Building a climate movement that can win (June 2009 National Committee plenum)

Since our last DSP NC report devoted to this issue the prospect for the planet has worsened quite considerably.

The latest bad news was a report on May 19 by a group scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Based on their studies they concluded that the previous worst-case scenario for global warming by the end of this century has been underestimated by about half. By 2100 the Earth could be an average of about 5 degrees hotter than today, and possibly as high as 7 degrees, on a business-as-usual scenario. This was the first study of its kind to take into account the global cooling effect of an unusually high amount of volcanic eruptions in the 20th century — hence the higher warming prediction for the 21st century.

The general line of the following report and summary by Simon Butler on behalf of the DSP National Executive was adopted unanimously by the DSP National Committee (NC) on June 6, 2009.

This is well into runaway climate change territory and signifies a rate of change in the climate that hasn't been seen since the Permian mass-extinction event 100s of millions of years ago. In his very compelling and accessible, albeit daunting, 2006 book Six Degrees, Mark Lynas compared a six degree world with the sixth circle of hell. There is no chapter "7 degrees" — he obviously thought that redundant.

Capitalism is driving the planet to an ecological cataclysm. Climate tipping points are close. Some of them may even have been passed or are being passed now. In GLW we usually frame our task as "averting" or "stopping" climate change but we should probably stop saying that. The truth is we are likely already to late to stop climate change altogether. The battle is now more about stopping it from changing to the point where billions of people lives are put at risk and millions of other species are lost.

Extra warming is already locked into the system because it takes a lot longer for the 4-kilometre-deep ocean to warm than it does the atmosphere — and a lot longer to cool. It's also the case that if the movement globally gets to a point where we succeed in cutting emissions dramatically the first thing that will happen is a significant spike in warming — anywhere between 20% to 50%. This is because if we stop emissions, aerosols — which have a cooling effect and last only about 6 months in the atmosphere — would also be cut. Greenhouse gases would stay around for much longer warming the planet without the cooling impact of aerosols.

"We have at most ten years — not ten years to decide upon action but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions", according to James Hansen

It's a growing recognition of this stark fact that has led to the formation of a climate action movement here in Australia. What is the politics of this movement? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How can we best relate to it, build it and grow with it? Where is it headed? This is the focus of this report today.

The movement

The first thing to recognise is that this is a real movement that we can expect to continue for a significant time. Its different to movements we have had to relate to in past years that have gone up, and then down fairly rapidly — such as the Iraq war, refugee rights, global justice, Palestine and Tamil solidarity etc.

This year marked a big breakthrough with the outcome of Australia's climate summit. The objectives adopted were pretty much in accord with the Socialist Alliance climate charter — though on the issues of how to get there, and what it will actually take to get there, the SA is still a minority. But we have established that we want the same thing as other activists. This opens up a much broader hearing for our ideas.

The summit represents two things: a) the emergence of the grassroots climate action groups (CAGs) on the political scene which are trying to fill the vacuum left by the conservative peak environmental organisations. and b) leadership of a left current arguing for targets and emergency action based on science. We are part of this current which currently plays the leading role in the grassroots movement.

There are 250 CAGs across the country. Up to 20,000 people are somehow linked, and on email lists.

How real are these groups? We know a little bit more now than we did 12 months ago but we could do with some more information. Most groups are somewhere between one to six active members.

Some examples:

  • LIVE in Victoria (1000-person email list, organised 5000 strong action on May 16, but a handful of active members);
  • Bayside CAG, Melbourne: 450 email list, 80 paid members, couple activists;
  • Balmain/Rozelle: over 500 members, three or four activists;
  • Newtown: four or five regular activists, many contacts;
  • People for Safe Climate: six or seven activists, including DSP members;
  • St Johns sustainability group - Brisbane: 6 active; 150 on email list; and
  • Pine Rivers (QLD) - about 300 on email list — one or two active.

How have the climate summit objectives fared?

On the CPRS, the debate in movement to stop this CPRS has largely been won. Still, the majority would say some kind of cap and trade scheme could work. More again say a carbon tax is the best option. Market mechanisms are still the preferred and most commonly cited solution.

100% renewables by 2020

We waged a successful campaign to keep this as the chief demand for the June 13 rallies. This came under pressure from some prominent figures such as Mark Diesendorf, peak groups like the ACF, the Greens in some cities, and many unions, but some of this opposition was rather blasé and most groups still came on board with the rallies.

A most common argument was that 100% by 2020 represents an "ideological" instead of a realistic approach. This of course distorts what realistic and ideological really mean. It's not realistic to ignore what climate science demands. And a decision to demand less because it might be easier to win also reflects an ideological standpoint - the kind of ideology that will lead to climate disaster.

The other big concern raised was that the demand would not allow June 13 to be built broadly enough. The demand for 100% renewables by 2020 won this time but it's still a demand we will need to keep convincing people of.

300ppm target

Bill McKibben was in Australia plugging 350ppm instead and his October 350ppm international day of action. It's not the most important argument to have considering we are a long way from achieving either target. But we should defend the climate summit perspectives based on the science while supporting the 350ppm rallies.

National Network

The chief barriers here have been the limited experience in this kind of initiative of some of the activists involved and the stirring behind the scenes of the Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) and ACF. Some Rising Tide members have been very vocal about not wanting an accountable, elected and representative network. We support a network that could act as a political alternative to the peak groups and help give a national voice and coherence to the movement.

Some of the concerns we've encountered in the discussion reflect a fear-mongering about a top-down network that will dictate to groups and a private fear-mongering about the Socialist Alliance somehow taking over the movement.

Pressure has been applied indirectly from peak groups, especially CANA who keeps offering to "house" the network itself. Others are very wary that a new, rival grassroots network could emerge independently of them.

A new compromise proposal is currently being discussed and it is unlikely to represent our preferred scenario. What we should aim for most of all is for some kind of network to get off the ground first.

On the basis of real experiences in trying to make it work we hope that some of the abstract disagreements about the role of the network can be resolved in practice. An important job for the network will be to play a central role in organising the next climate summit.

We should also recognise that the climate action movement is still an overwhelmingly liberal movement. This is obvious when you look at the geography of where most CAGs are.

It raises a challenge for the Socialist Alliance to act as a bridge between this movement and the trade union movement. Like in all of our movement work, we'll need to work out how best to introduce a working class, mass struggle orientation into the climate movement.

Movement politics

The ACF has ruined much of its credibility in the movement with its support for the CPRS. They still however have a strong institutional weight.

While other peak groups have distanced themselves from the ACF over its support for the CPRS, this may not be a permanent split.

There is a question over whether CANA can function now with differences between the ACTU, ACF, WWF on the one hand and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE), TWS on the other.

While the Greens are sensitive to the climate movement, this shouldn't be overestimated given the movement's size. Milne and Brown spoke at Climate Summit and Summit action respectively. Only in South Australia did the Greens seek to undermine the politics of the rally. Elsewhere, they have played a more hands-off role. In Brisbane, the Greens have joined (late) into the committee organising group. The Greens' position on the CPRS will help.

State-by-state look at the climate movement

Victoria is the strongest state. The influence of David Spratt and Phillip Sutton's book in launching many CAGs endures. Many CAGs were established on basis of Climate Code Red. The good role of FOE's Damien Lawson, the influence of Beyond Zero Emissions, and a history of larger actions are also important influences. But there is still a problem of small numbers taking responsibility for large events such as the June 13 rally. Like elsewhere, the movement is still fairly dispersed.

In South Australia, the formation of CLEAN and the successful CLEAN conference in 2008 means that it is now taking movement initiatives and has very broad respect. The peak groups still don't really understand how it all happened. In the lead-up to June 13, CLEAN faced hostility from the Conservation Council and the Green's Sarah Hanson Young's office. CLEAN is drawing in new activists this year. Politically they are very strong and have built up an influence nationally. The core initiating alliance in CLEAN was between left-wing Greens and Socialist Alliance members.

Climate Action Canberra has grown to regularly involve two dozen people after the successful Climate Summit.

In Western Australia, the Coalition for a Safe Climate Future for formed this year and eight to 10 people take part in organising meetings. It has a wary relationship with Environment House WA. Our work here builds on previous work over many years in the Perth Hills CAG.

In Tasmania we helped form Climate Action Hobart earlier this year. There is strong collaboration with key activists from TWS and Environment Tasmania. Ten people regularly attend organising meetings. Launceston activists are still primarily focused around the pulp mill campaign. The politics of the Hobart group is limited, however, compared to something like CLEAN SA.

In Sydney, the NCC has played the biggest role in relating to CAGs over the past period. Monthly CAG meetings have begun since the Climate Summit. Greenpeace has played a very big role in organising for June 13.

The Wollongong Climate Action is playing a leading role with six to 10 people involved.

Climate action Newcastle and Rising Tide are the two main groups in Newcastle with some crossover.

In Brisbane we experienced some difficulty in broadening responsibility for June 13 after repeated failed attempts to work with people in student movement and Six Degrees (FoE group). But there has been some success in broadening out the committee with six people now active. Ewan S will be co-chair on June 13. In July, the Queensland Conservation Council has initiated a three-day climate summit to cohere the climate movement. The QCC played almost no role in the June 13 action so we expect that its goal will be to try and limit the movement.

Our work in the Cairns Action for Sustainable Transport has helped to build an alliance for an action on June 12 based on the climate summit objectives.

Building the movement

Compared to 12 months ago, we're much more involved in the climate movement. Since then we have helped form new organising committees in Adelaide, Cairns, Perth, Hobart and we have a number of comrades with some authority in the movement.

The climate movement's breadth is a strength, but its dispersal is a weakness. The challenge is to unite people and groups.

We've noted big variations in activism between local groups. Some are very inactive. e.g. Blue mountains.

Trade union work

The Sydney Trade Unionists Climate Action Network formed this year with a number of DSP members taking part. TUCANS is planning a workers and environment conference.

In Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide we've had some limited success in involving unions, getting union endorsement for rallies etc. Adelaide's CLEAN conference success in 2008 was largely due to the AEU's support.

The Victoria, the AMWU has the strongest environmental policy among the unions. We face a challenge to extend this collaboration to unionists in Geelong and the LaTrobe Valley in particular.

Where can we push to set up sustainability groups in unions? Where they exist (such as in the NSW Teachers Federation) should we intervene? This is a question for our trade union members and trade union committees to consider.

The ACTU's position is so close to the Rudd government's that it leaves them open to challenge — particularly in some unions.

But the ACTU document also has all the rhetoric, the buzz words — "Green jobs", "transition to sustainability", "it's now or never". This is something we should be aware of and we need to give a sharp edge to the green rhetoric.

State of the movement

Awareness about climate change is more widespread than at any time in the past, but the knowledge is shallow. Many local groups, after they are set up, are then confronted with what to do next. Some of the most successful local groups have actually been more focused on solar panels and sustainable gardens which is another indication of the uneven politics of the grassroots' groups.

More broadly, we can say that people are not engaging with the science of climate change. At the same time, if we keep the movement limited to the rhetoric of "demand real action of climate change" then this gives government's space to manoeuvre. Certainly there is confusion among broader layers about the Rudd government's role.

An Angus Reid Monitor poll on the CPRS on May 10 showed that 49% approved of CPRS changes, 31% disapproved, and 20% were not sure.

The Rudd government is set to double the current production of coal. (Rudd was listed as the world's "Fossil Fool" on June 3.) Since 1990, under Kyoto, emissions are claimed to have risen only 7%. But in real terms it's up by 42%. If agriculture is included it's an 82% increase in 18 years!

The Department of Climate Change is an immense greenwashing institute. It shows that the ALP is aware that the issue is potentially electorally damaging. The rise of the Green Party demonstrates, in part, a rising consciousness around climate change, although we should be careful not to exaggerate this.

In the movement, we should continue to attack the Rudd government's inaction but also explain within the movement role Rudd is playing in disorienting broader population.

Our priority actions for the rest of 2009 are:

  1. State-based climate camps in September/October
  2. Students of Sustainability and PowerShift conferences in July
  3. Copenhagen demonstrations in December.

We should also support and build the "" actions in October and other actions that come up. But this report proposes these three initiatives, above, be our priorities.

Socialist Alliance and DSP

Socialist Alliance played a very public role at the Climate Summit. People noticed this and, no doubt, it surprised many.

We should maintain our strategy of defending and popularising the Climate Summit perspectives.

We need to maintain a strategy of strengthening the movement alliance based on: a) climate emergency response; b) political independence of the movement; c) priority on mass action; and d) strong demands on the government to act.

We need to relate to local groups where we can, but assign resources to city-wide committees and organising for climate camps and the pre-Copenhagen protests.

Where we can, we need to work out ways of broadening the politics and focus of the climate movement to include public transport, agriculture, job creation, other environment issues, international focus and Indigenous rights.

Socialist Alliance should also pursue particular debates around 100% renewables in 10 years, carbon trading, populationism, a democratic movement, a mass action orientation, a working class orientation, internationalism, geo-engineering, nuclear energy, and why breaking with business as usual means breaking with capitalism.

Other issues will be local campaigns such as — uranium mining in the NT and WA; forests in Tasmania, desalination in Victoria, SA, and maybe in NSW.

We also need to build pressure on the Greens wherever possible. This includes working closely with Greens members determined to take a stand for a safe climate.

We need a policy of engagement, not adaptation. The movement still has huge illusions in the ability of the capitalist system to solve this crisis, or at least they have no confidence in an alternative. To adapt to the weakest side of this movement — its limited or naïve political vision — is suicidal for us and for the movement for a safe climate.

On the other hand, a sectarian or abstentionist approach is just as damaging. Building SA must be done consciously and systematically, but without counterposing our own interests to the interests of the movement as a whole. We need to always seek the greatest unity in action.

Engagement also means being highly conscious of the way we put our politics. It doesn't matter if we are 100% right. We can lose a hearing with the wrong tone, the wrong pitch, or the wrong timing. We need to become experts at explaining our socialist politics confidently in a digestible, transitional, patient, but also inspiring way.

Other socialist groups

Solidarity is relating to the movement strongly (especially since the Climate Summit). Socialist Alternative is abstaining completely but will surely reorient in time. The Revolutionary Socialist Party has no involvement. Typically, they write about the environment as a way to introduce the Cuban revolution.

SA environment working groups/fractions

Can we establish these on the local level? Or can these discussions about our climate work be best carried out in the branch meetings? Each branch will have a different answer. The key thing is that these collective discussions really need to take place.

SA is experimenting nationally with weekly half-hour phone hook-ups. Monthly hook-ups have been essential for coordinating our work. We need to use the SA environment list for sharing movement information but remember to treat everything that goes on that list as a public document.

Green Left Weekly

We need to use the paper more to house the debates, interviews, controversies and not just the news and the facts about climate change. We also need to continue to make space for socialist analysis and engagement with the environmental crisis.

Student movement

Clive Hamilton has said the movement was overwhelmingly young. This is an exaggeration, but the question to discover is does the climate camp last year and the Climate Summit open up new opportunities to intervene? Certainly Resistance has done some excellent work in the Wollongong environment collective. Solidarity is making some ground in Sydney University environment collective.

Our own climate events

Part of this is to try to host discussions within the Socialist Alliance by inviting speakers active in the movements and with contrasting points of view.

The next Climate Summit will likely feature a coordinated attempt to overturn some of the objectives of the previous summit. We should anticipate that the conservative groups will organise a counter attack.

Establishing a stronger anti-capitalist current will largely result from what we achieve in practice in the movement. We can't rely on simply propagandising for change — we have to keep building the movement and we will gain authority from doing this carefully and patiently.

The objective character of the crisis means that the problem cannot be solved without a radical rupture from capitalism — so although we can number the recruits directly from the climate movement this year and not run out of fingers, we are positioning ourselves for the future and to do what our whole organisation exists for: to contribute to building a revolutionary political movement that allows a pathway out of this impasse towards human development and liberation.