Fighting climate change: Beyond business as usual

The following article is based on a speech delivered by Renfrey Clarke to the Climate Emergency: No More Business as Usual conference held in Adelaide on October 10-11. Clarke spoke as a representative of the Socialist Alliance.

A few months back, 14 large Australian industrial corporations opened their books to the accounting firm Port Jackson Partners, ostensibly to show the impact on them of the government's proposed emissions trading scheme.

Three of the 14 firms, it was claimed, would have to close. On average, pre-tax earnings of the 14 would fall by 22%.

Those revelations formed the basis of a paper released in August by the Business Council of Australia (BCA). The gist of what it said was: the only action against global warming that's acceptable is the kind that doesn't cut seriously into profits and growth.

So, the BCA's line is: no decisive action until a comprehensive international agreement on emissions reduction is in place. Should the Rudd government make big demands in its emissions scheme, the paper hints, firms will pack up and go overseas. Or at least, they'll stop investing in Australia.

In effect, the top tier of Australian capital is in revolt against a key policy on which the country's government recently fought and won an election. That policy remains overwhelmingly popular. Big majorities of Australians say in polls that they're willing to make sacrifices to stop global warming. They agree strongly that Australia should take action whether other countries do or not.

But the BCA says: no dice. Put our interests first, or we'll trash the economy.

Will the Labor government stand up to this? In early September, Ross Garnaut handed down his recommendations for interim reductions targets. Five per cent by 2020. Ten per cent if there's an international agreement in place.

Greenhouse-exposed businesses indicated they could live with this. Will PM Kevin Rudd turn around and say: "Thanks Ross, but that's not serious, we need a stricter target"? Don't count on it.

What Garnaut, the Rudd government and the BCA are offering us is business as usual. Produce, pollute and make profits, and the devil take our grandchildren.

I doubt there's anyone here today who would deny that Australia's economy needs to be swiftly and radically reoriented. There's nothing far-fetched about this; it's been done before. Over a few months in 1940 Australian industry was restructured, at breakneck pace, to serve wartime needs.

These wartime industrial measures were always understood as a temporary measure, after which the old ways would resume. But the changes needed to stop climate change are different - not just urgent, but also enduring.

The key change is that managers in a climate-responsible economy will no longer be able to think first and foremost about profits. Instead, they'll need to think green. That sits very poorly with capitalism, in which the profit motive is always central.

I think the greening of Australian industry should occur through a dramatic expansion of democracy, to include popular, democratic control over broad areas of economic life.

These are socialist ideas; that's where I'm from. But you don't need to follow me down this track to agree that any trust that's put in today's governments and business elites to stop climate change is trust misplaced.

We can't rely on governments and corporations to stop climate change. We, the people, have to organise ourselves and do it. We have to build a popular movement of such size and determination that it can march right over anything the polluters and their governments try to put in its path.

This movement has to be independent of the conventional political process. By that, I don't mean it should ignore parliaments, governments and established political parties. It should put the bluntest demands on them. It should strive to make greenhouse backsliders unelectable.

But the leaders of the movement should take their orders only from the broad membership. The movement's crucial area of activity should remain in the communities, in the unions, at the grassroots.

The structures of the movement need to be open and democratic. This democracy is a function of the movement's animating strategy, which is not of lobbying the powerful, but of independent mass action. Climate change politics needs to be taken into the schools and universities, into the workplaces, and into the streets.

There are all sorts of possible tactics: teach-ins, boycotts, pickets, demonstrations, and mass civil disobedience. The common thread that runs through these tactics is their mass, popular character. Each of them seeks to draw ever-broader layers of the population into struggle, organising them and educating them through their involvement.

Contrast this with Garnaut's pessimism about the chances of an adequate response ever being mounted to climate change. Garnaut laments the way vested interests block action. But Garnaut thinks of politics as a contest of elites. He's a creature of the bureaucracy, the economics faculties, the boardrooms and the embassies. He simply can't conceive of millions of people forcing their way into the political arena and saying: we want long, happy lives for our grandchildren, and we'll damn well do whatever's needed to ensure that.

There can be a different world politics, the politics of interlinked popular movements. In China, for example, there is in fact broad popular unease about the government's handling of environmental issues. This concern shows up convincingly in opinion polls. And there's active opposition in China to environmental abuse. There are reported to be 3000 Chinese environmental organisations.

When we build a mass popular movement against climate change in Australia, the impacts won't stop at our national borders. Whatever we achieve in Australia will inspire broad layers of humanity. Chinese and Indians will join us in fighting for the grandchildren of the whole world.

When we leave this conference, we need to go back to our schools, our unions and communities, and to resume building networks and patiently explaining. We can't rely on the existing media to tell the truth. We need our own independent media, our own news-sheets, radio programs and websites. We need to be experts at word-of-mouth. We need to be the people who are listened to at the barbecues because we clearly know what we're talking about.

And we have to be honest with people: humanity isn't going to get out of this easily. Those who have most will need to sacrifice most, nations as well as individuals. Australian lifestyles must become sparing of McMansions and SUVs. Much more of our consumption must be of culture and learning and physical recreation. We'll need to be motivated by the rewards of community, and by the collective exaltation of struggling together to meet the greatest challenge of humanity's civilised existence.

That will need a huge moral and psychological transformation, alongside the political changes. But the cost of failure is unthinkable.