Climate change campaign: going in circles

In an attempt to “create our own moment and message” internet-based environment coalition Moving Planet declared September 24 a “day to move beyond fossil fuels — to demand solutions to the environment crisis”. Organised by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), the headline activities promoted in Australia were human sign making and riding bicycles in loops around Parliament House in Canberra.

Media-friendly photo ops — such as a giant aerial art image of a bicycle and a human sign for renewable energy on September 24 — have been the focus of climate-campaign mobilisations since 2008, masses of people being urged to line up in the shape of a giant clock in Newcastle, silently hold hands to surround Parliament House in Canberra or have a mass frisbee throw-off in Brisbane.


When environmentalists work for pro-polluter ALP.

Such stunts — and the expectation that two, three or more thousand people will come along, pose for the aerial photograph and then disperse — have been organised principally by GetUp, AYCC and 350.org. They have displaced the marches and rallies of campaigns past and become a block to democratic, independent political organising. Grassroots activists struggle to compete with the free T-shirts, stickers, postcards and web-teams working hard to keep radical politics off the agenda and keep the message simple — if not stupid.

Say what?

In the case of the July “Say Yes” event in Sydney, fronted by Labor-friendly outfits GetUp and AYCC, the 20-minute gathering of thousands heard GetUp’s Simon Sheik fanfare Labor’s new carbon tax, implying that it will lead to the winding back of the fossil fuel industry: “Now is a moment of celebration … We’re ready to power our economy with 100% renewable energy. We say yes!” .

AYCC, which backed the “Say Yes” event, came in for stinging criticism from anti-coal author and advocate Guy Pearce in an article in the September edition of the Monthly. In his article, “Australia’s Patrons of Climate Change Activism”, Pearce identified the bankrolling of outfits like AYCC and Climate Action Network Australia and linked it to a conscious approach of “taming environmentalists into backing yet another ineffective policy”.

Pearce identified these organisations as part of an entrenched bureaucracy that has evolved at the same time that made-for-media stage-managed events came along. He calls them “‘suit-wearing’ greenies” who “sport a neo-liberal faith in markets, with many building careers promoting the idea that emissions trading is the solution to climate change”.

“Like the carbon lobby, big-brand environmental groups recruit former political staffers and senior bureaucrats. Radicals have been replaced by ‘realists’ who know that if they collaborate with the powers that be — often former colleagues — they can secure incremental wins without threatening the system”, wrote Pearce.

Rallying behind capitalism

This is the politics that dominates current climate campaign formations, which talk about “science-based policies” and “a rapid transition to zero carbon emissions”, but are in fact rallying behind capitalist free market non-solutions such as Labor’s Clean Energy Future (CEF) plan.

Upset that Pearce had articulated the material basis for the universal sell-out among climate action coalitions, AYCC was forced to respond to Pearce in a blog, revealing: “AYCC take the view that we need to do what the science says is necessary, not what is politically expedient. However, this does not mean we reject every policy that falls short of getting up to 100% renewables in 10 years. Our primary test is whether a policy does enough to get us on the path to that goal … It legislated a 5% emission reduction target, which essentially locked in climate disaster.”

But a “climate disaster” is exactly what Labor’s plan could lead to: only 5% emissions reductions by 2020, and a whopping 60% of electricity supply still coming from fossil fuels (such as coal and coal seam gas) by 2050.

While essentially in favour of the CEF, Pearce still explained: “Big polluters are again excused from paying for 66–94.5% of their emissions ... billions of dollars going to emission-intensive power generators; $1.3 billion to coal producers whose exports are Australia’s largest contribution to climate change ... It’s another huge money-go-round ... The pledge to pay owners of 2 gigawatts of the most emission-intensive coal-fired generation to exit the industry is an admission pricing carbon this way won’t achieve even that.”

Pearce laid bare the crisis that has now enmeshed the climate change movement: well-funded lobby groups and Labor Party apologists acting as a “voice” for the campaign. The challenge for activists is to continue exposing big-business-as-usual politics and to build a democratically organised and radical political movement that doesn’t waste time riding bicycles in circles.