Call to Action: Reclaim the Climate Movement

By Kari McGregor

I’m sure you’ve heard that everyone – or, at least, everyone who cares – will be marching for the climate on Sunday 21st September. If you’re not marching, then you’re not doing anything at all, or so we’re told.

False dichotomies aside though, I won’t be marching. I’ll be taking action instead. I agree with Chris Hedges: the march is nothing more than street theatre. It won’t lead to any policy changes; it won’t wave a magic wand over corporate ecocide; and it sure as hell won’t get middle-class white folk to give up their privilege and downshift. It will be a colourful (well, mainly blue t-shirts) climate-themed street parade, complete with back-slapping and high-fiving over how amazing the climate movement is for managing to get so many people outside on a Sunday afternoon for a stroll around a city.

Where the climate movement has got us so far

Here in Australia we’ve watched the situation go from bad to worse in the year since we elected the worst of all possible governments to power. To say Australia lacks the political will to address ‘the greatest moral and social challenge of our time’ is to state the obvious. Instead of being shocked, perhaps our response should be disgust, followed by action.

We should be disgusted by  the scrapping of the Climate Commission, the repeal of the carbon tax and mining tax,  and the removal of funding for the Environmental Defender’s Offices. The irony of these backward steps, taken while greenhouse gas emissions are increasing faster than at any point in the last three decades, should not be lost on anyone with a finger on the pulse. 

For all our polite letter-writing campaigns and clicktivist petitions, for all our colourfully theatrical street rallies, these policy backslides are evidence that this government doesn’t give a damn what ‘we the people’ think, or want. They’re not intimidated – they know there’s no ‘or else’ clause in any of those letters or petitions. They know the rallying troops will never threaten direct action, or show up on their doorsteps to demand action.

Approvals for mega-mining projects in Queenland’s Galilee Basin – including the largest coal mine in Australia, Indian company Adani’s Carmichael mine – and for dredging and dumping on the Great Barrier Reef are a poignant reminder that we are ‘in the coal business’. So much so, in fact, that Queensland’s newly passed Mineral and Resources bill prohibits anyone not ‘directly affected’ from objecting to carbon-intensive mining proposals while also prohibiting all objections to so-called low-impact mining, effectively exempting some 90% of operations. Concerned citizens have effectively been legislated out of the conversation in an appalling attack on democracy.

One can criticize the incumbent government for many things, but not for failing to cover all bases. A return to witch-hunts against environmental NGOs looms large on the horizon, with a number of organizations facing legal and financial ruin by the very government whose policy gaps they are working so hard to close. Recommendations to strip environmental NGOs of their ability to receive tax-deductible donations and the proposed repeal of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) are effectively moves to de-claw the climate movement, and ensure that business as usual proceeds without so much as a hiccup. 

So what can a climate movement with no backbone achieve?

Time to reclaim the movement

Historically, gaps in policy have been met with strong civil society action. It’s time we rose to our historic moment, as Naomi Klein urges. ‘We the people’ need to reclaim the climate movement.

While mainstream climate activists emphasize market-dependent initiatives such as divestment from fossil fuels, getting behind renewable energy, and putting in place carbon-pricing mechanisms, there are a handful of voices from the margins promoting alternative strategies, including the controversial and challenging measures of economic degrowth, and direct action. A few pariahs are even urging preparation for the tough times ahead.

But these alternative voices are weak, drowned out by the mainstream mantras of ‘we’ve got to put a price on carbon’, ‘move your money!’, and ‘100% renewable for the win!’ What the climate needs right now is for transitioners, degrowthers, permaculturists, and other resilience-oriented folk to stop watching from the sidelines as the movement is declawed at best, and at worst, co-opted by spurious sales reps for greenwashed industry. David Holmgren’s call to action for Crash on Demand now needs to resonate loud and clear – we need to enter into the debate.

So I won’t be marching for the climate. And I won’t be sitting around doing nothing either. I’ll be at the sixth annual Australian Climate Action Summit held this year in Queensland, our Sunshine State. And I’ll be delivering some inconvenient truths. My presentation on degrowth is my offering as an apostate from the churches of economic growth and techno-optimism. The climate movement needs to hear this – that the pursuit of perpetual growth is what got us into this mess, and that tech-fixes won’t get us out of it. We are going to have to make major changes to our way of life.

A call to action for Australians to engage with opportunities and solutions, the Summit is also an invitation to debate which tactics will actually work to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Most transitioners, degrowthers and permies are just as guilty of groupthink and huddling together with like-minds, in my view, as the mainstream climate movement is. If we never emerge from our silos then what do we really stand to achieve? Preaching to the choir is a reassuring experience, well within the comfort zone, but it’s not going to get those inconvenient truths across to the movement in the tiny window of time we have available. We have to transcend comfort zones and network with unlike minds if we are to have a shot at making a real difference. And the more people we can work with, the better chance we’ll all have.

I’m not alone in this view, thankfully.

Challenges and controversy

The climate movement’s pet projects receive plenty of scrutiny and critique from climate deniers and right-wing political pundits, but these are not the only folk who have questions, or challenges. The movement is not without its controversy, and the Summit is an excellent opportunity to law a few cards on the table and get talking about tactics that will really slash emissions.

Consumer actions such as ethical investment and divestment from the fossil fuel industry are presented as simple, empowering moves that anyone can make. Money talks – and those who have the most are heard above all others, thanks to their well-paid lobbyists – so it makes sense to put your money where your mouth is. But divestment as a tactic is not without its critics, and questions need to be asked regarding how far it will get us, and how quickly it will get us there.

The market forces of supply and demand hold sway, revealing two inconvenient truths: fossil fuel supply must be disrupted, and demand must be reduced or eliminated. The extent to which divestment can disrupt supply hinges upon how much money can be pulled out of the industry, while failure to impact demand renders divestment moot. An industry that is still profitable is vulnerable to share buy-outs at fire-sale prices by unscrupulous investors who stand to make a killing. The divestment debate is clearly one that needs to be teased out, and Sustainability Showcase’s David Zwolski will do just that at the Summit.

The push for 100% renewable energy is a major aspect of the climate movement, touted as not only essential, but also entirely possible to achieve within a mere decade. Renewable energy lobby group Beyond Zero Emissions has achieved rock star status in the Australian climate movement with bold claims that 100% renewable energy is achievable, affordable, and can launch Australia to the status of renewable energy superpower. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

The climate movement is not without its renewable energy skeptics, although they are generally considered apostates in the church of fossil-free energy. The skeptics have a point though. Renewable energy delivers low returns on energy invested, is dependent on fossil fuels for its implementation, and brings a series of environmental hazards of its own. Replacing one environmental disaster with another is an approach that would have many old-school environmental activists spinning in their graves. Radical environmental group Generation Alpha’s Ben Pennings may make himself less than popular at this year’s Climate Action Summit by calling into question the ecological viability of aiming for 100% renewable energy in lieu of slashing our energy requirements. He won’t be alone in doing so.

Non-violent direct action is a controversial last resort in our most civilized of civil societies, but let’s not beat about the bush. Wins were inarguably achieved by the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi’s Indian independence movement, thanks to the willingness of a few brave activists to go a step beyond begging the powers that be to instigate change. Make no mistake: the suffragettes would not have won votes for women had they not taken direct action; they had no recourse through the electoral system. The Civil Rights movement would have achieved little if they’d waited for sympathetic white folks to recognize the rights of African-Americans. India would still be under the rule of the Raj had Gandhi opted for simply imploring the colonial overlords to play nice.

Now that we have been stripped of our policy safety-nets and the right to even object to carbon-intensive mining projects, imploring politicians and polluters to maintain a safe climate threshold seems less than adequate. Generation Alpha’s call for extensive non-violent direct action tactics regarding Queensland’s Galilee basin could well come in handy.

Business as usual is not an option

With the recent vindication of the 1970’s Limits to Growth study an even more inconvenient truth than climate change looms large. It’s not news to transitioners and degrowthers that we are set to hit hard limits in the not-too-distant future, relegating perpetual growth to the realm of fantasy. Apostates from the church of economic growth, Sustainability Showcase will explain, in no uncertain terms, that it is precisely our pursuit of infinite growth on this finite planet that is the cause of our climate change predicament. Mother Nature does not negotiate, so it is we who will have to change our ways.

Reaching limits to growth poses a double-edged sword, however – one that can effectively slash our emissions, but also one that poses immense challenges for our economic future, and one that starkly defines techno-fixes as mere wishful thinking. This tough news will be inconvenient indeed for pro-growth true believers and techno-optimists. But one must ask: if we so readily accept what science tells us about climate change, then why is it so hard for us to accept what science tells us about limits to growth, the carrying capacity of our finite planet, and the ability of our biosphere to absorb all that we shock it with?

This year’s Summit features controversial commentary and solutions worthy of consideration, from the fringes not usually present at such events. Sustainable Population Australia’s Dr. Jane O’Sullivan will provide a critique of population overshoot and what can be done to address it. Peak oil and finance analyst Nicole Foss will provide a reality check on financing the future, pouring cold water on claims that we can innovate our way out of the mess we’re in. And Doing It Ourselves’ Theo Kitchener will invite attendees to consider climate action through the lens of a potential economic collapse. One inconvenient truth resonates loud and clear: business as usual is not an option.

As with politics, the decisions are made by the folks who show up, so stand up and be counted if you want to see meaningful action on climate change. Wherever you stand on the controversies of climate action, for the sake of our future, don’t let the movement move without you.

 

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