10 Lessons for the Climate Movement

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From a discussion document prepared by the Melbourne Climate Action Centre for Australia’s 2010 Climate Action Summit.

by Damien Lawson
Green Left Weekly, 21 March 2010

For the 2009 Climate Summit, I wrote a short article titled “Looking back – moving forward: ten lessons for the climate movement”. It attempted to articulate some of the challenges and opportunities for the community climate movement after two years of rapid growth in scope and capacity.

A lot has happened since the last summit: the dominance of the debate on the government’s carbon-trading plan, the failed Copenhagen conference, division over climate in the Liberal Party and the emergence of the climate denier Tony Abbot as their leader.

In many ways the harsh reality of the terrain in which we are working is even starker than it was a year ago and requires us to face up to the enormous challenge we face.

So here is an attempt to articulate some of the challenges and further lessons we might draw from the last year.

1. The need for common goals

Diversity is crucial and inherent to successful movements.

Last year we got comprehensively rolled. While it was important and correct that we opposed the polluter-friendly carbon trading scheme (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – CPRS), we failed to successfully communicate why we opposed something that most people didn’t understand in the first place.

National Senator Barnaby Joyce had no such trouble, and in the US James Hansen gained public traction by posing one simple, positive alternative to cap-and-trade.

Our lack of unity as a climate movement meant the polluters gained the upper hand and used the failed trading scheme as a springboard to push back against the case for urgent action.

This was made worse when the CPRS opponents failed to consistently articulate opposition to the scheme. The positive moments – the release by the environment NGOs of an alternative Plan B and the coordinated actions at MP’s offices by community climate groups – were not backed up with a strategy or ongoing coordination.

This highlights the importance of developing a common set of concrete goals for the climate movement and a positive, united agenda.

This platform cannot simply be set in the abstract, or necessarily a long period in advance, but must be developed dynamically in the “real world” with consideration to the evolving nature, politics and capabilities of the various forces in the movement.

The carbon tax debate kicked off by The Greens is an opportunity to develop a strand of that common agenda. We should use this opportunity to form a common goal across the whole climate movement of supporting a good carbon tax plan.

2. Transitional thinking

The idea of transition is increasingly popular, but transformations will not happen just because we wish for them. A transition will need to be built and often this will involve small and painful steps.

That does not mean we should lose sight of our end aim, but that successful movements are built through mobilising support for specific concrete actions that intersect with the existing political terrain and exploit its contradictions and weaknesses.

3. Climate change is THE issue

Across the country thousands of people are engaged in local sustainability projects, such as bush regeneration. Thousands more are mobilised and supportive of other conservation issues such as opposing whaling or campaigning for new national parks.

Many others are engaged in social or human rights issues of one kind or another. All these issues and problems have an inherent worth and value.

But are they more important than climate change?

Local habitats are rapidly spreading towards the poles and up mountains, stranding many species. This is the underpinning of what may be the mass destruction of ecologies.

Given this reality, is it time to be making the case that climate change is THE issue and that those who do not place it at the top of their list have their priorities wrong?

Should we, perhaps gently at first, be pointing this out to those who would rather save a whale than save the planet?

4. Harming the poor?

There is a strange dichotomy in the climate debate. On the one hand, international aid agencies such as Oxfam and World Vision increasingly seem to understand the disastrous consequences of climate change for the world’s poor.

They have engaged with the danger of sea level rises for the delta regions of the world, and the threat to water security from melting glaciers. They have pushed hard for stronger pollution reduction targets. Although at times still locked into the incremental paradigm that grips most NGOs, they have, more than most, looked catastrophe in the face and been willing to articulate its consequences.

On other hand, the welfare lobby that claims to advocate on behalf of Australia’s poor has not, for the most part, seen climate change as a threat to those in poverty. Rather it views climate change mitigation as the danger, judging from where its resources and advocacy have been directed.

For the welfare lobby, carbon taxes, clean energy pricing and renewable energy targets mean increased prices, and increased prices must be opposed at all cost.

With some notable exceptions, the welfare sector has been blind to what the realities of climate change will mean for its constituencies. The ravages of super-droughts and heatwaves, bush fires and floods, sea level rises and other extreme weather and economic dislocation will fall mainly on Australia’s poor.

But where are the welfare sector conferences and publications, media releases and submissions on the impact of climate change on the poor, and calling for stronger action? Instead, we have had campaigns to derail feed-in-tariffs and a singular focus on the quarantining of carbon trading revenue for compensation.

Of course mitigation options have equity implications that need to be factored into the policy design, but in the absence of strong advocacy for action on climate change, the welfare sector ends up becoming a tool in the campaign of the delayers and deniers.

5. Warming to labour

Very few profound policy changes have been won by social movements in Australia without the involvement of organised labour. So far we have failed to significantly involve trade unions in our movement. Some unions have been a barrier to action by opposing any attempts to curtail the coal industry.

The Australian Council of Trade Union’s approach has been, at best, reduced to cheerleading for the Rudd government. This is the danger of box-ticking alliances that have no depth or broad engagement.

The union movement’s peak bodies will not play a more transformative role unless a block of unions is built that “gets the problem” and the scale of the required solutions.

To do this, we need to work first with those unions that have no interest in blocking change. White collar and service unions, emergency and health workers and building unions all could be part of this block.

We need to confront the “green jobs paradigm”. Unions have approached the climate problem like other industry-restructuring challenges by seeking to protect jobs and identify opportunities for new employment.

The climate movement’s response has been to spruik the green jobs message, while defensively talking about just transitions.

But climate change can’t be reduced to just an issue of job security. If we allow this to happen, we will lose the argument. For most unions, climate change and mitigation policies will have little direct, immediate effect on job levels, so “green jobs” are irrelevant to them.

Nor should climate change be sold as just another moral community issue for unions, like the Iraq war or refugees. We have to communicate that climate change is an existential problem for all of us, including all workers; a threat so great that for unions also it is THE issue of our time.

6. International rabbit hole

The Copenhagen conference has finally confirmed once and for all the bankruptcy of a strategy built around outcomes from international negotiations.

The Australian climate movement has sought to leap-frog community mobilisation by appealing to international responsibility. So, while much of the world recognised that commitments under Kyoto were a disaster, in Australia Kyoto was used as a stick with which to beat the Howard government.

But this strategy reinforced a public view (and perhaps we deluded ourselves) that the international process on which Kyoto was built could save us.

How else do we explain the decision of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Institute and the World Wildlife Fund to make their targets for the government’s polluter-friendly trading scheme dependent on the outcome of the Copenhagen summit?

This strategy is now in tatters.

International negotiations can and should be used by the movement to speak with one voice globally, and they can also be an opportunity to message the problem back into Australia, but they cannot be a substitute for mobilisation here.

We will never get a worthwhile international agreement until we deepen support for action within the nations that are party to an agreement. Even something that looks good on paper will have to be implemented, and that will need a climate movement capable of pushing for that change in every big-polluting country.

7. Living with denial

We will never get rid of climate deniers, at least not before it is too late, and psychological denial deepens as the moment of truth nears. In one sense deniers and “climate-gate” have failed: more than 160 leaders – even the Saudis – attended an international conference on climate change in December and accepted that global warming is a real problem.

However, in another sense, the deniers are gaining ground and we can no longer continue the defacto strategy of ignoring them.

This is not just about a rational, fact-based debate. We can’t win with “the facts” alone. The deniers will twist and turn and throw bombs, and then go on to something else. They are havoc-makers and work on an emotional level based on paranoia and fear of the unknown (and the state, and the elite).

Our response needs to be based on emotion and values too, and on their credibility.

We need to tag the deniers for what they are: deniers, not sceptics. Deniers come in many forms, including serial contrarians, blogging conspiracy theorists, delusional crackpots, amateurs and grumpy old men (there are few women!), particularly from geology and meteorology, who cannot deal with the fact that the body of professional knowledge that constituted their identity and their fading careers has been overturned by new understandings.

And we should say so, and explain to the audience what is really going on, rather than pretending it’s just a rational debate about facts.

8 Armed with peer-reviewed science

The return of the climate deniers highlights the importance of us all being willing to constantly update ourselves about the climate science. It is and was wrong to ever think that the debate/denial about the science is over.

Part of the reason the community is susceptible to climate deniers is that we have left it to scientists to communicate the climate science, and they are not trained communicators. We have a role to play, and people who are engaged and come to forums genuinely want to know more about the science and the detail.

By increasing the depth of community understanding of the threat of climate change, the sway of the deniers and delayers will wane.

Yes, it is frightening and often boring to read about the science of global warming and teach ourselves to communicate it. But it is necessary.

9. Are they listening?

There is now a vast array of communications, messages and stories being told about climate change, often in contradictory and complicated ways. But the history of social movements, advertising and modern political communications teaches us that what gets through to the population at large is much more limited.

We need some simple messages that correspond with our goals, and that we repeat ad nauseam, if we are to have an effect on public opinion.

To paraphrase Frank Luntz, the conservative pollster who coined the phrase “climate change” as a way of countering the frame of “global warming”, it is about repetition, repetition, repetition.

As a movement, we are yet to agree on a common language that can win over the public, but we do know some of the things that work and that could be adopted. So let’s start a conversation about how to have the climate conversation.

My favourite mantra is “we can re-power Australia with clean, safe and reliable energy”. We know this language works because the polling and focus groups say so, and this is why the government uses some of the language.

But we need to do more than just reinforce this framing by connecting it to messages/actions that bite the government and forces it to do more.

For example: “We can re-power Australia with clean, safe and reliable energy… That’s why the federal and state government should commit to replacing Hazelwood power station by 2012.”

Regardless of the specific message, the point is we should agree on some language and try to repeat it movement-wide.

One of our biggest communication and strategic failures as a movement has been to allow climate change to be seen as an environment issue. This has been reinforced by messages about saving beautiful places like the Great Barrier Reef. We need to change our communication strategy. The key is to talk about real, concrete impacts on people in Australia, like the Black Saturday bushfires.

Sea level rises, floods and the drought are all key areas to explore because of their social and economic impacts and their tangible effects now and in the near future.

10. Vote ’em where it hurts

It is easy to have an aversion to elections. They are stage managed, dominated by the big parties and often bring out the worst in our leaders and community.

But they are also an opportunity to be heard, because peoples’ eyes and ears are more open in an election year. More importantly, they are an opportunity to exert our power as a movement by causing the government pain, especially if we are able to make climate the issue in knife-edge seats, such that a minister or backbencher could be turfed out because they failed to listen to what the climate movement was advocating.

This would create a large number of parliamentarians very quickly becoming advocates for movement policies inside the government, because they fear this would happen to them.

Doing this is not easy, but it is possible. It requires organisation, a commitment to prioritising certain seats, and identifying one or two election messages on which to campaign in the community.

There is now a lot of discussion about community organising in the movement and this is a good thing. We have even started to do door-knocking in some of our communities. We need to grow this commitment, learn from each other and implement it in the election lead-up.

We also need to commit to continuing it well past the election year. Let’s start planning next year’s national climate door-knock day now.

[Abridged from a longer article that appeared in the Talk Climatereader prepared by the Melbourne Climate Action Centre for the 2010 Climate Action Summit. ]

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