Australia's Climate Movement Takes a Giant Step Forward

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National grassroots conference adopts action plan and a new national network to provide a counterweight to the previously NGO-dominated environment movement

by Ewan Saunders
Green Left Weekly, 21 March 2010

Three hundred climate activists participated in Australia’s second national Climate Action Summit in Canberra on March 13-15, marking a decisive step forward for the grassroots climate movement in this country.

Over the three days, activists discussed a wide range of issues facing the climate movement and formulated campaign strategies for the coming year.

The summit opened with plenary fronted by renowned climatologist Professor David Karoly, Greens Senator Christine Milne and Damien Lawson from the Melbourne Climate Action Centre.

Karoly, who has served as lead author for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, gave a summary of the science of climate change and spent some time addressing the climate deniers’ campaign to attack and discredit climate scientists around the world.

He exposed the myth, popularised through the corporate media, that global warming stopped in 1998 and since then the Earth has been cooling, noting that the Earth was warming in 1998 and has continued to warm since.

On the question of the relationship between scientists and the grassroots movement, he said, “Scientists can help”, but went on to describe the restrictions imposed on scientists by academic and other institutions.

Milne expanded further on the climate denialists’ campaign. She said: “The old vested interests have fought like partisans.

“These people had money, they organised, and they organised globally.”

Milne mapped out the strategy of the denial campaign: first, to cast doubt on the science, casting it as something irrational, dogmatic and religious; second, to repeat the mantra that the public will be worse off if action for a safe climate is taken.

She said the climate movement must respond by stating and restating that we must accept the science and condemn climate change denial as an irrational, dogmatic religion.

She said the movement must convey the message that acting on climate change will mean we are better off, and offer a vision of a clean future in which people lead healthy, purposeful lives.

Another major plenary featured Walden Bello, founding director of Focus on the Global South, Donna Jackson from the Australia Nuclear Free Alliance, Mark Ogge from Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) and Clive Spash.

Spash worked at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and resigned last year when the organisation attempted to censor his report criticising carbon trading.

Ogge gave a preview presentation of BZE’s soon-to-be-released fully costed blueprint for Australia’s transition to 100% renewable energy by 2020, powered by commercially-available wind and solar-thermal technology (visit

Bello, via video-link from the Philippines, addressed climate impacts on the Third World and global climate justice. Jackson condemned the federal government’s plan for a high-level nuclear waste dump in Australia.

This year’s summit was much more ambitious than the last.

There were six campaign streams held over the first two days: 100% renewables campaign; coal campaigning; vote climate; trade unions and green jobs; climate emergency, and the national climate network.

Proposals from the campaign streams were voted on by the whole summit, which set an exciting timeline of climate action for the coming year. Summit decisions are not binding on climate action groups (CAGs), but decisions made indicate that an issue or proposal has wide and strong support in the movement.

Vote climate

The summit agreed the CAGs should campaign in support of candidates who support the climate policies of the summit and support ALP/Greens marginal seats campaigns. It also resolved to encourage activists to engage in “meet the candidates” events, community surveys, “Vote Climate” candidate scorecards, community campaigning stalls, letterboxing, door-knocking and “MP re-branding”.

The idea of politician “re-branding” was launched by the Yarra Climate Action Network. Activists held a banner reading “Labor in the pocket of big coal” outside Labor MP Richard Wynne’s office for one hour each week.

The summit agreed to hold a national door-knock day to inform voters why climate is an important election issue and to recruit to local CAGs.

General themes decided for a national climate election campaign included: direct investment to create 100% renewable energy; stop fossil fuel subsidies; replace Australia’s dirtiest power station, Hazelwood, with clean energy by 2012; a moratorium on new coal; a price on carbon through an effective carbon levy; and a guarantee for a “just transition” to clean jobs for workers in polluting industries.

The big support for a carbon levy was a significant change from last years’ summit, at which a large majority of participants supported a “well-designed” emissions trading scheme as the best option to curb greenhouse gas emissions. This year, there was next to no support for carbon trading.

Trade unions and green jobs

Another important development was a session to discuss proposals to strengthen the relationship between the trade union and grassroots climate movements.

The session adopted a resolution supporting the locked-out Xstrata workers at the Tahmoor colliery in New South Wales, and supported their right to safe employment. The summit stressed the need for a just transition to non-polluting industry for all workers, and encouraged climate activists to join their unions and build pressure within workplaces for climate action.

Significantly, it also resolved to form a national working group on climate jobs and union involvement in the climate movement. The working group will look at creating a climate jobs strategy, connecting climate activists in unions by encouraging state-based conferences, and ensuring unions are included and discussed at climate and environment conferences.

It was agreed that jobs needed to be included as a theme in actions emerging from the summit.

100% renewables

Prior to the summit, a number of groups had collaborated on forming a national campaign for 100% renewable energy in Australia. The summit agreed to encourage more groups to become involved in this campaign (see ).

The campaign will be launched nationally on May 2, with a “photo petition” (a photographic media release of activists in their local areas holding signs with campaign slogans), community surveys on renewable energy, and visits to MPs offices.

A proposal to host a web-based climate science resource was adopted. The site will be part of the website for a new national climate network.

A new national network

The first Climate Action Summit began a process of formulating, and circulating for voting by CAGs, a proposal for a national grassroots climate network — the Community Climate Network Australia.

By December 2009, 104 CAGs voted on the proposal, with 99 supporting it. This year’s summit discussed the network proposal at length. There was very lively discussion from the audience.

The result was a slightly amended version of the proposal. Australia now has its own national network of climate activists. Each state network will be asked to elect up to three representatives for the network’s facilitation group.

With a well-funded climate denial campaign to contend with, and some of the large conservative NGOs supporting the Rudd government’s fatally-flawed emissions trading scheme (rejected outright by the 2009 Climate Summit), the launch of this new network represents a major advance for the grassroots movement in Australia.

Activists now have the framework in place for a politically independent network of their own, laying the groundwork for a stronger, better-organised movement that can begin to challenge the might of the fossil fuel lobby and its agents in government.

Combined with a strong schedule of national campaigns and events in 2010, the new network offers opportunities for collaboration and communication, and gives the movement the basis to speak with one voice on nationally agreed goals.

A national calendar of climate action

June 5, World Environment Day, was adopted as a national day of climate action, with the themes of renewable energy, no to coal, a safe climate transition, and a focus on climate jobs.

This year’s NSW Climate Camp will aim to be a national event, inviting involvement from CAGs and climate networks around the country.

Also on the agenda is a national day of action against coal. Activists have targeted the coal industry previously, with visits to coal-affected communities, meetings with coal workers, and direct action targeting coal-fired power stations and coal in transit.

Activists will also organise around April 1, “Fossil Fools Day”.

Other debates at the summit

The broad range of topics covered made for some rich discussion and debate.

The question of population was no exception. On the second day, a debate was organised between those advocating for policies to reduce immigration to Australia and those arguing that a focus on immigration would be detrimental to action for the campaign for a safe climate.

The Socialist Alliance’s Simon Butler and the Greens’ Alex Bhathal faced two representatives from Sustainable Population Australia, before a polarised audience. A policy proposal that included a focus on reducing Australia’s population as a response to climate change was rejected by the summit on the final day.

A similar proposal received more support at the previous summit.

2010: The year we make a splash

While numbers were down on the 2009 Climate Action Summit, this year’s event represented a forward leap for the grassroots climate action movement.

With a host of exciting proposals for local and national activity over the coming year, and a new national network to provide a counterweight to the previously NGO-dominated environment movement, the grassroots is in a stronger position than it was one year ago.

Now the hard work of implementing the host of plans for action and strategy begins.


  • I think most at the conference support an end to gas and coal exports, there was one group arguing that we have to end Australia’s emissions first, but I think they were alone on that. As to economic collapse etc, well, I think that most Australians see only a smallish part of the wealth generated by mining multinationals. If Australia was instead exporting solar and wind tech I think we’d do pretty well still. I’m personally going to Cochabamba, the summit sent greetings, there’s a handful of people from Oz who will be there. One workshop that will occur at Cochabamba is a few Oz activists trying to meet people from the countries we export coal to (Japan, principally) to see if we can link up campaigns.

  • As an Ozzie exiled in Thailand I am encouraged by the level of activity in Oz. Here it is minimal despite our efforts on
    Comments & questions – Does a zero carbon Australia mean zero coal & gas exports? If not what is the point? Wouldn’t that fall into the Liberal trap which says “you just want to export Australian jobs”? If so GREAT but how do you handle the economic collapse & the backlash from China?
    What international links are you working on and in particular how will you contribute to the Cochabamba conference fro 19-22nd April 2010?