The rebels versus the deckchair shufflers at MEPC74

Peter Jackson from BLUE Communications looks at the narrative aspects of the Extinction Rebellion protests outside the International Maritime Organization headquarters in recent days, suggesting this is an interesting example of what happens when shipping doesn’t ‘tell its own story’, despite the fact that it’s urged to do this at pretty much every conference Peter’s been to.

If I had a pound for every time I had heard at a conference a speaker urge shipping to “tell its own story” in response to ever increasing environmental regulation, I might not be a millionaire, but I’d certainly have enough for a few rounds with change afterwards. That’s not to be sniffed at given the cost of a pint in London, Singapore, or Copenhagen these days.

Right now, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion is protesting outside the 74th gathering of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at the headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), demanding slow steaming in order to reduce carbon emissions. The debate on whether this would be an effective means of carbon reduction, the feasibility etc, is probably best left to smarter people than me. However, it’s clear that it’s an easy, simple way to get some carbon savings on the table right now, at a time when some quick wins would be very welcome.

NGO action in shipping is of course nothing new, and has been a major driver of change in the industry. But so far, from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, it’s either been rather wonkish and technical, and therefore limited in scope (such as action on recycling or Arctic black carbon), or broader reaching and a bit vague. This looks like something new in the sense that it’s not only calling for a specific tactic, but linked into a popular global movement.

Shipping has ended up with a strong public call for a specific tactic and legislation – while the industry as a whole is being literally depicted as shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic (regardless of what you think of Extinction Rebellion, you’ve got to admire the commitment to a visual metaphor, and their ability to gain media share of voice). There’s a story out there that may end up affecting the entire industry profoundly.

What we talk about when we talk about shipping

Is it the right one? Who knows – but right now, it’s the dominant one. The problem is that there are lots of stories, lots of good answers to the mass of challenges shaping shipping’s future, and a whole bunch of nuance. Many of these stories are great, and reflect the dynamism of the industry’s response to environmental challenges, as my colleagues have argued in the past. Yet – to agree with the point made by so many in the industry – shipping is not good at telling its side of it.

When it comes to energy, there’s often healthy debate about the value of different energy sources that’s widespread throughout our media and public spaces.

Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than public advocacy for a only single course of action, we could see a discourse emerging that sees the industry weighing up, understanding and debating the strengths of all the solutions out there – wind, biofuels, voyage optimisation, batteries, hydrogen – the list goes on – that can help the industry meet its 2050 targets? A discussion in which industry has a voice, rather than being seen as foot-draggers. A discussion that helps find better answers, and accelerates implementation across the board – and one that can be told the wider world that often views shipping as an industry of apathy and intolerance of change.

This protest shows that if industry continues to do and say very little other than trotting out the occasional line on being the most efficient form of transport, its voice will be drowned out, and this discussion will never materialise. If you are content with being portrayed as a deckchair-shuffler, that’s fine. If not, the first and most important point is obviously to do something other than shuffle metaphorical deckchairs. The second is to tell people that you’re doing it, and make the story a good one.


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  1. Agreed. Shipping (i.e. the IMO) has 99% of the time been reactive to situations and then does not tell its side of the story after. A lot has been done really, like ballast water, naming protected ocean zones, waste reception facilities, dumping at sea etc. etc. Different aspects of environmental protection, which might not be on the agenda for climate change activists but all activities to save the planet are important and work together. None of those are in the public sphere or the media and when one does not tell one’s story others will tell it how they see and understand it. The danger is that they will react to public opinion which might not be the best thing. When people who don’t know much about shipping grab a media sound bite and “run” with it it never makes for good policy.

  2. No-one is denying, or even debating, that IMO and shipping have done a lot in environmental, safety, legal arenas. The debate is simply a. whether shipping is doing sufficient to meet the interim target, at least 50% reductions by 2050, and b. whether the industry and its UN agency regulator is sufficiently equipped to undertake the revolution shipping must now engage on . The discourse is actually mature and well populated, it was when I started publishing in this space in the Pacific in 2012.

    I am not an NGO but I am a member of the scientific community that work hard to do good science to advise the industry and the global community what is achievable if the industry and the IMO are prepared to rise to what Pacific leaders aha along labelled the greatest challenge facing their survival. I’m sorry if our work is wonkish or technical. However, it is not limited, it is available and accessible. Whether any wish to drown their sorrow or inadequacy or to read a few facts to be fully informed is a personal decision. But please dont hold us responsible for not doing our job

    Unfortunately the situation has gone from critical to all hands to pumps, even in the period since MEPC72. The IPCC 1.5 report was bad enough but there is a growing plethora of science since that even a full debarbonisation target by 2050 being included in the final strategy in 2023 is likely not enough.

    Yesterday the Fijian PM announced that his and a growing number of neighbouring states, including Marshall Islands, host to one of the larger registry, had set a new target of 40% absolutely reductions by 2030 and 100% by 2050. If these micro-states, among the most vulnerable of the planet, can commit to this level of ambition, surely the rest of the world has little moral ground on which to stand.

    It is our choice which side of history any individual wants to stand. For myself and many of my colleagues the choice is clear, the case there is a number of technical pathways available is compelling, the risk is with the political and industrial collective will to achieve it. But when your average high above sea level is 2m and you are entirely surrounded by the largest ocean on earth, the risk, if we can not take collective responsibility at this time in history, is existential. I just dont want the guilt of unnecessarily destroying entire and ancient cultures who did nothing to create the problem on my hands.
    #1.5tostayalive #spikeonstrike

    1. Hi Peter,

      I actually agree with much of this and I think we’re probably on the same page. I’m not saying that the ‘wonkish, technical’ stuff is unimportant. I was on the edge of my seat yesterday reading about margins of error in the sulphur cap fuel testing yesterday – there are of course rooms full of intelligent people having well informed, vital debates on these issues. However, communicating to the wider public – and beyond the pages of splash247 – is a slightly different matter.

      I guess my main point is that communicating on CO2 emissions is hard, and many in shipping are still on the starting blocks when it comes to communicating to publics who are beginning to define the debate, particularly once it goes beyond the confines of maritime media. If it’s seen as a binary case of ‘start slow steaming or go home’ however, that hides many other important choices that need to be made. However, the public doesn’t see these – because few in the industry see the need to communicate proactively. I agree that the threat is indeed existential, which in my view, increases the need for better communication and dialogue in the wider public sphere. FWIW I think that Fiji, Marshall Islands etc. have been good at communicating the urgency of the situation.

  3. Here is my fully agree with Peter Jackson from BLUE Communications and not at all with Carolyn! Why?
    Over all the years from the 60-ies til now where a small group of “Maritime insiders” on their way to promote and work for a shipping-system with less GHG-emissions.
    They knewed, how the atmosphere must be handled careful and was indeed poisened by these gases. Wilhelm Prölss was the man, who gave us his DYNARIG in around 1977. Some media wrote about it, but this point had sleeped away, – a Point we all as consumers did not where aware of, because far away on the oceans.
    The first private ship with a DYNARIG was the MALTESE FALCON in 2006 and now we have the Black Pearl since 2016- both systems working in the best satisfying manner for their owners.
    And now the IMO must change their policy and intodruce us, what they want to do -better : Must do , instead of shaming climate activists.
    Please see at Twitter: @MaltesefalconSY and @SYBlackPearl and discus furtheron with the IWSA: – greetings from @windotto –

  4. Thanks for your reply Peter. FWIW, the key word is communication and your kind words are well received. Collectively, we just all have to get a lot better at it and quickly.

  5. Don’t hold your breath. If ‘Private Eye’ cannot get answers from the IMO I doubt if anyone can.

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