Guide for climate campaigners reflects movement’s weak points

Review:Climate action By Mark Diesendorf
UNSW Press, $34.95

Mark Diesendorf will be well know to many climate activists from his regular speeches for local activist groups and his long-time advocacy for renewable energy.
His new book Climate Action is designed to be a practical guide to climate campaigning for new and existing activists.
Disesendorf’s research into renewable energy solutions makes him well qualified to debunk many of the myths spread by the greenwashers and to explain how real solutions are possible.
The book succeeds in making some of the detail of climate policy and solutions accessible and easy to understand. The sections unpicking fallacies and explaining how the Rudd government has sided with the carbon lobby to avoid action are the strongest in the book.
Diesendorf provides a useful guide for activists to answering questions such as the idea that individual action to reduce emissions or the CPRS are the solution and that industries will simply pack up and go offshore if made to pay for polluting. His demolition of the idea the nuclear power can replace coal is particularly good, pointing out that stocks of high grade uranium ore would quickly be used up, and explaining why new generation reactors have so far failed to offer any solution.
However when it comes to climate policies the government should adopt, his recommendations are hampered by his desire to propose measures he thinks likely to be accepted. Diesendorf was involved in some sharp debates at the climate summit earlier this year when he rejected the idea it was possible to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Activists argued that this is what the science of climate change says is needed—that we stop feeding carbon into the atmosphere within just over ten years.           
Diesendorf believes it would not be possible to provide more than 30 to 40 per cent of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.But, while he does detail technological and practical problems in shifting to renewable energy, the primary reason for his estimate is political, not practical. For example, he rejects the analogy, popularised in David Spratt and Phillip Sutton’s Climate Code Red, of a wartime emergency situation for the way the government should respond around climate. It’s not that Diesendorf wouldn’t like the government to force existing factories to retool to meet the need to repower the country with renewable energy, as economies did to mobilise for World War II. His objection is that it’s not likely to happen—governments have no interest in responding to the climate emergency in the way they have to win wars.
But his response to this amounts to moderating the demands of the movement to what is likely to be accepted by governments. Such an approach can lead activists to supporting tiny changes by governments that go nowhere near dealing with the problem, and hence demobilising the fight for the changes needed. It is far better to advocate the sort of response from government that could actually solve the problem—which does mean reducing emissions as fast as possible.

The same conservative viewpoint colours his discussion of government policies the movement should be demanding, including of carbon trading. Many of his proposals deserve support—including a ban on new coal fired power stations, an end to the subsidies for fossil fuels and installation of energy efficiency measures in homes funded by governments.                     
Diesendorf sees a carbon price—whether delivered through a carbon tax or a carbon trading system—as a necessary measure to encourage investment in renewables. He goes over in great detail how an emissions trading scheme would need to be designed to be effective. He also advocates additional measures to encourage the use of renewable energy—but all are attempts to encourage private sector investment. Nowhere in his policy section does he advocate significant government investment in renewable energy infrastructure—yet historically it has been governments that have been the major builders of such infrastructure.
His final two chapters outline organising strategies and tactics. But the section reflects the dominant politics within the climate movement in arguing that all strategies within the movement—from lobbying to elitist direct actions—are equally valid and complementary.
Given the lack of understanding within the movement about the need for a mass movement and the role demonstrations and mass campaigning can play in putting real pressure on governments, such agnosticism is a disaster. He also reflects the tendency in the movement to substitute “activist tools” such as campaign plans for political direction. 
Diesendorf has a strong technical knowledge about renewable energy and is strong when it comes to critiquing the government’s proposed solutions. But his conservatism means his proposed alternatives and strategies for the movement are weak.
By James Supple


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