After Walk Against Warming: where next for the movement?

November 16, 2007

November 11's national Walk Against Warming was an important initiative for the climate change movement. It was smaller than the 100,000 people organisers had hoped for, but the fact that tens of thousands joined the biggest political demonstration of the election period confirms the opinion poll findings that climate change is a grave concern for large numbers of people.

When liberal "conventional wisdom" promotes the view that it is enough to vote for parties with the right policies, it can be difficult to convince people to rally in an election period. It can be harder again to convince the social movement peak bodies — often the ones with the resources and weight to pull off big mobilisations — to call such demonstrations. So the timing of the rallies, two weeks before the election, was to the credit of the organisers and an important way for ordinary people concerned about global warming to demand government action.

Nevertheless, the three key limitations revealed by the rallies pose serious questions for the climate change movement.

The capital city rallies weren't built around clear demands. Posters and fliers carried the slogan "One planet. One climate. Last chance", or modifications of this. But in the absence of clear, concrete demands, the way is open for the manoeuvring of the ALP and Coalition, which can claim to be "against warming" too. If we're not explicit about what needs to be done, we dilute the pressure on them to act.

Linked to this was the decision to invite Labor and Coalition speakers to address the rallies, despite their refusal to commit to the measures necessary to prevent climate disaster. In this, the rally-goers were far in advance of the organisers, heckling and turning their backs on Labor's Peter Garrett in Sydney, and elsewhere giving them a cold reception (compared, for example, to the enthusiastic reception given to Greens speakers such as Bob Brown).

A third shortcoming was the lack of democracy in the organising of the rallies. Conservation councils in each state organised or, in some instances, co-organised the capital city rallies with other environment peak groups (e.g., Greenpeace in Melbourne). With some exceptions (for example Hobart and in regional centres like Wollongong), meetings were not open to all activists or groups, or were only opened up once all the decisions had been made and the conservation groups were looking for people to spread the word. This restricted discussion and collective decision-making about such issues as which demands and speakers would be best, and reduced the sense of ownership of the event that comes through such democratic participation.

The Sydney rally organisers initially invited Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining division secretary Tony Maher — who promotes "clean" coal — to speak at the rally. He was pulled after an email campaign initiated by CFMEU member and Anvil Hill Alliance activist Graham Brown — but this wouldn't have been necessary had the organising taken place in an inclusive way.

Given the urgency of global action to avoid runaway climate change, this is not a campaign we can afford to lose. To be most effective, this movement will need democratic processes and structures, to give participants the benefit of a range of ideas for tactics, demands and priorities, and to ensure the greatest number of people feel empowered to take action together.

It's clear the movement is diverse and needs to be so. There are numerous specific campaigns that must be waged through a combination of measures — in the streets, in direct actions, in the courts. These include the campaigns to stop the Anvil Hill coalmine in the Hunter Valley, halt the expansion of the Newcastle coal export facilities, stop the Gunns' pulp mill and associated native forest logging in Tasmania and many others. They are campaigns on their own, but winning each of them will be essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or maintaining and increasing the carbon sink (the Earth's ability to absorb the greenhouse gases released into the air).

But as well as supporting these discrete campaigns, we also need to strive for unity across the climate change movement around broader demands, such as for the immediate and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required to keep global warming below at most 1.5-2°C and in the longer term to bring the temperature down; for rejecting the non-solutions of nuclear power and "clean coal"; for vast expansion of renewable energy production, alongside efficiency measures; and for an expansion of public transport — which really needs to be free, if it's to be taken up on the scale necessary to get cars off the roads.

To support such campaigns and demands, the movement will need to be independent of the vested interests of the fossil fuel and other greenhouse polluting industries, and their Coalition and Labor lackeys. It will also need to avoid false friends like the nuclear lobby with their cynical attempts to reinvent nuclear power as the solution to climate change. This is not to advocate refusing to work with members of the ALP, or anyone else, to halt climate change. But we do need to oppose attempts to subordinate the tactics and demands we adopt to the electoral interests of the corporate parties that have shown their inclination to put profits ahead of the planet.

In this light, the plans by Melbourne Friends of the Earth to hold a post-election "Where next?" forum for the movement is a welcome initiative. Within the movement, we sorely need such discussions on how to advance this struggle — the efforts of the "greenhouse mafia" of major greenhouse polluters to stymie action that could cut into their profits means that stopping global warming will take a colossal struggle. The left will need to find ways to construct broad alliances to ensure real measures are taken to halt the warming — and that such measures are not only environmentally, but also socially, sustainable.

[Kamala Emanuel is a NSW Senate candidate for the Socialist Alliance.]

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