The Third Sector holds the key to successful action on climate change

Stephen Hale is a former environmental policy adviser to the UK government from 2002-2006 who now directs the think tank Green Alliance. In his 2010 paper on “The new politics of climate change”, Hale articulates the reasons for the present failure to take meaningful action on climate change. Based on that analysis of failure, he explains how a successful response climate change might still be achieved.

Present failure on climate change: timidity and self-interest

Hale recites a mournful litany when considering the barriers to action on climate change:

  • politicians’ unwillingness to take action that does not show instant rewards;
  • public cynicism about politicians’ motives;
  • timid governments faced down by overweening corporate power;
  • the limited vision of those who wear the ideological blinkers of neoliberalism; and
  • a global process (UNFCCC) that is not “fit for purpose” (p.259).

These are the obstacles responsible for the present stalemate on global climate action. Can business break the impasse? Hale describes businesses as playing a “primarily defensive role” based on “short-term self-interest, not the longer term public interest.” While many businesses would benefit from a low carbon economy, those who might lose out in a transition remain the “dominant voices” (p.260).

Should we be surprised by any of this? Not really. As Hale notes, success on other progressive causes such as civil rights derived from “the vision and determination of leaders from outside the established structures of power and wealth” (p.273). Why would it be any different this time? I can only agree with Hale in concluding that the “best remaining hope” for successful action on climate change rests with the public (p.261).

Future success on climate change: public leadership through the Third Sector

In the dominant worldview of neoliberalism, people are regarded as nothing more than self-absorbed individuals, and the public debate on climate change largely adopts that perspective. Proposals for action on climate change merely encourage voluntary individual behaviour change. But research cited by Hale indicates that the prevalence of ‘sustainable’ lifestyles is far less in reality than individuals’ claims in surveys would suggest. It is, Hale argues, a consequence of “deep-rooted constraints on individual behaviour. The critical issue here is the collective nature of behaviour … If we are to change, we will do so together” (pp. 261-2).

And while there is widespread support for any vaguely defined ‘government action’ on climate change, when specific policies are suggested, individuals seem to be much less keen on new taxes, windfarms, etc. As with behaviour change, “people are more likely to change attitudes if they see others around them doing so” (p.262).

As a former government policy insider, Hale reflects ruefully on these observations: “We have too often sought to influence individual action without fostering the networks that will enable a collective shift in attitude or action” (p.263).

So, in order to make a difference on climate change, Hale believes that something much more thoroughgoing than information campaigns is needed; if the public is the “best remaining hope”, then a significant public mobilisation is the absolutely necessary agent of change.

By its very nature, such mobilisation is, of course, a collective act, a shift from acting as a consumer to acting as a citizen. And so, in addition to raising a strong voice against government timidity and business self-interest, it is likely to have several further beneficial outcomes. Through the collective discussions and decisions that take place in active networks and living communities, people will deepen their understanding of the impact of climate change; this deeper knowledge would in its turn encourage and motivate individuals to change their own attitudes and behaviour.

With this analysis in mind, Hale argues that the era of environmental groups lobbying government and advocating for the environment on behalf of concerned but relatively passive financial members is over. That model of environmental politics has had its successes but, considering the effort put in over the past 40 years or so, progress has been modest. Further progress requires a shift in thinking and a change in approach. It might not be too much to say that we need to shift from a single-issue based environmental politics to a holistic ecopolitics.

The point is that climate change is not simply an ‘environmental issue.’ It is also a poverty issue, an employment issue, a food issue, a housing issue, a security issue, a health and well-being issue, a justice issue, a human rights issue. It follows that “the prospects for lasting progress in these and many other areas depends to a great extent on whether and how we tackle climate change” (p.264). And so it is in the interest of all the groups that are active on these economic and social issues to join in the mobilisation on climate change: all the community and voluntary organisations, trade unions, co-operatives and faith groups which together are referred to as the Third Sector (aka the community sector, the voluntary sector and the non-profit sector) .

In fact, Hale believes that “the Third Sector holds the key … to success in the struggle against climate change (p.264).

Coalitions of Third Sector groups can create a new politics of climate change. They can “deepen public commitment to action, showcase the potential for new and innovative policy and delivery of low-carbon solutions, and deliver significant actual emissions reductions, [thereby] unlocking the commitment and action of politicians and public alike” (p.270).

This coalition building and mobilisation must happen at every level, global, national, regional, and local community. Local involvement is particularly important, as Barry explained in Preparing for the futureTransition Towns, community gardens/allotments, Carbon Rationing Action Groups, or Time Banks … to suggest just a few possibilities. Only a massive mobilisation of active citizens in these many ways will put sufficient pressure on governments and provide sufficient encouragement for each other to face up to the need for change – and then provide the mutual support necessary to actually make the change.


Stephen Hale (2010) The new politics of climate change: Why we are failing and how we will succeed Environmental Politics, 19(2), 255-275. (An earlier pdf version of this paper is available here).

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