Last year Rob Paton and Citizens:MK succeeded in gaining unaminous support for Climate Income from Milton Keynes Council. Rob then went on to write about the campaign in the national Quaker magazine, The Friend.

Rob has now succeeded in getting a full article published which he has given me permission to reproduce here. I attended a Zoom meeting organised by Rob for a local climate group and was able to see the issues people have with the concept of CI (which it is easy to lose sight of when you have been immersed in the campaign for three years!) which Rob describes – his approach has lessons for us all! Note that ‘testimony’ refers to the Quaker values of equality, peace, truth, justice and simplicity.

A year of climate campaigning: What Rob Paton learned

6 Jan 2022 | by Rob Paton

‘It’s often the testimony that does it.’

‘The alternative is to look for common ground.’ | Photo: by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

I had been a ‘greenie’ for years, but not heard about Carbon Fee & Dividend (also known as Climate Income) until a Friend told me about it a couple of years ago. I visited the website of Citizens Climate Lobby UK – and wow! So simple. An arrangement that would turbo-charge all other carbon reduction policies, or render them superfluous. A way to make higher carbon prices not just acceptable, but popular. Like every good convert I set off with missionary zeal. At which point things became… interesting.

Yes, sometimes people ‘got it’ quite quickly. What really struck me, though, was how often people didn’t (or couldn’t?) ‘get it’. For example, when another Friend passed on something I had written to her daughter, active in XR, the daughter was enthused. She shared it in her circle… to no avail whatsoever! Even professional campaigners who knew their economics seemed to ignore carbon pricing. It was the elephant in the room. As for Climate Income, well, on a good day it would be damned with faint praise. I asked several: ‘What should we be asking for at COP26? Wouldn’t it be great if we had one simple, specific “ask” that everyone could get behind, like “Drop the Debt”?’ Everyone liked the question, but their answers were either lengthy, or pithy but plaintive (‘just keep your promises’). No one expressed much interest in Climate Income. Gradually I came to realise – or re-learn – some important lessons.

If people are not open, or ready, then I was probably wasting my time as well as theirs. It wasn’t just that trying to persuade people seldom helped. Things went better when people were stimulated to find out for themselves. For example, our local Citizens:mk climate campaign asked the leaders of the three main parties on Milton Keynes Council to consider supporting the idea. Initially, all were wary, but they agreed to check it out. When it came to the debate, genuinely enthusiastic speeches in support came from all sides, and the motion passed unanimously. Likewise, when we asked the local Anglican bishop to consider the idea and how he might use his position to promote it, he was sympathetically cautious: he would meet with us but the issues were complicated and he needed to find out more. But then before we knew it he was on board, asking a pointed question in the House of Lords!

That illustrated another important point: it’s often the testimony that does it. A remarkable teenager in our campaign group had recounted being confronted with the harsh realities of what climate change would mean for her and her generation. She spoke simply, clearly and from the heart. It was moving and memorable in a way that bald facts and reasoning are not.

I also noticed how widespread adversarial thinking is among green campaigners. The default stance is to campaign against things – and people. When I asked what was needed for a consensus in support of cutting out carbon, the answer was, essentially, for lots more people to care like we do. We have seen the light; we must convert others to our way of thinking. Worse still, I, too, slipped into adversarial thinking. At one point I was seeing the Treasury as a bogeyman. They didn’t like hypothecated taxes and would be bound to resist this idea. But one of the beauties of the arrangement is that it is revenue neutral – it is a transfer rather than a tax. It doesn’t add to government spending. Better still, by turbo-charging the switch to renewables, it reduces the need to subsidise green technologies which are a drain on the exchequer. It also gives a further basis for cutting out those subsidies still being paid to fossil fuel companies.

The alternative is to look for common ground. Climate income provides such a common ground, securing support for long-term carbon reduction. In Canada, where this ‘fee & dividend’ approach has been adopted, governors of some provinces with high levels of fossil fuel activity thought they might roll back the legislation… until they found how popular it had become with voters.

What really took me by surprise, though, was the way climate lobbying led into a deep consideration of truth, and our compromised capacity as humans to face it. I joined a Zoom course on how to engage with political leaders on climate issues. At one point the young course leader said words to this effect: ‘Look, we have enough information in this group to plunge half the country into a state of deep clinical depression. It’s just as well that many people are “in denial” – the health services would be overwhelmed if everyone suddenly woke up to what the disaster will mean for them. That wouldn’t do the planet any good.’

Instead he introduced us to ways of meeting our leaders where they are, helping them recognise their own ambivalences and uncertainties, and helping them find their own safe next steps. This doesn’t mean that we should only engage with the political system in therapeutic mode – listening supportively, asking gentle questions, building trust. As we Quakers know, discernment requires threshing as part of the process. So explanations, facts, clarifications and analysis all have their place, collegially conducted, among those seeking further understanding. Here too I learned lessons.

I had to treasure the disagreements and challenges I encountered. They were informative about what I had not explained. For example, if someone said, ‘Won’t people just use all their climate income paying for the higher price of fuels?’ I had to be ready to agree: yes, some would, to begin with. It would be their choice. Only then would it be worth my explaining how the steadily-increasing price of carbon (and climate income) would play out over the medium term: the higher the price the more incentive everyone has to switch to green alternatives. Instead of it being against our economic interests to ‘do the right thing’, we become (even) better off by ‘doing the right thing’.

Another example: one councillor said we shouldn’t increase the price of fossil fuels until the cost of green alternatives had fallen to the level of current fuel prices, otherwise the poorest would be hard hit. This overlooks how climate income protects the least well off. But I sensed something else was confused in this observation, and it took me time to pin it down. In fact, the price of the alternatives will not fall until they are adopted on a large scale. So we need to make the green alternatives cheaper than fossil fuels in order to bring about large scale adoption. This is precisely what steadily increasing the price of carbon makes happen.

I also came to appreciate the uncertainty in our predicament: no one knows what will be an achievable and sustainable mix of green fuels. The technologies are still a big cloud of unknowing. Some say heat pumps. Some believe hydrogen is the answer. According to others, the future is electric. Some think that Carbon Capture and Storage is crucial. Each of these has its advocates – and, happily, investors willing to back them.

Finally I have had further lessons in patience and trust. Having been through panics about nuclear war, the scares about the millennium bug, and the fear that oil was running out, it is a little easier to hold my nerve. Yes, I do know about tipping points. The dangers are very, very real. But so are the emerging opportunities with many signs that the tide has turned. And so we choose life, doing what we can where we are.