty to do. We need our other MPs to have a more sustained engagement working with the movement.
Climate change is an area where Miliband knows what he's talking about, and doesn't have to look like he's trying to be something he's not. He can do much better than pulling on wellies and jostling for photo-ops when floods hit the UK. So where's his engagement on coal in his own constituency? Or on Heathrow? Or with practical ideas to make sure that after Paris, the world actually does accelerate the global transition to zero carbon?
Whatever his new role – “to be defined” – is, he can’t talk about the climate movement as something separate from him. As the minister who oversaw the introduction of the Climate Change Act, he is part of it. But to overcome his pride after a fall, he needs to recognise the broader, more diverse movement. We have to accept that when you're doing something as difficult as decarbonising the entire global economy, or establishing social justice, it's not going to be an easy ride. We won't always get it right first time. We will win and lose individual battles. But if we're going to succeed in the long run, we have to just get on with it and keep fighting. A key part of that is joining in with ideas, energy, and the knowledge that in the end, we have to get this done.