Grassroots action needed to stop climate change


Concern about the threat of climate change and environmental destruction has probably never been higher. Opinion polls consistently show that a big majority of Australians support serious action on climate change and a move away from an economy based on the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

Recent scientific evidence indicates that the planet is warming at a much faster rate than was previously thought. Warming of the atmosphere, the oceans, the polar ice caps is today approaching levels once believed to be centuries into the future. The world faces a climate emergency — a crisis that demands emergency measures be taken.

Despite the growing body of alarming scientific evidence, and despite the widespread public support for serious action to avert climate change, a lack of political commitment to tackle the crisis means real change is moving at a snail's pace.

But while the major political parties, and their big business allies, are proving they cannot be trusted to take the steps required to secure a sustainable future, an increasing number of people are organising themselves and taking action — people who are determined not to give up their planet without a fight and who are optimistic that they can win.

Green Left Weekly's Simon Butler interviewed five grassroots campaigners in the climate justice movement to discuss their views of the environmental challenges of the future and the campaigns they are currently involved in.

John Rice is an activist in the Adelaide-based Climate Emergency Action Network — CLEAN. Ben Courtice is part of the Climate Emergency Network (CEN — Melbourne) and a member of the Socialist Alliance. Annie Nielsen is a member of the Parramatta Climate Action Network. Steve Phillips is an activist with the Newcastle-based group Rising Tide. Jenny Bain is a founding member of CLEAN.

What are the next steps forward for the climate movement?

John Rice: It's essential that the movement not be channelled into simply letter-writing to politicians, and that it sets itself the tasks of building its own community-based impetus and diversity.

The failure of the parliamentary system is profound, and I currently see the only possibility of success lying in the creation of inexorable waves of community pressure on, and through, all civic institutions — parliaments, business, education systems, unions, media.

Only in this way will we build a movement that cannot be diverted by the opportunism, careerism and compromise that is endemic in the current party-political process.

Ben Courtice: We need to bring the urgency of climate change into the thoughts of all Australians. It's difficult because there is a certain sense that PM Kevin Rudd's Emissions Trading Scheme will fix it all, or there's nothing more we can do anyway, but many people are still worried.

Along with a focus on building a mass campaign of millions for climate justice, the climate movement needs to reject false market-based solutions like carbon trading. These schemes are notorious for corruption and loopholes, and any costs to business are passed on to the consumers.

Annie Nielsen: Grassroots groups must continue to educate the community about the seriousness of climate change and the need to modify individuals' behaviour to reduce their carbon emissions. But more importantly groups have to put pressure on all levels of government and industry to do more about reducing emissions.

The grassroots Climate Change Conference in Canberra next February needs to formulate a clear strategic plan to pressure the Rudd government to lobby for the meeting at Copenhagen next year to adopt a much stronger environmental position.

Steve Phillips: I think the grassroots climate movement in Australia is way ahead of everyone else, including the peak green groups, in their understanding of the urgency of climate change and the massive response needed to address the problem.

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I think that it's essential that the movement turn that understanding into actions that reflect the urgency of the crisis. It's time for the movement to go beyond sign-on statements and rallies and manifestos and the like, which are easy for government and industry and everyone else to ignore, and begin a proliferation of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.

Jenny Bain: I think that it's really a question of finding ways to act and build a sense of solidarity in the movement and support each other at various levels. We need to use every means we can to ensure everyone worried about the threat of climate change comes together.

I can see that these links are beginning to be built. There is a real momentum away from electoralist solutions in the climate justice movement.

We need a movement that is based at the grassroots level, but can also become a political force on a national and global level.

For the climate change movement to go forward it also needs to build a strong relationship with the trade union movement.

What campaigns is your group currently involved in, and why?

JR: One thing CLEAN has initiated is a Green New Deal campaign. This involves the formation a group of people who will cost, at quite a detailed level, the rollout of the infrastructure required to get this state, and the country, running on renewable energy.

We feel it adds a great deal of strength to our case if we have a quantified, concrete plan. Firstly, it suggests the whole renewables plan is really feasible. Secondly, it focuses everyone's minds on the actual steps to be taken, enabling people to envisage a tangible way forwards.

BC: The Socialist Alliance is involved in campaigns against the new East-West freeway tunnel and toll road in Melbourne and the campaign to stop the desalination plant at Wonthaggi, Victoria.

CEN has launched two campaigns on those wider issues, which we also support. The first campaign demands no new fossil-fuel power stations in Victoria. The second is for zero emissions from Victorian energy generation by 2020, mirroring the campaign pushed in the US by Al Gore.

AN: Our group is currently organising a Parramatta Walk Against Warming to link with the one in Sydney on November 15.

We hold the walk to emphasise that people in Western Sydney must act quickly to reduce their carbon footprint so millions of people around the world who live in low lying countries will not be displaced or killed by rising sea levels and so many species will not become extinct due to loss of habitat.

SP: Rising Tide Newcastle has been focused on coal since we formed. It's not just because we live in one of the coal capitals of the world. It's because coal is both the single biggest source of the increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere, and the single biggest remaining threat to the climate.

If the Earth is going to remain habitable, society must leave most of the remaining coal in the ground. Our group campaigns for a phase-out of Australia's domestic and export coal industries, and a just transition to sustainable alternatives.

JB: Another project CLEAN is working on is developing a new website designed to explore what different activists are actually doing and the campaigns they are involved in.

Following our successful Climate Emergency conference in October we aim to maximise return visitation to the website and make it a useful resource for linking different movements.

What is wrong with the Rudd government's response to climate change?

JR: The government's response is akin to the complacent family doctor who tells their patient who has just suffered a heart attack to cutback a bit on their smoking. All the danger signs are there, and it's a question of survival, yet they cannot bring themselves to face, or help their patient face, tackling the really hard questions.

You have to throw away the whole pack of fossil-fuel cancer sticks — no half, or half-hearted, measures. It's pretty clear now that anything over 350ppm [parts per million] of carbon [in the atmosphere] represents a danger to the Earth's circulatory system; we have to rid ourselves of this carbon addiction very rapidly before irreparable damage is done. But [climate change minister] Penny Wong is still talking about 450-550ppm.

That's why our focus has to be on building a movement that is outside of the parliamentary process; it's the only way to preserve the integrity that we must retain to the very end of this very long road.

BC: Given the urgency of the climate crisis you could say that just about everything is wrong with the Rudd government's response!

They are basing their response not even on what is possible under a market economy, but what is most comfortable for a market economy. We need to find solutions that address the needs of society and nature — not what is profitable for business.

AN: They need to take much stronger action. A 20% renewable energy target by 2020 is not strong enough. The federal government must have a 100% renewable energy target by 2050, but to reach that, a short-term target of increasing renewable energy by 60% of 1990 levels by 2020 is needed.

To achieve these goals the emissions trading scheme must be implemented without giving free permits to polluters such as power stations and mining and smelting companies.

State and federal governments are pandering to the companies that want to do nothing for years, allegedly due to the international financial crisis, but responsible companies see the danger in this and are pressing for strong environmental action now. Governments must not bow to business pressure but do what is best for the whole community.

SP: Firstly, they clearly have no understanding of the urgency of the problem. They insist on clinging to a pollution reduction target (60% by 2050) based on science that is outdated by a decade or so, when we now know that much steeper reductions are needed.

Secondly, they cannot free themselves from the grip of the pro-coal lobby, including both coal corporations and the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Energy and Mining Union], which continue to wield enormous influence over the Rudd government.

As a result, coal — which is responsible for about three quarters of Australia's greenhouse footprint if coal exports are included — is being let off the hook. The government has completely swallowed the coal lobby's line that so-called "clean coal" will save us.

JB: To summarise the problems with Rudd's approach: appeasement of the fossil-fuel industry, lack of a bold plan for sustainable change, and a focus on inadequate, incremental changes when we need much more. The Rudd government is wasting an opportunity to restructure our communities using renewable energy.

The mainstream debate about the Emissions Trading Scheme is simply too narrow. The Rudd government isn't really being transparent about the actual climate science. Their response is not reflected in the mood of people out there — most people really are in favour of bold action to avert climate change.