On October 24, about 5200 actions occurred worldwide as part of a campaign organised by 350.org to demand that political leaders agree to aim to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations below 350 parts per million (ppm). I attended the event at the Sydney Opera House, along with what I would estimate to be around 700 others. Part of the crowd spelled out the number “350” with blue umbrellas. Much of the speeches I heard aimed at popularising the science regarding the necessity of the 350 ppm target, and expressing exasperation that political leaders didn’t seem to “understand” the science of climate change.
Looking at the photos on the 350.org website of other “350” actions around the world, it appears that many had the same character as the one that I attended — that of a corporate-style “branding” campaign aimed at promoting the 350 “brand”. It seems that the organisers think that the main thing that has to be done to achieve the necessary measures to control global warming is to simply have enough people “get” the 350 “message”. This misses the point that to effectively combat global warming requires massive reorganisation of power generation, transport, agriculture, etc., which in turn requires mass mobilisation around political demands, not merely science-popularisation.
Some in the climate action movement seem to get this backwards. For example, in an article published in the October 19 Melbourne Age (and re-printed in the October 28 Green Left Weekly), author David Spratt argues that the problem for climate policy is that the “decision making elite are ignorant of the real scientific imperatives”. He argues that “Our [sic] politicians need to hear” the realities of climate science “because they are not taking the actions that science demands”.
The conclusion then would seem to be that if we just educate the politicians (through corporate-style branding campaigns, perhaps), they’ll save the planet. But many politicians do know, or at least have advisers who know, about the realities of global warming. The problem is not their “ignorance” — it’s their servitude to a system that prioritises the profits of the biggest corporations (of which fossil fuel corporations are a strong contingent) over anything else, including even the survival of human civilisation.
One doesn’t become a “better” or more “radical” environmental activist merely by promoting lower ppm targets or higher emissions cuts or renewable energy targets than the next person. More important is demanding the measures that will actually get us there. In Australia, the world’s leading coal exporter, where most electricity is generated from burning coal, fighting for an end to the thermal coal industry is a good place to start. Fighting deforestation, fighting for free, extensive public transport, demanding that subsidies to fossil fuel corporations be diverted to renewable energy (including technological aid to the third world), are all worthy struggles, and there are more. Demanding that poor and working class people pay the capitalists to change which industry they parasitically profit from (which is more or less what 350.org supports when it calls for “a high enough price on carbon that we stop using so much”) is not one of them.
While strong enough movements may achieve some of these demands under capitalism, it is highly unlikely that all the necessary measures can be achieved under a capitalist framework. Educating people about this is as, if not more, important as educating them about the science of global warming. To think that people will only respond to corporate-style branding campaigns is just condescending.