If climate change appears to be an area where states in Europe have been dragging their heels and refusing to act, one place has been bucking the trend. Scotland’s Climate Change Act, adopted in 2009, was one of the first pieces of domestic climate change legislation to be passed anywhere in the world and remains one of the most ambitious. The legislation committed Scotland to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. The Scottish government also recently announced a moratorium on planned fracking operations.

For Sara Cowan, Campaign coordinator at Oxfam Scotland, political will and the input of a wide range of Scottish civil society played a key role in pushing forward this legislative landmark. “The legislation received cross-party support which was definitely impacted by the civil society movement – it wouldn’t have been so ambitious without so many different sectors involved, and the number of people pushing their MSPs [Members of the Scottish Parliament] to support it.” Along with the targets for emissions reductions, other progressive initiatives have been achieved, such as the creation of a ‘Climate Challenge Fund’ to help local communities reduce their carbon footprint deal with climate change and a ‘Climate Justice Fund’ aimed at the developing world.

Cowan describes the 2020 target in particular as “world leading legislation”, and believes it could not have been achieved without the popular pressure built up thanks to a remarkable movement. Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) is a coalition of around 60 organisations, and is astonishing in its diversity. Started in 2006, SCCS grew from a small core to a broad movement – bringing together NGOs, Trade unions, students, faith groups and other actors. This growth was spurred by the recognition that in order to be effective, the movement had to engage people across society to demand action from the Scottish government with a single, loud voice.

Tom Ballantine, chair of SCCS, describes the particular context in which the movement first began forming in 2007: “It was just before Copenhagen, when everyone was much more accepting of the need to do something about climate change, so we were quite lucky with the timing of putting the coalition together.” Yet even with the propitious circumstances in which it was set up, it is striking that the movement has managed to last, still going strong after several years, during which the global campaign against climate change found itself suffering from a lack of momentum in light of the repeated failures to reach a meaningful agreement.

A movement outside politics?

The discussions around the Scottish referendum led to a surge in interest in politics in general, as evidenced by the high turnout and the fact that parties such as the Scottish Greens have subsequently a sharp rise in membership. But the impact has been felt even more widely across society.  “After the referendum there has been lots of interest in engaging with the political process in different ways, among those who may not have been politically active before,” says Ballantine. This engagement has not only been witnessed through a rise in political activity and membership but also through a strengthening and resurgence of interest groups, such as women’s groups.

Although parties such as the Greens may be aligned with the aims of climate activists, Ballantine emphasises the importance of political independence for a civil society movement such as SCCS that aims to build a broad popular support base: “for our coalition, it’s very important that we’re not seen as just another version of the Greens as this would make it difficult to get cross-party support, and would make participation difficult for some organisations such as trade unions.” The breakthroughs on climate change were not the doing of any single party but rather were achieved by all of them acting together to form a consensus based on the demands emerging from civil society.

An empowering message

For Ballantine, what holds the coalition together and has kept it going over the past years are the fundamental principles that underpin the movement: “We share the underlying key values of both respect for the environment and of everyone playing their part.”

Ballantine regards the issue of fighting climate change as both a human rights and an environmental issue; “It crosses so many different fields and I think in civil society that’s understood and recognised. For example, the British Medical Association has made some of the most dramatic statements about climate change you’ll hear.” Such statements from a health perspective have an immediacy for the general public which helps to get people’s attention.

The focus of SCCS is primarily on campaigning directed at the Scottish government to ensure targets are met, and on engaging members of the public around Scotland to broaden the coalition. For this to be successful, it is crucial to bear a message that will resonate widely. “A lot of research has been done into what drives action on climate change and it seems that some terminology turns people off,” says Ballantine, “we need to talk about positives rather than negatives and talk about it in a different way.” A new campaign from the coalition, called ‘For the Love of’ – aims to get people to talk about the things they love – “whether it’s coffee, their grandparents, any number of things that are all ultimately impacted by climate change.” While this seems to be a positive statement, “behind it is the implicit acknowledgement of the threat – saying we have to protect these things otherwise we will lose them.”

Going digital: campaigning in transformation

How has the coalition managed to bring this message to such a wide audience to gather national support? Ballantine credits the work of social movements which he says “have played a huge part in changing the way people mobilise in the UK. Organisations like Avaaz and 350.org now have real power and reach, but it is all happening online. Things have moved on a lot since a generation ago and it’s important to recognise that and engage with it.”

Ballantine predicts that the influence of these web-based platforms will continue to grow. “Avaaz will organise a big mobilisation next year and we hope to link in with this.”

Cowan stresses, however, that the rise of these new digital tools has not eliminated the need to try to engage with people in order ways: “We have been taking our campaign to the local community level so SCCS supporters will be mobilised and campaigning – using both traditional ways as well as new ways.

A model for Europe?

But how has Scotland managed to make such strides on climate change, leaving other countries far behind it? Ballantine suggests there may be some elements unique to Scotland, such as the country’s size and natural assets: “It may be easier in a small country because people tend to know each other, for example across the NGO sector. The honest truth about renewables is that we have some of the best renewable resources in the world, in terms of offshore wind capacity, wave capacity and so on.”

This is not the end of the story, however. “Scotland has always seen itself as a country interested in social justice,” points out Ballantine, “that has helped us.” Yet he doesn’t feel that these attributes mean the Scottish experiences couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. “I don’t think there’s anything specific to Scotland that couldn’t be done elsewhere, we may just have a better start because of our resources.”

Cowan agrees and points out that they have been making efforts to take their experience outside Scotland in order to encourage and support climate activists abroad, for example by producing a film documenting the movement and its development that has been shown around Europe. “The reason we produced this film and are trying to share our story internationally is because it can be replicated; it is about letting people know what happened and trying to build up momentum.”

Towards Paris 2015

The coalition’s main strategy for the months ahead is to keep up the campaign’s strong positive focus. The ‘For the Love of’ campaign will be launched this month, focusing especially on Valentine’s Day, and aims to mobilise people by getting them to think about the things they value and enjoy, and through this to reflect on the benefits that a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly society would bring, in terms of health, jobs, quality of life and all aspects of life. Beyond this, the coalition is also looking ahead to COP 21 in Paris later in the year, and will be attempting to broaden the coalition to reach out to new members and continue to build up momentum towards this.

For Ballantine, Cowan and the others behind SCCS, the fight continues despite the hard-won achievements, and pressure needs to be kept up in order to ensure that targets are met and those who have made promises are held to account. Ballantine is optimistic about the year ahead and beyond: “We know we’re on the right side of history, we see the scientific evidence stacking up and what is happening in terms of climate. The only question is whether we can we get people to act soon enough and boldly enough to solve it. That’s the billion dollar question.”

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.