24 July 2012

A sober assessment of our situation (3)

by David Spratt

[Final of a 3-part series]

The first part in this series described some characteristics of the climate debate and the climate action advocacy movement in Australia. Part two explored some of the forces which have moulded the shape of climate politics in Australia today.
3. Challenges  

3.1 The “possible” and the necessary

Our goal is to achieve a desirable future, not to just reduce the misery, because the alternative is really awful, and failure is not an option. Current global greenhouse gas mitigation commitments will result in global warming of  4 degrees Celsius plus by 2100. Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency says that “with the current policies in place, the world is perfectly on track to six degrees Celsius increasing the temperature, which is very bad news. And everybody, even school children, know this will have catastrophic implications for all of us.”
     A safe climate is now widely recognised in the literature as being under 350 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) or less than one degree Celsius (1C) of warming; for example in the Planetary Boundaries paper published in Nature in 2009, and the research of NASA climate science chief James Hansen. In my humble opinion even 1C is too high, given the ecosystem changes and the extremes we are now witnessing at global warming of just 0.8C, including the destruction of the Arctic ecosystem.  If the planet warms by 2C+, positive feedbacks — for example, sea-ice and ice sheet loss and albedo changes, decline in terrestrial and ocean carbon sink efficiencies, release of large-scale Arctic carbon stores — will likely take the system into a warming cycle beyond human control.
     Greenland’s tipping point for large-scale ice mass loss and big sea-level rises has been revised down from around 3C to just 1.6C (uncertainty range of 0.8C-3.2C). Recent data suggests it would not be an unreasonable bet that Greenland has already passed significant points, but that is something that we will really only know in retrospect.  And predictions in 2011 suggested that as soon as 2020 carbon emissions from melting permafrost could be close to a billion tonnes a year. Researchers said that this positive permafrost carbon feedback will “will change the Arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42–88% of the total global land sink”.
     More than 1C of warming for an extended period of time is very risky, yet warming will exceed and be maintained above 1C for the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. It is now obvious that as well as reducing greenhouse emissions to zero, drawing down atmospheric carbon on a large-scale is necessary. And so too is short-term geo-engineering — if it can be done with relative safety — to stop too much warming whilst the other two strategies have time to work. We are now live in a world of making the least-worst choices.
     So what would get warming below 1C look like? Hansen, in “The Case for Young People and Nature: A Path to a Healthy, Natural, Prosperous Future”, provides a 1C scenario that includes global emission reductions of six per cent per year starting from 2013, plus 100 billion tonnes of carbon drawdown (carbon reforestation or similar) in the 2031-2080 period (charts here).

The left hand image (a) charts what happens to atmospheric CO2 if fossil fuel emissions are cut six per cent per year beginning in 2012, plus 100 billion tonnes of carbon reforestation drawdown occurs in the 2031-2080 period. Chart (b) shows atmospheric CO2 with “business-as-usual” emission increases until 2020, 2030, 2045, and 2060, followed by five per cent per year emission reductions.    With the left-hand scenario (six per cent drop per year starting from 2013, plus 100 billion tonnes of carbon drawdown) temperature gets below 1C around 2070.
      A delay in reaching peak emissions makes the task more challenging, even for the unsafe 2-degree target. A presentation (based on carbon budget approach) made by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber to the 4 degrees or more: Australia in a hotter world conference in Melbourne in 2011 showed that if emissions do not peak till 2020 (red line), then the maximum reduction rate is nine per cent per year:

On present indications 2020 is being very optimistic. Even for the 2C boundary it is four per cent a year from now!
     Most engaging of all is this chart (below) from Kevin Anderson's “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change“, which has been a very popular link from this site. It is drawn from a peer-reviewed paper by Anderson and Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world”.

 In understanding the implications of this chart, I can’t go past this summary from David Roberts at Grist:
The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget. Here’s a visualization of what that means — some sample reduction curves with varying peak years (the four different lines are based on the four main IPCC scenarios). As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.
     How about 2020? Of the available scenarios for peaking in 2020, says Anderson, 13 of 18 show hitting 2 degrees C to be technically impossible. (D’oh!) The others involve on the order of 10 percent reductions a year after 2020, leading to total decarbonization by 2035-45.
    Just to give you a sense of scale: The only thing that’s ever pushed emissions reductions above 1 percent a year is, in the words of the Stern Report, “recession or upheaval.” The total collapse of the USSR knocked 5 percent off its emissions. So 10 percent a year is like … well, it’s not like anything in the history of human civilization.
    This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.
 People will say that four, five, six per cent a year is politically impossible, just as they say holding warming to no more than 2C is all but impossible. Fatih Birol of the IAE says that “despite steps in the right direction, the door to 2C is closing”, whilst Prof Kevin Anderson says 2C is “almost impossible” to avoid. CSIRO has chimed in recently with “research over the past three years makes it increasingly clear that there is little chance of avoiding a minimum of +2C rise in average global temperatures”.
     It’s a growing sentiment, mitigated perhaps by some forlorn hope that 2C won’t be as bad as the science suggests.  On recent trends – where observations often exceed the scientific projections for rates of change – it’s likely to be worse. 
     It’s hard not to conclude that the recurring theme of “exhaustion” around parts of the climate movement is other than a psychologically displaced expression of the contradictions of climate activism: the perception that what needs to be achieved is politically impossible, and that even articulating what needs to be done is politically unacceptable.
     It is very difficult to bear contradictions without resolving the tension by dropping or denying or denigrating one side of the dilemma. That's how the Nick Minchins of this world survive. The climate movement campaigns around what is “possible” to declare publicly, whilst knowing it is totally inadequate. Some people consequently drop out, ignore the problem or pretend life will be OK, others give up in despair and collapse into depression, while the activists go on, trying to carry the impossible tension, which is exhausting. This low point could spearhead engagement if we took the time to honestly re-assess our situation.
     For eNGOs, one big question is how much of their effort should be devoted to climate, because if curtailing warming to something manageable and then returning to a safe climate isn’t achieved, most of their other achievements and objectives will become irrelevant. (The same is true for non-environment NGOs such as the aid and welfare sectors). Without a successful safe climate strategy, they face the paradox of “unnatural conservation”.
     So can the “impossible” be achieved? Perhaps the first thing is for us to imagine how that could happen, technically, economically, politically and socially. What are the scenarios? Philip Sutton and I had a bit of a go in “Climate Code Red”, as has Paul Gilding in “The Great Disruption” and others. In the UK there has been a lot of work done on carbon rationing, Beyond Zero Emissions drew a picture of transformation of the stationery energy sector at the speed and scale required, amongst many post-carbon pathway reports now published.
     What would the picture look like? The world may have to spend 10 per cent or more of global production on the task for a decade or two. The developed economies would build new energy systems for the least developed. Large amounts of fossil fuel infrastructure would be stranded, and there would be a huge effort at innovating and deploying our way to sustainability. Our economy would have to work at full capacity to replace the fossil fuel sector. Some non-essential consumption would be foregone to provide the savings and investment necessary. Neo-conservative politics and economics won’t do it. A whole-of-society effort is required, with the active consent and participation of citizens. It will be disruptive, but radically less so that the alternative of letting warming fly past 2C. People will accept big changes because they have made a conscious choice to support a plan for climate safety rather increasing, and then catastrophic, harm.
     We have got nothing to lose by developing courageous, public leadership around these ideas – politically “impossible” though they are said to be – because our present advocacy path is leading us over the cliff.  Not intentionally, but failure is the outcome, nevertheless.
     Impossible to achieve? That’s what most people say, especially those with most to lose from the dismantling of the status quo. But what we need to do is similar to the scale and speed of transformation that has been achieved already: in the war economies of the mid-20th century, and in the transformation of the Chinese and the Asian “tiger” economies, for example.

3.2 “Policy is an outcome of power, not a means of achieving it”
So, if we have an emergency, and we have the tools to fight it, the only question is why we’re not doing so. And the answer, I think, is clear: it’s in the interest of some of the most powerful players on earth to prolong the status quo. Some of those players are countries, the ones with huge fossil-fuel reserves: recent research has demonstrated that the nations with the most coal, gas, and oil are the most recalcitrant in international negotiations.  And some of those players are companies: the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable enterprise in history, and it has proven more than willing to use its financial clout to block political action in the capitals that count.… We have to build movements—creative, hopeful movements that can summon our love for the planet, but also angry, realistic movements willing to point out the ultimate rip-off under way… As it happens, such movements are possible (but) they go against the power of the status quo, and hence they will be enacted only if we build movements strong enough to force them. We need politicians more afraid of voter outrage than they are of corporate retribution.— Bill McKibben, 7 June 2012
Politics is primarily about power, and who wields it. The fossil fuel and mining industries, the big banks and the big end of town understand this well. But does our side? Reflecting on his experience in the US, Ken Ward writes:
We elevate climate policy above other avenues because we believe that it is the primary responsibility of environmentalists to craft the climate change solution. Why so? Because we think that if we hit upon just the right formula – the perfect blend of incentives, quasi-free markets trappings, tax breaks and so on – we can accomplish the political equivalent of changing lead into gold, and pass effective climate legislation without major opposition. But political power is immutable and we are not alchemists. Policy – a plan of governmental action – is an outcome of power, not a means of achieving it. We do not have enough power to win functional climate policy in the US,  and until we do so, there will be no global climate solution.
Often in Australia, too, there is a conflation of policy with power, and access with influence. Most of the big environment and climate NGOs (ACF, WWF, Climate Institute, ClimateWorks, for example) spend most of their budgets on research, policy, gaining political access, and communications, but little or nothing on actively engaging and organising communities to consistently build serious political power. Changing public perceptions via communications strategies is about as far as people power gets.  Many treat even their own supporters and donors in a passive manner, with requests to send-an-email-there, or donate-here. Contrast that with the mobilisation of communities on coal seam gas, and the political power they have built.
     Some eNGOs, notably Greenpeace and many of the state and regionally-based organisations, have a different model.
     Perhaps many of the big eNGOs recognize the value of community mobilisation but see it as other people’s work, imaging a division of labour where they do the clever policy and lobbying work, whilst the unpaid activists in the grassroots community organisations do the hard slog of door-knocking and street-by-street organising? A bit like the lords in the castle and the serfs in the field.
     What you can achieve is a function of the power you have. At the moment what seems achievable is small compared to the task at hand. But do we ignore the big picture? Surely we must constantly advocate it so that understanding and support grows, even as we also campaign for particular objectives that are more immediately within our grasp? This is what BZE has done by proposing technical solutions that fit the urgency imperative.  Greenpeace’s campaign on coal in Queensland also has a wide political horizon. Many eNGOs have confined themselves to the immediately possible and denied themselves the opportunity to broaden the narrative to the big and the bold and the necessary. I don’t know, but I guess they think that the big picture is not possible.
     Schematically we know that a very rapid transition is necessary, but in conditions of vibrant democracy. Most people can’t picture this, and hope that some super-human force will swoop down and save us. In the business community, for example, that hopefulness is most often expressed in the view that human ingenuity, innovation and engineering will solve the problem (technological determinism).
     Nothing short of action that will of necessity over-turn the current economic paradigm can achieve the change on the timescale we need. For all the nose-wrinkling about such terms as emergency, great disruption, transition plan, war economy, rapid transition, and so on, I have yet to see any other set of propositions about how change might be achieved very fast. It’s a question that is mostly ignored.
     If rapid transition is the “big” picture, at the next (second) level down of specificity, we know that means replacing the fossil fuel industry with a new, sustainable economy based on renewable energy. And at next (third) level down in specificity, that means stopping this new mine or CSG project, eliminating that dirty subsidy, closing this dirty power station with renewable energy and energy efficiency, providing institutional and regulatory and budgetary support for that particular project, and so on.  What is surprising is that many people want to campaign and engage on the second – and particularly the third tiers – but studiously avoid the first. The reason as to why needs to be understood.

3.3 Unity of action
“I came back from the Copenhagen climate talks depressed for several reasons, but above all because, listening to the discussions at the citizens’ summit, it struck me that we no longer have movements; we have thousands of people each clamouring to have their own visions adopted. We might come together for occasional rallies and marches,but as soon as we start discussing alternatives, solidarity is shattered by possessive individualism. Consumerism has changed all of us. Our challenge is now to fight a system we have internalised.”— George Monbiot, “After this 60-year feeding frenzy, Earth itself has become disposable”, Guardian, 4 January 2010
     There is a large literature on movement building, and many successful models of engagement, such as Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan. Some characteristics include being honest about your political situation and about the balance of forces, and being clear and concrete about what you wish to achieve. Unity in action of all possible forces is a key to maximising mobilisation around common goals, as is clear, consistent and non-complex communication. Within that unity, the most important drivers of engagement are democratic processes and ensuring a diversity of empowering grassroots structures. Obstacles include putting form before content (organisation before politics), confusing the relationship between policy and power, and tactical inflexibility.
     In this light, the performance of the current climate action movement (both grassroots and NGOs) is a very mixed bag.
     Many eNGOs are essentially undemocratic in form, and have little or no commitment to community organising. If they do, it’s often top-down management. Too often form becomes before content, with too much behaviour driven by marketing and branding imperatives. Too many campaigns are driven by a particular organisation, with insufficient attention paid to the need for  coordination and united action. The interests of the part dominate the interests of the whole.  Some of the problems facing local grassroots community groups have been discussed in section 2. Grassroots groups have often struggled to maintain momentum, coordination and capacity, so we need to better learn what are sustainable forms of local organising on climate.
     When confronted with John Howard’s repressive Work Choices industrial relations laws, trade unions and trade unionists united effectively in the “Your Rights at Work” campaign. Resources and organisers were deployed in they field in scores of marginal seats and real, local grassroots work was done outside of the regular structures. Power was built that was instrumental in defeating the Howard government in 2007.
     Nothing like this has been attempted in the climate sphere. The big groups have large supporter and donor lists that they guard with their lives. Maybe that’s their survival.  Combine them or co-ordinate them, just once, to get some real momentum behind a community organising effort in a politically significant locality?  That was exactly the proposition put to a number of big groups in preparation for some campaigning in Melbourne’s inner north in 2010, and the answer was a big “no” just about all round. GetUp has had a go at getting local meetings of its supporters and activists. Can this be done on a bigger scale, with both the big and smaller NGOs and local activists involved, around some clear and concrete and principled objectives? Can the object be to build local capacity so that real political power can be mobilised in support of strong climate action? While the need is great, it’s hard to see that such a project has even been seriously attempted.

3.4 What to do?

Most of this blog was drafted in May 2012. Then came “what to do?” and the project came to a screeching halt. What could I say that wasn’t either obvious or trivial, or dismissed as impractical or idealist? Great work is being done on coal seam gas, and on the expanding coal export industry. Our efforts have stopped some new fossil fuel investments, others are teetering, and Contracts for Closure of some of Australia’s dirtiest power stations is still alive. Solar PV is on a trajectory few predicted a few years ago, and there is a wave of action for community wind and solar. Energy efficiency and rooftop PV have skewered wholesale prices for coal power. Yet for all that, we are going backwards, with Australia’s effective emissions set to grow, as are those of the rest of the world. So what could be done better?

1. Tell the big story, set out to fully solve the problem. If we don’t start doing this consistently (if at first only amongst ourselves) how can we understand, advocate and mobilise for action and strategies that will stop us falling over the cliff? Global warming and the bigger picture need to be explicitly used as a justification for campaigns in favour of renewable energy and against CSG and coal. There are numerous examples of campaigns which don't mention climate at all. The best feature of the work of BZE is research and public education around actions consistent in speed and scale with the scientific imperatives (section 3.1) For all their limitations, Climate Code Red and The Great Disruption tried to paint big picture scenarios. We need to paint more of them. How else can we overcome the cognitive dissonance where the real challenge we face is excluded from discourse? (section 1.8

2. Courageous, consistent public leadership for a safe climate. In the public affairs debate on refugees, for example, its easy to identify prominent figures, activists, lawyers and organisations who have taken a strong, consistent stand such as Malcolm Fraser, David Manne, David Marr, The Greens, Refugee Action Collective who regularly blitz the media. The same cannot be said of climate.  It’s a good example of the failure of the climate action movement in toto to take responsibility for the whole, making sure that all the basic functions and operations of a public campaign are covered and coordinated. It’s not rocket science, and it would not take a lot of time and resources to network and provide capacity to develop courageous, consistent public leadership for a safe climate.

3. Power before policy. In reality policy outcomes are never about the elegance of a solution, but about power. As Bill McKibben makes clear, this is a struggle (to the death) between some of the most powerful players (both nations and industries) on earth who aim to prolong the status quo, and “hopeful movements that can summon our love for the planet, but also angry, realistic movements willing to point out the ultimate rip-off under way…”.  At ABC Unleashed on 28 June 2012, Tim Dunlop wrote: “The idea that knowledge is power is a cliche in our modern, democratic age. We believe almost reflexively that if only we could tell people the truth - share our knowledge of proven facts - our argument will prevail… As should be obvious, the efficacy of this belief is misplaced. Day after day, as those examples reveal, power trumps knowledge… No-one knows this better than the powerful themselves.”  (Section 3.2) Lobbying is meaningless unless the one lobbied believes there will be real political consequence from them failing to act.

4. Common goals. Diversity is crucial and inherent to successful movements, but movements that are divided generally fail. We need to wrestle with this paradox if we are to achieve our aims. This experience should highlight the importance of developing a common set of concrete goals for the climate movement and a positive, united agenda. This platform cannot simply be set in the abstract, or necessarily a long period in advance, but must be developed dynamically in the “real world” with consideration to the evolving nature, politics and capabilities of the various forces in the movement

5. Local mobilisation, united action. The fact is that we don’t have the power we need to win;  the emperor has no clothes (section 1.5). And the grassroots climate movement will not be able to build quickly enough without the support of the big eNGOs. Mobilisation starts in local communities (Lock the Gate), face-to-face, door-to-door, arm-in-arm. Building unity in action from such a beginning, with common goals, consistent messages, unified organising and tactical adroitness has been a feature of many struggles. There is no reason why it should not be the case with climate (Section 3.3). Mobilising to get Labor elected is not enough (section 2.2). The Replace Hazelwood campaign in Victoria, which forced a Labor government to turn round its climate policies, is a glimpse as to what some consistency, coordination and community engagement can do.

6. Connecting to conservatives voters.  “All the lines of evidence show that framing climate change as an environmental threat is obsolete when talking to conservatives. We need a frame that can reach across the divide of world-views and speak to common values. That frame is climate change as a threat to health, well-being and livelihood. It is a frame that projects our movement as the preservers and protectors of life: yours, your family’s, your community’s, your country’s. It is a frame that says – in this ever-changing world, a world of threats that seem insurmountable – that you, everyone, have a role to play in making it safe again, bringing security, bequeathing certainty.” (Section 1.2) 

7. Simple, consistent messages. There is now a vast array of communications, messages and stories being told about climate change, often in contradictory and complicated ways. But the history of social movements, advertising and modern political communications teaches us that what gets through to the population at large is much more limited. We need some simple messages that correspond with our goals, and that we repeat ad nauseam, if we are to have an effect on public opinion. To paraphrase Frank Luntz, the conservative pollster who coined the phrase “climate change” as a way of countering the frame of “global warming”, it is about repetition, repetition, repetition.

8. Making climate an issue about now, not the future. Connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change is really important. Over and again, increasing awareness of extreme weather – as a preview or window into the future climate — is turning around public opinion. As this is being written, there is another story from the US that “Record Heat Wave Pushes U.S. Belief in Climate Change to 70%”. Connecting the dots makes the climate story about people’s lived experience of extreme events, not about places and species distant in space and time. It connects to concerns about family and children and grandchildren, and how extremes will affect daily life: food security, water security, how and where we will be able to live.  It is also a means of driving more media coverage and helping to mitigate the partisanship which characterises the issue today (section 2.1)

9. Honesty about out task.  Brightsiding climate advocacy by refusing to engage people about how climate change will impact their lives – and instead telling only happy-clappy stories about “clean energy futures” – has been a disaster. Brightsiding in Australia has had the effect of taking climate impacts OFF the agenda  (section 1.3).  We can’t just sell people an unrelentingly smiley vision of how it will be, if that is not the path we will actually have to take to sustain a rapid transition. Effective engagement requires honesty about the problem; a positive vision of the solution; and an efficacious path that mobilises and engages people and communities. All three elements are essential.

10. Flexibility and opportunity. The movement in Australia by and large missed the opportunity to “connect the dots” between extreme weather and climate change (record heat, fires, rains, floods).  Will we be ready next time, or have strategic plans become too inflexible? In a few weeks (around 9 September), the summer area of Arctic sea-ice may reach a new record low, as the sea-ice continues its death spiral on the path to creating an ice-free Arctic summer period. Are we really ready to tell this story for all it is worth?  There is a good chance that another GFC will hit sooner rather than late: what implications does that have for campaigning?  What if Rudd replaces Gillard and does a deal with the NSW Labor Right who put him there to jump the carbon price to a low floor price? Within a year, federal and most state government may be run by climate-denying conservatives, and the only field of politics readily open to us will be at the local government level, so what would that mean for campaigning? We can’t do everything, so what is strategically important, what are the game changers? Are endless carbon-intensive trips to futile international meetings a priority or an indulgence and a distraction? How do environment groups resolve the “unnatural conservation” paradox?

More questions than answers, that’s as far as I could get.

My thanks to the many people who read, commented on and provided valuable insights which have been incorporated into the text. – David