Ten lessons for the climate movement

Ten lessons for the climate movement: looking back, moving forward

Damien Lawson
21 February 2009


Looking back at the growth of the climate movement, it is clear we have made significant progress.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you
then they fight you, then you win.”

Mahatma Gandhi

* * *

More climate groups, better coordination of grassroots actions, increasing public concern, and even the election of the Rudd government are significant markers.

However, that progress is yet to translate into a meaningful shift in policy, let alone spark the transformation of society in Australia and globally that is needed to prevent catastrophe and ensure a return to a safe climate.

1. Changing government does not mean a change in policy

The honeymoon of the Rudd government on climate is over; divorce is in the air. Many people are outraged with the outcome of 5% carbon emissions reduction by 2020 (4% on 1990 Kyoto levels) and the polluter-friendly trading scheme.

But did we really think that the level and depth of mobilisation we have seen to date would lead to the type of transformation that is needed? Even the scale of the Whitlam Labor government reforms, which represent the most substantial changes made by a peacetime Australian government, are minor compared to the transformational changes that are needed to halt climate change.

So we will need a public mobilisation that dwarfs any that Australia or the world has seen. This means far more than a change in government.

Yet the strategy of most environment NGOs in 2006-08 seemed to be one of mobilising the community to elect a Labor government, and then talking softly to the new government behind closed doors, rather than continue the mobilisation.

As we learned in 2008, lobbying is meaningless unless the one lobbied believes there will be real political consequence from them failing to act.

2. Continuous mobilisation

So our aim must be the continuous mobilisation of the community. Not turning people on and off like a tap when an issue or election comes up. This means a far greater depth of education, community involvement and coordination.

For example, why was The Big Switch website, which sought to link individuals in the community with their local MPs, put in the freezer after the election? Arguably this type of resource is needed more now than ever.

We must also see our efforts to mobilise the community as a long-term project of getting every organisation in a particular locality to recognise the full implications of climate change and to put the heat on local MPs until they become advocates for the movement, not barriers to action. We need to create movement resources that can do this; the Melbourne Climate Action Centre is one such modest attempt.

3. If we are not frightened then no-one else will be

For a long time, there has been a debate in the environment and now the climate movement about “fear versus hope”. Some say talking too much about the problem will depress people or cause them to switch off. We need to advocate “positive solutions” as the common catch-cry.

But this false dichotomy is often a mask for conservative positions that seek to maintain a delusional strategy on climate change, which sees advocacy of small, immediately “achievable” steps as the only approach that will work.

However, the desire to propose small steps that can be easily adopted by government not only leads to advocacy of solutions that won’t solve the climate problem, but often also prevents the truth about the real extent of the climate problem being told.

As US activist Ken Ward points out, there is an odd disconnect between our raising of the alarm and then advocacy of tiny steps that can lead to a disbelief on the part of those who receive our message.

It is reasonable to be terrified knowing where the planet is heading. But the truth is, unless we behave like terrified people then why should anyone else?

And unless people are terrified they will not support the scale of action that is needed to solve the problem. As Oscar Wilde said: “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”

4. Knocking on doors is as important as climbing smoke-stacks

The grassroots movement has contributed to public understanding of the urgency of the climate problem by civil-disobedience actions that create media attention and flag the seriousness with which some citizens take the issue.

However, there is a danger that a one-sided emphasis on such actions can substitute for the less glamorous work of engaging the community. We need to find ways to take the urgency of climate change direct to people in their communities through door knocking, local events and other direct communications.

Imagine a national doorknock day where grassroots activists fan out across the suburbs bringing a single message of the need for urgent action. Imagine a day where we all protest on sports ovals that will be destroyed by climate change or mark the sea-level rises on our foreshores and in our community.

However, climbing smokestacks is still important too. We need more civil disobedience not less. The task is to focus on actions that can mobilise large numbers in civil disobedience actions, rather than small heroic groups. Small actions can be part of, but cannot substitute for, wider mobilisation.

Only when we have thousands gathered to sit-in at power stations will such actions move from the symbolic and become truly powerful.

5. Alliance building is more than box-ticking

It’s easy to “build alliances” by having some talking heads sign a joint statement at the end of a one-day seminar. But if it goes no further, this is not alliance building, it’s just box ticking.

If all it does, for example, is give a green stamp of approval to “clean coal” proponents or welfare groups who oppose feed-in tariffs, it’s worse than doing nothing.

The important action is not the signature and the media release, it’s about the allies – whether they be welfare groups, unions, churches, farmers or business groups – taking committed action to educate, resource and mobilise their member organisations and their individual members in support of the propositions and commitments signed on to.

Alliance building is about being able to mobilise real political forces across diverse sectors, and if that isn’t the power that has been gained by building alliances, then in the long run they are not worth the paper they are written on.

6. Propose solutions that will work

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 5% policy should make clear the bankruptcy of the strategy, as one environment NGO leader described their own climate campaign decision-making, of taking the science and putting it through a “political filter”.

The targets and proposals we propose as a movement will be used by politicians to judge how much and how little they must do, and by the public to assess the actions of politicians.

If we continue to advocate policies just beyond what the government wants to do (the approach adopted by most of the big climate NGOs), then we will get less than that and have misled the public as well.

Surely the only credible and viable approach is to patiently build support for a solution that can fully solve the problem. This means educating the politicians and public about why such a solution is necessary.

Initially, the actions of politicians will fall short of our goals, but then they must face the judgement of an educated public armed with the truth, not the “truth” put through a “political filter”.

When leading scientists are talking about the safe zone being 280 to 325 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 and the need for zero emissions, why can’t the leading climate NGOs get on board and put the science first?

7. Stop talking about the reef and start talking about people

The latest campaign by the Australian Conservation Foundation about Australia’s iconic places is an example of the communications failure of the movement. As long as we talk only about the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu, we will continue to reinforce a perception of climate change as a threat only to the environment and not the whole of society and civilisation.

We also send message that it can be managed like other environmental problems. To make progress, climate needs to be understood NOT as an “environment sector” issue, but as a whole-of-society problem that is as much about human rights as anything else.

Fundamentally, we need to talk more about the impact on people, not beautiful places.

The emphasis on Australian impacts by many of the environment NGOs also reinforces this problem. Because it means, for example, the more than one billion people facing the loss of the Himalayan glacial melt water are not part of the debate.

The idea that Australians only care about Australian places in the context of a globalised cosmopolitan society is narrow in the extreme.

8. But is it the economy, stupid?

The movement was taken down a rabbit hole partly of its own making after the election when we allowed the debate to be about the “economic cost” of climate change.

As long as the terrain of debate remains on costs, we will lose because, while it is technically possible to show how the “cost of inaction” is greater than the “cost of action”, politically and emotionally it reinforces a fear of economic down-turn, loss of jobs and cost to the public.

The bankers and corporations will always win such a debate, as we have seen. The planet cannot be reduced to the economy.

Instead we should show clearly that the scale of the disaster means we must act regardless of the cost. The emergency message and the war-time analogy are crucial in this debate.

9. We are activists not policy advisers

There is a danger in all movements of being so close to an issue that we start to believe that all we need to do is create and describe a perfect solution and our job is done.

In reality, however, policy outcomes are never about the elegance of a solution, but about power. As long as we continue to focus on emission wedges and the technicalities about how to get to zero, we will keep losing.

Our job is to convince the public that the government must fix the problem, not come up with the perfect solution. This has been the usefulness of the message about “climate emergency” because it encapsulates in one phrase the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution that is needed.

10. Our movement is and must be global

The argument of the Howard and Rudd governments – that China and India must act and that climate change is a global problem – has often been strongly opposed by the climate movement and for good reason. This argument is used as an excuse for inaction by Australia.

However, we should not let such a debate prevent us from seeing the truth in elements of Rudd’s argument. We cannot solve the problem in Australia and we do need global action and cooperation.

For us, this means creating more global links and cooperation amongst grassroots movements and continuing to leverage off each other’s actions.

We must look for opportunities in 2009 to work with groups and networks locally and internationally that have as the goal of mobilising of the global community around science-based demands.

[Damien Lawson is coordinator of the Climate Action Centre, Melbourne and works for Friends of the Earth Australia. The article first appeared in a Climate Reader prepared by the Carbon Equity project for Australia’s Climate Action Summit. Visit http://www.carbonequity.info.%5D

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #784 25 February 2009.

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