Real action on climate change means building a ‘movement of movements’

September 17, 2015
Militant ordinary people have forced the unconventional gas industry in NSW into a retreat.

As we head towards the November 29 People’s Climate Marches, reflecting on the successes of the struggle against the unconventional gas industry in NSW can provide useful tips on strategies to rebuild a serious campaign for climate action in this country.

Militant ordinary people have, since 2011, forced the unconventional gas industry in NSW into a holding pattern in some instances and a retreat in others. The community-led campaigns have changed the political landscape in a way that even hardened cynics would once have thought impossible.

The struggle continues as AGL continues to frack in Camden and plans to in Gloucester, Santos pursues its $2 billion plan to frack in the Pilliga near Narrabri and Metgasco is determined to frack once again at Bentley near Lismore.

But just five years ago, the gas industry calculated it could easily extend from its base in Queensland on the spurious, but beguiling sales pitch of “once-in-a-generation economic opportunities for the state”.

In reality, it hoped to reap billions in export earnings. This has not happened – largely due to communities organising to stop it. This happened over several years, but the process of becoming informed led to a militant and cohesive social movement, which demanded that the state government protect water, health and land. The health shocks from Tara in Queensland and Josh Fox’s film Gasland played a significant awakening role.

The phenomenal growth of the Stop CSG movement is a reminder of the power of organised, dynamic, grassroots social forces. Patient and informed networking was the backbone of numerous mass rallies, human signs, water walks, blockades, pickets, direct actions and lock ons.

They all played a role in forcing the major parties to modify their pro-gas policies before the March state election.

Under pressure from its rural base, in the lead-up to the election the NSW Coalition launched a new Gas Plan, cancelling several petroleum exploration licences, including the huge PEL 463 covering the Sydney Basin. The National Party still lost a seat to the Greens.

Labor also felt the pressure, and has now introduced a bill to rule out gas completely in parts of NSW.

The NSW government has now cancelled —and compensated licence holders — 15 exploration licences, scaling back the area covered by either exploration licences or applications from 60% to 9% of the state.

These gains are significant and the movement’s approach provides pointers for the climate action campaign.

In one of his first statements as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull ruled out changing the low carbon targets Australia is taking to the United Nations climate conference — to reduce emissions by 26%–28% on 2005 levels by 2030. These targets are nowhere near enough to stay under the 1.5°C rise in global temperature needed to prevent dangerous climate tipping points.

Turnbull either accepts the deniers’ arguments, doesn’t care, or is wary of putting Big Coal and Big Gas offside.

We have to redouble our efforts to make the People’s Climate marches as huge as possible. It is the best way to send a strong message that Turnbull’s government does not speak for us.

When farmers, nannas, socialists and Alan Jones’ supporters linked arms – literally and figuratively — the campaign against CSG mining became a formidable force.

This alliance was possible because there was an implicit understanding that unless the campaign was non-partisan, everyone would lose out to very powerful corporate interests with a direct line to the major parties.

The multiple Climate Action Groups that made up the last significant climate protest movement— between 2009 and 2011 —came to a screaming halt after the Green Party decided to support then-PM Julia Gillard’s carbon tax in 2011. Given that the Greens had been so opposed to PM Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Trading Scheme in 2010 — essentially the same package — confusion prevailed.

Environmental NGOs largely supported the Greens’ about-turn. But many grassroots climate activists were suspicious and turned to anti-fracking and anti-coal campaigns to push back the climate deniers.

Perhaps the relative success of the anti-fracking movement is indebted to this turn of events, just as this movement’s success is now reinvigorating climate activists to restart organising for mass climate marches.

Forcing the federal government to take real action on climate change may not be as easy as demanding a company stop fracking or a state government outlaw the industry.

But some clear demands could unite an alliance of those already concerned about the impact of fracking and coalmining on the climate. Ending the $10 billion a year subsidies to fossil fuel corporations and leaving coal and coal seam gas in the ground — as the climate scientists urge — are the two most important.

It would be a lot easier to bring the anti-fracking movement into building the People’s Climate mobilisations if these two demands were made central. And it would help make the mobilisations politically potent.

We have to move fast if we are to build the kind of “movement of movements” Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein has made reference to.

Having demands on government does not alienate a potential support base: rather, it gives people a clear idea of why they should march and, importantly, why they should stay involved after the march.

Those serious about restarting the climate movement on a stronger political footing, and not allowing it to disappear from the public spaces until the next UN climate summit, have to promote a discussion about focus and goals. Ending public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and leaving coal and coal seam gas in the ground would be a good start.

[Pip Hinman is president of Stop CSG Sydney. This is an abridged version of a presentation to a public meeting “From Climate Change to Climate Action” on September 16.]

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