Which way forward for the climate action movement?

“Penny Wong jeered, Hugo Chavez cheered” was the headline of an article in the Australian newspaper during the final days of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December. Wong, the Australian Minister for Climate Change, was there to “seal a deal” which favoured business-as-usual for the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluters. Despite years of pledges to act on climate change, the bottom line for the Rudd Labor government is still a mere 5% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on the other hand, received applause and standing ovations. He called on the rich countries to pay their “climate debt” to poor countries. He led a walkout of Latin American leaders at Copenhagen, denouncing the “deal” being imposed on the poor countries by the governments of the rich countries. Addressing the Copenhagen conference delegates, he said “the rich are destroying the planet. Do they think they can go to another when they destroy this one? Can a finite Earth support an infinite project? The thesis of capitalism, infinite development, is a destructive pattern, let’s face it…” Chavez asked: “How long are we going to allow such injustices and inequalities? How long are we going to tolerate the current international economic order and prevailing market mechanisms?” He answered: “Capitalism is the road to hell.”

During the Copenhagen conference, 100,000 people took to the streets and the Klimaforum09 counter-conference, which issued four demands beginning with “a complete abandoning of fossil fuels within the next 30 years”. In the wake of the Copenhagen conference — which recognised for the first time the need to limit global warming since pre-industrial times to below 2°C, yet despite two years of negotiations failed to produce any legally binding emission reduction targets to achieve that goal — anti-corporate globalisation authors like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein are calling for a renewed movement based on mass action.

While the outcome of the Copenhagen conference shattered illusions for many climate-change activists in Australia, the simple lesson is that the global movement needs to reconstitute around alternative politics and take on the failed climate-change policies of the Australian Labor government. It has been a year since the last convergence of climate action groups in Canberra, which culminated in 2000 people surrounding Parliament House in sea of red shirts with the words “climate emergency”.

The event was largely ignored by the mass media. Most of the momentum coming out of the 2009 Climate Action Summit was directed into online policy discussions. Too much hope was invested in the UN-organised negotiations. The result is that hundreds of local climate action groups remain unnecessarily weak and isolated from each other, with activities heavily focussed on lobbying capitalist politicians and promotion of individual lifestyle “solutions”.

The other problem that has plagued the climate action movement has been the preoccupation with perfecting the “perfect recipe” — drawing up a blueprint that attempts to resolve every symptom of the climate crisis within the existing capitalist economic framework. The focus instead needs to be on mobilising opposition to the cause of the crisis — the capitalist system’s reliance on using “cheap”, and therefore profitable, fossil fuels, particularly coal, to generate electricity.

Rather than getting bogged in permanent online discussions about emissions-reduction targets, transitions and timetables for a low-carbon economy, the climate action movement needs to focus on a campaign that can inspire activists to clearly agitate for mass protest action against the “free market, business as usual” policies of the ruling rich and their politicians. A campaign against coal fits that bill.

Leading climate scientist Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute has pointed out that rapidly phasing out coal use is the “primary requirement for solving global warming”. Coal is the dirtiest fuel on the planet, emitting around 1.7 times as much carbon per unit of energy when burned as does natural gas and 1.25 times as much as oil. A typical (500 megawatt) coal-fired power plant burns 1.4 million tonnes of coal each year. Worldwide there are around 50,000 coal-fired power stations.

The ALP is unashamedly pro-coal. The federal and state Labor governments provide billions of dollars in incentives, subsidies and investment in coal-use infrastructure, continuing to give the coal mining corporations cover with the fake promise of “clean coal”. Australia is the world’s fourth largest coal producing country, and the world’s largest coal exporter. Every tonne of coal exported ends up as around two tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Multiply that by the 270 million tonnes of coal now being exported each year, and it’s readily understandable why Australia is a chief contributor to the problem of global warming.

Former industry lobbyist Guy Pearse, author of Quarry Vision, correctly labelled the coal industry as a central part of the “greenhouse mafia”. This is the coalition of corporate fossil fuel producers and users that includes the Australian Coal Association, the Australian Aluminium Council, BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto (CRA), the Electricity Supply Association of Australia, ExxonMobil and Caltex (Chevron). At the behest of this “greenhouse mafia” the Rudd government has adopted policies that aim to double Australia’s coal exports.

Campaigns against coal mining are already well-established — in the Hunter Valley, near Mudgee and in the Liverpool Plains of NSW, and near Toowoomba in Queensland. Composed mainly of workers and farmers and some local councillors, groups are tackling the coal industry head-on. An alliance with these campaigners by city-based climate action groups is what is needed to give the latter a clear campaigning focus on the chief cause of climate change.

Climate camps over the last few years continue to draw significant numbers of young people interested in countering global warming. Climate action groups need to engage in collective forms of protest action with a unified focus if they are going to make an impact on public opinion — the Franklin Dam campaign was not won by thousands of people staying at home just lobbying politicians through letter-writing. A single-focus Franklin Dam-style campaign allows people from all political backgrounds to participate around a common goal.

A single-issue focus on coal — on demanding a ban on all new coal mines and coal-fired power stations, as well as the immediate ending of all government subsidies to the coal mining companies — could provide an immediate unifying goal to mobilise the largest number of those seriously opposed to climate change on the streets. Unless the climate action movement takes up the challenge of taking direct action to fight the pro-coal “business as usual” approach of the “greenhouse mafia” and the Rudd Labor government, then it’s wasting time that we simply don’t have.