Newcastle Climate Camp fosters national debate and planning on climate change

Climate Camp, a protest against the coal industry in Newcastle NSW, was a success and an important step forward in continuing to build a movement for real solutions to stop global warming. It brought hundreds of activists together for a week of discussion and protest, and the main protest on Sunday drew 1000 people with the goal of shutting down a coal train line for the day. This direct action was a breath of fresh air, compared to the mainstream environment movement’s focus on individual action and lobbying politicians. On the Sunday, 57 people were arrested, mainly for trespass, some activists got over the fence & locked themselves to the train line, others got on top of coal trains and unfurled a banner saying “this is real action on climate change”, while shoveling coal off the trains with their hands.

A statement initiated by Solidarity which explained why direct action is necessary, was adopted by the mass rally prior to the action against the coal train lines. This injected a much-needed connection between the tactics of the day, and the inaction of the Rudd Government. The statement read:

“This rally affirms our commitment to direct action today because urgent measures are needed to stop climate change. After 6 months in power the Rudd government has proposed nothing which will stop Australia’s emissions rising. Clean Coal technology cannot work. Emissions trading schemes have failed around the world, allowing big polluters to buy their way out of action, while hurting workers and the poor.

“If they will not act, we will – blocking coal lines today to demand the phasing out of the coal industry, an end to coal exports, and for the start of massive investment into renewables and green jobs that is needed.”

Missed opportunity for mass civil disobedience

In the days of discussion and planning for Sunday’s mass action there was some tension between the aim of getting small groups of committed activist over the fence, and getting everyone over. It was a shame that all 1000 people were not able to get on to the tracks, and that there had not been more discussion on how to achieve this. But the presence of the 1000 strong crowd wanting to get on the tracks meant police had to continually be there and the coal train was shut down for the day.

Fear of the media portraying the protestors as “violent” meant the question of getting through police lines and through the fence was not properly prepared for. The majority of protestors wanted to enter the rail corridor, and wanted to do it in a collective manner that would signal our mass support for immediate action on climate change, and offer us the best protection from arrest. Solidarity argued that the protestors should agree to support each other to push through police lines, and find ways to pull down enough of the fence that a big group of us could sit down on the train lines together. Some of the climate camp organising group lead a strong argument that any scuffles with police would ruin the action, (some went as far as describing running by protesters as violent), and this meant people were badly prepared to achieve the aim of the day: mass direct action against the train lines. Despite this there were some heartening pushes on the fence, and quite a few protestors did get onto the tracks.

No to electricity privatisation – action at Michael Costa’s office

On Monday – the “decentralised day of action” – some groups of activists again locked on to train lines, and 150 people turned up at a protest outside NSW treasurer (and climate change denier) Michael Costa’s office. The protest was initiated by Solidarity against electricity privatisation and for green jobs. The importance of this action was clear when AMWU and PSA members turned up with union flags to link the union movement to the movement to halt \global warming. New Greens senator from WA, Scott Ludlam, was one of many speakers who got a lot of applause when he said, “The people of New South Wales have spent generations paying for their electricity infrastructure and services. They should not have it sold from under them. Instead they deserve for it to be converted to deliver long-term renewable and clean energy. We have the technology and know-how to do it.

“They say it can’t be done, but the people who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of the people who are doing it.”

Camp discussions expose the need to oppose emissions trading

The week of discussions meant the politics of climate change could be thoroughly discussed and activists got to know each other in an atmosphere of goodwill and common purpose. One weakness of the week’s agenda was the lack of scheduled discussion on how to respond to the mainstream debate around the Garnaut Report into emissions trading & market solutions.

Solidarity got a good hearing with the argument that vocal opposition to emissions trading is crucial in the fight for immediate investment in renewables. Emissions trading will see prices rise, but will do nothing to significantly reduce emissions. If people buy Rudd’s argument that introduction of an ETS is acting seriously on climate change, it will make it harder to build a movement for real action.

Spokescouncil model hampered the political discussions needed

Another weakness of the camp was the spokescouncil/action teams organising model. On the first day of the camp it was clear from a show of hands that over half the camp were not in “action teams”, and were thus cut out of discussions through the spokescouncil. It was also a problem that the spokescouncil was “not a decision making forum”, which meant that decisions were made by the self-appointed organising collective, and not accountable to camp participants. There was enough goodwill at the camp that these problems were not insurmountable, but they will need to be addressed as the movement grows.

What now?

There are debrief meetings and discussions taking place in different states as a result of Climate Camp about the next steps in the campaign. Solidarity supports the calls coming out of the camp for national forums, protests and further direct action in September, when the Arctic ice melt data from the European summer is available, and to respond to the final Garnaut Report. We would like to see another 4000 or more people, like those who turned up to the Climate Emergency Rally in Melbourne, but this time taking part in a sit-in on a freeway demanding public transport rather than ending in another human sign. We would like to see the Walk Against Warming rallies in November, that are being organised by the mainstream environment movement, opened up to wider participation.

Chris Breen & Jean Parker, Melbourne


Solidarity meetings

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  1. If the organising collective was self-appointed, then what’s the problem? If we are to stop climate change then hopefully everybody will be able to appoint themselves to do the organising needed, without waiting for permission.

  2. There is no problem at all with a collective being “self-appointed” in the sense of coming together to organise climate camp, that was great – and the collective needed to make certain decisions beforehand, such as location, demands etc. (though how to get involved in the collective, to help organise & to take part in decision making beforehand, or indeed if it was an open collective that welcomed the participation of new people, was not at all obvious from Melbourne).

    Once at the camp, there needed to be a democratic decision making forum, that everyone at camp could participate in. For instance the decisions about what would happen on Sunday largely took place outside spokescouncil, surely everyone at camp who wanted, had a right to take part in decisions about what would happen on the day? (if there were decisions that had to made with security concerns in mind, the camp could have elected/given an identified group of people the authority to make such decisions). Who was part of the organising collective & actually making decisions would not have been obvious to most camp particpants. Rather than making decisions in small groups, we needed the ability to make decisions as a whole camp. Some of the many people who turned up, who were not in organised groups & not involved in pre-arranged action teams, felt cut out of decision making. If we are going to build a mass movement to halt climate change, we need organising structures that welcome the input, & give voice to new layers of people. In my experience, that is open organising meetings, where everyone who wants is allowed to speak, and important decisions are voted on, because there is no other way to gauge the opinion of everybody other than voting.

    If we all independently appointed ourselves “without waiting for permission”, this would cause many problems, what would happen for example if five different collectives decided to put out conflicting media statements on behalf of climate camp?

    chris breen


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