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Building an Effective Coalition for Radical Climate Action in the UK

By Steven Smith and Ian Christie, University of Surrey, 8th July 2021

Steven Smith and Ian Christie joined the 2021 EFN Retreat from the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability. Following are notes from Stevens’ presentation on his fascinating and hugely useful research on climate-focused organisations in the UK, and subsequent discussion with Steven and Ian.

In June 2019, the UK Government amended the Climate Change Act and legally committed to decarbonise by 2050, which it claims is our ‘highest possible ambition’ and ‘fully meets the requirements of the Paris Agreement’. It calls for a 3% annual reduction in GHG emissions, which is the rate it has been achieving since 2012, and represents an overall cost to GDP of less than 1%.

However, other analyses, including recent UNEP Emissions Gap Report, call for global emissions reductions of 7.6% annually over the next decade. When you consider the UK’s historical responsibilities, its wealth and its high emissions per capita, Steven argued that an ecologically and socially just transition for the UK should be aiming for 10% annual emissions reductions and net zero by the 2030s. A global net zero goal by the 2030s has been recommended by the recently launched Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) headed by the former UK Chief Scientific Officer Sir David King and comprised of 14 leading experts from around the world, including Fatih Birol (head of the International Energy Agency) and Johan Rockström (director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research). A 2050 target for Net Zero places too much faith in unproven technologies and runs too many risks of failure – whose impacts would fall first and worst on those most vulnerable, in the UK and above all in the global South. And so, there are strong political and ethical reasons to work for a much more rapid transition to net zero in the UK. How can that be done and what coalitions of actors need to be assembled?

Steve and Ian presented on their paper published in the journal Sustainability earlier in 2021, which sought to identify the actors in the UK climate policy ‘ecosystem’; categorise their key attributes (including policy goals and discourses) in a new typology of actor descriptors; map that ecosystem of actors; and visualise the potential for an advocacy coalition for rapid transition to net zero.

In the paper, they posit that in order to understand the potential of such a coalition, it’s helpful to visualise all the actors involved and then to try to gain some insights into the relative strengths, weaknesses, tensions and strategic opportunities in their policy positions. To go about this, they developed a typology to map out the actors, including:

  • Actor name
  • Actor scale
  • Net zero ambition
  • Policy discourse
  • Relative influence
  • Actor type
  • Actor sector

They produced two main illustrations, both focused at the national level. The first was an organogram of state actors; the second a map of non-state actors. The state actors organogram was subdivided into government departments with some responsibility for climate mitigation policy, with reference to international institutions and sub-national authorities from devolved nations down to local authority level.

The main illustration was the map of non-state actors: they collected details of 190 organisations and social movements and 25 individuals, and mapped out those actors according to a variety of criteria:

  • By what date they think the UK needs to reach net zero;
  • What sector they are part of (e.g. the arts, media, political party, research, trade union, city, NGO);
  • Relative policy influence within its own sector; and
  • Type of ‘policy discourse’ that each actor subscribes to

The categories used to describe ‘policy discourse’ are outlined below. This was where there was the most overlap with Jon Cracknell and Harriet Williams’ presentation from earlier in the day, though Steve and Ian’s typology included five rather than seven discourses. They included the ways each discourse aligned with Jon and Harriet’s, shown here in square brackets. The five discourses are:

  • Revolution (Systems change-led: ‘the current system of government is incapable of adequate reform’) [‘Revolutionary’]
  • Participation (Public participation-led: ‘the transition to a low-carbon society needs to be democratically designed’) [Elements of ‘Environmental Justice’]
  • Limits (Biophysical capacities and social justice-led: ‘a sustainable future whether or not the economy grows’) [‘Deeper Systems Change’/‘One Planet Fair Shares’]
  • Growth (Economy/jobs-led: ‘a transition to a low-carbon economy requires continuing GDP growth’) [‘Market transformation’/‘State-Led Regulation’]
  • Delay (fossil fuel/ideology-led: ‘there is no climate crisis; free markets and individual liberty are paramount’) [No equivalent in Jon and Harriet’s typology]

This analysis and the map generated by the process make very clear that actors in the Growth category are dominant – with by far the largest number of actors in that discourse, larger and more influential actors, and the greatest breadth across sectors. Those actors largely align behind the official 2050 net zero target; their narrative of climate transition based on economic growth, new technologies and cost-efficiency is very influential.

Examples of actors by discourse include:

Revolution: Extinction Rebellion, Farhana Yamin, George Monbiot

Participation: Platform, Julie’s Bicycle, Involve, Nesta, RSA

Limits: Avaaz,, Urgenda, Centre for Alternative Technology, Amnesty, The Guardian, Christian Aid, New Economics Foundation, Caroline Lucas, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Global Justice Now, etc.

Growth: WWF, Labour Party, IUCN, Chatham House, E3G, Aldersgate Group, CBI, National Trust, Client Earth, World Economic Forum, RSPB, Conservative Party, Church of England, Trade Union Congress (TUC), Unite, etc.

Delay: The Sun, The Daily Mail. the Cato Institute, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump.

Steve pointed out that particular tensions may exist between and within certain organisations where a more radical ambition is combined with a Growth discourse. For example, the Labour Party, TUC and Unite diverge from other unions — e.g. Unison, the National Farmers’ Union and the GMB. Interviews that Steve conducted confirmed this tension: there’s an ongoing debate within and between unions as they attempt to reconcile their historic support for economic growth with their recent commitment to rapid decarbonisation.

On the other hand, tensions may exist where organisations combine a less radical goal with a more radial policy discourse — such as within Oxfam and CAFOD. Their strong ethical profiles are consistent with a limits policy discourse, but they seek broad appeal for funding, which may limit their willingness to adopt more radical goals.

There will also likely be internal tensions at large public-facing charities at the boundary between Growth and Limits discourses. For example, WWF advocates a 2045 net zero target for the UK, but it also voices a strong commitment to the 1.5C global temperature rise threshold — a threshold that is very likely to be breached before 2045, especially if countries like ours fail to constrain consumption and GDP growth.

Some of the people Steve interviewed for the research indicated that staff at some of these larger environmental organisations feel quite conflicted in their professional roles, and support more radical actors like XR outside their workplaces. A more in-depth analysis of many of these organisations may reveal a variety of coalitions and subcultures within them.

The policy ecosystem is dynamic, and some actors are more easily movable than others. Some can change their positions quite rapidly to keep pace with public sentiment. (Steve referenced the ‘Damascene conversion’ of The Sun and the Daily Express, with their ‘Join Our Green Britain Revolution’ and ‘Green Team: Road to COP26’ coverage, respectively.)

Politically viable, ecologically unviable

One of the most significant insights produced by the map is the observation of the dominance of the coalition of organisations in the Growth discourse, who believe that the best strategy for addressing the climate crisis involves a technological, growth-led transition to net zero by 2050. This was exemplified by the G7 declaration following the leaders’ summit hosted in Cornwall by PM Boris Johnson: “We will lead a technology-driven transition to Net Zero, supported by relevant policies, noting the clear roadmap provided by the International Energy Agency and prioritising the most urgent and polluting sectors and activities” (Carbis Bay Declaration, p.13). While the declaration is clear that transition must be inclusive and fair, it makes no mention of the need for changes in consumption patterns and values, still less of ‘degrowth’ or ‘post-growth’ approaches to decarbonisation. This kind of discourse is pervasive and influential, but it is important to note that it is at odds with the evidence and projections from climate science and Earth Systems science, which increasingly emphasises the importance of radical changes in consumption and values in the affluent world.

This strategy is politically viable for the short term at least: it promises a smooth, non-disrupted glide path to net zero that could command majority support. But, Steve argued, it’s ecologically unviable in terms of a science- and equity-based transition that has a good chance of keeping us within the 1.5C threshold.

The major question, therefore, for those who wish to build support for a Limits coalition — the ecologically viable option — is how to make this discourse politically viable.

Steve pointed out that we can’t change climate physics — we can’t change what’s ecologically viable. So, we have to advocate for a rapid transition to net zero by the 2030s and make it politically viable. And this must be done quickly.

Current research shows that political viability to create a powerful, winning coalition of radical, green, Limits actors has to come from all directions. By drawing support from the Left and from the Right, perhaps by using corridors of democratic participation, but also particularly from below — from local, place-based initiatives.

Jon Cracknell and Harriet Williams have made the case that you can’t play a symphony alone; it takes an orchestra. Funders need to help fill the gaps in the orchestra to achieve a more harmonious symphony. What Steve and Ian’s paper and map show is that building a political movement and a policy coalition for a rapid transition is going to require one hell of a symphony which, above all, requires collaboration and strategic coordination. Their research at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability (CES) and the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) will be publishing further papers and a doctoral thesis with detailed recommendations.

Steve closed his presentation with these reflections on the important role that funders play as innovative ‘scalers’ of sustainable behaviour change, taken from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change’s funder recommendations (published in May 2021 here):

  • Incubators of ideas, inspiration and experimentation
  • Connectors between actors, institutions and arenas (uniting those pursuing similar goals, inside and outside the philanthropic and sustainability communities)
  • Mobilisers of change — providing flexible, rapid-response funding to facilitate the development and roll-out of innovations and practices into new spaces when events present windows of opportunity for rapid behaviour change to take hold.


In the discussion, Steve and Ian were asked about 47 interviews they conducted with leading experts in the 14 sectors represented in the map. They will be publishing the results separately, but Ian highlighted that most actors do not have a detailed plan to get to net zero. The nearest we have from the UK Government beyond grand announcements are the reports from the Climate Change Committee. At the local scale, plans do exist from emerging Local Climate Commissions Network ( So there will be pressure from below, and that’s one of the routes by which we might achieve better orchestration of what needs to be done.

They were asked about how we make the Limits discourse more politically viable: what are the steps that need to be taken to help generate political viability, and who has been sketching out a political strategy — what might be the role of local action?

Steve highlighted the fantastic work on communications going on with organisations like Climate Outreach and the Centre for Climate and Social Transformations (CAST). They are supporting the development of compelling narratives that target overlooked segments of the population, as well as overarching, grand narratives that can be positively interpreted by diverse constituents. Steve referenced the book The Myth Gap by Alex Evans on this point. Going back to the symphony analogy, he pointed out that it’s hard to make harmony if dozens of different people are making independent decisions about which instruments should be playing next. So coordination is an interesting part of funders’ roles. Collaboration is key.

Ian referenced the growing number of initiatives focused on participatory democracy for enlarging the range of discourses and policies for climate action. Those kinds of initiatives, such as local climate forums and the emerging network of Climate Commissions in UK cities and counties, are not focused on making a Limits discourse politically viable; rather, they are about making it politically acceptable to make a priority of climate action. By and large those processes have not challenged policy-makers or the public with the fact that we are making a risky bet that, by continuing in a Growth paradigm, we will be able to reconcile political and ecological viability via technology that allows an absolute decoupling of growth and carbon emissions. That is the assumption of the Growth discourse — and yet quite a lot of that technology does not exist yet, at least not at scale. Evidence indicates that that is a bet that is not going to work, at least not on the timetables needed to limit climate change to within 1.5C.

The Limits discourse is politically very tough to promote, and there aren’t many ways in which that is being made visible. At the University of Surrey, the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity, led by Professor Tim Jackson, has set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth. It’s been going for several years now, which in itself is a sign of shifting priorities and interests, but has not attracted a critical mass of MPs yet. It’s still very much on the fringes of political acceptability to speak of limits to growth and deep changes in consumption.

A participant asked how Steve and Ian’s analysis aligns, or doesn’t, with the Sixth Carbon Budget. Steve began by saying that setting up a Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in the first place was world leading. However, the CCC operates within political constraints. It is a quasi-independent advisory body whose chair and Chief Executive are appointed by the Secretary of State for BEIS and is, in his view, stuck within a Growth discourse – not due to direct government pressure so much as due to what Noam Chomsky called “the pre-selection of right-thinking people”. Criticism of government is permitted but the Growth imperative itself is never challenged. The CCC’s analyses are scientifically valid (as far as they go) but deploy huge assumptions and omissions to stay within the bounds of this paradigm. Government ministers, for their part, can claim to be ‘following the science’ of CCC recommendations while avoiding deeper, more uncomfortable discussions about equity, future generations and the myth of infinite growth. The CCC’s cobbled-together solution, Steve said, includes a heavy reliance on negative emissions technologies which don’t yet exist; they’ve ignored the idea of the IPCC’s 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5C, and they’ve done all sorts of things such as including only territorial emissions as opposed to consumption emissions. They call themselves world leading, but how can every country in the world follow suit and only count their territorial emissions — what will account for the emissions produced in other countries for products their citizens are consuming?

What’s missing, Steve argued, is a rich public discourse that we are facing a permanent, radical shift in our consumption and production that will affect the rest of our lives. That has not been picked up yet; the government has not made much effort to reach out to the public. Addressing the lack of non-expert, broad discourse on why this   matters might open up more space to think about deeper challenges. So engaging the public more generally is something the government and other political parties need to get going on.

Elaborating on the need for a more bottom-up approach, Ian said he was very much in favour of this approach because there is often more radicalism at the local level. Something fascinating going on in the UK at the moment is that there’s a bottom up evolution of climate governance below the radar of central government. So, as referenced earlier, new local climate commissions are being set up, bringing together county councils, universities, local business associations, and others. One in Surrey includes representatives from the local chamber of commerce and XR. These are beginning to make much more radical demands and to enlarge the scope of political imagination at the lower level, which will hopefully feed upwards. The work of the Place-Based Climate Action Network (PCAN) is a really good source of material about what’s driving more radical action at the local scale.

There was a question around whether we might suddenly see a big shift once a tipping point has been reached in the next few years. Ian reflected that in the last three years we have seen an extraordinary array of tipping points. Over two-thirds of the world’s economy is now covered by a net zero target of one form or another, mostly aiming for 2050. That’s a dramatic change in the space of a few years, generated by a confluence of new forms of protest (School Strikes above all), by rising elite awareness of ecological risks, and by advances for green technologies (e.g. the falling real cost of renewables). There will be further tipping points in terms of technology, but we will need others, too. Politically it’s hard to see much shifting unless something dramatic is produced in the scientific literature and in actual experience which radically changes our sense of urgency. There is unlikely to be an ‘exemplary disaster’ that will move lots of different actors at the same time. We can take hope from the last three years, which has seen an acceleration in the sense of urgency, but it has not yet pushed people towards the Limits discourse.

Asked what is the power of individuals to shift the narrative towards a Limits discourse, Steve cited research that shows that having a trusted messenger is as important as the messenger itself. Most people trust messengers who look like them, sound like them, and are in their sphere of influence. Only one or two people like Sir David Attenborough have cut-through appeal across the spectrum. A key task is finding those trusted messengers for the different values segments of the population and get those messengers out there.


Steven Smith is a postgraduate research student who has been leading the research presented on above as part of his PhD thesis, which is investigating the intersection of political, sociological and psychosocial dimensions of the climate crisis and how we can build an effective UK coalition for radical climate action and a transition to net zero by the mid-2030s. Ian Christie is senior lecturer in the social science and ethics of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, and a co-investigator at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. He is also currently an associate of Green Alliance, a Fellow of WWF-UK, and a trustee of the New Economics Foundation, Perspectiva and the Economic Change Unit.

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