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.