Is a united and effective climate movement possible?

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Science says that climate change ‘tipping points’ are coming fast. With pessimism of the intellect growing ever more intense, how can we avoid despair and unite in an effective movement based on optimism of the will?

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Science says that climate change ‘tipping points’ are coming fast. With pessimism of the intellect growing ever more intense, how can we avoid despair and unite in an effective movement based on optimism of the will?

In this article, an Australian activist offers his views on how to build the climate change movement. We hope his contribution begins an open and comradely discussion of these critical issues.

by Trent Hawkins

Trent Hawkins has been active in the climate movement in Australia since 2006: for two years he has been Project Director of the Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan. This article is reposted with permission from Climate Code Red.

Che Guevara said that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” But not just any love, the love of humanity that transcends the day to day love of individuals, our family for example.

In a way its a shame that the actual content of this paragraph from Che has been bastardized to be about some nebulous love that drives revolutionaries. Instead what Che was talking about was a very real dilemma. How to keep ourselves motivated, heading towards the goal, when we have so little time for our real “loved ones,” so little time for ourselves, and to develop our personal lives.

This is a serious issue that is often unconsidered by the left. But more over today those of us who have invested years to the cause of stopping climate change are at risk of demoralization, depression, exhaustion, and alienation. For me this has been a confronting reality as I have struggled with depression for the better part of 2012 and have undertaken to see a psychologist. I suspect there are others out there in a similar state of mind.

There is an idea that well sums up the reality of our task as climate activists – “combining pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will.” Unfortunately getting the balance right is no easy task, nor will that balance be achieved accidentally.

My view is that scientists are now saying we have “blown the budget” and we are certain to overshoot the 2 degree C “threshold.” David Spratt has been writing some good pieces about this lately and the fact that even if we could adhere to a budget it is increasingly necessary that emissions “fall off a cliff.” These two pieces are highly recommended: “Arctic warning: As the system changes, we must adjust our science,” and “A sober assessment of our situation.”

Given that the climate movement has focused on setting targets/deadlines/time-frames, seeing an ever shrinking time-frame for acting to avoid climate disruption is very depressing indeed. Moreover many of us look at the size of the task and further despair at how far we have to go to win the support necessary for change.

So we are faced with an unanswerable riddle. How to steer the boat away from the iceberg, when the captain and crew are convinced there is no iceberg, and the passengers are too busy enjoying themselves. How does a small group, aware of the problem, organize a mutiny in time?

So while pessimism of the intellect is growing sharper, how do we “right the balance” and grow optimism of the will?

It is my view that the only real time-frame of concern to us is the time-frame necessary to build a movement large enough to win the political power necessary to enact change. In my view it takes nothing less than ten years to build such a movement, after reaching the point of achieving a unified leadership. Sadly we are too disunited and have too many bases for disagreement that a united leadership is some way off.

Panicking about impending doom doesn’t help us much with the organized patient work of building a movement.

So where do we begin?

It is the imperative of the climate movement leadership to rebuild optimism in the face of our challenge and there needs to be concrete demonstrable actions undertaken to illustrate to all the activists in the climate movement reasons to be optimistic.

The first demonstrable action should be a commitment to greater unity amongst the climate movement and the marking out of points of agreement.

My observation is that the climate movement is presently dominated by a number of different NGOs each trying to compete for funding, members, and political space, ultimately acting in their own self interest. This obviously has an impact on trying to develop unity.

The socialist movement has a good slogan: “strike together, march separately.” Different groups and organization have different strategies for social change and thus we can accept that we will “march separately,” but wherever there is a basis for unity on a specific issue we can “strike together.”

What I mean by this is that there are two levels of unity. Unity at a strategic level and unity at a tactical level. On both levels however it is essential that unity is marked out on clearly defined basis. We need genuine unity, not amorphous getting together and papering over the differences.

This is what is happening with the merger between a number of Socialist organizations in Australia. When I quizzed Colleen Bolger from Socialist Alternative on what they where actually proposing as concrete points of unity, that is, what they actually agreed upon, she said “well we both agree upon being revolutionary.”

This kind of amorphous phraseology just won’t do; the specifics need to be traced out explicitly.

There is an elephant in the room here which is the fundamental disagreements between two different camps in the climate movement. Those who see incremental reforms as a precursor to achieving the political will for large scale change on climate policy, and those who see incremental reforms as a diversion from winning broad political and grassroots support for political change that acts at the scale and timeframe that the climate science indicates is necessary.

My view is that it ought to be our focus to build a grassroots movement and that all those groups who fall into this camp need to get together to mark out points of strategic agreement in achieving unity at this level.

But this is not to reject the other side as being completely useless. Instead as I said we can “strike together, march separately.” Where there is a confluence of views on a particular issue why would we let our strategic differences get in the way of working together on an issue we do agree upon?

This doesn’t stop us from voicing our opinions about the inadequacies of each others strategy. We can certainly voice criticisms and highlight the contradictions when they become apparent, but constant verbal assaults are not useful when they jeopardise working together at particular points in time.

There are plenty of examples that show how solidarity can work. Look at the Vietnam War. The main demand here was “Bring the Troops Home.” A number of groups could agree on that, even if they had substantial disagreements about the nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party, or the role of the United Nations.

The same thing can be said of the “Equal Marriage Rights” campaign. A clear demand that unites people and groups, but sets aside the trickier differences around issues like the nature of marriage under Capitalism.

The problem is that unity is often couched in ideological terms based on agreement with scientific principles, e.g., what amount of atmospheric CO2e amount is considered a “safe climate”; or whether 2 degrees is an appropriate target to aim for.

Unity needs to be based on actual strategic or tactical issues. Some examples of these might be: do we need a revolution or not; is it more important to find the best messaging, or do we need to build networks on the ground; is door knocking a useful tactic or not; etc, etc. It would be great to use the Climate Summit as a space to brainstorm some of these.

I strongly believe the challenge of building unity is a problem of leadership. We need leadership that puts collective interest ahead of self-interest with a long term vision for growing a culture that fosters unity and challenges egotistical, selfish behavior. The climate leadership needs to guard against individualizing forces and the disruptive behavior of self serving individuals wanting to get their way at the expense of the group.

Leadership is a space or forum for getting together and working out what to do next. It is not a hierarchical representative body that makes decisions in the interest of others. In that sense the ‘leaders’ in the climate movement need to consciously cultivate an non-exclusionary environment based on patience; respect; constructive healthy debate; democracy and teamwork. I intend to develop these ideas further in later pieces.

Granted I work at Beyond Zero Emissions, which has certainly not been at the forefront of this attitude. Whilst I don’t write this with my BZE hat on, I do recognize this has been a weakness of the organization. I’d like to think the organization has started to address this and I believe there is a broad view amongst the group that it needs to start seriously rebuilding alliances.

Now we have all had a large dose of fear and dread around the latest news on climate change I hope we can shift the debate to what needs to be done to build a successful movement.

I think we need to put to the backs of our minds the approaching (or potentially lapsed) deadlines, and accept the reality that it is going to take a large amount of time and work in order to build the grassroots social movement capable of winning the political power necessary to stop climate change.

We need to build genuine unity and develop strong bonds/camaraderie between climate activists as an antidote to the grinding down we face under the weight of the challenge.

Finally, continuing from his observation about love, Che went on to say:

“The revolutionary leaders must have a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth to avoid falling into dogmatic extremes, into cold scholasticism, into isolation from the masses. They must struggle every day so that their love of living humanity is transformed into concrete deeds, into acts that will serve as an example, as a mobilizing factor.”