How can climate activists best organise to win?

February 26, 2016
What is the way forward for the climate movement?

Green Left Weekly hosted a forum on February 17: “After the Paris Climate Talks: Which way forward for the climate movement?”, with John Englart (citizen journalist, observer at Paris Talks); David Spratt (climate policy analyst, People's Climate March organiser) and me (Socialist Alliance and grassroots climate activist).

Paris Agreement

John Englart summarised the main parts of the Paris Agreement:
• A warming target of well below 2°C, with efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C;
• Global peaking of emissions as soon as possible, then rapid reductions to achieve a balance of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks in the second half of this century; and
• Five-year reviews to increase national action.

The agreement comes into force when it has been ratified by at least 55 countries comprising 55% of global emissions.

However, there is a vast gap between agreed goals and voluntary commitments. Voluntary commitments could lead to 2.7 to 3.5°C warming this century. Richer countries got most of what they wanted: no change in finance; compensation and liability ruled out; and voluntary national commitments.

The agreement also included long lead-times: the framework starts in 2020 and is reviewed in 2025. Voluntary commitments will be reviewed in 2020. The agreement omits any mention of fossil fuels, decarbonisaton and aviation and shipping emissions.

Funding for the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries mitigate and adapt, was set at $100 billion a year. In comparison, global fossil fuel subsidies amount to US$5.3 trillion — 53 times more.

Australia's Green Climate Fund contribution is $200 million per year — one-eighth of what NGOs calculate would constitute our fair share. Moreover, Australia's contribution will be taken out of Australia's foreign aid budget, which the government has been massively slashing.

Australia is acting at variance with the Paris Agreement. For example, Australia's reliance on Kyoto carryover credits to meet its emission targets is discouraged by the agreement. Australia's emissions are also forecast to keep growing, conflicting with the agreement's aim for emissions to peak as soon as possible. The axing of CSIRO climate science jobs also breaches the agreement.

While the Paris agreement is far from perfect, our leaders have agreed to it. Now the climate movement must hold them individually and collectively to account. We need to agitate for increased emissions targets, for comprehensive regulations on polluting companies, for a rapid transition to renewable energy, and for action to reduce emissions from transport, land use change and agriculture. We need to continue building a climate movement that joins with other struggles.

Agreement not to disrupt free market

David Spratt described how international and Australian climate policy has long been about not disrupting the workings of the free market economy. Policy is about promoting market mechanisms, but not state intervention. Indeed, the Stern (2006) and Garnaut (2008) reviews said that limiting warming to less than 3°C would be too economically disruptive — even though such warming is incompatible with human existence.

Paris has put 1.5°C on the agenda. Australia signed up to this higher ambition because it could do so while not doing anything. Yet even 1.5°C of warming is not safe.

Spratt also discussed how, in the past, movement building was about working together. This is not the case nowadays. While there are many grassroots climate groups, the movement is dominated by large professional NGOs, which compete for donations.

In the past, organisations did not have tax deductibility status, CEOs, communications managers or weekend-long strategy meetings. Instead activists got together and worked out what to do. We need to get back to making common cause.

NGOs are not democratic organisations. They have a pyramid structure: CEO at the top; staff in the middle; and at the bottom are supporters and donors, who do not elect officials.

NGOs focus on brand

NGOs are driven by brand and money. They differentiate themselves to survive, so making common cause is structurally very difficult. Until recently they spent their effects lobbying in Canberra rather than mobilising. Over the past 18 months they have been rethinking what they do.

But if NGOs just look after their own organisations, who looks after the interests of the whole? In movement building, the interests of the whole are what matter.

The People's Climate March was the first attempt in some years at bringing in different partners. It engaged the trade union movement but their honest feedback was that mainly officials turned up. It is another thing to get members engaged. So we have a long way to go in deepening this organising.

Movement building must be cross-sector but requires deep organising within each sector. It needs hard, long-term work.

Coming out of the Climate Marches, we have many partnerships, but no ongoing plan for relationships with these partners. While Melbourne had the world's biggest climate march, we underperformed. A lack of organising capacity stopped us doing more. So we need to keep building a culture of cooperation.

How to strengthen partnerships

I discussed ways the movement could extend and deepen partnerships arising from the People's Climate March.

One example was developing a campaign around financing for developing countries — the Green Climate Fund. Issues of concern include Australia's low contribution, that it is coming out of Australia's diminishing foreign aid budget and that it may fund fossil fuel projects. Such a campaign could strengthen the partnership between the climate and anti-poverty movements, including the aid sector and faith groups.

I also noted that for the 2014 Victorian election, some climate activists campaigned actively in marginal seats — Liberal v Labor, and Labor v Greens — with the aim of installing a Labor government and putting pressure on Labor in inner Melbourne. But should the climate movement be doing this?

Of course governments are important, and we desperately need one that takes very strong action on climate change. A Labor government will not do that. We should not repeat the mistake where the climate movement demanded “Say Yes” to weak climate policies from Labor.

When we do manage to install a real climate action government, it will surely face a massive backlash from business, which will do its best to derail or overthrow it. So such a government needs the backing of strong grassroots social movements.

The trouble with focusing on elections is that it reinforces the idea that people's main form of political engagement is through the ballot box. We desperately need to encourage people to work collectively on climate action, whether in social movements or on community projects.

Another issue is that our political landscape will probably change quite dramatically sooner than we think.

We have seen the effect of austerity in other developed countries. New political alliances are forming on both the left and the right. People, particularly youth, are losing faith in the mainstream parties. Many young people know the system is not working for them: many are victims of austerity, there is high youth unemployment and they face a grim future as climate change impacts worsen.

Australian governments are pushing an austerity agenda. Austerity will shake up how people think about politics. However, people may become more focused on short-term bread-and-butter issues, which conservatives will capitalise on. The idea that Australia should not contribute to global issues like climate change may gain traction.

So we need to work out how we can counter that, and work effectively with people who are the most adversely impacted by austerity. Alliances with anti-austerity groups will be critical.

Combating neoliberal ideas

Climate activists need to be wary about the creeping effect of neoliberal ideas. For example, governments and business focus on carbon emissions because they enable market mechanisms to be used: emissions can be traded, and games are played to give the illusion of action. Australia's use of Kyoto carryover credits is an example of this. This takes the focus away from the activities that are actually causing climate change.

When we talk only about emissions, and treat them as interchangeable, it is no longer necessary to stop polluting. We just pay someone else to not pollute as much. This can be done through international emissions trading and the purchase of carbon offsets.

When Australia pretends to reduce its emissions but does virtually nothing at home, it has a profound international effect. Developing countries argue that they should use coal because rich countries like Australia are not moving away from coal.

Talk of “negative emissions” — removing carbon dioxide from the air — is also problematic. Technologies to do this on a large scale have not been invented and they may well conflict with land use for crops. Such talk gives the illusion that we can keep polluting because one day it will be possible to suck it all back in. So treating negative emissions and those from fossil fuels as equivalent and tradable is used to delay action.

Rather than buying into a discussion of pricing or trading emissions, climate activists need to keep focused on activities that help transform Australia and poorer countries into sustainable societies; that is, stopping the bad stuff — fossil fuels, energy wastage, overconsumption, landclearing — and encouraging the good stuff.

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