Tuesday, March 04, 2014

How a bunch of mates bought some land together

Have you ever found yourself sitting around with a group of friends saying “wouldn't it be great to buy a block of land together in the bush?” For years, my life partner, Jemma and I found ourselves having the same dinner party conversation, yearning for something more than nuclear family life in the suburbs. Eventually, we decided that we should actually do something, or else stop talking about it. This is a story about what unfolded. I say ‘a’ story, because each of our co-conspirators has a different one as our lives have come together to share the exciting journey and our connection to the beautiful place that we call ‘Black Bulga’.

Our first step in taking this idea seriously (sometime in 2006) was to organise a Sunday lunch with our friends who we had been discussing the idea with. Out of that lunch came an agreement to spend a weekend away together in the country to kick the idea around. We were explicit that there was no pressure, and no expectation that this group of people would do anything together other than exploring a conversation.

After two separate weekends of staying in lovely farm-houses, eating delicious food, drinking too much wine and traipsing around the countryside looking at properties, it was clear that this was a group of people with very different ideas and expectations. Out of the seven of us that spent those weekends together, only three of us seemed to be looking for similar things.

Michael, Jemma and I kept the conversation going. We shared a common connection to the Hunter Valley and over the course of the next couple of years, spent a number of weekends exploring the foothills of the Barrington Tops World Heritage Area. We read books on intentional communities, visited as many communities as we could find, reached out to friends of friends who lived in the Barrington Tops area, and began to get a sense of what kind of properties were out there. All the while we kept floating the conversation with other friends who we thought might be interested in the idea.

James, Steve and Naomi waking up at Black Bulga
Our friends James and Danielle decided to come down from Brisbane for a weekend of exploring places and ideas. They both had Newcastle roots and had a long-term dream of rural landsharing and intentional community. James has spent much of his life as an environmental campaigner and activist educator and had a strong vision of creating an activist training centre. Dan works as a communications professional with a passion for visual arts, and she was excited about the creative potential of this kind of project. Other friends dipped in and out of the conversation over this time but by the start of 2008 our group of three had grown to five.

Jemma and I moved up to Newcastle to be closer to her family when Rosa, our first daughter was born. We were infected with the madness of first-time parents and bought an old terrace house in Cooks Hill, which we proceeded to renovate. During winter, when we had no bathroom, our friends Geoff and Deb came to our rescue and offered hot baths and warm soups. I had known Geoff for years through his work with the Minerals Policy Institute and Greenpeace, but it was through this period that our friendship deepened and we got to know Deb. Geoff had just completed his Phd into how to develop a ‘just transition’ away from coal dependence to sustainability in the Hunter Valley, and Deb was embarking on her own Phd, exploring the challenges of educating boys. Over the course of many lovely evening discussions (in between having hot baths and soothing a newborn baby) we discovered that they were also seriously interested in the idea of co-owning a block of land in the Hunter Valley. Our group of five grew to seven.

It was during this time that Jemma and I met a young carpenter by the name of Steve who was passionate about sustainable building. We asked him to help us with some of the structural work on our renovation and Steve and I spent a few days working together. It turns out that Steve shared a similar dream of buying land together with like-minded people, but he felt he was a long way off being ready for that kind of project.

Some time in 2009, after Jemma and I were back in Sydney, our group of seven spent a weekend up at Wangat Lodge, near Barrington Tops to explore the land-sharing idea and to look at properties. We shared our dreams, hopes and fears, discussed criteria for land, and explored the kind of legal arrangements that we would need to do this kind of project. By this time, Jemma, Michael and I must have looked at every rural property for sale in the entire district, and the local real estate agent was starting to get pretty weary of us. But all of a sudden we found ourselves looking at a property that ticked all of the boxes. It was magnificent – stunning views, a creek, cycling distance from Dungog and the trainline to Sydney and Newcastle, it had a six bedroom house, large shed and two rental cabins already built. The only problem was that it cost close to a million dollars.

We quickly figured out the maximum that each of us could afford and worked up a business plan. We needed 16 people to make it work financially. We put the word out to our closest networks. James called a friend and colleague from Brisbane. After hearing about the place and who was involved, John (Jmac) pretty much said he was ‘in’ over the phone. Another friend (James A) from Sydney did the same thing. I called Steve, who by this time had become a good friend, and he came up to check the place out. Geoff and Deb reached out to their friends Matt and Sarah who also came up to see the property.

The Black Bulga community at our first permaculture workshop
All of a sudden we had reached critical mass – we had a vision, a great group of people and fantastic block of land. We scrambled to make it happen. We put up $2,000 each and engaged a lawyer from Northern NSW who had experience setting up rural landsharing projects. We started negotiations to buy the property. Our dream was about to become reality. In our minds, Jemma and I had moved to the land and built our dream house already…until we got gazumped. While we were rushing to get our constitution in order, somebody else bought the property from right under our nose. It was gut wrenching.

In the weeks after we had found the property, we had rapidly turned an idea into a serious project with a clear vision, a legal structure and a business plan – but with no land and a great deal of disappointment. We regrouped and kept looking.

Without a real place to ground the project, it became increasingly difficult to maintain momentum. Intellectually, it seemed far more sensible to develop the group, the legal structure, the plan and a clear set of criteria before finding a block of land, but practically speaking, it was all starting to feel a bit too abstract. The financial model and the vision was invariably going to be different for each different property, depending on cost of the land and the existing infrastructure. We had a long list of agreed ‘criteria’ but Jemma and I kept on coming back to ‘the vibe’ as being the most important thing.

One of the many swimming holes at Black Bulga.
We soon found another property that seemed to fit the bill and we once again started to develop a vision for how our project could fit that piece of land. We ended up in the awkward situation of having half of our group really keen to buy it and the other half not. We spent a weekend there together (where the Cicadas nearly drove us all mad) which ended with the difficult and quite stressful decision not to buy it. We began to doubt that we’d ever find another place that everyone liked.

In the aftermath of that weekend, I was up late one night scouring the online real estate listings once again and came across a new listing that looked too good to be true. Jemma, Rosa, Deb and I headed up there the next weekend to take a look.

We arrived at the property and the real estate agent took us straight to one of the most beautiful swimming holes we’d ever seen at the confluence of the Karuah and Telegherry rivers. And it just got better from there. From the ridge we could see dramatic wilderness for miles and a landscape that invited us to explore the valleys and folds of the rolling mountains. The river flats of rich alluvium had an abundance of water from a gravity fed irrigation system coming out of the neighbouring conservation area. And the rivers…oh the glorious rivers…where you could swim with your mouth open and drink deeply of the crystal clear waters.
Jemma, Deb and Rosa on our first visit to the property.

As we left the sun drenched ridge on that first visit, we knew we had found the place we had been looking for. An eagle soared overhead, and Rosa grinned a delicious blackberry stained grin as the wallabies hopped away through the paddock. And so we began the journey to becoming custodians of the land that we have come to know and love as Black Bulga.


This is part 1 in a 2 part series. The next installment (the first 2 years) is still a work-in-progress.

We are currently looking for new members to join the Black Bulga community. If you’re interested in exploring the idea, please email me at hepburn.john[at]gmail.com

You can also check out some more photos at www.blackbulga.org.au

Friday, July 29, 2011

Will Australia's carbon price stop new coal plants?

On Sunday evening, after reading the Dr Seuss classic “If I ran the zoo” to my three year old daughter, I sat on the couch, fortified myself with a strong drink, and began to read the Treasury modelling on the carbon price (I know, I know, it’s an exciting life).

After reading the projections for the likely impact of the carbon price between now and 2050, I began to wonder if Dr Seuss actually might work at Treasury. While there aren’t any ten-footed lions, Elephant-Cats or Tufted Mazurkas, there are certainly plenty of heroic assumptions, interspersed with ludicrous notions.

According to Treasury, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will somehow become commercially viable around 2030, triggering a large-scale investment in coal with CCS and gas with CCS. It is a bit like predicting in 1990 how many betamax video machines will be sold in 2011 (except that betamax videos actually worked). They might as well have assumed that someone will invent a free energy machine. Seriously, it is becoming increasingly clear that even the coal industry have given up on CCS. The dream of ‘clean coal’ is slowly but surely collapsing under the weight of its own hubris as people actually start to think through what is required to make it work.

Treasury recognise that the long term direction for both coal and gas prices is up (notwithstanding an anticipated short term reduction in coal prices as supply catches up with demand) but they seem to have substantially under-estimated the costs of CCS and under-estimated the extent to which the cost of renewable energy is falling.

The modelling also assumes that no new conventional coal power station will be built in Australia, and it is clear that Julia Gillard and Martin Ferguson are planning on using this as an excuse to avoid their election promise to implement an emissions performance standard.

I asked the PM about this at a breakfast on Monday and pointed out to her that the Deloitte modelling of Electricity Generation Investment (commissioned by DRET) concluded that a carbon price of at least $70/tonne would be required to rule out new coal in WA, where three proposed new coal plants have environmental approvals. She said that she was more optimistic than me about the impact of a carbon price on directing the future of energy investment.

It is true that she is more optimistic than me about the impact of a $23 carbon price – much more. As far as I can tell, the only thing that is stopping three new coal power stations being built in WA is a strange combination of State Government policy incoherence and an increasingly convoluted commercial stoush between Lanco Infratech (the Indian buyer of Ric Stowe’s Griffin coal mine) and their customers over coal supply contracts. A low carbon price of only $23/tonne simply isn’t going to rule out coal in WA, even though their poor quality coal makes WA coal plants among the dirtiest in the country.

Similarly in Victoria, the proposed new HRL coal power station continues to stagger on – albeit without finance from the major Australian banks. The big question is whether or not Ferguson will give HRL $100Million of taxpayer money as promised (by the Howard Government). Mind you, it would be quite embarrassing to be publically subsidising a polluting coal plant immediately after the introduction of the carbon price package – so no doubt the Government will be looking closely at how they can get out of the contract. It shouldn’t be too hard given HRL’s record of missing deadlines.

As for the coalition, their climate and energy policy is a wretched pile of nonsense and despite claims of being interested in ‘direct action’ it is becoming abundantly clear that they are only really interested in ‘direct opposition’ to whatever the Government is saying. The only vaguely good thing that can be said about their approach is that it is so incoherent and destabilising that it is likely to undermine investor confidence in both coal and gas for some time to come, regardless of any actual regulation (This obviously isn’t a sensible policy approach but anything that delays fossil fuel investments is arguably a good thing as the price of renewables continues to fall). Abbot continues to play a high stakes game of wrecking the consensus for climate action for his own short-term political interests – without heed to the costs. It will no doubt define his legacy and it is difficult to imagine it being well regarded by those who follow.

Ruling out new coal power stations should fit perfectly with Abbot’s “Direct Action” approach, and it should fit perfectly with Gillards pre-election promise to “rule out new dirty coal power stations”. The fact that it seems so difficult for both of them seems more a reflection of the political/ideological aversion to putting the words ‘no’ and ‘coal’ together in the same sentence, rather than any rational policy objections.

We still need an emissions performance standard to rule out new polluting power stations.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New coal plant approved in Victora

The approval by the Victorian EPA on Friday of a new coal power station is set to create yet another headache for Julia Gillard. In the leadup to the election, she promised that "We will never allow a highly inefficent and dirty power station to be built again in Australia”.

With a projected emissions intensity of 0.8tonnes of CO2/MWh (almost double the OECD average), the HRL power station in the Latrobe Valley is clearly a highly inefficient and dirty power station. So presumably, either there will be some kind of federal intervention to block it, or Gillard will break an election promise.

But even if the political system fails, as it so commonly does, the plant may not go ahead for purely financial reasons. The front page of Saturday’s The Age ran the headline “Big banks ‘no’ to coal plant”, revealing that all four of the major banks have stated that they are not involved in the project. This means that HRL is likely to struggle to arrange finance, even with $150million in direct government handouts.

The fact that none of the big four banks is involved in HRL is no doubt partly a reflection of the individual project, which is highly speculative and financially marginal, but also reflects the wider sentiment that coal is slowly but surely having it’s social license withdrawn. While none of the big four banks have categorically ruled out financing new coal power stations, they know that they face significant reputation risks from being associated with the coal sector.

So, while HRL has received at least partial approval, there is still a long road to travel before they can obtain finance and start construction. Even then, it is likely that the plant would be the focus of a sustained campaign of direct action to physically stop it from being built.

As usual, regulators are running to catch up to community expectations.

[First published on Crikey]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Probability and Responsibility at Fukushima

In the long run, the least likely event will occur. Such is the nature of probability, and the nature of risk.

The environmental movement have been talking about this for some time now. It has been the basis of much of the opposition to nuclear energy and releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment for the last several decades.

The standard formulation of ‘risk’ is that it is a function of the probability of an event occurring and the magnitude of the hazard. From the viewpoint of technological optimism and managerialism, the seductiveness of a very low probability often leads people to discount the magnitude of the hazard. This distortion is amplified even further by the fact that the profits of success remain privatised, wheras the responsibility for large-scale hazards is often socialised, with Governments and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Insurance companies are reluctant to underwrite nuclear power stations for the simple reason that, although the probability of catastrophe may be low, the potential magnitude and cost of a meltdown is staggeringly large. The only reason that nuclear power stations have been able to be built is because Governments have provided insurance and have limited the financial liability of operators.

A similar dynamic is at play regarding carbon capture and storage. Private companies will no doubt be willing to profit from storing CO2 underground, but nobody would be seriously willing to invest in it unless they are exempt from liability in the case that things go seriously pear-shaped . That is why the federal Government passed legislation that exempts companies from long term responsibility for storage of CO2 and places it instead in the lap of taxpayers.

Coming back to Fukushima, Japanese taxpayers will undoubtedly pick up a significant portion of the cost of managing the crisis, which is expected to require serious and ongoing management for many decades. If TEPCO were to be held fully responsible for the entire long term costs of the disaster, they would probably go insolvent. In a capitalist system, this ought to happen, otherwise we perpetuate the endemic problem of short-term and sociopathic behaviour on the part of corporations who operate in the knowledge that they’ll never really be held accountable for the negative consequences of their operations.

But it is not only responsibility for the financial costs that need to be considered. What about responsibility for the actual physical work and the related personal risks?

I’ve read various news reports about TEPCO’s difficulty in recruiting workers to help manage the crisis. Most of their staff have reached or exceeded the allowable radiation exposure limits so the the company is having to find new recruits. Some of these people obviously are technical experts, while others are labourers needed to spray cooling water and perform other physical operations.

At Chernobyl, hundreds of peasant workers trooped in to the reactor with little or no knowledge of the danger they were being exposed to. Fortunately, this can’t happen in Japan. Instead, TEPCO will have to pay enough danger money to enable them to recruit a steady stream of workers who are willing to take the risk of subjecting themselves to radiation in the hope that the money is worth it.

It seems to me that it is these workers who are actually the ones who are really taking the responsibility for Fukushima. They are the ones who will live with the consequences. And I think it is useful to ask, who SHOULD be doing this dangerous work? Who should be taking direct, personal and physical responsibility for the crisis?

Surely the people who have benefitted from the previous profitability of Fukushima, the people who own it and built it, should now be responsible for managing the downside? This means the Directors and shareholders. But what would that look like in practice?

How is this for a thought experiment…what if there was a kind of conscription, where the names of directors and shareholders were put into a hat, to be randomly selected for frontline roles helping to cool the reactor? What about staff at the banks that financed the plant? Should they be in the conscription pool as well? Or people like Andrew Bolt, Ziggy Switkowski and the other strong advocates of nuclear power?

Or should it just be left to working class Japanese people who have no connection with the plant but who happen to need the money?

Fukushima should not only cause us to reconsider the risk of nuclear power, it should also cause us to reflect on the nature of corporate responsibility – or irresponsibility as the case may be.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

September poem

a cheeky little drop
moist, bold and refreshing
it cleanses the palette like an exquisite wine
bitter and familiar like lager
warm and flat, cold and sparkling
it is the essence of home
yet carries untold mysteries from afar
warm and comforting
harsh and unforgiving
it brings new hope and ancient fears
I welcome it into my life each morning
a breath of fresh air
the sea breeze.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Climate politics at the Pacific Island Forum

Pacific leaders are meeting in Cairns today for the Pacific Island Forum. In recent years the agenda has been dominated by issues of regional stability including the intervention in the Solomons and more recently the troubling political events in Fiji. But with the forum happening in Australia for the first time in over a decade, and climate change at the top of the international political agenda, other issues are set to dominate.

Pacific Islands are literally on the front line of climate change. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu has raised the prospect of having to relocate their entire country because of rising sea levels and other climate impacts. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), which includes the Pacific Islands, has become the moral conscience of the international climate negotiations, set to conclude in Copenhagen in December. Their calls for developed countries such as Australia to cut emissions by over 40% within the next decade put Australia’s low and highly conditional target (5-25%) into stark relief.

Australia too is vulnerable to climate change, but it is expected that Kevin Rudd will carefully manage relations during the Forum to keep any strong climate statements out of the Forum Communiqué. There will be some heavy diplomatic manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes to keep climate of the agenda and real emission cuts off the table.

Australia’s growing coal exports coupled with low emissions targets and the relentless push for loopholes and exemptions in the international climate negotiations put the Rudd Government’s climate position on a collision course with the Pacific. While our neighbours are fighting for their survival, Australia is rapidly doubling our coal export capacity and entrenching our position as the world’s biggest carbon pusher.

Despite all of the wrangling and economic fear mongering over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, any reductions in greenhouse pollution through even a 25% target (the very top end of the Government’s proposal) will be undone many times over by the increased coal exports from NSW and Queensland.

Climate change remains confusing so long as the debate continues to be fixed on numbers, statistics and complex economic instruments. But when you come back to the bottom line, it’s really quite simple. We need to stop putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. To do this we need to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels - and coal is the biggest problem. If we are burning more coal (regardless of where it is burnt), we are making climate change worse.

Having grown up in Central Queensland, I understand the role that coal plays in Queensland and indeed in the national psyche. My father spent his entire working life in the coal industry and as a graduate engineer I spent my first few years out of university building equipment for coal mines. But time moves on. Computers replaced the abacus, mobile phones replaced carrier pidgeons, and renewable energy will replace coal.

It will take a serious effort to make the transition from coal to clean energy in a way that supports coal dependent communities and workers, but the economic impact of moving away from coal will be far less than most people imagine. In Queensland, tourism employs far more people than the entire mining sector and will be hard hit by climate change. But perhaps the biggest surprise is the royalty payments.

This year, the Queensland Government received around $1.5 billion in royalty payments from the coal industry. In the same breath, $1.3 billion of public money was spent on coal infrastructure – 90% of the total royalty payments. So much for private enterprise. And if you factor in the costs of the negative health and environmental impacts of coal mining the net economic contribution of the industry starts to look even less appealing.

We need to choose whether we want to continue to be a quarry economy, or if we are ready to move into the twenty first century and embrace the renewable energy revolution that is slowly but surely building momentum. At the moment, Rudd and Bligh are still backing the coal industry, with only a token hedge on renewables.

Climate politics in Australia is a struggle over vested interests. For their part, Pacific countries do not have a domestic fossil fuel lobby running full-page ads in national newspapers threatening job losses if we take serious action on climate change. They don’t have a greenhouse mafia whose web of influence entraps politicians at all levels of Government. It means that they can speak the truth about climate change, and call for what is actually required to protect both their future and ours.

In the absence of real honesty or leadership from our own political leaders, the Pacific are our moral conscience on climate change.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The power of doubt

I caught a snippet of a beautiful poem whilst listening to the radio the other day. On being right. And being certain. And on the beauty and importance of doubt.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never bloom in the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard, and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined house once stood.

Yehudah Amichai

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Climate of civil disobedience

First published on Crikey's environment blog - "Rooted"

“If you disobey a police directive, there is a risk you will be arrested and charged with trespass,” I explained gently to countless groups of people as they lined the front of Parliament House yesterday.

Around two and half thousand people of all ages and from all over Australia gathered to encircle federal Parliament on the first sitting day of 2009 to demand urgent action on climate change. It was the culmination of the three day ‘climate action summit’ which saw over 150 community climate change groups meet for the first time to develop a national campaign strategy.

Some faces showed thinly disguised fear at the prospect of disobeying police instructions. Others had travelled for hours to link hands all the way around Parliament House and nothing was going to stop them. “But it’s our Parliament! – there’s no way the police can stop this many people!”

After the Kevin Rudd’s appalling capitulation to the big polluters and his announcement of a pathetic 5% emissions reduction target, the organisers of the Climate Action Summit applied to The Usher of the Black Rod for permission to form a human chain all the way around Parliament. It was to be a symbolic protest about the capture of our politicians by the big polluters and the need for urgent action in response to the climate emergency.

The request was denied. We said that we were going to do it anyway. They said they couldn’t let us do it because it would create a precedent and that we had to stay on the protest lawn out the front. We said we were going to do it anyway. They offered us a compromise to form a chain across the front of Parliament. We said we were going to do it anyway, and that if they wanted to arrest people we would co-operate fully to help minimise disruption. So when we arrived at Parliament yesterday morning, it was a standoff.

The crowd started to gather from around 7:30am. A hot Tuesday morning in Canberra, outside of school holidays…it was a big ask. We were hoping for at least a thousand people – just enough to stretch the 1.6km distance. But the stream of red just kept on coming. Busses from Sydney, Melbourne, and around NSW, people on bikes, pedestrians, a constant stream of red shirts and red banners until we had up to two and half thousand people milling around the front of Parliament.

Mums, dads, grandparents, young children, babies, teenagers, from all walks of life and from all over Australia. It was truly inspiring to see the diversity of the climate change movement that had gathered to raise their voices. The police didn’t stand a chance.

When the call went out, the crowd slowly started moving from the front of Parliament around the sides. Some walked boldly, heads held high as though they owned the place (which we do). For others, their trepidation slowly turned to grins of delight as they saw the police step aside and let us pass. Ten minutes later, the two ends of the line joined up at the far end of Parliament – mission accomplished! Cheers went up around the perimeter. You could tell people could sense of their own power. Over two thousand people had stared down the politicians, bureaucrats and police and had participated in civil disobedience to stand up for something they believe in. They did it peacefully and creatively, together with their friends and family, and they had a wonderful time doing it.

If you’ve ever been involved in direct action protest with your community, you will know that it is one of the most empowering and inspiring things you can ever do. And if you’ve studied history, you will know that we owe many of our basic rights and freedoms to people doing civil disobedience.

Climate change poses such a profound threat to our future, and our Government is failing so comprehensively, that people are left with little choice but to start taking direct action themselves, and to start building a social movement to turn politics on it’s head. These past few days have been an important step in that journey. And it’s only going to grow from here.

Escalating climate action in 2009

Opening plenary address by John Hepburn to Australia's Climate Action Summit, Canberra, 31st Jan 2009.

Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal people. I’d also like to thank the organisers of the summit, who I know have been working tirelessly for months to make this event happen.

I’m going to talk briefly about where we have come to, and what I think are some of the key lessons from the climate movement thus far. And then I’m going to outline some thoughts for where we need to head over the next couple of years.

This is an important moment in history. This summit, at the start of the 2009 Parliament, marks the failure of the Australian political system to respond to climate change. A Government, elected with a mandate to take action on climate change, has comprehensively failed to take meaningful action. Both major parties are failing.

Yes we need action from within the corporate sector. Yes we need bureaucrats lobbying for incremental gains. Yes we need more research into the science. But far beyond all of that, we need a movement that is going to make action on climate change a political necessity. We need a movement that will make it impossible for Kevin Rudd to stand up and announce a 5% emissions reduction target. And we need a movement that will make it impossible for a corporate CEO to stand up in public and call for delays.

It is up to us.

Take a look around this auditorium. These are the people who are taking leadership on climate change. It’s you. It’s the person sitting next to you. And it’s the people that you’ll spend the next few days working with to create plans for what may be the most important struggle in human history.

There’s been a lot of talk about the failure of the climate movement. A lot of soul searching, a lot of despair, and a lot of hope. Looking back on 2008, did the climate movement fail?

On one level, sure, we failed. The Rudd Government caved in to the big polluters. We have an emissions trading scheme that will do nothing to reduce emissions, and that will lock in the right to pollute so that it will be much more difficult and costly to cut emissions in future. More than anything, the CPRS is designed to uphold the right to pollute and to enable compensation if this supposed right it denied.

The white paper is a profound failure. But is it a failure of the movement? I don’t think so. I’ve been getting a sense that people think we failed to protect something that we had won previously. But I don’t agree. When we say to the media, that Rudd has betrayed his promise, it’s politics. Yes he betrayed his promise, but if anyone actually thought his election promise was for anything more than 5-15% cuts then I think they’d be guilty of optimism.

But after 10 years of Howard it was always going to be difficult to dampen the optimism for Rudd to take action on climate change. As a result, there was always a risk that the movement would stagnate while we gave Rudd the opportunity to fail. Rudd was never going to deliver what is required. A Labor Government was always going to be just as, if not more beholden to the vested interests of the big polluters than the coalition.

We didn’t build our power after the election, we sat back and let it wane. We didn’t sustain pressure on MP’s even though we knew it was required. We didn’t diminish the power of the vested interests in the fossil fuel industry, we allowed it to flourish.

In August, when the Business Council started calling for stabilisation by 2020, we should have had 50 people at their office the next day, serving them an eviction notice from this country for acting against the public interest. When the chairman of BHP came out and slammed the Government for threatening the economy, the headquarters of BHP should have been occupied the next day, talk back lines should have been running hot and the letters pages brimming with vitriol from people angry that a corporate leader could so openly threaten our future. Instead, we rolled with the punches.

Basic Political economy tells us that climate change is a struggle over vested interests. The Government will do what is required on climate change, when the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action. At the moment, the vested interests in the coal, gas, aluminium, cement, steel and oil industries are more powerful than we are. Our challenge is to build our own power, while dismantling theirs.

In terms of this power equation, 2008 was a year where the big polluters were forced to show some of the power that we have known they have always had. From our side, with a few notable exceptions we failed to build our power and we didn’t express that power that we have until after the announcement was made.

So what did we do well in 2008? Two moments stand out in my mind.

There was this great lobbying meeting where someone from one of the big NGO’s had this really great briefing paper that made a really clear argument about the need for action, and they were really passionate, and they had done this great research report showing how we can achieve at least 25% reductions in greenhouse emissions by 2020 based on 1990 levels. And they made this really compelling case and they were lobbying this MP who said – ‘If I’m not going to lose my seat over it, I couldn’t give a shit’.

So they went to climate camp instead.

On 17th July, over a thousand people took part in an act of civil disobedience to peacefully block the Newcastle coal port for a day. We stopped coal trains going through to the port for the entire day, over sixty people were arrested and charged with trespass, and a hundreds of people had one of the most inspiring and rewarding days of their lives. When I got back to camp after the action, people just had this glow about them. And these big beaming smiles.

During the debrief, people were saying that they had been trying to stop the expansion of the coal industry for years but had never been part of anything like this – and when is the next one so I can bring all of my friends. People felt empowered because they refused to do what they were told. They stood up for what they believed in. And by the end of the day they had helped delay thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions. And through the media, they had told a powerful story to the rest of Australia that climate change is too serious and too urgent for people to just sit back and watch.

And for me, the really interesting thing about climate camp was that the next day, a group of three students from Brisbane, who had never done any kind of direct action before, decided that they wanted to shut down the coal rail line again. They had a meeting at 11 o’clock to decide what they were going to do, and then around 1 o’clock they jumped over the fence, waved down a coal train, tied themselves to the tracks and stopped coal transport for another couple of hours.

When that starts happening every week, all over the country. That’s when we’ll start to get real action on climate change.

The second thing that we did really well was the response to the white paper announcement. We created a backlash that was much angrier and much louder than I think anyone expected and I think we made it pretty damned clear to most people in this country that Kevin Rudd caved in to the big polluters. This was an important moment to set us up for this year – and I think we did well. Thanks in part to the brilliant and courageous intervention of three women - George Woods, Annika Dean and Naomi Hodgeson - who stood up in the national press club and said “No, it’s not good enough”, and told it how it was.

The kind of courage and determination that these three women showed is what we need for this movement to create the change that we need. When we have thousands of people standing up all over the country, and showing the courage and conviction of these three women, we’ll start to see real action.

So where do we go from here? We need to do four things: Polarise, Organise, Escalate, and Focus.

1. Polarise

It’s difficult to communicate issues that are not clear-cut. We live in a world of short attention spans and a lot of media noise. If something isn’t clear, it doesn’t cut through. Nobody notices, or if they do, they don’t remember what you said.

For too long our public demands have been vague fluff. The problem has been that our movement demands have largely been constructed by policy wonks rather than by effective communicators. A couple of examples...

80% cuts by 2050 based on 1990 levels has told the story that climate change is something that has to be dealt with in the future, and that it’s only a partial change so some greenhouse pollution is ok. What on earth were we thinking?

Actually, climate change is an emergency. We need urgent action now. Not in 2020 and not by 2050. It’s clear and simple. We need to urgently shut down the entire coal industry and replace it with 100% renewable energy. Starting tomorrow.

Another example is emissions trading. The Government’s Green paper on emissions trading had major flaws. It was clear that the business lobby was exerting far more influence than the environmental movement or the community sector. But, almost without exception, our public positioning was that it needed substantial improvements in several key areas etc. etc.

This told the story that the proposal was disliked by environment groups (which everyone knows will never be satisfied anyway) but that it was basically heading in the right direction. This was profoundly unhelpful.

Try instead…The proposed emissions trading scheme is dangerous, and should be opposed completely. It will enshrine the right to pollute in law and make emissions cuts much more difficult and costly in the future. It is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be reformed. The Government needs to go back to the drawing board.

I’m going to elaborate on this because it’s probably the most important strategic decision we face over the coming months.

If the emissions trading scheme proposed in the white paper is made into law, it will do virtually nothing to cut greenhouse pollution. The recession will probably result in greater than 5% cuts in emissions. But what the ETS will do, and what the big polluters have fought so hard to get, is that it will turn pollution permits into a right to pollute. The white paper is explicit about this.

This will mean that if any future Government want to cut emissions more than 5%, taxpayers will need to compensate the big polluters for the loss of their right to pollute. This is absolute madness.

Historically high pollution rights should bestow responsibility not rights. These companies should be fined or dismantled, not rewarded.

Then you’ve got the other issues of unlimited banking of permits, the ability to buy as many permits, as we want on the international market – thereby avoiding the need to cut emissions in Australia at all. And then there’s the issue that Richard Dennis from the Australia Institute has been raising for months that the ETS will impose a cap on emissions reductions. So any voluntary action to cut emissions by households or businesses will just mean that the big polluters get to emit more.

The Emissions Trading Scheme is dangerous and should be opposed outright by the entire movement. The day that it goes to the floor of parliament there should be an outcry around the country with protests at every MP’s office demanding that the scheme be scrapped and replaced with real action to cut emissions.

2. Organise

The climate movement has grown in size and diversity and this summit is testament to that. We have over a hundred different groups represented here. We need to share information, share strategy, build our collective power, and then focus that power where it counts.

We need vastly more political power than we have, and to get there we need to organise a lot more people to be active. You don’t need 50% of the population to create a revolution and we won’t need 50% of the population to be active to solve climate change. What we will need is the majority of people supporting change, and we pretty much have this level of public support now. And then we need 5-10% of the population getting actively involved in agitating for change.

We need to broaden our movement. Climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is an issue of survival. Everyone has a stake in it. Church groups, unions, students, farmers, everyone.

We need to create a national network from this summit, and we need to build broad support in the community, as well as creating strong alliances with unions and workers demanding green jobs. We aren’t going to build our power by osmosis. We need to have simple demands, clear arguments and we need to be organising relentlessly in communities to build support for these demands and to build our capacity to apply pressure for change.

3. Escalate

We have to stop being so polite. The earth is dying. We are facing a climate emergency that threatens much of the life on this planet. It’s true. We need to say it like we mean it. And if we aren’t acting like it’s an emergency, how can we expect that anyone else will?

When the laws of society are killing us and threatening our future, we have a moral obligation to ignore those laws and to do what is right. It’s called self-defence. If the worst predictions of runaway global warming are realised, we’re talking about an existential threat and the possibility that this earth may become uninhabitable for humans. Are we going to say to our kids, ‘I tried to do something but the politicians wouldn’t listen?’

What kind of pathetic excuse is that? It’s not good enough. We need to make them listen, and when they don’t, we need to take direct action ourselves. We simply don’t have any choice.

Al Gore and NASA’s James Hansen have both been publicly calling for people to get involved in civil disobedience to stop the construction of new coal plants. Not only do we need to do this, but we need to start getting involved in civil disobedience to close existing coal plants.

In 2008, over 160 people were arrested whilst participating in climate change protests around the country. 160 people decided that they think that action on climate change is more important than whether or not they have a trespass conviction recorded against their name. There are an awful lot more people who understand the science, who feel passionate, and who are willing to take direct action. For those of you that have studied history, you will know that civil disobedience is effective in achieving profound social change. For those of you that have been involved in direct action protests in your community, you will know that it can be one of the most empowering, liberating and beautiful things you can ever do. For those of you that haven’t, this year is your opportunity.

In 2009, we need to see the police having to arrest literally thousands of peaceful protestors to keep a dirty polluting coal plant open. I want to see them having to arrest climate scientists, Clive Hamilton, you, me, Kylie Minogue, Margaret Fulton, Tim Flannery, John Butler, Missy Higgins and my mum.

We need Members of Parliament to have to call the police to manage groups of women and children who have been holding a picnic in their electoral office. We need the AGM’s of coal companies to have to be so heavily guarded against protests that their anti-social industry is exposed to the world.

And we need to do all of this peacefully, in a calm, dignified manner, and to enjoy it so that everyone else in this country sees it and says, “I’m with them”. Direct action for all, not just the radicals.

4. Focus

We need to be building a broad and deep movement for that is demanding fundamental change. As well as that, we need to make sure that we focus the power that we have so that we are as effective as possible in 2009 in the lead up to the Copenhagen meeting in December, as well as in the lead up to 2010.

If we can delay the passage of the emissions trading scheme until 2010, Rudd will be going into an election year with one of his key promises unfulfilled. And the only counter we have to the immense power of the vested interests is the power of the Australian public – and elections remind politicians of that.

So far the ALP have shown remarkable unity, on climate change as well as other issues. This is likely to change as the memory of ten years in opposition fades gradually into the distance, but we really need to force the issue on climate change. There are quite a number of MP’s who are deeply concerned about climate change. When you meet them, they can quote the science better than most people here. But they won’t speak out against the policies of the Government that they are part of. And it simply isn’t good enough. We need to force the progressive voices within the ALP out into the public.

There are two cabinet ministers who are in Green marginal seats. Anthony Albanese (Infrastructure Minister) in inner city Sydney, and Lindsay Tanner (Finance Minister) in inner city Melbourne. When they realise they are about to lose their seat at the next election, they will begin screaming for more action on climate change within Cabinet. Anyone who lives in or near their electorates needs to start organising now to make this happen.

2009 needs to be a year of relentless organising and relentless protest. We simply do not have any choice.

Sometimes, when you look at the power and money of the big polluters, it’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. They have virtually limitless funds, an army of lobbyists and access to whichever politicians they choose. But they are motivated fundamentally fear and greed. And we have something that they will never have. We have a vast network of people across this land that are driven by a deep love of life, and who will work tirelessly, for no pay, to defend what they love. And in the end, hope will always triumph over fear.


The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Fredrick Douglass, letter to an abolitionist associate.