Solidarity Discussion Paper for 2009 Climate Summit

Only a few years ago mainstream debate on climate change was still focused on debates with climate skeptics about whether the threat was real. Today climate change is a mainstream issue—it was one of the key issues in bringing Kevin Rudd to power in late 2007 and tackling it has moved to the center of the new government’s agenda. But this shift also means the climate movements needs to reorient itself to deal with the new situation. The experience of the last year shows that we have not successfully mapped out a way forward yet—but the climate summit is a timely initiative to help bring this about.

Have clear demands

Walk Against Warming rallies this year were smaller than in past years. There were two main reasons for this: Firstly the demands were amorphous, things like “demand real action on climate change”. The idea of “taking action” could mobilise huge numbers in 2007 when Howard was refusing to sign Kyoto — but this is no longer the case. The fact that Kevin Rudd is both talking up the need for action and implementing plans which the government claims will address climate change mean clear demands pointing to the limitations of Labor’s climate strategy are necessary.

Clear achievable goals and demands on government, for instance “no new fossil fuel” or demands about public transport, would give people more reason to participate. We should also raise demands for serious targets based on the science, and raise demands against “clean coal” and nuclear power, because they simply wont work in time, or at all. Both of these false solutions divert resources from the real solution of renewable energy.

Secondly because the movement hasn’t articulated the problems with carbon trading clearly, some people think Kevin Rudd is taking “real action” making them unlikely to come to a protest, while some working class people think (rightly) they will be economically hurt by carbon trading, which also creates a barrier to involvement.

Respond to the economic crisis

The issue which is bound to shape the political environment this year is the economic crisis, which is devastating people’s lives across the globe and throwing millions out of their homes and their jobs. The full effects of the crisis have yet to work their way through in Australia and the economy will get worse before it gets better.

In response governments around the world are spending billions of dollars to secure their banking systems, bailout struggling businesses and invest in infrastructure projects. We have to hammer home the message that this money could be spent on investing in projects to reduce carbon emissions and provide green jobs. We need to talk about jobs again and again, and not sacrifice. Stressing the need for sacrifice loses support amongst working people. The summit should make a statement that the government’s emphasis on making consumers pay for the reduction in emissions is wrong. We need a major shift by the government to explain (and implement) how shifting our economy to protect living standards requires the same tactics as shifting to a greener economy.

Car factories that close down should be nationalised and put towards building trains and trams. In Australia the $4 billion given directly to the banking system could have built four solar power stations powering 400,000 homes. Imagine if the $US3 trillion spent on the US war in Iraq was used towards renewable energy and public transport. Australia should pull all its troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq and put their skills towards building renewable energy infrastructure.

Take a position on carbon trading

The movement must spell out that the Rudd government’s carbon trading scheme is incapable of making the cuts in emissions required to avoid abrupt climate change. Many in the movement want to oppose only the worst elements of Rudd’s scheme, such as the handouts of free permits to the big polluters and the low emissions reduction targets. But the reason so many governments around the world are enthusiastic about carbon trading schemes is that they are a way of avoiding any serious effort to reduce emissions while giving the appearance that they are doing something.

Carbon trading is an incredibly inefficient method of reducing emissions. It will increase energy prices but there is no guarantee this will lead to increased investment in renewable sources or reduced energy use. Cuts made by businesses in one area can be used to allow other areas to keep polluting.

Finally increased energy prices will generate opposition from the majority of ordinary working class people, who will see their living standards fall as a result. This is a free kick to those who want to mobilise public opposition to serious action on climate change.

For government intervention, regulation and planning

If carbon trading won’t deliver the emissions cuts we need, we need to spell out what will. Carbon trading is of course a form of government intervention, but it doesn’t specify what needs to be done. If we think we need a carbon price high enough to shut down coal-fired power stations, why not just make the decision to shut them down and build renewable energy instead? Government built the snowy-hydro scheme, it should be building wind farms now. The government could spend the entire roads budget on public transport and should regulate absolute emissions levels in different industries. Energy efficiency measures should be provided free for every house—if solar panels are the best use of resources these should be given free to every house.

Building the movement

The stakes are high. Nowhere are emissions falling, nowhere are reasonable targets being set, nowhere has any government proposed methods that will achieve the enormous emissions cuts we need. We may have ten years to swing the odds in our favour. The longer nothing is done, the more likely people (and particularly those who want to block change) will start saying it’s too late. Below are some suggestions for taking things forward.

Achievable interim demands: Forcing the government to abandon its pathetically low emissions reduction targets and adopting the kind of radical reduction strategy which is necessary can seem like a daunting task. People can easily feel such demands aren’t winnable in the short term. But interim demands, such as campaigning for higher subsidies for solar panels or a substantial increase in government investment in wind farms can help the movement maintain momentum. The ideal campaigns for mobilising people will be around stopping new coal fired power plants or mines. Such campaigns can be connected to an understanding of the “big picture” and the need for radical emissions reductions across the board.

Open democratic organising1: The movement needs an outward orientation to building itself, things like public stalls, leafleting for rallies, leafleting other protests, and speakers in workplaces, can be important (though not the only) tools in building a movement. The environment movement has been absolutely critical to the initial growth of the climate change movement, but the scale of the change needed means we need to grow beyond just the environment movement and current organising models. If we are to succeed we will need a mass movement capable of mobilising millions.Every person coming in to the movement must be able to participate fully and equally, the closed structures of many environment NGO’s and other common organising structures like affinity groups are not up to the task of mass involvement. The open democratic structure of many local climate groups are a much better starting point.

The movement needs to articulate that its goals must be fought for, and won’t be won without a fight, consciousness raising, lobbying, online petitions and so forth may have their place, but they will not be enough to win.

Mass protest and civil disobedience (for instance blockading development of new fossil fuel power stations) will be crucial. These methods aren’t enough to win a battle of the size we are facing, in and of themselves, but large protests are highly visible and give participants a sense of their collective strength. Mass civil disobedience points in a particularly useful direction, it actively demands change rather than meekly asks, and very often inspires and emboldens others. Protest also often changes the people who protest.

Engage the trade union movement, this has to be both at an official level and rank and file level, especially in unions with right wing officials, but even in unions with left wing leaders, much like politicians these leaders will rarely act ahead of the people who elected them, pressure from below is a marvellous thing.

Demands like those for a “just transition” and “green jobs” matter in mobilising workers. Trade unions should have been invited to send people to the climate summit. Unions are still the best way of mobilising workers into action. Rank and file groups (usually with the support of union leaderships) have sprung up in various unions, these are mostly quite small, but should be encouraged—it may be a useful tactic in some places to encourage the formation of cross union rank and file organisation. Climate activists should seek to speak in workplaces, some unions are considering “climate” training for their delegates, this is another area where climate activists can usefully engage them. The best historical examples of the trade union movement taking up environmental issues, for example the green bans and bans on uranium mining, didn’t come out of nowhere. They were preceded by community campaigns, and were in a period where unions were winning many of their own claims.

What does this mean for us? Firstly mobilising matters, if we want unions to ban construction of new fossil fuel power stations, it makes a difference whether we can mobilise say 50 people or thousands of people blockading construction. Secondly unions have more confidence to act on ‘political’ issues when they are winning on bread and butter issues, like wages and conditions and organising rights. Anything we can do to support workers in their struggles is worthwhile, and where workers struggle is a good place to engage them on climate change (for instance we could turn up to a rally of striking Telstra workers with a leaflet on climate change).

No China Wall between issues

Climate change might be the biggest issue facing humanity, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Activists who were involved in successful campaigns in the past like those against the Vietnam war, or that brought down Apartheid, were often not just single issue activists, but also active in the civil rights movement or women’s movement or trade unions. Not only is cross-pollination a good thing, but wherever we can we should be helping other struggles to win. One of the key things in building a movement is confidence, people who have won a wage rise at work, or forced a concession through a student occupation are more likely to have the confidence to feel they can make a difference on something as big as climate change.


1. The movement agrees to hold at least two national days of action this year (organised by open collectives), the first on or around World Environment Day on June 5, the second on or around December 9 to coincide with Copenhagen conference

– While there should be scope for organising groups in different cities to formulate their own demand, these could include

100% renewable energy – phase out fossil fuel

Public transport – not freeways

Green jobs

Set targets that will make a difference (maybe use what is agreed at summit) – CPRS wont solve the problem

2. We attempt to get union support for the above rallies and encourage the ACTU and the union to call their own mobilisations for green jobs and serious action on climate change. We should develop a succinct model motion for union members to try and pass in their unions. For example “This meeting of…….union calls on the federal government to have a policy of 100% renewable energy by 2020, and for massive new investment in public transport infrastructure. The union will train delegates on climate change issues (or elect specific “green reps” in workplaces, like OH&S reps). We call on the ACTU and state based Trades Councils to back the national climate days of action on June 5 & December 9, by providing financial support, and encouraging union members to attend.”

3. The movement has a focus on a fossil fuel, that it attempts to call mass blockades of any new fossil fuel developments, and attempts protests & sit-ins, of both new & old fossil fuel targets as well as P’s offices. Improving public transport should be another key goal for the movement.

1In this regard if there are to be any votes taken at the climate summit the most democratic thing would be for everyone present to vote, rather than as being suggested one vote per “group”. This wont be perfect as has been pointed out there will likely be more people from Canberra than Perth at the summit, but it will be more representative that the alternative. People from climate groups wont necessarily have a mandate from their group or even have a way to decide on a representative, and climate groups are of considerably different sizes. In these circumstances it is much better that everyone who is committed enough to come to the summit, and has participated in discussions, gets to vote. One vote per person.


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  1. Excerpts a, b, c and d below show that the only references to ‘working class people’ in your document are to concern about ‘bread and butter issues’, or hip-pockets. Is this a good way to for the environment movement to approach workers? I suspect there are lots of workers who are concerned about climate change beyond economics. Hmmm.

    a) “because the movement hasn’t articulated the problems with carbon trading clearly, some people think Kevin Rudd is taking “real action” making them unlikely to come to a protest, while some working class people think (rightly) they will be economically hurt by carbon trading, which also creates a barrier to involvement.”

    b) “Stressing the need for sacrifice loses support amongst working people.”

    c) “Finally increased energy prices will generate opposition from the majority of ordinary working class people, who will see their living standards fall as a result.”

    d) “Secondly unions have more confidence to act on ‘political’ issues when they are winning on bread and butter issues, like wages and conditions and organising rights.”

  2. Hi Eli, this is a long answer, I hope some of it is useful:

    Of course workers care about more than “hip-pockets”, they care about the environment they live in, they care about their children and their future, and they care about other people, look for instance at the outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the recent fires (in passing it was good to see so many letter writers in todays Age newspaper, make the connection between the horrific fires and government inaction on climate change).

    But this is not the point of what we were trying to get across, there are still so many climate campaigners, who accept the need for some sort of carbon pricing (carbon trading or carbon taxes – both of which are ultimately unfair) rather than social solutions. Government and business, which actually have the resources to make change, continue to push the idea, that acting on climate change is up to individuals. It seems to me that sacrifice is demanded of people at the bottom (through higher energy prices or higher petrol prices), because so many climate campaigners are not prepared, or do not believe it is possible, to demand sacrifices of people at the top of society.

    For instance Clive Hamilton opened the climate summit & in an otherwise good speech, he made a sarcastic comment about people who say they want action on climate change while complaining about petrol prices. But people are right to complain about rising petrol prices, rising petrol prices essentially leave many people in the outer suburbs struggling to get by, stuck in their homes. This is why thefts of petrol from service station have risen. It is not the fault of these people that governments have failed to invest in basic public transport infrastructure.

    When climate campaigners talk about the need for sacrifice, what workers hear, is that their lives are going to get harder and they resent it (particularly when the rich are not being asked to sacrifice). Workers have heard talk about sacrifice again and again, and they know it means they have to work harder, or they have to have wage restraint for the “good of the country”, or that they have to lose their jobs for the good of the company, while the CEO’s keep their million dollar salaries, or that or services that used to free like higher education, or health care, suddenly come with charges attached.

    At least 80 percent of most peoples budgets goes on clothes, housing, bills, transport to work, kids & one night out a week. Particularly with the economic crisis, what working people everywhere fear is that they will be forced to sacrifice their basic economic security, that they will lose their jobs, that they will be unable to pay rent, or their mortgage, that they will be unable t to provide decent food for their kids.

    Particularly when it comes to talk of replacing coal with renewable energy, if we don’t talk about a just transition and new decent jobs, at the same time, all the coal communities hear is that they are being asked to commit economic suicide.

    Rightwingers understand these fears and are perfectly prepared to use them against the climate movement, for instance:

    “At the end of 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a television commercial that lampooned carbon reductions, depicting a family sleeping in full winter garb, a man cooking eggs over candles, and people jogging to work in business suits, while the narrator intoned: “Climate legislation being considered by Congress could make it too expensive to heat our homes, power our lives, and drive our cars.”

    What the climate movement needs to tell workers, is that we can solve climate change and economic crisis as the same time, that this is in fact the only way to do it & that acting seriously on climate change will mean enough jobs for everyone.

    When you look at a the problem globally it becomes even more stark, we are not going to come up with solutions to climate change by asking the poor in India or China to make sacrifices, or pay carbon taxes.

    Put most simply there can be no solution to climate change without economic justice, there can be no solution to climate change, if the movement is not also a global movement to lift the world out of poverty.

    The problem is so huge, and the transformation of the world economy needed is so huge, that sacrifice cant solve it, (unless you were prepared to increase energy prices so much that hundreds of millions of people could no longer afford electricity). So telling workers to choose between personal sacrifice and the planet, is not only demobilising, it is a false choice. The only solutions are social, using societies resources to build renewable energy infrastructure as quickly as possible (while guaranteeing decent jobs to those in industries no longer needed), building public transport infrastructure so we can replace most cars etc. There may be some areas (for instance airline flight) where there may be no choice but to ration flights, but this should always be the last option after everything else has been tried, and it must be done in a way that is equal for all people (rather than say putting up prices so only the rich can afford to fly).

    To get these solutions its not enough to try & convince those at the top to act, or even just to shout at them, we need to build a movement that forces them to act, which is where the point in the discussion paper about unions having the confidence to act comes in. Historically it has been strong unions, capable of fighting and winning on their own issues, that have had the confidence to then have take action on ‘political’ issues’ such as Apartheid, or practical opposition to wars, or putting on green bans….though the green bans occurred in economic boom, with the economic crisis, workers are more likely to have confidence when acting in large numbers than small groups (like recent mass strikes in France, Italy & Greece, or even the mass mobilisations of the Your Rights At Work campaign), so it may be a better tactic to aim to get a general mobilisation from unions around green jobs. Either way, the economic power (the ability to strike) of workers, will be crucial if we want to force the government to act on climate change.


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