Australia: Climate Summit unites new environment movement
Human chain surrounds Parliament House, Canberra, February 3, 2009. Photos by Greenpeace.
By Simon Butler, Canberra
Green Left Weekly -- February 6, 2009 -- We live in a peculiar, troubling time, where the world's climate scientists are all but screaming from the rooftops for governments to listen and take urgent action to avert climate change. Act without delay to end carbon emissions and work to draw carbon down from the atmosphere, they say, because the lives of literally billions of human beings are at risk if we fail.
But with perverse irresponsibility the governments are not listening to the scientists and the many others worried about the future. They have ignored the arguments based on scientific fact and disregarded the moral imperative of preserving an inhabitable planet for future generations.
In a time when our government refuses to take the steps to secure the health and safety of our children and grandchildren, only one option really remains. People need to reach out, organise and campaign for a safe climate future. It's because they know that the government and the market won't fix the climate crisis in time that more and more people are taking action themselves.
Australia's Climate Action Summit, held in Canberra over four days from January 31 to February 3, brought together many people from across Australia, inspired to make a difference.
More than 500 participants, representing well over 100 different Climate Action groups, peak groups and political parties, adopted of set of campaign objectives for 2009. The goals decided upon are, they concluded, ``in line with what science, and global justice, demands'‘.
The Climate Summit took place in a political context of the environmental movement having received an enormous slap in the face from the Australian government's Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in December.
Australia's emissions reduction target is a paltry 5% by 2020. Rudd's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), meanwhile, is engineered to provide the biggest corporate polluters with free credits and even allows the most energy-intensive industries to expand future production.
Participants came together with a shared understanding that the movement needed to take a fresh, people-centred approach in light of the new government's policies. The growth of Climate Action groups around the country has shown the willingness of people to get involved. Now a national network of climate change activists and groups was needed to coordinate and unite the various efforts.
Clive Hamilton, conference participant and author of Scorcher: the dirty politics of climate change commented on this solid grassroots dynamic of the climate movement, and its origins, in an article published on Crikey.com on February 4:
The announcement of the [CPRS] was a king hit on the mainstream environment groups that had invested so much in working on the inside of the parliamentary process... Seduced into believing they can influence the Government, in truth they were crushed by the greenhouse mafia. Fossil fuel delegations could get an hour of quality time with the minister, while environment groups felt lucky to have 15 minutes with a bored staffer.
This failure underlines the importance of the ‘new environment movement', a surprisingly large network of community-based activist groups that came together in Canberra last weekend for the Climate Action Summit.
Led by a new generation of young people whose politics have not been shaped by the old movement, they represent a return to radical activism. They are determined, angry, savvy and brave.
They believe that baby boomers are bequeathing to them a world much worse than the one the boomers inherited. Their objective was perfectly captured in the words on a T-shirt worn by one of them: ``Unfuck the world''.
Day one of the summit began with an honest reminder of what is at stake and discussed how the task of winning a safe climate is easier to accept than to achieve.
In an opening plenary session, Hamilton explained the appalling influence of the ``greenhouse mafia'‘ in setting Australia's climate policy. The government's CPRS was ``as if the government had announced a new tax on cigarettes, but exempted smokers from paying'‘.
``Our only hope'‘, Hamilton said, ``lies in a campaign of radical activism ... Until the public demands it, far ranging actions won't happen.'‘
David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red, put forward the case for the movement to adopt a long-term target of 300 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere and surveyed the findings of the most recent climate science. He ridiculed the federal government's official policy that assumes life on the planet can be preserved with 3° C of warming. ``Kevin Rudd's target of 3° C warming is an end of the world target'‘, Spratt pointed out.
Greenpeace climate change campaign coordinator John Hepburn also spoke on the opening panel. He labeled the failure to tackle climate change as ``a failure of the Australian political system'‘. Hepburn briefly outlined the scale of the changes climate campaigners need to aim for. ``We need to shut down the coal industry as quickly as possible and move to achieve 100% renewable energy'‘, he said.
The final speaker, Jenny Curtis from the Balmain-Rozelle Climate Action Group, pointed out that ``despite the brilliance of what we have created, the movement so far has failed''.
``Our job is to build a new movement, a movement that leads to a whole system transformation'‘, Curtis concluded.
Hope and determination
Over the following three days summit participants contributed to a highly productive discussion and examination of the campaign options. In summary, the Climate Summit adopted three unifying objectives:
1) To prevent the Australian government's proposed CPRS from becoming law.
2) To launch a campaign for 100% renewable energy in Australia within 10 years -- drawing upon the example of Al Gore's Repowering America campaign, which is backed by research from renewable energy experts from Stanford University among others.
3) To campaign for a long-term target of stabilising atmospheric CO2 at 300ppm. This corresponds with the most recent research conducted by the world's leading climate scientist, James Hansen, and his team.
That the conference was able to unite on the goal of stopping the CPRS in 2009 is significant. This was achieved despite the differences in the movement about whether some other form of emissions trading scheme could be a part of the solution.
Ultimately, participants agreed that activists can continue to discuss alternatives without preventing the unity necessary to stop the Australian Labor government's atrocious scheme in its tracks this year.
The second objective of achieving 100% renewable energy by 2020 was thoroughly discussed and debated at the summit.
The summit emphasised that the 100% renewables campaign should be twinned with a clear call on the government to create green jobs and prioritise a ``just transition'‘, which incorporates social justice for the workers and communities who currently make their living from unsustainable industries.
This overarching campaign -- or ``meta-theme'‘ as it was described by some summit attendees -- is intended to incorporate and unite the varied climate justice campaigns around the country, without impacting on the autonomy of any of these groups or campaigns.
Discussion and action
Alternative energy expert Mark Diesendorf, from the University of New South Wales, argued against the adoption of this particular objective. In a plenary session on the third morning he said he strongly disagreed that 100% renewable energy by 2020 is a realistic aim. This goal could be achieved by 2040 at the earliest, he said.
However, the majority of the summit clearly differed with Diesendorf's arguments. A number of activists spoke from the floor to argue that the objective is the adequate emergency response required to confront a serious climate emergency. Others pointed out that the available mix of renewable technology -- solar, solar thermal, wind, tidal and geothermal power -- could do the job, provided there was the political will.
That the conference also adopted the long-term target of 300ppm of CO2 is very encouraging. This was strengthened by an explicit call for the Australian government to adopt this goal and advocate it in international forums, in particular the Copenhagen summit in December.
Importantly, the summit also endorsed a framework of future actions. It was made clear that these proposals were not intended to discourage Climate Action groups from determining their own campaigns and actions as well.
The future actions proposed by the summit were:
- Actions outside the offcies of members of parliament or corporations to coincide with the release of the CPRS White Paper in March.
- Nationally coordinated mass World Environment Day rallies on June 6, 2009, with the explicit purpose of publicly launching the campaign for 100% renewable energy in 10 years.
- Climate camp/s in September, inspired by the successful camp held in Newcastle in August 2008.
- Actions around the Copenhagen Summit in December.
The Climate Summit was not able to reach consensus on the kind of national climate network structure for the movement. The summit resolved to continue the discussion and Climate Action groups will be asked to consider new proposals in the coming weeks.
The summit concluded with a protest action at Parliament House on the morning of February 3, when 2500 people joined hands to completely encirclethe parliament with a human chain.
The symbolism of this action could hardly have been more apt. It sent an unmistakable message from the climate justice movement to the politicians hiding inside -- we are many, you are few.