Friday, May 16, 2008

Climate changed

When Rupert Murdoch and Richard Branson join forces with Al Gore and Chevrolet in the fight to save the earth, you’ve got to wonder what is going on. We are all environmentalists now, as celebrities and business leaders jostle to establish their green credentials. For those who’ve been campaigning to put climate change onto the public and political agenda for the past 30 years, the dramatic mainstreaming of the issue in the past 12 months has been a long awaited and hard fought success. But, with this success comes a number of challenges.

First and foremost is how to translate widespread concern into real political action. As yet, there hasn’t been much positive correlation between public and media interest in the issue, and actual policy change. Neither of Australia’s major political parties have policies to cut greenhouse pollution at anywhere near the rate required, and the chasm between rhetoric and policy reality continues to widen.

The climate change debate can be confusing at the best of times, and it has become even more so with the arrival of a plethora of new commentators. This raises another key question over the role of activists and NGO’s who, in some cases, are finding themselves increasingly squeezed out of a crowded media and ideas marketplace.

This article aims to explore these questions, as well as other tensions in the environmental movement as it once again goes through a resurgence – of sorts. It is a useful time to reflect on the lessons of the past 30 years and to look forward to the future.

The death of environmentalism?

In many ways, climate change is the mother of all environmental problems. It is likely to exacerbate many existing local and regional environmental impacts and threatens the health of the global ecosystem. For this reason, it is now the focus of much of the attention and effort of environmentalists the world over. And if the impacts are myriad and complex, so too are the causes. While burning coal and oil are the obvious culprits, their use is so widespread and ubiquitous in our economy that nothing short of an energy revolution is required to wean us off the addiction.

In 2004, a group of major environmental funders commissioned a strategic think-piece to analyze why the environment movement was ‘failing’ to win the climate change campaign. Written by two US based consultants Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism” provoked considerable debate within green NGO’s globally. One of the key observations of the paper was that climate change isn’t actually an environmental issue as such, and that the green movement’s continued ‘ownership’ of the issue was limiting the potential for other sectors to effectively engage. Climate change can be seen as a health issue, a social justice issue, an economic issue, a geopolitical strategic issue, and a basic issue of survival – none of which require an environmental worldview. The paper argued that for climate change to become mainstream, it would need to be actively engaged by these other interest groups to lift it out of the ‘green ghetto’. The implication being that the environmental movement had to either reframe the issue or get out of the road.

Since that time, the climate change debate has been well and truly reframed and has been actively engaged by everyone from the Pope to the Pentagon. The insurance industry were early business movers and have now been joined by a host of businesses that see financial opportunities in climate action, or financial risks from inaction. The economic case was most convincingly put by Sir Nicholas Stern in his 2006 report to the UK Government in which he argued that the economic cost of doing nothing would far exceed the cost of taking preventative measures to cut greenhouse pollution. The Pentagon issued a report in late 2005 that identified climate change as a major risk to US security interests and global geopolitical stability. Elements of the religious right in the US have begun calling for renewable energy, and development agencies are pushing for climate refugees to be considered under the UN refugee convention.

The issue that was for so long the domain of environmentalists is now mainstream, and has many new champions, including an unlikely white knight in the form of Al Gore. His film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ arrived at exactly the right time to act as a tipping point in public consciousness. But while most of the public now understands the seriousness of the issue, this concern is yet to translate into substantive action. Greenhouse emissions continue to soar. Australia is massively expanding its export coal industry and there are a plethora of proposed new coal fired power stations on the drawing boards. Both the Coalition and ALP went to the November 24 election with policies that would see a massive increase in greenhouse emissions over the next decade.

The era of false solutions – divide and conquer

While powerholders can no longer ignore the issue, they can certainly delay action through obfuscation and false solutions. And surprisingly, nearly all of the distractions and false solutions proposed by government or industry have been embraced by parts of the environmental movement.

The Nuclear industry has used the urgent threat of climate change as a platform to stage an attempted renaissance and they’ve received support from some surprising quarters. James Lovelock, renowned author of the Gaia hypothesis, has argued that nuclear waste, while not ideal, is a lesser risk to the planet than runaway global warming. It isn’t a practical argument given that even a massive adoption nuclear power would not have any significant impact on cutting greenhouse emissions within the required timeframe. Bizarrely, the argument seems to be based on a distortion of the same precautionary principle that has underpinned the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear power and other risky technologies for the past fifty years. The issue of nuclear waste is as unresolved as ever, as is the question of where to put the reactors.

Howard started talking up nuclear power as a surefire way of creating division within the ALP but went silent on the issue in the run up to the election when it became clear that most Australians don’t want a reactor in their backyard. Nonetheless, he successfully created confusion and division over climate change solutions.

The other big technological red herring is so called ‘clean coal’. It’s a clever marketing device because it doesn’t really have a definition, doesn’t exist and is therefore difficult to critique in any real sense. If the various technologies proposed for carbon capture and storage (CCS) actually work, they will come online far too late to make the cuts that are required within the next decade. And it’s a very big if.

The thing that both nuclear power and so-called ‘clean coal’ have in common is that they are both technological solutions that employ the same 1950’s style, centralised, linear thinking that has got us into the problem in the first place. Dig it up, burn it, bury the waste and shift the problem to future generations. The flipside of this paradigm is the continued failure to understand and embrace renewable energy. How can an inherently decentralized technology that doesn’t directly involve mining or the creation of waste possibly work? Facts and the experiences from other countries are conveniently ignored to fit the story.

Voluntary action?

Another red herring, and one which much of the environment movement has embraced with enthusiasm, is the call for voluntary action. Take the case of incandescent light bulbs. On one hand, you can run expensive, time consuming education campaigns to encourage the uptake of more efficient light bulbs through voluntary, market based mechanisms. On the other hand, you can just ban inefficient bulbs. Much of the mainstream environmental movement did the former, while Malcolm Turnbull, a wealthy Liberal MP and a free-market ideologue, did the latter. Strange times indeed. It paints a disturbing picture of the politics and strategic approach of much of the mainstream environmental movement.

Encouraging people to take personal, voluntary action is great at one level, but it is no where near sufficient to bring about any where near the changes required within an ever closing time frame. And it brings the risk of de-politicising the issue by shifting focus onto individual consumers rather than powerholders. Of course, there is the argument that once people have their own backyard in order they’ll be a lot more willing to call for others to change. And voluntary, lifestyle action can often be an important stepping-stone along a journey of political development, but it’s a very roundabout way of trying to get change – particularly if you’re in a hurry and the stakes are this high. When we wanted to stop asbestos being used we just banned it – we didn’t ask people to voluntary seek alternatives while continuing to subsidise asbestos producers. It’s far simpler and far more effective to simply ban new coal fired power stations or put a tax on carbon than it is to convince 10 Million households to voluntarily buy green power.

The split between lifestyle activism and political activism has divided the environmental movement since the 1970’s, and has often been expressed as ongoing, low level sniping between the ‘back to the land’ permaculturalists vs city based activists. While the context is different, the debate is just as fruitless now as it ever was. It is admirable and important for people to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, and we do need inspiring examples of how to live in harmony with the earth, but we’re also running out of time. It is clear that in order to really cut greenhouse pollution we need to make the big polluters pay for their environmental impact. We need a legally binding emission reduction target, we need to start phasing out the coal industry, and we need targets and massive incentives for renewable energy. These are political solutions that require political action.

From rhetoric to revolution - how does change happen?

In his analysis of contemporary social movements, Bill Moyer identified a series of phases that movements go though which he articulated in his ‘Movement Action Plan’ (MAP). What Moyer found is that a situation of ‘business as usual’ is followed by what he described as ‘ripening conditions’, where the problem becomes increasingly obvious and official channels for resolving the problem fail. Some kind of ‘trigger event’ will then catapult the issue into the mainstream of public consciousness. However, while public understanding of the problem increases, public opposition to powerholder’s policies lags somewhat and this often results in a sense of ‘activist failure’, where it seems as though things should be changing a whole lot faster than they are. If you look back on the civil rights movement, anti-war movements and so on, this pattern can be seen clearly.

So according to this one map of how social movements progress, we’ve been here before. We’ve had some major trigger events and it’ll just take some time (and a lot of hard work) for people’s opposition to powerholder’s policies and for support for movement alternatives to catch up with the level of awareness and concern on the issue. The problem is that we don’t have time to wait.

The high stakes political game that is being played by those in power is to try to delay serious action on climate change for at least another five or so years – just long enough to enable the next generation of coal fired power stations and coal mines to be built in order to lock in the next 30 years of profits. From the other side, it is to ensure the transition to clean, renewable energy starts now so that we can make significant cuts in greenhouse pollution within the next 10 years – which is what the science tells us is required if we’re to avoid catastrophic, irreversible global warming.

Raising social costs

The issue clearly isn’t about winning the arguments and rational debate. It’s about power, and about overcoming the massive, vested interests of the fossil fuel and dependant industries. One of the clearest articulations of change making that I’ve seen is in Michael Albert’s book “The Trajectory of Change” in which he describes the ‘logic of dissent’. He writes: Short term we raise social costs until elites agree to implement our demands or end policies we oppose. Longer term we accumulate support and develop movement infrastructure and alternative institutions while working towards transforming society's defining relations.

In trying to figure out how to get change on any issue you need to ask a couple of simple questions. Who can give you what you want? What do they care about (what motivates them)? How do we get them to give us what we want? Or in Albert’s terms, how do we raise social costs?

As a general rule, the main thing that politicians care about is getting elected. The main thing that corporations care about is making money – it is essentially their reason for existence.

When Bob Hawke announced that he would stop the construction of the dam on the Franklin River, he made a calculation that it would help him win the election. Sure, there were moral arguments, and he probably liked the idea of doing the right thing, but ultimately it was a calculated political decision. He found a legal justification for the intervention and the rest is history. Anyone who has been involved in winning a campaign knows that this is how the business is done. It’s about power. Winning on climate change will be no different. Politicians will enact laws to radically cut greenhouse pollution when the political costs of them not doing so are higher than the costs of maintaining the status quo.

In 2003, over half a million people took to the streets in protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq. Howard surveyed the political landscape (no doubt with the aid of a lot of polling and focus groups) and he stared the movement down. In the equation of political cost vs benefit, the movement wasn’t powerful enough and, as a consequence, we went to war. Howard’s ability to ignore the biggest movement in recent history was partly dependant on the lack of any clear political opposition from the ALP, but also on other cultural factors. Howard knew that once we went to war, Australians would rally behind the diggers. Greenpeace got crucified in the media for protesting the departure of the HMAS Sydney because it was seen as an attack on the troops.

The challenge for the leadership of the peace movement was to figure out how to escalate the social and political costs associated with the war, whereas once the war started, the movement radically de-escalated. Similar challenges of escalation face the movement for climate action.

Polarising the issue

In the lead up to the 2007 election we had the vast majority of Australians in support of serious action on climate change and the issue was high on the political agenda. Both major political parties were responding to the issue, but doing it in a way that largely involved re-arranging deckchairs on the titanic of our fossil fuel dependent economy. A small handout here, a token gesture there.

One of the things that has changed significantly in recent years is the advent of poll driven politics in Australia. Where, politicians used to rely on their gut feel, now they increasingly rely on endless focus groups and polls to understand the nuances of the electorate. They know that people are concerned about climate change, but they also know that people are confused about what to do about it and it is difficult for punters to tell the difference between spin and substance. A 30% reduction in CO2 emissions below 1990 levels by 2020? What does that really mean to the average person? What was that percentage again? And how on earth do you accurately measure greenhouse emissions anyhow? Even the environment movement is divided on the solutions and has many competing policy positions and demands which just become a swirling mess of gobbledygook when you start adding things like carbon trading into the mix.

If you look back at every successful environmental campaign of the past 30 years, the demands were clear, simple and compelling. It is impossible to win public campaigns if the issues are grey and confused. There needs to be a problem and a solution, a good guy and a bad guy.

One of the limitations of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, is that it fails to identify a target or even a coherent demand. It leaves the public feeling that we have a climate crisis that, inexplicably, is all of our fault, and that we all need to work together to solve it. So while the film was spectacularly successful at raising awareness and profile, it’s framing of the issue was profoundly unhelpful from a campaigning point of view.

How about this instead… We have a crisis that is caused by burning fossil fuels. We need to stop burning fossil fuels. This means no new coal or oil projects and rapid shift to renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry are the bad guys. The renewable energy industry are the good guys. We need to make burning more fossil fuels socially, politically and economically impossible.This means raising the costs (social, political and economic) for the fossil fuel industry and any politicians or financiers who support them - until we keep fossil carbon in the ground. End of story.

Instead we have endless policy analysis about carbon trading and incomprehensible market mechanisms. We have demands for something percent cuts in some immeasurable quantity of something that people really don’t understand by some far-flung future date that is really beyond our comprehension.

A sheep in wolf’s clothing?

So why isn’t the environmental movement cutting through with hard edged, clear campaigns that demand what is required? Three weeks out from the Federal Election, the industry group Environmental Business Australia (with members including Woolworths, BP and the Commonwealth Bank) released a climate change pledge calling on political parties to support a range of policy measures that were almost identical to the policy demands of the peak environment groups (ACF, Conservation Councils, Greenpeace etc).

This is no doubt partly due to the lowest common denominator consensus process that has plagued the environment movement for at least the last decade, but there are also other factors at play. After ten years of the Howard Government, many activist organizations are feeling beaten up around the edges. It feels as though our vision has been reduced. We’ve become more ‘realistic’ - too scared of being accused of extremism. The terms of allowable debate have been narrowed and we’ve found ourselves somehow complying – talking about things we never wanted to talk about, in ways that we never imagined. There is a fine line between ‘appealing to the mainstream’ and becoming so bland as to become irrelevant.

The environmental movement has always been a middle class movement in Australia, and has long suffered from being too nice, (nice, of course, is an acronym for Not Insightful or Critical Enough) but the climate change movement has taken things to an extreme. Invariably, NGO climate strategy meetings end up spending more time getting bogged down in some minutia about how a hypothetical carbon trading market might work than actually discussing campaigns that will have impact. And it is the assumptions of these discussions that are most disturbing – as though the global justice movement had never existed and market mechanisms are all we have left.

The carbon trading debate has so far been dominated by economists and policy wonks and has seen little public discussion of the big political issues surrounding what is essentially the privatisation of the atmosphere and the world’s carbon banks. In the European emissions trading scheme, the well accepted principle of ‘polluter pays’ was turned on it’s head, with the big polluters receiving billions in public handouts without actually having to cut emissions. We shouldn’t feel obliged to be nice about this. We should be angry. Not only is our planet being destroyed, but we’re paying the corporations who are doing it.

Re-imagining the movement

Over recent months there has been a subtle shift. The mild consensus is cracking. Questions are being asked. Some of the exciting vision, ideas and hope of the global justice movement have begun to appear, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what lies ahead. Recent direct actions by students against the coal industry in Victoria and NSW are an encouraging sign that the status quo is becoming unacceptable. Projects like ‘Cheat Neutral’ are emerging to ridicule false solutions and the words ‘climate change’ and ‘capitalism’ were even used in the same sentence at a recent Sydney rally.

I’m confident that social movements will rise to the challenge of climate change in the years to come, but it won’t be the movement of professional NGO’s that have dominated climate politics to date. Sure, they’ll still be part of the landscape and will have an important role to play, but the real people’s movement that will rise up to transform our society is still only barely discernable. It’s still just a sparkle in that student’s eye. It’s politics are still being scratched out on the back of beer mats in pubs all over the country. It’s tactics are being re-imagined – the bastard children of the Franklin, North East Forests, James Hardy and Jabiluka campaigns. The movement has reinvented itself before, and it will do so again, as the tide of public opinion turns once more.