In early July students and activists from across Australia gathered at Flinders University in Adelaide for the annual Students of Sustainability (SoS) conference, a yearly environmental event.
In the past, SoS has predominately focused on promoting individual lifestyle changes as a means of fighting climate change and environmental degradation. These kinds of sessions dominated the program again this year. But several political forums hosted by the Sydney Uni Climate Action Collective, and some by Solidarity, injected a much-needed activist focus to the conference. They attracted a layer of conference attendees who were clearly looking for more than simply a workshop on how to compost.
The most lively discussion and debate was around whether or not market mechanisms, and more specifically a carbon tax, are capable of providing us with renewable energy and the transformation to a zero emissions economy. The Sydney Uni Climate Action Collective debated Penny Wright from the South Australian Greens on the issue and it also arose in many other sessions.
Many view market mechanisms as the most radical action that the government is likely to enact. Underconfidence in our ability to build a mass movement around climate change has led many activists to accept or not oppose market mechanisms. Others see them as an important first step, or a win on the way to something bigger.
But the implementation of a market mechanism would be a blow to the climate movement. The market is driven by the desire to maximise profits. It is an anarchic system that cannot provide the planned transformation of the economy in the time frame required.
A conference plenary presentation by Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions on how Australia can shift to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020 showed that for 100 per cent renewables to be implemented in Australia, there needs to be a precise mix of electricity sources (roughly 60 per cent concentrating solar thermal, 40 per cent wind and some biomass for backup). It needs to be built in specific areas of the country to maximise efficiency. Large-scale infrastructure, such as transmission lines, also need to be built to ensure complete coverage. Implementing 100 per cent renewable energy requires a detailed plan that the market cannot provide.
Demanding a “carbon tax” would also be politically unpopular. The fight against WorkChoices under Howard shows that workers rightly want to defend their living standards, which have gotten worse in relation to the wealthiest over the last 30 years. We should be mobilising around demands for jobs and public spending rather than sacrifice.
Many participants argued that lifestyle changes and on campus renewable energy campaigns (the dominant form climate change campaign discussed at the conference) are “achievable”, and a way of individuals making a difference.
But these strategies emphasise the responsibility of individuals ahead of governments and corporations, and play into moralism about lifestyle “choice”. That kind of movement is only really open to people with enough time and money to grow their own vegetables or stop driving cars—and it cannot force the structural shift that’s absolutely necessary.
The campaign that stopped mining at Jabiluka was built by many students on campuses who put out constant leaflets, bulletins and fact sheets, mobilised their numbers as often as they could and bused students up to mine sites to blockade. The same can be done in the climate campaign. There is no reason to downplay students’ ability to campaign and fight. If we don’t do it, we certainly won’t win.
The Climate Action Collective’s forum on population—that unfortunately was excluded from the official program—provided another focus for the discussion. Tatianna Hatzopolous explained that emissions are highest in countries with lower populations, because of the structural use of fossil fuels, not because of population. As she explained, the planned expansion of the Roxby Downs uranium mine will guzzle 220 million litres of water per day. This has nothing to do with immigration or population levels. Calls to control population levels can promote nationalism and play into the hands of racists. Again, the necessity of a mass climate campaign to reject and actively challenge current production methods was clear.
Conference attendees also discussed many other issues, in particular Aboriginal rights. Many students were interested in helping to grow the campaign against the Intervention and take it back to their campuses.
The work of the Sydney Uni Climate Action Collective had a clear impact on the conference, and demonstrated the widespread interest in building a political climate campaign. It was a reinvigorating conference that has set the tone for growing the climate movement and the left on campus this coming semester.
By Ben Dharmendra