Climate movement — what next?

September 17, 2010
Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler asked five Australian climate activists for their thoughts on the current state of the movement.

Phillip Sutton is the convenor of Melbourne’s Climate Emergency Network and co-author of the 2008 book Climate Code Red.

Adam Lucas is coordinator of Beyond Zero Emissions Sydney and lectures in the Science and Technology Studies Program at the University of Wollongong.

Gemma Weedall is co-convener of the Adelaide branch of the Socialist Alliance and attended the April World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Fiona Armstrong is a Melbourne-based climate policy analyst and climate action advocate.

John Rice, an Adelaide-based climate activist, was a founding member of the Climate Emergency Action Network South Australia (CLEAN).


How has the climate action movement fared since the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks? Can you see any weaknesses in its strategy or tactics that need to be addressed?

Philip Sutton: The failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, and indeed the failure to get decisive action on climate from governments in Australia, is both devastating (given that we are heading rapidly into catastrophic climate change conditions) and yet was always highly probable (because, to solve the climate problem, we have to do nothing less than restructure the whole world economy).

The one bit of silver lining in the whole depressing dark cloud is that our collective failures have encouraged some people to start to rethink strategies that have clearly not been working.

The paradoxical situation that we are in is that traditional, incremental campaigning based on watered-down goals is not working and yet what needs to be done is far bigger and far more urgent.

The shift that is starting to occur is for people to realise that we have to develop new campaigning strategies that are based on what we actually need to do to restore a safe climate at emergency speed.

Our immediate challenge is to engage as many creative minds in this strategic reinvention as possible — to speed it up and to increase the chances that we develop strategies that really can work in the time available.

Adam Lucas: There are ways the Danish government ran Copenhagen that militated against NGOs getting any access at all. I thought there was some appalling discrimination. There were arrests and there was the targeting of activists during the climate talks, which certainly didn’t help with getting the message out.

I think the movement was rendered pretty ineffectual through the whole process. It might have been better had they taken a more oppositional stance during the conference.

It seems to me that the movement is on the back foot to a fair degree. We saw it happen with the East Anglia emails that the climate sceptics hacked. That certainly did have an effect on public option. I think its also pushed people who were vacillating on these issues back into denial or sceptical positions.

Even though the subsequent enquires have shown there were very few errors — all the emails were legitimate forms of communication — that doesn’t seem to have had much traction in the mainstream media. My main observation is that there has been a failure to break through the media disinformation around a lot of these issues.

And I think that’s partially a failure of the movement to adequately engage with the scientific experts to get the message out there. Of course, it’s also a failure of the scientists themselves to get their message out in a palatable way and a consistent way and a constant way — to get the information out to the public.

It seems to me there’s got to be some stronger linkages between the climate movement and the climate scientists.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the climate scientists are very good at producing nice, glossy, readable publications. But they have not been good at getting regular news coverage. And that’s the only way you are going to break through some of these denialist positions.

There is also reluctance among many scientists to stick their neck out about policy issues. I think the scientists have got to show a bit more backbone and speak out a bit more.

Gemma Weedall: There has been somewhat of a lull in the climate movement in Australia since Copenhagen, as many people were (understandably) disappointed with the lack of decisive action that came out of this conference.

But the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that was held in Cochabamba this year offered hope of a new paradigm, with real leadership being shown by the leaders and people of developing countries, and a commitment from grassroots movements globally to demand real action.

Fiona Armstrong: My observation of the whole process is that there was far too much emphasis on achieving a global agreement and less on demanding effective action at a national level.

It is my firm belief that an international agreement will be possible only after there is evidence of significant commitments and action at national government levels — so getting our state and federal governments to commit to strong and effective climate policy action is the best way to achieve a meaningful global agreement.

I also think we need to acknowledge the complex psychology at work in this issue and shift the narrative from costs to benefits — accepting that being clear about risk is vital, but that for most people (politicians included it seems), fear is a poor motivator.

We need a mix of “push” and “pull” factors to sell the climate action message. Improving climate literacy in the community would help a lot too — so this should be a theme or platform for advocacy.

John Rice: The numbers of people out on the streets are down. But in terms of the activist core, we haven’t gone backwards. The core has remained fairly stable. I don’t know if that’s the case nationally, but it’s the case locally.

I tend to think the whole Copenhagen thing was a bit like the “recession we had to have” in the sense that there were many illusions that had to be broken. I think a lot of people hoped that some international agreement was going to come about. But the international conditions were not there overall. There are not enough government’s that are directly responsive to popular pressure and expressions of popular will.

As a result, some people became disheartened and withdrew from campaigning to some extent. But popular feeling for action on climate change is still there and was expressed recently at the ballot box with the swing to the Greens.

So in terms of strategy, a weakness of the movement has been to much focus on the government-to-government, and NGO-to-government negotiations, and not enough focus on building the grassroots action side of things.

But we can now proceed from a stronger understanding. I’d say the climate movement has matured significantly in that respect this year.

What lies ahead is that it’s up to us to focus on the community, particularly on community education, so we can build that pressure throughout civil society to effect the change we need.

Does the federal election result, which included a record high vote for the Greens, offer new openings for the climate movement? If so, where do these openings lie?

PS: The federal election results mark the opening up of a completely new political strategy for the climate movement.

In the past the election battle has focused on Labor-Liberal marginal seats — but in general these seats are fairly socially conservative. So the climate movement has had to advocate significantly limited strategies that would be supported by relatively conservative people.

But now that the Greens votes are rising in the inner city areas of each capital city — to the point where the Greens can win lower house seats — a new class of marginal seats has been created: Labor-Green and even Liberal-Green.

In these Green marginal seats the voters are far less conservative and so it is to the advantage of the climate movement to promote highest, rather than lowest, common denominator policies. Significant numbers of people in the Greens marginal seats are open to policies that would actually solve the climate emergency.

This shift in politics does not mean that the climate movement should ignore the Labor-Liberal marginal seats. This is where the education of what might be called the “old” mainstream needs to take place. But in the inner city a new political arena has been opened up where we can educate and engage the “new” mainstream.

AL: It does offer some openings. There are a lot of issues around which the Greens and the independents can contribute to taking some more creative and innovative steps on policy issues around climate change.

And rather than the Labor party continuing to put all of its eggs in the baskets of renewable energy targets and emissions trading schemes, they should start implementing literally dozens of policies across multiple portfolio areas to get emissions down without having to introduce a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.

There are so many things that they can and should be doing, which they are not doing. They have Mickey Mouse policies that will not bring about any substantial reductions in emissions.

This is something the climate movement can do — helping to inform the Greens and independents about the kinds of policy direction we should be taking.

These include direct investment in renewable energy, low interest loans for renewable energy, a gross feed-in tariff for renewable energy installations, higher taxes on high emission vehicles, energy efficiency targets for different sectors of the economy — there is so much that they could be doing.

I’ve been getting my students to look at these sorts of issues and they have identified well over 100 policies across different portfolio areas that could be implemented with little cost to the government or manufacturers.

GW: I think the positive results the Greens achieved in the federal election reflects, among other things, a disillusionment with the major parties and the two party system, and a desire for strong climate action.

This presents a crucial opportunity to present a real alternative to the current political system, and highlight the need for an ecosocialist alternative as the only real chance of addressing the climate emergency.

There are good opportunities for grassroots activists within the Greens to work with climate activists around Australia and other activist based parties, such as the Socialist Alliance, to build the climate movement in Australia.

But a strong grassroots climate movement will be crucial if the increased Greens representation in parliament is to really mean anything.

There is a really important opening for the climate movement in the recent release of the Beyond Zero Emissions Zero Carbon Australia plan that sets out how we can achieve 100% renewables by 2020.

I think the Australian public will be very receptive to this practical, achievable and absolutely necessary alternative to the “quarry vision” policy of the major parties that would see a continued reliance on coal, and would mean disaster for the planet.

FA: The ALP-Greens agreement offers a platform for significant progress towards effective climate policy.

The agreement to establish a new committee, unlike any we have seen on our national parliament before, is significant and I hope signals the beginning of a maturation of Australia’s own version of the Westminster system by incorporating some of the best models from other political systems.

Whether or not this particular committee is the best option remains to be seen, but the willingness to explore new ways of working is positive. The agreement that a carbon price is necessary is also important, and if the committee process is effective, should lead to the development of a legislated carbon price within this term of government.

JR: The Greens new position in the Senate and the lower house gives an opportunity for new climate legislation, which may not have been possible if the Greens had not done as well.

Again, I don’t think we should get our hopes up. I think it’s similar in that respect to the Copenhagen scenario. If necessary conditions in civil society are not there, then you are not going to get the results. I tend to think the conditions are not there at this point.

I think the Greens’ reconsideration of a carbon tax is a positive step. It’s also good that the movement is swinging behind a tax rather than emissions trading. But Labor is not going to swing around and support the kind of climate legislation we need to decarbonise Australia by 2020.

Rather than a focus on what the Greens can do in parliament, I think the focus needs to be on what we all need to do on the ground to build pressure for action. What matters most is the pressure, the mass movement.

Also, it raises something for the Greens. Can the Greens focus on building themselves as a climate activist party? This is something they haven’t yet done. If it is going to strengthen its voice in parliament and have the biggest impact, having a wide and broad activist base that is prepared to mobilise and make big public splashes would make it a real force to contend with.

But at the moment I don’t see that strategy being made a top priority in the Greens. There are some in the Greens who are thinking like that, but that is what’s needed to create the kind of pressure that leads to the legislation we need.

So that’s a key internal party question for the Greens. And it’s also an issue for us in the climate movement — Greens and non-Greens activists — to encourage that sort of development.

The call to put "a price on carbon" has gained wide support in Australia. Its supporters range across the political spectrum — from the Liberal Party's Malcolm Turnball through to grassroots climate activists. Do you think a carbon price is a good policy and should the climate action movement campaign for it?

PS: The price on “carbon” issue is not at all straightforward.

First some context. There are really three energy futures fighting to happen in Australia. The first is the continuation of the coal-based status quo (helped along by carbon capture and storage).

The second is a fossil gas transition where coal-fired electricity is replaced by fossil gas-fired electricity. This future is the lowest cost option in a “carbon” constrained world — so it encourages the continuation of energy intensive industrial development.

In the end, when the fossil gas runs out, energy demand would be so high that some proponents of this future think that fast-breeder nuclear power is the logical replacement.

The third future is 100% renewable energy with a strong emphasis on energy efficiency.

Without a “carbon” price it will be very difficult to move Australia beyond energy future number one (coal dominated). Getting a price on “carbon” is probably quite important psychologically to draw a line in the sand marking the end of energy future one.
However the real politic is that getting a very high price on “carbon”, sufficient to drive the economy to energy future three (100% renewables plus efficiency), is highly unlikely. So if all we achieve is a (moderate) price on “carbon”, then the energy future we will get is the fossil gas transition to nuclear fast-breeder reactors.

To get to the 100% renewables future on a fast time frame, what is needed is really only two major policy decisions. One is to make sure that all new power investments are 100% renewable/zero emissions. The second is to establish a schedule for closing the existing fossil fuel power stations.

To implement these two strategies it is not necessary to use a price on carbon. Regulation can do the job.

Once these policies are in place there is a role for regulatory taxation to gently nudge the economy continually in the direction of energy efficiency.

So my preferred package would be to put a modest price on “carbon”, and complement this with the more powerful decisions to legislate to make all new energy 100% renewable and to phase out greenhouse gas emitting power stations.

Once the energy system has reached the zero emissions point the “carbon” tax would be converted to an energy tax, with the revenue spent on energy efficiency investments or redistributed to the public.

AL: I’ve got mixed feelings about putting a price on carbon. You don’t to have to an emissions trading scheme to put a price on carbon — that’s point number one.

The more I learn about emissions trading schemes the more I don’t like them. I don’t see the strong benefit of implementing such a scheme unless it was restricted to the major polluting industries and getting them to cap and reduce their emissions.

But I don’t see the point of applying it to the whole economy. It’s backward. It’s too complicated. It allows far too much room for cheating and offsetting and also for trading in futures, which will not actually achieve any emissions reductions in the medium to longer term.

In terms of doing it through a carbon tax — again it’s a complicated issue. At least a carbon tax prevents businesses from weaselling out of paying. But establishing at what level a carbon tax should be to actually drive real emissions cuts is quite difficult to ascertain.

Most Scandinavian countries have had a carbon tax in place since the early ’90s. Even a price of $150 for a tonne of carbon dioxide hasn’t resulted in any substantial reductions in emissions.

Although it is probably not a bad thing to do in the short to medium term, it’s just one of several dozen policy changes that need to be made. And, in itself, it is certainly not sufficient to drive emissions down in any substantial way.

If it were to be introduced there are certainly equity issues for people on lower incomes. So there has to be some mechanism in place to repatriate funds back to low-income households and guarantee that a certain percentage of the income goes into renewable energy or to other carbon reduction measures.

The devil is in the details with a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme. I don’t think we should give blanket support to a carbon price unless we know what all the details are beforehand. Any support has got to be contingent on the details.

GW: I think a carbon price can be a useful tool as long as it meets certain criteria — namely that it is a carbon tax set at a high enough price to have an effect, that it is socially equitable, and that the revenue raised goes directly towards funding renewable energy (not to lowering the corporate tax!).

However, a carbon price in itself is certainly not an adequate response to the climate crisis and should not be the main demand of the climate movement — this needs to be direct investment to achieve 100% renewables by 2020.

FA: A carbon price is essential. That is well understood internationally, and has been since the Stern report in 2006. It is the most cost efficient and effective way we can make clean renewable energy cheaper, and it should be quickly implemented in Australia.

I think the most appropriate mechanism would be for a carbon tax, with the revenue directed to a combination of clean renewable energy incentives and support for affected communities (i.e. transition for workers in fossil fuel industries and assistance for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups).

The evidence (e.g. a recent UTS study) suggests that there is strong support in the community for a price on carbon provided vulnerable groups are protected. So let’s get on with it!

However, a carbon price is by no means the only mechanism we need – it is just one of a suite of policy options necessary, especially given the urgency for emission reductions.

We need stronger regulation, tougher emissions standards, mandated energy efficiency, investment in transmission and transport infrastructure, removal of perverse incentives and so on.

Since there is no time to waste, we must get on with the implementation of suite of policies, and learn by doing, evaluating them as we go, revising as necessary to achieve the emissions trajectory we need.

JR: I think a price on carbon is a necessary, but not a sufficient thing. It’s worthwhile campaigning on, but we shouldn’t take our eyes off the prize, which is a massive rollout of renewables similar to what is urged in the Zero Carbon Australia plan.

On its own, a carbon price could simply stimulate a transition to natural gas and that’s a problem.

A price on carbon can take many forms, such as an emissions trading scheme. But emissions trading has proved ineffective in Europe and other places.

But a tax, combined with very active government intervention and the publicly owned rollout of renewable energy — along with an effective process of community consultation — is the kind of scenario we should aim for.

So a carbon tax is one plank in the platform, but it’s by no means the whole thing. It’s quite restricting for the movement to fetishise a carbon price. We need to think much more broadly about the solutions.

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