Mapping the UK climate movement

Climate change is now the thing the UK public is worried most about (despite everything else going on). The climate movement has never been bigger or more active. But we’re yet to build the power we need to turn things around. I was commissioned by a funder to map the UK climate movement (as part of a larger project to support their grant making), to understand it’s strengths, weaknesses and gaps. I interviewed 19 national movement actors and 14 more local ones, pulled together various existing movement mappings and drew on relevant research. I share my headline findings below in the hope they can help actors across the movement work more effectively to build power.

Defining the movement

There are no hard and fast rules for what makes a movement – but those I interviewed broadly agree that movements:
– Engage a complex web of actors of all kinds
– Deploy a variety of tactics
– Focus on the same issue (or issues which overlap)
– Aim for social or political change
– May have different visions and approaches

Interestingly, the local movement actors I interviewed emphasised collectivity and common cause much more – their ideas of movements are much more coherently connected and welcoming than those operating at the national level.

“At its best – a movement is open armed. There is a welcome and way in”

Overlapping movements – where are the boundaries?

The boundaries of movements shift constantly, according to the perspective they are viewed from. Most national interviewees self identified as being part of the climate movement (compared to just 1/3 of the local actors), and 1/3 of the national actors felt they were part of the climate justice movement. As I explore below in the section on conflict, the names we give to movements connect to our theories of change about how they can win; in this case centring justice, or not. The kinds of actors considered to be in the movement works on similar principles, and is explored in the demographics section.

But all actors identified with multiple movements. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, 37% of interviewees identified as being part of the racial justice movement, and 26% felt they were part of a wider social justice movement. Other movements mentioned include anti-capitalist, migrant justice, land rights, disability justice, class, housing, ocean and wider nature conservation.

What makes a healthy movement ecosystem?

Over the years I’ve developed an approach to movement mapping according to ideas about what a healthy movement ecosystem looks like, drawing on historical examples, theory and my own practice. I plan to write another blog soon to explain my approach in more detail, and I’ll link to that here when its done.

“We’re really sh*t as a sector at good theories of change! Most campaigns I’ve worked on just set objectives and write targets a letter. There are some exceptions…”

1) Approaches to making change

Firstly I explored the dominant approaches to making change, building on the movement typology approach developed in my previous research. The dominant NGO approach of simply targeting government and running online actions was heavily criticised; as were raising awareness (as a goal), using crisis framing and pushing bleak science without hope.

Happily, there were some strong headlines of the things that are working well, and that interviewees wanted to see more of:

Collaboration combining multiple approaches and voices was the most cited as key to success. This essentially means a well functioning movement ecology; a symbiosis of approaches deployed by different actors to push things forwards, even when the groups have different aims. Examples given included combining insider and outsider approaches with decision makers, building diverse coalitions, finding common ground across difference, working with marginalised groups, targeted policy and lobbying, direct action, building on activist pressure etc.

Grassroots/community led action/ organising was seen as the best way to bring new people into the movement, unite communities and build power, especially of those who are most marginalised and most impacted by the climate crisis or who likely will be by the coming transition. Interestingly, national actors used the term organising; local ones community led action or grassroots – but they meant the same thing.

Community projects with councils, moral authority of young people (and the power of the school strikes), narrative, framing, and strategic direct action were each mentioned by several actors as being effective.

“… it isn’t about society making sacrifices but about transforming society to have more spare time, space to teach, learn, care… an entirely new society where people could be happier. It’s not about climate as a trade off to have less stuff.”

2) Issues

Next I explored the elements of the problem different actors were focused on.

Just transition and its opportunities was the issue area interviewees thought most important, with 1/3 raising this as needing more attention. People were keen to emphasise that the coming transition offers the opportunity to transform society away from over-consumption, creating green jobs and housing, re-framing around the ‘green abundance’ that is possible.

Interviewees were concerned that too much energy was poured into the United National climate conference (COP 26) held in Glasgow. Although they didn’t feel it was necessarily a waste of time for this to have become such a focus (for movement strengthening purposes rather than influencing the summit), 1/4 interviewees expressed concern of burnout and ‘existential crisis’ after the summit inevitably failed to deliver the change needed.

Technological Fixes were raised by the vast majority of local interviewees as getting too much attention, dismissing the validity of relying on things like carbon capture technology and citing electric cars as a false solution.

The importance of community led systems was raised by 1/5 local interviewees, including the need to give citizens a voice and agency, to build community wealth, grow food and generate power.

Re-configuring our relationship with nature, the need to find entry points to connect with people outside a climate narrative, loss, damage and reparations were all also identified.

3) Power

When I asked interviewees about who had power in the movement, many acknowledged this doesn’t necessarily translate to power in the real world. Arguably, the climate movement needs far more power than it already has in order to address climate change. But there are a few groups of actors who were seen at times as wielding too much power over others in the movement:

“ECF (the European Climate Foundation) is incredibly powerful in the climate movement. The team there do quite a good job of managing it, but they shouldn’t have that much power without more accountability. They get millions from hedge funds. They’re quite centrist, and have a very short term way of spending money.”

a) Funding was seen as the biggest way of exerting power

…by over half of national interviewees – especially the ECF, but also Quadriture, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), Ikea and other ‘big philanthropists’. Of ECF particularly, many said much of what they’re doing is actually pretty good – but they leveled the following criticisms and observations:

  • They promote short termism, focusing only on what can be achieved in 18 months
  • The take an individual policy focus to achieving change, not a movement focus
  • There is no accountability to the movement – they are accountable to their own donors, which interviewees claimed were mostly hedge funds
  • They play a powerful strategic role in the movement beyond fund dissemination
  • They’re not radical enough
  • Their massive grants can’t be absorbed by smaller organisations, so they reinforce big NGOs

In contrast, smaller funders like Sainsburys family trust were praised by interviewees for being supportive and progressive, giving core rather than project funding.

“It’s frustrating that all media quotes will come from these places and sound similar – it stops people understanding climate justice is about affordable safe housing and safe healthy food that is everyone’s fight.”

b) NGOs exert power through setting the agenda and narrative

By doing every media interview and attending every meeting, some said they took up too much space. Two interviewees mentioned WWF human rights abuses in indigenous communities, and both they and Greenpeace were recognised by several as being poor at collaborating, especially locally.

The big NGOs were generally described as being so powerful they have no incentive to collaborate. Some spoke about the CEO White Paper Dinner – an exclusive get together the heads of environmental organisations attend to network with each other – and felt this gave unfair power to these organisations. The Climate Coalition was mentioned as being very broad, but as it’s strategy is set by the biggest NGOs that can pay the most, this adds to their power.

c) Extinction Rebellion (XR) continue to dominate the Direct Action space and succeeded in changing the narrative

Although XR remain powerful, their power has waned. Many said how difficult it was to collaborate and work with XR, and some viewed their role in cementing the framing ‘climate crisis’ in the narrative as a problem because it makes people panic and puts them off engaging.

The youth climate strikers were also seen as being very powerful, in a positive way through their moral authority and impact on changing the conversation around climate change, but it was acknowledged their power has shrunk in recent years.

Relationships (explored in more detail later) also came up in discussions of power – which is more a model of building power with others. Being incredibly well connected was seen as a key element of power of the big funders. The COP 26 coalition was described as building power in a good way, centring justice and marginalised voices in a large coalition. Other projects like We are Possible’s movement convening, NEON’s Climate spokesperson network, Uplift’s challenging the Cambo oilfield and GNDR (Green New Deal Rising) were mentioned by a handful of interviewees and grantees as being important and trusted, giving them a different kind of power power.

Competition in general was seen as a destructive underlying conflict across the movement. “There is always an undercurrent of turf war – it really stops us from being the collaborative whole we could be.”

4) Conflict

The movement is riven with disagreements – in tactics, approach, analysis of the problem, solutions and debates about whose voices should be heard.

The general consensus about whether conflicts are constructive or destructive was that it depends on how they are conducted; differences of opinion/tensions can be positive if held well, but there is also a danger of unhelpful polarisation.

Some of the headline conflicts mentioned include:

  • Centring equity and climate justice vs urgent decarbonisation. This conflict was named most often, and is one I have seen come up again and again. Climate activists who believe the climate emergency needs addressing urgently regardless of the consequences are unlikely to bring those with more immediate concerns on board with that approach. This connected to the bullet below:
  • The root causes of, and solutions to climate change – is it a problem science and technology can solve, tackling emissions through some greener version of the current economic system? Or as a problem which is an emergent consequence of capitalism, with the same roots as many other justice issues, and therefore which can only be solved by a complete transformation of the economic system?
  • How climate justice is defined and who is included – many acknowledged there is a long way to go before climate justice work is meaningful, centring the voices of the most marginalised.
  • The role of technologies like carbon capture vs more natural solutions, like reforestation, increasing wetlands, working with ecosystems and restoring biodiversity. Can we develop more tech to turn climate change around, or is tech part of the paradigm of thinking that got us into this mess, so only the restoration and revival of nature will do to?
  • Messaging and perception of the climate movement – as a barrier to people getting involved (see recommendation 8 below).

“In the run up to Copenhagen [where the United Nations Climate talks were held in 2009]- this was a defining moment, with an exciting feeling. I made connections with lots of middle class white people of a certain age. We were taking risks together – direct action and arrests – it was conducive to forming bonds and friendships.”

5) Relationships

Where relationships are held in the movement is of critical importance – relationships build trust and this makes collaboration possible. Relationships are the glue that means we’re able to build power. Without personal connections movements are disjointed, atomised, and much less effective.

One of the things that helps build strong friendships is going through something difficult together – taking direct action is a good example of this. Some interviewees revealed that certain groups of people who took more radical action together when they were younger now work professionally across the environmental sector. Their relationships remain very strong, allowing collaboration between them and understanding of differing perspectives – but such cliques can also be exclusionary.

Interviewees often had connections through professional or grassroots networks related to their movement work, bridging into other movements from personal interest or previous jobs. Since much of the ‘professional’ infrastructure is based in London, it’s unsurprising that the nationally oriented part of the movement is very London-centric.

Most people naturally make friends with people similar to them – in age, experience, background, values and perspectives. This is driving lack of diversity across what we commonly think of as the climate movement – inclusive collaboration just isn’t possible when different groups don’t know each other.

“The professionalised environmental sector is not the movement. It’s absurd how unrepresentative it is. This is also true of grassroots groups. The culture can be exclusive. The established environmental movement is deeply white & middle class.”

“It depends what counts as the movement. If you broaden out to community projects – growing projects, allotments, public transport workers taking union action?”

6) Demographics

If the movement is counted as the professionalised environmental sector and accompanying activist groups, the consensus was that it is overwhelmingly white, middle class, highly educated and London centric. But if the definition of the movement is wider, it might look quite different.

The two sides of diversity’, a 2017 report by think tank the Policy Exchange, using ONS Office of National Statistics data, ranked ‘environment professionals’ as the second least diverse profession in the UK (after farming), with just 3.1% of staff working in the sector from minority ethnic groups, compared to 19.9% of the general UK workforce. The reasons behind this warrant a report in their own right. They include that people of colour experience structural racism, and are more likely to struggle financially, impacting on time to connect with nature and a lack of empowerment to claim the natural world as their own. 

The domination of white, middle class academic voices was recognised by almost all interviewees and over ⅔ of grantees. This affects who the majority of the sector collaborate with, who they centre, and how they develop strategy, gravely stunting their effectiveness. Many interviewees thought this domination was starting to shift, although very slowly.

Many key demographics were identified as missing, including:

  • Workers in high carbon industries
  • Migrant and refugee organisations and voices
  • Working class people
  • People from other geographies outside London and and the south, other regions / nations
  • Older people
  • Disabled people
  • People of colour
  • Neurodivergant people
  • People from the diaspora

My recommendations

1) Take a movement approach

Big changes don’t happen as a result of one organisation or group – and the changes we need to make to tackle climate change don’t come much bigger. Think about what others are doing, the gaps you see, the interventions needed, and what your strengths are – before deciding what approach and action to take. If your movement isn’t climate/justice focused, I’m going to write a blog soon talking through my approach to mapping so you can work yourself to understand your movement ecology. I also run some very introductory training on this with the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

2) Explore the overlapping movements

Perhaps there are shared goals with other movements that your movement needs to address in order to win? Or maybe you share a common vision? (see previous blog for visioning exercises) Can you reach out and collaborate beyond the usual suspects to create the big transformational changes you seek with a more diverse group of people?

3) Speak to the people you don’t agree with

Obviously there are plenty of caveats to this – don’t approach folks likely to wish or cause you harm, or waste too much time where people you don’t agree with want to convince you you’re wrong. But by knowing what is going on and why across your movement, it will help you to be more effective. You might be able to use the work of others you don’t agree with to your advantage – like using the Glasgow climate conference to build the movement, or like one I example I heard of net zero campaigners using XR activist moments to push their agenda with decision makers. Or you might feel you need to discredit another approach you view as damaging – really understanding it can help you to take it down.

4) Organise and build community – make the movement fun and welcoming

Relationships are at the heart of movements. It’s in relationship with others that we can change our minds, undo the oppressions and constraints that underlie how the status quo has structured our brains, be moved to act, and build our power. In order to build these relationships, it’s as important to make space for joy, celebration and fun as it is to learn and take action. Organising is finally starting to take off in the UK but we need much more. It’s slow work to start with that needs resourcing, autonomy and time. (if you’re not sure if organising is for you check out this post). 

When you’re organising, think about who you’re organising and how much you’re engaging the folks not currently well represented in the movement, as identified above (e.g. workers in high carbon industries, migrants and refugees, work class people, people of colour etc). To change everything, we need everyone.

5) Be clear about what you think is causing climate change, & how it can be tackled

From where I’m sitting, it seems pretty clear that climate change is a consequence of colonialism, capitalism and extractivism. We’ve ‘othered’ humans, animals and living systems; as a culture this makes it possible for us to abuse, exploit and destroy without understanding how these actions harm us as interdependent beings. I don’t see how capitalism can fix this, because it is the problem. So for me the solutions come from social and environmental justice, to reconfigure our understanding of mutual interdependence with the natural world, and to build a radically new society based on this understanding. 

If you think differently, make sure you have given your position thorough consideration, and can fully explain why you think your solutions will work. Whatever your thoughts, when you come into dialogue with those you don’t agree, with seek to understand their position and explore any possible synergies despite this.

6) Ensure you’re accountable to (& building power of) the communities you serve

Whether you’re an NGO, a funder, a think tank or a grassroots group, it’s important to consider whose power you are building. Are you accountable to a board made up of wealthy and successful corporate types? A group of middle aged, middle class activists? If it isn’t the people most impacted by climate change right now, or those who will be in the coming transition, you’re building power in the wrong place. 

I’m exploring these issues with the right way up project, working to set it up in a way that prefigures the changes we’re seeking to make.

If you need help with accountability, good news Civicus is offering a brand new Accountability Accelerator training. 

7) Build networks

Interviewees only had good things to say about opportunities to come together with others working to address climate change – but there aren’t enough of these opportunities. We need regional, national and thematic gatherings / networks, connections between these, and buddying /twinning schemes bringing people together who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to meet. We need opportunities not just framed around climate work but also space for play and joy to build these relationships.

8) Re-frame who is in the movement

If we continue to centre white middle class activists, NGOs, think tanks and scientists, that sends a pretty clear message that the climate movement is not for most people. Media reframing is needed to show that housing, food and social justice itself are climate related, and that folks working on these are part of the wider climate movement. The Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) has published a fantastic guide to framing climate justice with a whole range of resources if you’re interested in this more broadly.

The work for the funder who comissioned this is not yet complete – I hope to publish a link to the full report soon.

As ever, I’d really welcome discussion about these findings – feel free to comment below or find me on twitter @tashahester.

Heartfelt thanks to all my national interviewees for their wisdom and time:

Mika Minio-Paluello – Climate & Industry Lead at TUC (Trade Unions Congress)
Maddy Haughton-Boakes – CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England)
Sulaiman Khan – Critical Cripship Studies
Lindsay Smith – European Climate Foundation / Climate Coalition
Jennifer Rosenberg – Friends of the Earth
Cameron Joshi – GJN (Global Justice Now) / Global Climate Bloc
Chris Venables – Green Alliance
Danni Paffard – Green New Deal Rising
Morten Thaysen – Greenpeace, NEON (New Economy Organisers Network)
Laurie Laybourn-Langton – IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research)
Katherine Wall – Land justice movement academic
Ayeisha Thomas Smith – NEON / KIN
Daniel Hale – Purpose
Michael Thomas – Transition Towns
May McKeith – Ulex Eco social local action project
Tessa Khan – Uplift
Tatiana Garavito – Wretched of the Earth / Tipping Point
Stuart Basden – Extinction Rebellion


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