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Kevin Steele, Climate Week

Kevin Steele is the founder of Climate Week a nation-wide series of events and activities from March 21st - 27th

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Just how green is Climate Week?

Matilda Lee

15th March, 2011

From the 21st to 27th March thousands of people in the UK will be involved in a week of action on climate change. So why is Climate Week making some greens so angry?

As we, as a society, have grappled with how to change our behaviour, buildings, technology and energy sources to limit carbon emissions there has emerged a dizzying array of climate change campaigns with an equally dizzying array of methods and approaches to creating change. From Prince Charles we have ‘Start' from Greenpeace and Climate Camp ‘stop'; Franny Armstrong told us to reach an earthly 10:10, Bill McKibben focuses on an atmospheric 350 and WWF want us to give an Hour to the Earth. All of these campaigns seek to engage in different ways and will measure success differently.

The new kid on the block, as of next Monday, is Climate Week: an entire week dedicated to UK action on climate change. This attempt is intentionally target-less and at its core is a promotional platform to ‘shine a spotlight on the fantastic things that people are doing in all parts of society,' says founder Kevin Steele.

That it is funded by RBS, which is involved in financing the destructive Canadian tar sands projects, has sparked accusations that Climate Week has given RBS a major greenwash coup. A Guardian article referred to Climate Week ‘splitting the green movement'. But I think the wider issue splitting the green movement is on corporate sponsorship, and whether, in accepting it, you necessarily compromise your campaign. There are very long and tortuous discussions on this in areas of the ‘green movement'. Yet, at the same time the tens of thousands of people who are aware of and engaged in Climate Week don't seem to mind - otherwise it would have been boycotted by the society at large, instead of just the ‘green movement'.

And this begs the question: isn't it better to have a Climate Week, albeit imperfect, rather than not have one at all?

To answer that we have to look at what the sponsorship money provided and decide whether, on balance, it is more significant than the potential damage done.

Climate Week approach

Like Prince Charles' Start, Climate Week has a positive message - identifying practical solutions for building a low-carbon society. Unlike Start, the emphasis is not so much on people's personal lives as what they can do in institutions.

‘Simply to have created yet another campaign doing that I don't think would have added much. I also have a personal belief that social change really gains traction when you get institutions involved. It's everything from village councils and women's institutions to small businesses, schools, girl guides - that's when the thing becomes embedded,' Steele says.

It's got an impressive list of supporters - from Al Gore and Nicholas Stern to the Muslim Association of Britain and the Big Lottery Fund. He managed to do this for two reasons: his previous organising attempts have included Trade Justice Movement and Enterprise Week - which he created and led for four years and which involved over half a million people every year attending over 5,000 events in the UK before going international. He has experience tapping into big national networks and membership bodies, the ‘gatekeepers' of big communities. Second, he's had a team of 15 people who literally have been on the phone and going to meetings since June last year. Add these together and you see why Steele says he's hoping Climate Week is, ‘far and away the biggest thing I've ever been involved with and it shows every sign of being that'.

Social marketing approach

A browse through the 837 events people have posted on the website shows an astonishing array of actions, talks, gatherings and more: from a ‘Tipping Point science briefing for artists' at University College to a Norwich church's ‘post Sunday service eco quiz over coffee' to a mass planting of willows at a Manchester high school to prevent flooding.

The Climate Week Challenge - ‘the biggest ever live environment competition' says Steele, is where teams of 5 or 6 registered in advance to complete an environmental challenge revealed on the website at 9am Monday the 21st. The Climate Week Awards, the other part of Climate Week, ‘is not a prize for ideas,' he says,' it's for people who have actually done stuff'.

‘We think that there is enough of a large body across society who do believe in it and do want to act and be mobilised if they are shown examples of real practical things they can do by others who are in a similar part of the forest as themselves' says Steele.

While it is impossible to measure the impact on carbon that Climate Week will have, the real value is in social norms - peer to peer influence. Essentially, Steele's approach is to make climate change the subject of social marketing. In an article in Worldwatch's State of the World Report 2010, Jonah Sachs and Susan Finkelpearl, of Free Range Studios, ask whether, ‘a revolution in social marketing, where marketing principles are used to change social behaviour rather than sell a product, drive a new set of values that would lead to the lifestyles and political changes necessary to confront today's ecological crises?'

They argue that ‘Effective social marketing has become not just about creating great stories but about sparking great conversations out of which great social change stories can arise.'

Climate Week is a marketing initiative - 'selling' action on climate change using a big, mainstream platform.

‘We basically want thousands of organisations from all over the UK either showing off what they have done, inviting in someone they admire or talking about someone they admire or just starting a dialogue about what might be possible,' Steele says.

The sponsorship issue

What does it cost to pull off something like this? Aside from the RBS money, other Climate Week sponsors are Tesco, Kelloggs, Aviva and EDF energy - all of whom are responsible for their fair share of carbon emissions. Steele says: ‘We wanted to work with people who had a serious commitment to the low-carbon agenda. Clearly there are some companies stronger in that respect than others,'. Clearly, however, for some in the ‘green movement' this sends a mixed message - misleading at best and dangerous at worst.

So where does that leave us? Steele's attempts at galvanising people on climate change have resulted in cynicism from traditional core supporters. But I'm afraid the public at large isn't too bothered. If all goes well, come next week, they'll be busy trying to keep up with their low-carbon neighbours. We need more campaigns like the 'UK Tar Sands Network' fighting to stop the destructive impact of tar sands and other fossil fuel projects. But we need Climate Week too.

 

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