Climate is still the issue

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As a Socialist Alliance member whose main political activity these days is working in and for various climate change related campaigns I often hear slightly concerned questions from other members.

“But hasn't the climate change movement declined? Most of the groups seem inactive or disappeared now?”, and words to that effect.

This is reflected in paragraph 35 of the draft Perspectives Resolution:

  1. On refugee rights, the Greens have so far withstood pressure to capitulate on offshore processing. However, the same cannot be said for their support for the introduction of a price on carbon, and an ETS — part of a deal with the ALP to fund investment in renewables. The resulting demobilisation of the climate movement which took place as a direct consequence of this deal has been felt all the more strongly given that the ALP has since reneged on the Renewable Energy Target, and has now lowered the carbon floor price with the support of Greens' leader Christine Milne.

I want to propose an amendment to paragraph 35 to read: 

  1. On refugee rights, the Greens have so far withstood pressure to capitulate on offshore processing. However, the same cannot be said for their support for the ALP's introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme as part of Clean Energy Future package. This policy package is already being shown up for its inadequacy as, for example, funding for renewable energy projects in the deal may not be additional to the pre-existing Renewable Energy Target, and Labor has lowered the carbon permit floor price, with the support of Greens' leader Christine Milne.

Several other amendments to the later points on climate issues are being put forward. The following commentary is to help consider our position on this most important issue and the amendments in question.

Climate issue not going away

The analysis (that the climate movement has been demobilised) is a misreading. First, because the “demobilisation” of the climate movement has been a partial phenomenon that has mainly affected one particular wing of the climate movement (electorate based lobbying/activist groups, also known as “climate action groups” or CAGs).

The deeper problem is that many in SA seem to see our relationship to campaigns as a bit like surfing — we hop from one to another hoping to get a good ride while they last, and don't commit to stay with them if things get difficult. This is partly observed in the attitude to the climate movement.

The physical reality of climate change is such that it certainly isn't going away, it will not be a flash in the pan or a short-lived political issue subject to a quick victory or defeat or something that simply disappears from public view.

Climate change is happening now, it is getting worse quicker than the worst predictions, and it is having real and increasing negative effects on the population, here and abroad. Whether its the Arctic ice loss, heat waves, Black Saturday, the Queensland floods, Hurricane Sandy — all bear the imprint of global warming's enhancement.

The climate issue was substantially responsible for the removal of two Prime Ministers and one Opposition leader: Howard, Rudd and Turnbull. Is this roller coaster ride over now that the carbon price is enacted? Unlikely.

Despite the “success” of reinstating the international Kyoto process at the recent Doha talks, the turbulent weather and Arctic ice melt/permafrost thaw is creating political shockwaves that will destabilise the token targets of the international “consensus” position.

National politics remains volatile. The Liberals are enacting the practical program of climate denial at a state level where they hold government (and are likely to do so at national level also): a frontal assault on the renewable energy industry coupled with the unashamed support of coal and gas mining expansion. The latter policy is largely shared with Labor, the former mostly not.

The Greens are tied to a dead weight in their coalition with Labor and may be suffering as a result, but are far from being exposed as a sellout as some on the far left would like to paint them as. Their base is among some of the most politicised and educated members of the electorate, who generally seem to support Green liberalism and accept alliances with Labor but equally will notice the lack of results this strategy brings. The Greens cannot escape this anchor however far to the right some of them may wish to move.

These are the reasons why the “climate movement” will not just go away, in the medium term. It also (unfortunately) needs to be pointed out that it hasn't gone away in the here and now, either.

To think that the grassroots climate movement has gone is only possible if you're not aware of what's really happening. There are large grassroots organisations very active in the climate space, especially among students and younger people: AYCC, Quit Coal, BZE  are all active and involving large numbers between them (some more than others — AYCC being the largest). That's to say nothing of the Lock The Gate networks which contain a growing number of climate-conscious local groups and campaigns.

The locality/electorate based Climate Action Group networks are what has declined. To analyse the ins and outs of that is a complex task, but here's some pointers:

The national alliance of CAGs, the Community Climate Network, was set up with a debilitating limitation: it's not allowed to make statements or organise campaigns, according to it's own constitution adopted at the 2010 Climate Summit. This was a compromise with  political groupings in the movement that were hostile to the CCN even existing. As a result, CCN has not been able to unite and drive anything in the climate movement other than the annual summit, despite arguably having a mandate from successive summits to lead.

State-based networks did not grow to a level that could achieve this united campaign leadership/co-ordination either. The Climate Emergency Network (Vic) was a partial exception. However, it didn't quite get off the ground as a campaigning network, and was undermined by anti-CCN activists, who boycotted it, and set up a rival, broader but shallower network (which has since ceased to meet, as has CEN).

In the absence of any better alternative (which these networks might have been able to provide), many activists and CAGs supported the carbon price and the “just say yes” coalition of the liberal NGOs, Greens and Labor. This has turned out to be disempowering: with the legislation taken into parliament, the high-level political action that these groups were geared to is turned into a spectator sport. This illustrates an inherent weakness in campaigning for “reasonable, achievable” targets: victories can be a demobilising factor.

So clearly, one of the most political (in a formal sense) sections of the climate movement has gone into disarray. That is not to say that all the activists are gone or that nothing is happening. Many of those same activists (and new activists as well) are involved in the groups mentioned above, and campaigns around coal mining, coal seam gas (CSG) mining and Repower Port Augusta to name the main examples.  

A number of current events and issues indicate that climate politics is very much still on the agenda.

The CSG industry is facing crucial tests as it comes under sustained community and scientific attack. The future of Australia's East coast domestic gas supply largely rests on CSG and shale gas development, as conventional gas reserves are running out. This means that stopping the CSG industry (a plausible and desirable campaign outcome) has profound implications for Labor's “low carbon” gas-fired approach to “climate action”.

The renewable energy industry is not inherently radical (although a few of its employees can be), but the effects of a small amount of extra renewable energy in the electricity grid are bigger than expected. This is also because consumers are also taking energy efficiency more seriously, and electricity demand is falling significantly as a result. This is while we are still a long way off the “20% by 2020” Renewable Energy Target. The big energy companies are facing the death of their growing-demand-based business model, and the resulting crisis means renewable energy is coming under attack — but there is also an opportunity to re-examine the privatised, market-oriented  model of energy provision and the rationale for supporting the coal and gas industries that rely on it.

The La Niña years are giving way to an El Niño year, and the return of hot, dry bushfire and drought weather is likely to have an impact on popular consciousness of climate change on a visceral level.

Lastly, we are entering an election year which will be fought (again) on issues around climate. Official discourse will be warped through the prisms of the Coalition's anti-tax ravings and Labor's greenwashing, but the platform that Abbott and the Liberal party are consistently running on is against the carbon tax. A hard debate to relate to when we don't support either side, but a debate that we can't abstain from unless we truly have nothing to say on the issue of climate change policy.

Making waves — or surfing SA?

Some SA branches and individuals are taking important responsibility for some key climate related campaigns, mainly those relating to coal seam gas.

But there's a pernicious and false argument growing among Australia's far left: that we are in a period of “class peace” where the working class is putting up with capital's attacks and there's no significant working class struggle for the left to tap into.

In support of this analysis, we usually hear that the level of strike activity in Australia remains at a very low level and has done for some time. That's not incorrect. The working class is increasingly atomised and demoralised by the process of neoliberalism (privatisation, contracting out, casualisation, offshoring) and it shows in the economic class struggle.

Yet struggle breaks out in other ways besides traditional, workplace and trade-union economic struggles. The highly political Your Rights At Work campaign was a mass struggle — controlled by the ALP and its trade union arm; but a mass political struggle nonetheless. Political issues and campaigns are the main forum that class-conscious workers engage in — on a range of issues: same-sex marriage rights, coal mining and CSG, refugee solidarity, equal pay, and so on. Some of these, in recent years, have reached the level of mass movements — Your Rights at Work, climate action, and now CSG/Lock The Gate Alliance.

Socialist Alliance can play an important part in driving some of these campaigns forward. We support the organisation of the working class, for their own interests, as an end in itself — not merely a means to instal us in power. We aren't electoralists or Stalinists.

But most importantly, when movements reach an impasse, we shouldn't abandon it to go chasing the Next Big Thing. When an important movement reaches a difficult point, the right thing to do is to pitch in to find a way forward, not to abandon ship.

Most of the organised far left in Australia has, consciously or otherwise, adopted an opportunist, campaign-surfing attitude, backed up by the analysis of “class peace”. Sometimes this has included sectarian errors such as trying to bend the movement to suit narrow “party-building” priorities. For example, trying to limit a movement to only ever organising street rallies where the left can keep existing members entertained and recruit new members.

As an aside, these issues constitute the real difference between the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative. If we want to continue the discussion about working more closely with them (and they actively abstain from many movements we consider important, like climate) we should explore their analysis of “class peace” or however they phrase it, and how socialists should work in issue-based campaigns.

We should not fear a debate whether climate campaigns are “reformist” or “revolutionary”. Climate campaigns can pose a direct threat to capitalist business-as-usual: for example, the ramifications of stopping the CSG industry are much wider than saving a few farms and water catchments, as I pointed out above.

The point about these campaigns/movements is that they both mobilise people in a way that builds popular/working class self organisation; and that they threaten the status quo in a way that granting a token reform (like the carbon price) is unable to placate.

Current climate campaigning is often not organised around easily packaged reforms to win, although we usually can identify and fight for some useful reforms. The movement needs to go beyond winning token reforms like the carbon price. More than in any other movement or campaign, token reforms are no solution for climate change. 

SA can make a vital contribution

SA has a number of strengths that other left groups are lacking, but we don't always realise what they are.

We have reach and implantation in communities, unions and campaigns that other left groups barely register.

We are an alliance, not a monolithic, uniform ideological group. We are proud to incorporate a range of different views within the Alliance, and we are proud to work with people outside our membership, who also hold different views, as trusted allies and comrades. This can increase our effectiveness and the respect in which we are held.

This is particularly important in the case of climate action, where no-one has an easy answer to the problems, even if we halt greenhouse emissions tomorrow. We need humility, we need to respect the healthy diversity of experience and views on this issue in the movement (and in our own membership).

We want to build campaigns and movements like those I've discussed, as independent strong entities. We don't want to mould them to our needs, capture and recruit their leadership, then  move on. That's the behaviour of a parasite — it may look like it's growing, like it's a positive for the left, but it's devouring the thing that gives it life. Sure we want to grow too, but in a way that helps a growing movement.

What does the climate movement need to move forward?

At this point, the active climate movement needs many things.

First, the movement needs to regain a street protest presence, on specifically climate issues. We currently have some great direct action stunts that are keeping the issues alive in the media, and some great single-issue mass mobilisation around CSG and coal expansion.

SA activists could help put the grassroots climate movement back into centre stage by initiating the organisation of a new round of street protests.

This would be in keeping with the recent alarming statements from climate scientists. It would also be timed appropriately to make real climate science an issue in the federal election, instead of the limited debate around the carbon price legislation.

SA are known for our form on organising rallies. We've probably typecast ourselves by doing and arguing for little else at times — but right now it's what's needed.

SA could raise the level of debate about free market dogma by elaborating our nationalisation of mines policy. We could extend the discussion of public ownership to the power industry generally, which might find a positive reception from some, at this crossroads in that industry's own development (as outlined above).

Too long, we have showed up for the big events and rallies to sell merchandise, helped to publicise the events, covered it in Green Left, but not pitched in to organise the campaign. There is a difference between showing solidarity and support — which we do with many campaigns — and showing leadership.

If we believe in having a strategy at all, beyond routine propaganda and solidarity activities, the climate movement is a (and possibly the) key area to demonstrate it; else we may as well join one of the routine propaganda groups. They thrive on the idea that there is “class peace” and we can't do anything. Socialist Alliance should thrive on actually doing something.