Publicity alone is not a climate movement

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August, a popular ideologue of the environment movement, Ian Lowe, told a packed-out marquee, to a round of applause “and someone is shovelling coal into the steamer to get us there faster ...”: “The only responsible thing for citizens to do is organise a mutiny”.

Lowe, who is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, was sharing a panel with political commentator and author Clive Hamilton called “Requiem for a species: how long do we have left?” The panel correctly cited the Labor Party and the pro-corporate media as playing a big part in delaying or obscuring solutions to the climate crisis but failed to generate a discussion about how to build a political movement for change.

Lost opportunities

Since Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and debate on global warming sparked massive Walk Against Warming marches in Australia (30,000 in Melbourne, 20,000 in Sydney, 6000 in Canberra), the environment movement has steadily dissipated and lost many opportunities to change the course of history.

Some of this lost momentum can be attributed to subjective factors — a lack of leadership, belief and willingness to build a deep-going radicalisation capable of shaking the foundations of the system such as occurred in the 1960s. The past four years have proven that the current strategies are clearly not working — and this is against the backdrop of the colossal financial collapse of capitalism that is still being played out.

The fundamental mistake at work in the Australian environment movement today can be narrowed down to the overwhelming belief in parliaments and parliamentarism. This has spurred a preoccupation with calling summits and forming “peak organisations” without going through the necessary steps of discussion and debate over key political issues such as population or consumption.

Buoyed by the tens of thousands who turned out to the Walk Against Warming marches the year before, the 2007 WAW was seen as an opportunity to “vote Howard out, vote Rudd in and ‘sign the Kyoto protocol’” — both of which happened. The Rudd ALP government enjoyed an unusually long honeymoon on the climate change question, attending global forums such as Bali, Posnan and Copenhagen with the unashamed position of saying “Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of all time” but choosing not to do anything about it for five years. (Penny Wong as climate change minister was the master at such sophistry, throwing around words “urgent action now” but exposed in her deeds such as the “carbon reduction scheme” that proposes to reward the polluters.)

By 2010, the Walk Against Warming marches were run more like a corporate fundraiser and motivated only by the sentimental statement, “Walk with the people. Not the big polluters.”

Individual solutions

“While our political leaders have been squabbling, the rest of us have been getting on with the business of dealing with climate change. We’re going green and clean. We’re reducing our greenhouse pollution and recycling our waste. We’re saving water and energy, and buying green power. And we’re forming climate action groups — all across the country”, reads the Walk Against Warming website.

This captures the dominant thesis of current climate change gatherings: that individual solutions (if you can afford a $30,000 solar system for your roof) will resolve your “carbon guilt”, but parliament is where the real power is.

This has been heavily reinforced by events such as the Climate Action Summit held in Canberra in the past two years. In February 2009, this culminated in a “chain of hands” running 3km around parliament. The focus of the Climate Summit and of the principal financial sponsors — Greenpeace — appeared to be more on organising thousands of people in Canberra for a silent media stunt, rather than the preceding three days of debate and discussion that the campaign sorely needs.

This focus on “media savvy stunts” has its place and can be a creative way to organise people, but it has now become the sole “tactic” to “inspire” people. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) at its Power Shift conference in 2009 organised a “dance off” on the Opera House steps. In one of its bigger ticket items, Getup organised people on October 12, 2008, to cheer on a “Climate Torch Relay” on Parliament House lawns and urged people to wear face masks resembling both leaders and don orange capes with the words “Kevin [Rudd] and Malcolm [Turnbull]: Be our Climate Heroes”. The “350.org” was a short-lived series of stunts aimed at the climate talkfest in Copenhagen. In Brisbane, the event involved hundreds of people in throwing frisbees for the cameras.

Electoral illusions

In her blog at the Copenhagen climate summit last year, AYCC spokesperson and former student bureaucrat Anna Rose opined: “It’s Monday morning, and Copenhagen’s over. Monday morning, to many people in the world, means we wake up and get back to work. Many will need — and deserve — a break to recover from the emotional and physical burnout that Copenhagen induced in our movement. In some respect, knowing what our next steps are domestically is easy. It’s an election year in Australia, and we need to make climate change the number one issue for Australians as they cast their votes. We need to challenge all our politicians — local, state and federal — to commit to stronger climate change action ... We need to enrol more young people to vote!” Such illusions in the electoral process fit neatly with the idea that the climate campaign needs “paid officials” rather than a more activist-based approach to campaigning.

Georgina Woods, formerly of the radical Newcastle group Rising Tide and now a bureaucrat in Climate Action Network Australia (one of the sponsors of WAW), put it to the second Climate Action Summit in Canberra earlier this year: “We need professional climate activists who can communicate with those who don’t agree with us so we can effectively build climate change policy”.

Such an approach has meant the death of a sustained movement and the rise of the apolitical bureaucrat. For an issue to maintain momentum and grow, a campaign needs to be run democratically and to include plenty of time for debate, discussion and clarification. Over the past years, decisions about tactics and strategy or on political demands have been made behind closed doors, relegating most campaigners to the role of silent spectators in a media stunt that may or may not get publicity. A democratic organising committee, not a paid “event organiser”, would have avoided the ridiculous spectacle of Walk Against Warming last year in Brisbane, where hundreds of mostly silent marchers were routed away from the city altogether over a footbridge and sent looping around an underground car park!

The question for genuine activists is sharply posed: do we still believe parliament, together with all of its institutions and its big business backers, is going to change? If not, how are we going to involve the maximum number of people in a broad-based climate campaign that will challenge the existing political order?

Four years of missed opportunities and hapless media adventures point to the urgent need for such a discussion to begin among activists about how Ian Lowe’s “mutiny” will actually be organised.