Climate emergency: birth of a new protest movement

September 20, 2008

In the room are a chemical engineer from a large mining/energy corporation, a solar energy engineer, a psychiatrist, a veterinarian, an artist and a construction worker. Also present are an ex-Labor Party activist, a Greens candidate in the 2007 election and a socialist student. Where do you find all these people, and more besides, in one room working for the one cause? At a meeting of Melbourne's Climate Emergency Network (CEN).

Australia is seeing the emergence of a new radical cause that is cutting across old political boundaries and bringing together people who would never before have crossed paths. For more than a decade, the environmental movement has been dominated by elite lobbying organisations on the one hand and dwindling groups of direct action protesters organising forest blockades on the other. Official green discussion alternated between pseudo-scientific "sceptics" saying there is nothing to worry about and safe pastel-green NGOs telling us that if we did our recycling (and made a donation) we had nothing to worry about.

Why has everything changed?

In November 2000, the renowned scientific journal Nature printed an article titled "Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model". This dry sounding title put paid to earlier expectations that climate change would be gradual.

The scientific consensus now is that climate change will progress in sudden, violent leaps that will go beyond our ability to stop it. As British writer Mark Lynas put it, "The end of the world is nigh, and it's already been published in Nature".

Fast forward to 2008. The vested interests that peddled climate change "scepticism" have now decided, in most cases, to acknowledge reality, but they are acting as though they can solve the problem at the pace of the market. The climate "sceptics" and denialists have fallen from grace in more official circles, but some, like the Melbourne Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt, have found a new role feeding soothing disinformation to all those who do not read Nature magazine.

The gap between the sleep-inducing official "response" to climate change and the need for urgent, world-changing action is sending shock waves through society. The fact that most media is owned by a couple of tycoons who hire the likes of Bolt has not stopped this. Climate change alarm and action is spreading.

Post-election polling of marginal seats by the Climate Institute found that the 2007 federal election swing that delivered government to the Labor Party was to a significant extent due to concern about climate change. For those who voted Labor, climate change was "the second most distinguishing policy (70%) behind industrial relations (83%)". In government, Labor PM Kevin Rudd moved very quickly to ratify the Kyoto protocol — a fairly token gesture but with the aim of placating a concerned electorate.

With the recent announcement of a complicated emissions trading scheme, more people are being lulled into a false sense of security, as though this will fix the problem. Regular readers of Green Left Weekly will have read many articles explaining why this market scheme is unlikely to achieve much (if anything) to stop climate change, but most of the public do not have access to such information.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear to all that climate change is accelerating. The Arctic sea ice is melting at a record rate, beginning a chain reaction that could lead to the melting of the Greenland icecap, a seven-metre sea level rise, and worse consequences to come.

More and more scientists are telling the world that we can't keep putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In this, Professor John Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has recently added his voice to that of NASA scientist James Hansen.

In a December 2007 Newspoll commissioned by Greenpeace, 77% of people in Australia "said the government should begin phasing out existing coal-fired power stations and replacing them with renewable energy generation by 2010". That's an overwhelming mandate for climate change activists to take action, and they are.

The new CEN in Melbourne links together many local climate action groups, including some that helped swing marginal electorates in the 2007 federal election. In Melbourne, the 4000-strong Climate Emergency Rally did not just spell out the letters "climate emergency" on the ground; it united activists from new climate action groups, campaigns against desalination and bay dredging, and more established groups like Friends of the Earth and Environment Victoria. A week later, a mass direct-action protest halted coal trains at Newcastle.

Despite the revival of organised protest, there is a need for many more activists. The new climate action groups are bolstered by stalwarts from the environmental campaigns of the 1980s and '90s, but more people must join in for the movement to spread.

There is no shortage of enthusiasm. In Melbourne, outer suburban public meetings with David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red, have shown this: more than 30 turned out in Strathmore for the first meeting of a new climate action group and a meeting of 80 in Frankston decided to set up a climate action group on the spot.

These initiatives are reinforced by some recent victories for the environmental movement, notably — if not yet definitely in the bag — against Gunns' pulp mill in Tasmania. Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill held regular meetings of more than 100 activists.

A Queensland CEN has formed and similar groups are coming together in other states. Brisbane activists are organising a week of climate emergency action from September 22 and the organisers have linked up with an existing water-related campaign, to save the Mary River.

Such single-issue campaigns can be a source of strength for the climate emergency movement because they draw in committed groups of local activists and, like Tasmania's pulp mill campaign, are able to deliver small victories that will encourage the movement.

The enthusiasm in the suburbs and regional centres for action groups to do everything from arranging discount solar panels to organising Walk Against Warming marches is another strength of the new movement: it is spreading wide enough to sink deep roots in the community.

Very importantly, the new movement also blends diversity and unity. People from such disparate backgrounds as those listed at the beginning of this article won't agree on everything – within or outside of the movement – but they can find enough common ground to pull together big events like the climate emergency rallies, and the climate emergency conferences and seminars being organised to discuss the way forward for the movement. As big as the challenge of climate change is, it is awakening a grassroots movement on a scale to match.

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