Building a Movement Against Climate Change

Solidarity has produced a climate change position paper to coincide with the Climate Camp in Newcastle in July. It runs through, in some detail, our critique of the climate camp’s focus on coal exports, the myth of the individual carbon footprint, and what sorts of demands and organisation are needed to constitute a movement post-climate camp.

1. The problem

THE CATASTROPHIC impact of Cyclone Nargis in Burma is a reminder of the threat posed by global warming. Global warming is likely to lead to further extreme weather events that hit the world’s poor hardest. Global warming is primarily a consequence of human society burning fossil fuels in massive quantities since the industrial revolution. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 36 per cent since 1750 (from 280 to 385 parts per million).  Emissions of heat trapping gasses increased 70 per cent between 1970 to 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1995.

The current atmospheric concentration of carbon is already dangerous. Signs include the shrinking of Arctic sea-ice, the global retreat of glaciers and increased drought. Emissions are set to keep rising—in Australia by a further 70 per cent by 2050. According to leading climate scientist, James Hansen, even if we assume no emissions increases by 2030, human activity is likely to cause a 1.7 degree rise in global average temperature. At this point, he argues, we will have reached “runaway warming”, i.e. we will be past the point that dangerous climate change can be reversed.1

The likely effects of climate change are well documented. Rising sea-levels will swamp low-lying islands or highly populated delta regions such as Bangladesh. Unpredictable weather patterns will disrupt agricultural production, especially food, and lead to more freak weather events. According to Ian Lowe’s deliberately conservative forecasts, in Australia the wheat-belt will disappear within 40 years, the tropical cyclone zone will move south (as far as Coffs Harbour in northern NSW), rising sea-levels will affect coastal settlement, and the bushfire season will be longer, more intense and much more dangerous for people living in outer metropolitan areas.

Even though the threat is well-documented and accepted by the vast majority of scientists, governments including our own have failed to take the action needed to cut emissions and start the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Labor’s target of 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 comes too late to prevent Australia’s carbon emissions from rising in the immediate future and does too little to persuade our neighbours and trading partners that we are serious about stopping global warming. As argued in the Climate Code Red report, “scientific imperatives are incompatible with the ‘realities’ of ‘politics as usual’ and ‘business as usual’.” Only a plan of urgent action, to phase-in as close to technically possible, a zero emissions post-carbon economy, (alongside plans to remove carbon from our atmosphere through reforestation & biochar), can avert this global crisis.

Governments must not be let off the hook with claims that the technology to shift to a post-carbon economy does not exist or is prohibitively expensive. The truth is that low-carbon alternatives for energy production, transport, manufacturing, agricultural practices and housing are available. What is lacking is the political will to regulate industry and the economy.

2. Australia’s role in this problem

Cutting carbon emissions is a global task which exposes the inequalities and conflicts which exist between nations. Capitalism is a system of brutal competition. All companies, and the governments which represent them, fear that if they invest to reduce carbon emissions they will lose their competitive edge against overseas rivals who refuse to act on climate change. But if this logic prevails dangerous climate change is inevitable.

Coal is the most valuable export of the Australian economy. Aluminium and iron ore are other major exports dependent on cheap and abundant coal for production. As Woodside CEO Don Voelte put it recently, Australia is “an extraction economy… Frankly, [we are] digging stuff up and sending it overseas.” While this is an exaggeration, it sums up the trade strategy of both major parties, who see coal production as central to Australia’s international competitiveness.

The Rudd Government has shown no intention of challenging the role of fossil fuel companies. There has been, for example, no comment on corporate opposition to Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets (MRET). No government representative has spoken out against demands for free emissions permits from corporations such as Rio Tinto or industry peak bodies such as the Australian Aluminium Council.

The fact that Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter, and over 60 per cent of all coal mined in Australia exported, is leading to debates within the movement about what attitudes activists should have to the export industry. However, while coal plays a dominant role in Australia’s export strategy, Australia is a small player when it comes to global coal production. Sixty-six percent of the world’s coal production and recoverable reserves are located in four countries: the United States, Russia, China, and India. It is not the case that halting Australia’s exports would undermine global consumption of coal. Other major Australian exports earners, such as aluminium, uranium and iron ore, also rely on large quantities of cheap, abundant coal-fired energy. For example, BHP’s $20 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in SA is expected to use 30 per cent of that state’s energy. Cutting coal exports, even if it were possible, would not change these domestic production priorities.

In addition, Australia is in no position to lecture other countries about coal use when around 40 per cent of Australian carbon emissions come from electricity production and 83 per cent of this comes from coal-fired power stations. This is why the movement must have a domestic focus. We need to force our government to phase out electricity produced by burning coal and move to renewable energy. If we could prove it was possible here, this would be the best possible example for activists worldwide. Local development and sharing of cheap and efficient renewable energy technology is the surest way to encourage other countries to stop burning coal.

3. Myth of the individual carbon footprint

Effective cuts to Australia’s emissions require an accurate starting picture of where the energy is being produced. Media, government and NGO portrayal of carbon reduction measures focus on residential and lifestyle changes such as turning off appliances, showering less and replacing light-bulbs. But a sober look at the data shows that current household energy consumption only amounts to around 12 per cent of the total:

Final energy consumption in Australia, by industry 2005-06 (per cent):

Agriculture: 2.6
Commercial and services: 7.76
Manufacturing and construction: 29.7
Mining: 5.6
Residential: 12.3
Transport and storage: 40
Other: 1.9

The fact which is absent from many current debates is that lighting and heating of houses or household consumer items like refrigerators are basic human rights, not luxuries. Measures designed to create energy savings within the residential sector potentially have very socially regressive effects if not subsidised by government. Doubling electricity costs to households, which is one probable outcome of Rudd’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme, will not lessen usage by wealthy households, commercial buildings or manufacturing plants. But it will put financial strain on the rest of us, and leave the poorest suffering as a result of summer heat and winter cold.
The central cause of residential emissions is the fact that houses are powered by electricity created by coal-fired power stations. The solution lies at the point of energy production, with massive investment in renewables to create electricity. A similar pattern emerges when we look at transport. With the right government investment massive expansion of the public transport system could reduce most car use. Any remaining cars could be electric-powered. In the 1950’s half of domestic freight was transported by rail. Now the figure is two per cent. This trend can be reversed, but like reducing car usage in Australia, it is a job only governments can achieve. Our cities have been designed around car usage, and any policies that penalize working class people living in suburban areas with no access to adequate public transport, must be vigorously opposed.

4. Real solutions require urgent government action

As the statistics show, the capacity to make the necessary sweeping changes to Australia’s emissions levels lie not with individual changes at home, but with the government. There are many measures which could instantly make significant cuts if the Rudd government was prepared to act. Around 40 per cent of carbon emissions in Australia come from electricity production. Other than hydro-electricity (seven per cent), renewable energy accounts for less than one per cent. Coal-fired electricity generation is hugely centralised, with a handful of plants in each state connected to a complex structure of power grids. National governments could rapidly convert these grids to renewable energy (with gas-fired generation as an immediate interim measure). A combination of geographically distributed wind and solar energy generation could replace fossil fuels with currently available technology. The coal industry must be phased out, with a just transition for workers and their communities.

We also need a strict regime of laws and regulations that build energy-efficient measures such as insulation and solar panels into housing and construction. Manufacturing, mining and agriculture must be regulated with absolute emissions targets. Companies which refuse to adapt should be nationalised. Reforestation projects have the potential to remove some CO2 from the atmosphere, and should be invested in by the Federal Government.

These are real solutions which can only be brought about through central government investment and planning, not individual consumer choices. That’s why initiatives based upon the myth of consumer-sovereignty, like Earth Hour, personal carbon counters and personal energy saving are a big con. Some of the worst polluters use feel-good schemes like this to manipulate the goodwill of millions of people.

5. Fake “green” alternatives

Genuine wide-spread concern about climate change is not matched by clear analysis that explains the nature of the problem and its solution. In fact confusion abounds. This has allowed oil, coal and nuclear companies to pose fake solutions that are marketed as “green” but merely aim to extend their own profits. It also means while concern about climate change helped Kevin Rudd win the federal election, his government has so far faced little pressure to take real action.

As we saw at Rudd’s 2020 summit, the two climate solutions being adopted by the Rudd Government are ‘clean coal’ and a carbon trading scheme. These are both recipes for increasing Australia’s emissions. And while Labor has rejected domestic nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry continues to spread the myth that it is a clean alternative to coal, and Labor’s expansion of uranium mining in Australia is a central component of this.

Clean coal

Clean-coal is supposed to work on two models. The first, aimed at prolonging Victoria’s brown coal use and making brown coal exportable, involves drying brown coal, effectively converting it to black coal by removing moisture. But given the problems with black coal, this output is not ‘clean’. The other proposed method is called carbon capture and storage (CCS). It requires capturing carbon dioxide, liquefying it under pressure and transporting it to stable underground reservoirs. Storage of CO2 is expensive, difficult and dangerous because concentrated carbon dioxide can kill.

There is currently no commercial coal-burning plant using CCS—it is purely experimental technology. Clean coal would not be in commercial operation before 2030 and that is assuming it can work. A $2 billion trial of clean coal by Rio Tinto and BP recently collapsed when it was found deep-sea storage beds off Perth wouldn’t hold the carbon dioxide.9 If our window for cutting emissions is a maximum of 20 years, then it makes no sense to gamble everything on this technology. Solar and wind-power are far more rational options. Yet around the world billions that could be invested in renewables are being squandered on clean coal research.

The recent federal budget demonstrates that clean coal is a marketing exercise for industry to continue expanding coal production. Although the budget allocated $500 million each for clean-coal and renewable energy over seven years, almost all the renewable funding has been allocated for post-2012. Spending on clean-coal will be 2.6 times greater than renewables over the next two years. So it is distressing that some sections of the environment movement (such as WWF) and the coal miners’ union (CFMEU) have decided to support clean coal. They have fallen for a trap deliberately laid by an industry that has no intention of shutting down.

Emissions trading

Carbon or emissions trading aims to use the lure of big profits to induce companies to change their practices and reduce emissions. To work, the initial price for a unit of carbon must be high enough to discourage industries from paying to pollute. But, as submissions to the Garnaut Review demonstrate, Australian industry is already demanding that pollution permits be handed out for free.

Where emissions trading schemes have been trialled they have relied on the purchase of carbon ‘offsets’ in the form of buying reforestation or renewable energy projects. It is impossible to prove “additionality” with offsets, i.e. that a particular scheme wouldn’t otherwise have gone ahead. Indeed offsets have been allowed for already existing projects, and a study of 3000 of such projects found that up to two thirds involved no emissions reductions. Offsets reduce pressure on companies to make any real structural change by encouraging the idea they can buy their way out of trouble (for relatively small amounts of money). The offsets industry is a form of green-washing that delays real change.

In Europe, the first trading scheme collapsed because the price of carbon was too low and too many permits were released. Forest plantation offsets proved to be a racket: It was impossible to audit tree planting. Emissions kept rising as they had prior to the scheme. The Australian scheme looks likely to repeat all the mistakes of the European one. Ross Garnaut is proposing that agriculture, aviation and small business are initially exempt, and trade-exposed energy intensive industries get free permits or subsidies. Market mechanisms have so far shown no ability to create the kind of renewables industry we so desperately need.

Some activists believe it is possible to achieve a compromise with the free market. One proposal is a carbon tax. But because large corporations control industry, they could easily pass this cost onto individuals. There would be no incentive to cut emissions and our living standards would fall. A more sophisticated alternative is a system of carbon rationing. Under this plan, a government authority would prepare a national carbon budget each year which would be used to give credits to households and firms. Individuals and firms who used less than their ration could sell the excess to others. Those who wanted to exceed their ration could buy units at ‘on the spot’ prices. Although the total allocation of carbon permits would shrink over time , this is essentially a form of carbon trading. Although it appears to involve rational planning (i.e. by government reducing the allocation of permits), carbon rationing is a fake solution that is based upon the myth that individuals have to share responsibility with industry, even though individual consumers have no democratic say about how production is organised. It is also based on many of the anti-working class measures as mainstream carbon trading; for example, by allowing the rich to use their wealth to exceed their ration, while implicitly expecting working people and the poor to live more austere lifestyles.

6. What sort of campaign?

We need a movement that is effective in forcing Australian emissions down as quickly as possible. To achieve this, we need to put clear and concrete demands on the Rudd government, and fight for their implementation. One proposal coming out of Climate Code Red is that the campaign should fight for the government to “declare a formal state of emergency”. The newly formed Climate Emergency Network in Melbourne has taken this up as its central strategy. The call for a ‘state of emergency’ correctly recognizes that the market will not voluntarily slash carbon output. But it is an abstraction, that avoids concretely stating what must be done. It is effectively a call for our rulers to save us from themselves. Implicit in the demand is a call to curb the civil liberties of the entire population, with opaque references to the World War II command economy in the US or to the repressive states of East Asian ‘Tiger’ economies. But it is protests, strikes and workers’ collective activity to refuse to destroy the planet that holds the power we need to challenge corporate production priorities. To deal with climate change we need to extend civil liberties, union rights and democratic participation, not curb them.

Climate Code Red confuses which sections of society have an interest in stopping global warming, and which ones want the status quo. Its call for an emergency is an appeal to the very people who are hostile to real solutions. If governments won’t make the necessary investment in renewable energy, why would they support a declaration of emergency? If they did support it, in whose interests would it be declared? Unless we’re clear that the structures of capitalist production and competition are preventing radical emissions cuts, and that the mass of ordinary people have no interest in this, we will end up with potentially authoritarian proposals that cut us off from the people who could effect change. To bring large numbers of workers into the movement, our demands must be tangible and point toward a challenge to the structures that inhibit serious government action.

Climate Camp in the NSW Hunter Valley is a breath of fresh air. This convergence will bring together large numbers of environment activists and concerned people, and provides a precious opportunity to develop the kind of climate movement we need. One of the best things that could emerge from the camp is some common agreement and clarity on the kinds of demands that the movement needs. But some of the organizing tactics used in the movement get in the way of this. For example, the model proposed for the Climate Camp, based on ‘action teams’, imposes unnecessary preconditions to becoming actively involved and gets in the way of democratic discussion and debate. Everyone going to climate camp should have the right to a say, and a vote on important decisions. It is important new activists and those not part of existing groups, do not feel left out of decision making. There appears to be little space for collective discussion of demands or priorities—such as the organizers’ mistaken assertion that the export industry is the key to Australia’s role in global warming or their rejection of a demand to oppose the privatization of NSW electricity.

The movement will be most effectively built by fighting over specific demands—for example, against the expansion of coal mining in NSW, the privatization of NSW power generation, the proposed HRL coal-fired power plant in Victoria, or the construction of the new east-west freeway tunnel in Melbourne—encouraging new activists and engaging with the politics of the union movement. Concrete demands also give us the chance to reach out to the broader community who will be affected by job losses and price rises—for instance if NSW power is privatised. The camp needs to assure workers in the coal industry that we are fighting for a just transition of their jobs into the renewables industry. These are some of the concerns of the millions of people who swept out the Howard government. The basis of a new mass movement against climate change needs to express demands that connect with these people.

We need to build frequent open campaign meetings in every city, with public demands and campaigning, to begin building a much larger movement. These groups need to develop an accurate critique of the limitations of Rudd’s climate policies and the upcoming Garnaut review, and begin to bring people onto the streets to fight for real action.

Chris Breen, Tom Barnes, Jean Parker, Anne Picot
Solidarity, June 2008


For further information see Climate Code Red: The Case for a Sustainability Emergency; James Hansen et al, “Target Atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim?” April 2008
See Ian Lowe, Living in the Hothouse: How Global Warming Affects Australia Scribe, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald, May 10, 2008
Forty-four per cent of Australian coal exports go to Japan, much of it into the production of steel (only 20 per cent of Japan’s electricity comes from coal, with gas, nuclear and hydro producing most of the rest). Currently only 2.4 per cent of Australia’s exported coal goes to the fast-expanding Chinese market, much less than we sell to Korea (11.5 per cent), Taiwan (9.8 per cent), India (8.4 per cent) and Brazil (2.5 per cent)
Energy Information Administration, Report #:DOE/EIA-0484(2007), May 2007 (
2004 Energy in Australia, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics
World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) 2006
See; Climate Code Red, op cit


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