30 September 2013

Climate battle line: Community mobilisation or Canberra lobby?

by David Spratt

Rally against carbon pricing, Canberra, 23 March 2011
How should climate activist and climate campaigning organisations respond to the new Abbott government, and its goal of knocking out most of Australia's climate programmes and trashing environmental regulation in the service of the fossil fuel and mining industries?
  • Should the methods utilised for the Labor and Labor–Greens coalition governments, of applying pressure and trying to negotiate better outcomes, be used?
  • Or should we set out to deliberately get the Abbott government out of office?
The Abbott Liberal–National Party government celebrated its victory by abolishing Australia's Climate Commission, the first baby steps in a culture war on climate programmes, the renewable energy industry and environmental regulation and protection.

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The Abbott government's goal is to to facilitate the rapid expansion of the fossil fuel sector, including a gem from the new energy minister that he will ensure that "every molecule of gas that can come out of the ground does so", by:
  • removing regulatory and tax imposts on the fossil fuel industry;
  • moving to diminish the effectiveness of the environment, climate action and anti-fossil-fuel-industry movements; and 
  • inhibiting the growth of the renewable energy sector.  
This is a monumental climate battle, a broad social polarisation between two conflicting sets of values, principally on the relationship between science and ideology, the role of government, the relationship between humans and nature, and the future of the fossil fuel industry and of society's technological path.

The Abbott government's climate policy may be described as Deny–Delay–Deregulate, and is founded on:
  • conservatism and the preservation of the status quo against change: a desire to hold back the sea in the service of the fossil fuel industry, even while recognising that a huge economic–technological tide of change is closing in;
  • a commitment to neo-liberal, deregulatory economic policy: defence of free-market capitalism against higher levels of state intervention and regulation;
  • an instrumental view of nature as a resource for exploitation;
  • championing the interests of the fossil fuel industries  economy;
  • an anti-scientific stance, which extinguishes the distance between science and ideology and drives a culture war with a religious component against secular science and environmentalism; and
  • the ethos of politics as warfare, the virtues of confrontation and political extremism and the dumbing-down of politics.
In opposition, Abbott's tactics in propelling the climate war have included:
  • formal acceptance of climate change as real, but a downplaying of the human role as making only "a contribution", persistent denial of any link between climate change and impacts including more extreme events, all accompanied by a chorus of denialist rhetoric from his caucus;
  • dumbing-down and politicising climate science, and the exploitation of scientific uncertainty;
  • tarring good climate policies with the brush of Labor's political incompetence;
  • national chauvinism (along the lines "we will not act to disadvantage Australia while others… ");
  • utilising the politics of resentment to rally Howard's battlers, the fishers, the shooters and the politically marginalised against the professional class and "inner-city elites", such as climate scientists, policy-makers, The Greens, environmentalists, rich life-stylers;
  • promoting fear of economic loss, describing the effect of climate action, in Abbott's words, as "to put at risk our manufacturing industry, to penalise struggling families, to make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia";
  • ruthlessly exploited the myth of cost of living pressures (as GDP per capita grew strongly), in particular that myth that renewable energy was the main culprit for higher electricity prices.
1. A titanic struggle

Before too long, Prime Minister Abbott will have Barnaby Joyce beside him as deputy prime minister and Nationals leader. At heart, both are denialists along with a significant portion of the caucus. Maurice Newman, the former ABC and the ASX chairman who will be the chair of Abbott’s Business Advisory Council, propounds "the myth of anthropological climate change".

Abbott's record includes "the science isn't settled", it's "highly contentious" and "not yet proven", "it's cooling", "it hasn't warmed since 1998",  "there's no correlation between CO2 and temperature", and he is "hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science". Despite what he says, this is what he thinks and it will inform how he will act.

The Abbott government will not be persuaded by reason and is not interested in compromise because this is a battle to be won, and compromise and negotiation are signs of weakness. For this government, fighting enemies is more important than reality-based policy-making. This is about the politics of resentment, fear and revenge, about winning, and about debilitating the enemy. Culture wars are not primarily about policy detail, but about building legitimacy, isolating the enemy and establishing dominance.  

2. One big decision

So what is the strategic response?  In the last term of the Howard government, trade unionism faced similar circumstances with the WorkChoices legislation and made a very clear decision not to give priority to working in Canberra's halls of power lobbying and prying incremental changes from the government, but to devote all the resources they could muster to bringing down the government. Your Rights at Work was a well-resourced, strategic, unified and persistent campaign encompassing a strong public affairs component, membership mobilisation, and an electoral campaign over 20 marginal seats, each with a full-time organiser and local cooperation between the ACTU affiliates to facilitate systematic community outreach.

The climate movement, both professional and community-based, faces a similar decision. Is the main strategy to work with the Abbott government, to cajole, negotiate and compromise to improve outcomes, or is the principal task to help it them from power?

The former Climate Commissioners and the CEFC Board have both shown backbone in eschewing acquiescence, and taking on the government. The reality is that as long as Abbott stays in power, the Australian Government will do next to nothing on climate.

Some of the big climate and environment organisations are structured for Canberra work, and ill-equipped for sustained, unified, effective community organising, so the instinct will be to continue as before. But this is a serious misreading of Abbott's modus operandi, and spending large amounts of time trying to incrementally change really bad policy is a misallocation of resources, with a large opportunity cost. This would affirm Naomi Klein's view that such groups face a systemic crisis.

3. Non-cooperation: Delegitimise their claim to action

Tim Flannery terms the next period a "gigantic struggle". One of our purposes must be to de-legitimise the government's claim that they are taking effective action against climate change through their Direct Action Plan, by people understanding its manifest inadequacy. It is no certainty that the government's plans will have an easy or successful passage through the Senate, even after 1 July 2014. All sorts of odd outcomes are possible.

Much of the climate movement opposed Rudd's CPRS in 2009 because it was so inadequate, so it would be consistent to oppose Tony Abbott's scheme also. The failure of the Direct Action legislation would allow an even clearer message that Tony Abbott has no real climate plan.

If the climate movement works to incrementally improve Direct Action, it will provide the government with a fig-leaf of legitimacy which they will ruthlessly exploit. On the other hand, counterposing a real direct action plan to replace dirty coal power with renewables, and keep CSG and new coal in the ground, would build on existing campaigning and provide many paths to action for the community. It would demonstrate the clear choice between the dirty fossil fuel industry and increasing climate harm on the one hand, and the clean economy and future climate safety on the other.

The possibility of sacrificing some existing policies to better defend others is a mis-reading of the politics. Every piece of legislation Abbott repeals is his victory. Why make it easy?

Should we also make this about the opposing climate action views of Tony Abbott and Malcom Turnbull? Should Turnbull's electorate be hit hard from now till June next year, challenging him to be morally courageous and not to backflip on climate legislation he supports? Tony Abbott made his daughters a political issue, maybe we can too, for example by talking about what sort of hotter world his daughters children will grow up in. Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce on the fate of the Murray-Darling in a hotter world may be illuminating.

4. Impacts first: Delegitimise their anti-science stance

The Abbott government now wants to take boat arrivals and the efficacy of their refugee policy out of the public gaze. The same will be true of climate: their campaign in opposition was principally about Julia Gillard's legitimacy, and less about the reality of climate change, and they have been neither willing nor capable of dealing with the substance of the climate impact issues.

The past period where the Labor government (and NGOs to some extent in the "Say Yes" campaign, for example) tried to sell a climate policy without making the story about climate impacts was wrong, wrong, wrong. Brightsiding is a bad strategy. Trying to sell an answer without providing sufficient reason to act doesn't work. Too many times in the past the climate movement has been reticent to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change.

The new Climate Council is but one small step in keeping climate science stories and impacts as public as possible. We can demonstrate the Abbott government's ignorance and incompetence by hammering them over climate impacts on health, climate extremes, bush fires, food, water, inland Australia and the fate of farmers in and outside parliament every day, every which way. The attempts to silence and de-fund climate science research will likely backfire: on campuses, students can fire up in support of their teachers and against the politicisation of the academy.

5. People, not Nemo

A fundamental review of climate communication strategies is urgent. Climate story-telling should be about people, not Nemo. It should be about human values and morality, not economic and business rewards. Framing climate as an environment issue is counter-productive and plays to Abbott's strength. So does making it a story just about the future, rather than also about now.

Our story should be principally about people in Australia, not distant places. Our story should be about now: about connecting the dots between extreme events and global warming; about bush fires and extreme heat and suffering communities; a story about how family and friends will live and die in a hotter and more extreme world; a story about how a hotter climate and a retreating coastline will affect where we live and work; a story about health and well-being; about increasing food and water insecurity; and the more difficult life that children and grandchildren will face. This makes climate a values issue, the choice between increasing climate harm and climate safety, between warming caused by dirty fossil fuels and the solution of building a clean economy. [For more discussion see here and here.]

The stories we tell vary with the audience: whether it be the impact of storm surges and rising sea levels on coastal communities and surf clubs; what more extreme fires means for first-responder workers, or more extreme heat days mean for the health sector; what drying of southern Australia means for farming communities; or how climate impacts will make the overseas aid policy paradigm obsolete.

Society’s pace of change is creating new fears and insecurities as people struggle to keep up and worry about being left behind. And they fear about the future in which their children will live. Hyper-consumption is driven by insecurity — fear of being left behind, of being “unfashionable” in the broad meaning of the term — and self-entitlement. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that: “Human vulnerability and uncertainty is the foundation of all political power.” Abbott understand the politics of fear, but do we?  Can we construct a  narrative that recognises fear and provide clear path to climate safety, rather than increasing personal and planetary insecurity? How can Howard’s battlers become safe climate champions?

Doctors and scientists are credible public figures on climate. NGO talking heads fit the stereotype of middle-class, inner-city, professional, green elites making an easy living off climate alarmism. What will bring greater legitimacy to our side? Firefighters, nurses and first-responders of all kinds, surf-life savers, worried grandparents, tradies unable to work due to extreme heat, new parents, farmers forced off the land, retired military, John Hewson and Malcolm Fraser, Ian Dunlop, Cathy McGowan and Ita Buttrose.   

6. Mobilisation

The largest, most motivated and effective climate action mobilisation in Australia today focuses on coal and coal seam gas (CSG). Overwhelmingly,  the resources are devoted to the communities, not Canberra lobbying.

The election campaigns in the seat of Melbourne and Indi championed the power of community organising. Resources such as NationBuilder can be tuned to issue campaigning as easily as candidate electioneering. Your Rights at Work provides valuable insights.

Walk Against Warming 2006
In the latter years of the Howard government, and during the first Rudd government, there were powerful expressions of community concern through events such as Walk Against Warming. Sectors including aid organisations, churches, unions, schools and students and grassroots climate groups all participated in a show of solidarity and concern. On the surface, many of those sectors appear to be much quieter now.

If the strategic choice is to focus on bringing down the government, rather than cooperating in incrementally improving bad policies, then community and sectoral organisation and mobilisation is the key.

At the scale now required in support of climate action, this has not been previously attempted in Australia.  It will require a lot of working out, cooperation in planning and execution, sustained unity in action, and a lot of resources. It will need a degree of trust, of sharing, and promoting the interests of the whole rather than the imperatives of the part. It will require that the lessons of the Say Yes review be absorbed, not palmed to one side.  It will require all sorts of things that many people say are "not possible" given the structures, relationships, branding imperatives and skill sets of the organisations and networks that should be involved, large and small. It will require a small revolution in how many parts of the climate movement work.

If that really is "not possible", then success in the battle is a lot less likely.

7. "Holding the line" is not enough

It is not enough just to defend what Abbott wants to destroy.  Climate change is already dangerous, time is very quickly running out if we are to avoid catastrophe. A safe climate is the only reasonable goal, and what it requires must be central to our narrative and actions. It requires, in the first instance, ideas leadership.

International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih Birol calls the 2°C goal “a nice Utopia”, and the prevailing climate policy-making framework now poses a choice between a “dangerous but liveable” 2ºC of warming and the “catastrophe” of 4ºC or more.

The aims of international climate negotiations and of the global climate action movement are to prevent dangerous climate change. But what do we do if global warming is already dangerous, and that 2°C boundary is itself a disaster?  This is now the case.

Researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows show that  if global emissions don’t peak till 2020, then the 2°C carbon budget for the developed world is… zero (4).  Even the 2ºC target requires actions that are completely outside the current climate policy-making framework, and therefore considered impossible.

The UK's Tyndall Centre says that:
Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future. We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.
If we don't establish public ideas leadership around these understandings now, what hope do we have?

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