The climate movement has suffered from a lack of strategy—and needs to focus on the CPRS and public investment in green jobs, argue Chris Breen and James Supple
The first climate summit last January was a major step forward, bringing the climate movement together on a national level and agreeing to some joint initiatives. But almost a year on the movement still lacks united focus. While it has undertaken a huge array of activity, very little was coordinated towards getting out key messages, or to achieving concrete goals.
There have been a few major days of action: against the CPRS in March, nation-wide “climate emergency” rallies in June, climate camp protests at coal mines and power stations, the 350 day of action and events around the Copenhagen climate negotiations, like Walk against Warming.
But there was little strategy behind these actions to link them together and build a coherent movement.
One result is that there continues to be a lot of activity that simply pushes the message “we need action on climate change”. Examples include Walk Against Warming, the 350 actions and the Sea Level Rise Walk.
But the majority of people already accept the need for climate action and the political debate has moved on. The Rudd government portrays itself as delivering “action on climate change” through introducing its CPRS. The movement needs to be exposing the uselessness of what governments are doing, putting forward serious alternatives and showing how these would create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Climate change dominated mainstream political debate in 2009, as Rudd pushed to get his flagship climate policy, the CPRS, through parliament.
Preventing the CPRS from becoming law was a key priority agreed at the 2009 climate summit. But after actions at the end of March, when the legislation was first tabled in parliament, most activists forgot about the CPRS.
Only Victoria kept it as a demand for the June climate emergency rallies, and the later climate camp protests did not make the link to the policy.
In the key public debate of the year around climate the movement was missing.
One central reason for this was confusion about carbon trading. Rather than oppose market schemes, organisations such as the Greens chose to quibble about targets and free permits. This has left serious, united calls for immediate public investment stillborn.
Many in the movement argued that the complexity of Rudd’s scheme meant that most people do not understand how it works. But because there was little challenge to Rudd’s claims that the CPRS was “real action”, we were hamstrung trying to win over larger numbers of people to involvement in the fight for renewables. According to Newspoll last month 67 per cent of people want parliament to pass the scheme.
The failure of the Senate to pass the CPRS means it will remain an issue until the federal election in 2010. The time for delay and avoidance has passed—we need to take the CPRS head on.
Cutting through the government’s claims will also require us to pick clear demands to campaign around that expose their inaction.
We know what needs to be done to address climate change. The big two things are substantial government investment in renewable energy and public transport, in order to move away from burning coal and oil.
In Victoria, the looming closure of the country’s largest solar power company, Solar Systems, threatens to stop construction of a large new solar power plant in Mildura. The campaign calling on the government to save the company has the potential to both show the failure of market schemes and to win new green jobs. Similarly campaigning against the plans to build two new coal-fired power stations in NSW and similar plans elsewhere clearly exposes the failure of governments to stop increasing greenhouse emissions. Both these campaigns can be linked to the CPRS and Rudd’s climate policy more generally.
By contrast, one of the largest climate events this year, Walk Against Warming, is placing no demands at all on government. In Melbourne there will be a human sign saying “Safe Climate—Do It”. But the bigger question is “do what?”
One crucial issue that the climate movement is beginning to grapple with more openly is winning over unions and workers in coal dependent communities. At both the protest against the Hazelwood coal power station in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley and the Climate Camp in NSW at the Helensburgh coal mine there was the danger of opposition from local workers. The scenes at Helensburgh, where there was strong local hostility and even a counter-rally organised against climate activists by locals, created a potentially disastrous situation—a message the movement is “anti-jobs” and disinterested in the needs of working class people.
This perception is something the right-wing media are keen to exploit in order to drive a wedge between climate activists and ordinary people.
The climate movement has rightly responded by saying we want green jobs in renewable energy to replace coal jobs. Studies, like the work of the Centre for Full Employment and Equity at Newcastle University on the coal dependent Hunter Valley, have shown that renewables would create more jobs than currently exist in coal.
But simply saying we want green jobs is not enough.
Some workers will be hard to convince. In regions like the Latrobe Valley and the Hunter, which are dependent on coal jobs, communities are rightly concerned about the sudden collapse of that industry. From the car industry in Detroit, to the steel industry in Newcastle, the shut down of a large single industry has often devastated communities.
Unions have been on the back foot for the past two decades—privatisation in the Latrobe Valley resulted in tens of thousands of job losses. Workers are cynical that they would be looked after in a transition away from coal. They may see their own interests as aligned with their bosses.
To win those workers, we will need to provide practical examples where the climate movement has fought alongside workers and won. The movement also needs to be able to point to the specific kind of jobs that would be able to replace existing coal jobs in each community, and how they could be won. The efforts of activists to run a public meeting to discuss such a transition with workers in the Latrobe valley before the Hazelwood protest was a good start.
The struggle to save Solar Systems in Victoria is the best example to date of a concrete campaign for green jobs. Campaigning for new power stations to be mandated as renewable must also become central.
Unless the climate movement is seen campaigning for jobs it will never win serious support from the unions.
Because workers do the work to make society function, they can also bring things to a halt through strike action. Unions could act to ban any new coal-fired power stations being built. However it is far from inevitable that workers and their unions will act.
There is a debate about action on climate change in the union movement. Some unions, especially those in the coal industry and forestry, are hostile to environmentalists. Their union leaders have decided to work with the employers to try to preserve their industries. Other unions have recognised that a transition to renewables is necessary, and want to make sure workers are protected in the transition.
The challenge for climate activists is to learn from previous mass movements and win support amongst the union rank-and-file.
This requires campaigning within unions, taking our message to union conferences, delegates meetings, workplace meetings, strikes and protests. One place activists have already started is campaigning to overturn the ACTU’s position of support for the CPRS.
The action at the Vestas wind turbine factory in the UK was a fantastic example of how workers can be involved in a fight for climate jobs. A small group of workers occupied the plant to try to save their jobs and called for the government to save the factory. This became an example of the kind of government action that could create new green jobs—direct state investment.
Such action could inspire workers elsewhere in ordinary manufacturing jobs to begin to fight for their workplaces to be refitted to produce components for wind turbines or solar cells.
Actions like these could win the support of workers elsewhere to campaign for governments to fund renewable energy.
Climate activists have an important role to play in kick starting such action. Before the Vestas occupation, climate activists travelled to the plant and encouraged the workers there to occupy, letting them know they would have support if they took action.
Being a living breathing climate movement, diversity is healthy and to be expected. But some key shared priorities and an over arching strategy would make us more effective.
We need a way of coming together, combining resources and democratically deciding at least on a few shared goals. National climate summits are part of this. But we also need in each state regular climate forums.
Learning from the successes and the mistakes over the past year will make us stronger, and better placed to grow our movement and start to win some victories.