Founder of 350.org Bill McKibben addressed a sell-out crowd of more than 500 on May 1, on the Sydney leg of his national tour.
Referring to the rapid progress of climate change McKibben said: “Things are changing fast: what isn’t is government policy. The environment movement is engaged in a fight against money and power."
McKibben gave an overview of the growth of the global climate justice movement. He pointed out that while the world’s carbon emissions had increased beyond the previous plateau and were continuing to rise, this was countered by the good news that solar power was getting cheaper. A just transition to a fossil-free future was possible and must be fast tracked, he said.
McKibben outlined three key strategies for the climate justice movement to accelerate climate action: a fast just transition from fossil fuels; no new coal or gas projects; divesting by institutions and governments.
Joe Scales, the new CEO of Solar Citizens, spoke of the successful campaign in South Australia to replace the coal-fired Port Augusta power station with solar generation and battery storage.
Repower Port Augusta was a grassroots campaign that involved the collaboration of environmentalists with workers and indigenous communities. Recognising that there were long term impacts on the health of a community, which had been dominated by the power industry for decades and that the power station had a limited life, the union decided to not oppose the environment movement but to join in the campaign. He echoed the slogan “no jobs on a dead planet”.
The campaign received support from local government and launched a repower plebiscite. The result was that 98% of respondents wanted solar power. Other actions included a walk for solar to parliament house in Adelaide in 2012.
However, the sudden decision by the owner to close the power station and blame it on the SA government’s concessions to solar, threw hundreds of people out of work was not a “just transition”.
Scales said the partnership between the community and the unions was active on a range of fronts and was critical to its success. As a response to union pressure the state government had to act. Tenders were called for a replacement power station.
However, the 2016 federal election intervened, and the Liberal Party parroted the claims that the state-wide blackout the previous summer was a result of risking non fossil fuelled power.
The reality, of course, was that the blackout was caused by storm damage to infrastructure. In any event solar power won the tender: 650 jobs will be created during construction, with 50 ongoing.
Scales said while Repower Port Augusta had all the ingredients for a just transition to renewables, the hiatus between closure and the opening of the new power station was a negative aspect. No retraining programs had been initiated, nor was there any training for different jobs. There was the potential to re-equip the closed GMH factory to manufacture solar panels but the opportunity was lost.
Scales summed up by saying that neither the union movement nor the environment movement can bring about the urgent changes needed on their own. They need to do it together.
Councillor Jo Dodds from Bega Valley Shire, and Zane Sikulu from Pacific Islander Warriors spoke of the immediate effects of climate change on local communities. Sikulu reiterated the three demands of the global climate justice movement and called for solidarity with the Pacific peoples: “We are not drowning: we are fighting!”