Here’s an interesting experiment. You can measure how seriously an organisation takes an issue by finding how many times it mentions it on their websites. After all, a website will contain its entire public output: every report, press release and leaflet. You can do it easily on Google. All you have to do is type the word (or phrase in inverted commas) you want to search followed by the word “site” and a colon followed by the domain name.
Two years ago, out of curiosity I typed
“climate change” site:www.amnesty.org
into Google. Absolutely nothing turned up. Amnesty International, the world’s most prestigious human rights organisation had not one single mention anywhere on its website of an issue that, a according to IPPC estimates will generate 150 million refugees by 2050 and, by the reckoning of the Pentagon and MoD, will become one of the key causes of future conflict.
The Human Rights Watch website mentioned climate change 16 times. This is slightly better until you consider the chances that any random phrase will appear on a large website. For the sake of comparison, I ran a wordsearch on two terms that have absolutely nothing to do with human rights; donkeys and ice cream. I must admit that I have had it in for donkeys ever since I discovered that the British Donkey Sanctuary raises a staggering £20 million a year to “rescue donkeys in distress”. It seems that Human Rights Watch also rates donkeys far above climate change- it mentioned them 67 times. And even ice cream received 25 mentions.
By now you see where I am going. I continued to run the same three wordsearches past a whole cluster of human rights and development organisations. The following all gave the phase “climate change” less than five mentions or less web attention that the two control terms:
Physicians for Human Rights, Oxfam US, CARE US, World Vision US, Save the Children UK, Survival International (the leading indigenous people’s campaign organisation), International Women’s Health Coalition, Womankind Worldwide, YWCA, European Council on Refugees and Exiles (the main umbrella body for refugee organisations) Refugees International, Family Health International.
Later that year I invited leading decision makers from the human rights and development sectors to explain what was going on. They came up with several cogent arguments for their lack of engagement- a belief that the issue was already being dealt with or that it was an ‘environmental issue and outside their mission; a fear of ‘mission creep’; and uncertainty about how they could usefully intervene.
But I think there were deeper reasons. The people who lead liberal organisations seem to find it just as difficult to accept climate change into their world view as people from the free market right. Their politics were molded by the issues of the 1970s and 1980s- social inequality, nuclear proliferation, neo-colonialism, gender issues, racism, homophobia. When they say that it is hard to see what their organisation can do, they are projecting their own confusion over how to absorb and respond to this vast new issue.
The end result is that progressive organisations do not merely sideline or underplay climate change: they actively censor all mention of it from their materials. Internally they argue that it is outside the area of issues relevant to their work. Publicly they do not deny the importance of climate change: they don’t say anything about it at all.
In doing this they are reflecting a wider social denial strategy, noted in several academic studies. The large majority of people, whilst noting that climate change is a serious issue, will admit to never talking about it in their daily life. They are managing the problem by actively excluding it from what sociologists call their ‘norms of attention’. Ironically this strategy mimics a common social response to human rights abuses: when asked, people admit that they heard the screams in the night or they noticed that people had disappeared, but, through a socially negotiated compact, they never discussed what they know to be happening with each other.
Last week I repeated the wordsearch experiment. There are positive signs of change. Some major development organisations have broken ranks and are now giving climate change the attention it deserves. Oxfam UK, for example, gives it 1,700 mentions. Save the Children has finally got the message and has increased the number of mentions tenfold.
However the human rights organisations are still far from engaged. The Amnesty website now mentions “climate change” 57 times, but the control terms ‘ice cream’ and ‘donkey’ merit 71 and 141 mentions respectively.
In February, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said that the issue of climate change is becoming of greater concern to his group, ‘particularly because of the refugee issue’ link… . But he refused to be drawn on when it might work on the issue. It is clear that the HRW website is still deliberately excluding mention of climate change. It now mentions climate change 32 times; ice cream is at 33 and donkeys are at 122. I could add that sweets are at 60 and chips are at 164.
Who knows, after another two years of climate disasters, front page news and apocalyptic research Human Rights Watch might pay more interest to the greatest threat to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people than it does to confectionary, snack foods and cute animals with big brown eyes.
My original wordsearch, interviews and analysis can be found in my chapter ‘Asleep on their watch: where were the NGOs?’ in: David Cromwell and Mark Levene (eds) Surviving Climate Change: The Struggle to Avert Global Catastrophe, Pluto Press 2007.