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Nabi: Towards an Effective Environmental Lobby

September 20, 2011

In 2009, Greenpeace protestors made national headlines by clambering up on top of the West Block of the Parliament buildings with huge banners, condemning Canada’s inaction on climate change. The protest occurred on the first day of negotiations in Copenhagen, and sought to change the course of Canada’s environmental policy. But aside from making an embarrassment of the RCMP, their actions didn’t have much of a lasting impact. The Greenpeace members were derided as eco-nuts, and business as usual continued.

The following week, activist pranksters The Yes Men set up a fake Environment Canada website, issuing a press release about new aggressive targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. Of course, Canada’s real policy hadn’t changed, and then-Environment Minister Jim Prentice found himself desperate to change the story.

Last week, the environmentalists struck again. Using the same strategy as The Yes Men, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC) set up a hoax press release. They contacted journalists nationwide, announcing the reintroduction of “an elementary school teaching module designed to inform students about causes and impacts of climate change” that was cancelled in the 1990s.

But this time, the government didn’t go on the defensive. In fact, it hardly acknowledged the CYCC, only mentioning that a false Environment Canada website was “circulating erroneous information”. In other words: we don’t have time for silly games.

Kady O’Malley, the journalistic queen of all things Ottawa, expressed a similar distaste with the way in which the CYCC conducted the ruse: “Still, it’s not nice to use the real names of unwitting communications directors, or, for that matter, force the government to drop everything to defend its environmental policy on such short notice.”

This is a problem for the CYCC. It’s one thing to piss off the government, but when mainstream media won’t get onside either, the party’s over. At this point we’re left with a few fringe media organizations lauding the CYCC in a show of self-congratulatory hyperbole. This gives the government more reason to write off the hoax as hippie angst, not worth addressing seriously.

So, what does this mean for the environmental lobby movement in Canada? Well, it’s pretty simple. Don’t dress up activism in clever gimmickry. Be forthright in your purpose, because trying to shame the politicians won’t make them receptive to your cause.

For a case of successful environmental lobbying, look no further than the vociferous public opposition to the Melancthon mega-quarry in Ontario, which I’ve written about before. This is a case where continued pressure from many concerned citizens with a clear goal actually resulted in their demands being met by the provincial government. The calls for a full environmental assessment were heeded by the Minister of Natural Resources after thousands signed petitions, submitted comments through the official government website, and flooded the Minister’s inbox with emails.

The strategy of good old-fashioned people power is also making headway in reversing the course of a new coal plant application in Alberta, which is trying to sneak in under older, more lenient pollution controls. Environment Canada is warming to the protestors’ demands, and it’s only a matter of time before the project is forced to scale down significantly.

It’s important to highlight the difference in approach between these successful efforts and the sensationalist tactics used by groups such as Greenpeace and CCYC. If we are to influence decisionmakers in any substantive way, it helps to speak their language and not ridicule them.

More than anything, it’s a numbers game. The Greenpeace, Yes Men, and CCYC protests were easily brushed aside by the government because the organizers weren’t seen to be representing a larger body of concerned citizens. Their methods seem more bent on mocking government than seeking solutions. So why give them a platform?

On the other hand, when phone calls and emails flooded into Environment Minister Peter Kent’s office by the hundreds to protest the coal plant in Alberta, he had no choice but to respond. He acknowledged the “overwhelming” public response, and made clear his intent to close the loophole.

It’s this kind of reasonable, cool-headed lobbying that actually gets things done in Ottawa. Believe it or not, politicians are people too, and they don’t react well to intimidation.

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