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Vote Climate by Jane Morton

Grassroots campaigning for the planet as the election hots up

For decades the large environmental groups have campaigned in marginal Labor/Liberal seats for campaign objectives that are ‘SMART’—Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red (2008) has described this style of public policy debate on climate as delusional and has repeatedly called for more forthright campaigning.

Calculations by Carbon Tracker suggest that for a 75 per cent chance of staying under two degrees of warming we need to leave 80 per cent of the already discovered coal and gas and oil reserves in the ground. However, there are two problems with this: (i) limiting warming to two degrees is a goal that is increasingly out of reach without a worldwide emergency scale program of action and (ii) a two degrees warmer world is far from safe. We need to leave all the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The major political parties and some of the large environmental organisations put climate policy and energy policy on separate pages, ignoring the contradictions. But we can’t have a clean energy future and ‘a bright future for coal’ as Greg Combet proposed when Minister for Climate Change. The time for half-measures and half-truths is long past.

Increasingly grassroots climate groups are breaking free of the incremental model and campaigning for large changes fast—a transition outside business as usual and politics as usual. In June this year, twenty-seven grassroots climate groups signed on to a submission to the Climate Change Authority’s Caps and Targets Review arguing that the earth is already too hot, that the planet’s remaining carbon budget for a safe climate future is zero and that we need to get to zero emissions as fast as humanly possible. It’s a simple message, but is it one that is too frightening to hear?

No Need to Water Down the Message

Climate action group, Darebin Climate Action Now, campaigning in the electorate of retiring ‘Minister for Fossil Fuels’ Martin Ferguson in Victoria, met with him many times, but predictably had no impact on his staunch support for the endless expansion of the fossil fuel industry. At one meeting he dared activists to take our climate message to the north of the electorate where, he said, people’s ‘arses are hanging out of their pants’ and they ‘would spit on [us]’.

With some trepidation, group members set out to door knock with a petition in support of building large scale solar thermal power stations—power stations with molten salt storage to enable dispatch day and night. We swatted up on esoteric facts and figures, which demonstrated that, via the ‘merit order effect’, renewables were driving down the wholesale price of electricity. However, it proved to be surprisingly easy to have conversations about 100 per cent renewable energy and the climate crisis. Few householders had heard about large-scale solar thermal power plants, but they were interested. As one person summed it up, ‘Coal and gas are going up and up in price. Wind and solar are free. And anyway we need to do something about climate change for the sake of our kids’. No need to address the hip-pocket nerve. People from all walks of life are concerned about the state of the planet their children will inherit.

A Practice Run in Higgins

In late 2009, a loose collaboration of grassroots climate groups was formed under the banner ‘Vote Climate’ to experiment with a climate emergency campaign in the Higgins by-election. A Greens candidate with a strong record on climate, Clive Hamilton, faced Peter Costello’s protégé, Liberal candidate Kelly O’Dwyer, in the leafy suburbs of one of the wealthiest parts of Melbourne. We were keen to have a practice run before the federal election in 2010. Our Higgins climate scorecard featured a quote from Governor of Victoria David de Kretser, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest problem confronting mankind at this time and that it has reached the level of a state of emergency’.

Fortune shone on our relatively puny forces as we worked to make the climate emergency an issue in the by-election. Kevin Rudd was playing politics with ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ negotiating with Malcolm Turnbull to bring in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the by-election was all over the media. In the final week of the campaign, Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the opposition, winning power by a margin of one vote. His ascension and the honeymoon period that followed, put paid to any hopes of a close contest between the Greens candidate and Kelly O’Dwyer, who shifted from describing herself as a ‘Turnbull Liberal’ to describing herself as a supporter of Tony Abbott.

The local climate group, Families Facing Climate Change, formed by young mothers from a local playgroup, met with Kelly O’Dwyer early in the campaign to ask about her views on climate action and she frankly admitted that she knew little about the issue. As the campaign went on she became more reluctant to engage and repeatedly refused to give an answer as to whether she would attend their candidates’ forum. They staged a ‘seat-in’ on deck chairs outside her office under the banner ‘Safe seat. Safe climate?’

It wasn’t a contest we ever expected to win, but by the end of a whirlwind campaign, we counted a number of small victories. Despite our limited budget and campaigning resources, we had so spooked the Liberal candidate that she had spent about $10,000 on mailing out her own climate scorecard. We had learned important lessons about the need to distinguish actions from words. We had sat at the table with some of the candidates as preference negotiations went on and perhaps had some small influence via our tactic of rating sincerity of climate action commitment in part on preferencing decisions.

The Need to Link to Personal Impacts

Sadly, our human brains are more primitive than we like to imagine, adapted to respond with compassion to the plight of a relatively small number of people with whom we have face-to-face contact and a ‘tribal’ connection. The impacts of climate change are often seen as mainly on people who are far away, or future generations and do not readily move us to action. The imminent risk of a six story development at the corner of a suburban street provokes more activism than the threat of catastrophic climate change some time in the future. Despite the moral issues raised by the Vietnam war, the moratorium movement did not gather great strength until the sons of friends and neighbours were in the ballot for conscription and returning home in body bags. Climate activists have increasingly recognised the need make the link to personal impacts, joining the dots between extreme weather and climate change and holding public meetings to discuss which particular properties in a local government area will be impacted by rising sea levels.

Two degrees Celsius of warming can seem a nebulous and not particularly alarming statistic. After all, the temperature varies by ten degrees or so in the course of a day without any dire consequences, and it’s easy to hope that a two degrees warmer world just means more beach days. Campaigning is easier when the weather is worse. In February 2009, Victorians had a taste of the personal impact of a warmer world when temperatures soared into the mid forties and ferocious bush fires raged around the state. People died following fire plans now outdated by the unprecedented savagery of the fires. Our vegetable gardens were baked to brown and birds fell from the sky. But the next year brought a return to La Nina and lower temperatures. Victorian premier John Brumby was ridiculed for building a desalination plant as the dams once again filled. The ‘Angry Summer’ of 2012 has helped raise concerns again. But memories are short.

Some Good News and Some Bad News

As we entered this election period, there was some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that the melting permafrost in both the Arctic and the Antarctic is starting to release methane. This is one of the tipping points that staying under the ‘two degrees guardrail’ was meant to protect us from. This methane release is so unexpected that its effects are not included in the modeling underway for the IPCC report due out next year. The good news was that research from Andrew Blakers, the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems showed that Australia’s power supply can easily be from 100 per cent renewable energy by 2040 and that this will cost no more than the upgrades required to fossil fuel power infrastructure.

Another important positive in the political landscape in the lead up to the election has been the worldwide growth of local movements opposing fossil fuel developments. In the United States, the Sierra Club, a previously conservative organisation, has reversed its policy of reluctance to use direct action and as part of a series of broad coalitions, has successfully stopped 143 coal developments. In Australia, there is a growing tide of anti-coal and anti-coal seam gas campaigning by groups, including Rising Tide, Greenpeace, Lock the Gate and Quit Coal.

These campaigns are typically single issue campaigns, focusing initially on health and other local impacts of the fossil fuel industry. They readily mobilise community members from across the political spectrum. A recent gathering of coal and gas activists included farmers, business people and students, as well as the usual dedicated activists. Also present, were the ‘Knitting nannas’ who encouraged people of all ages to take up the fight. Two of the loudest rounds of applause at the event were for a presentation on the climate emergency by Ian Dunlop, former senior executive of Royal Dutch Shell turned climate activist, and his question to Bob Katter, who was part of a politicians’ panel.

Although the issue of climate change may not be the place to start in engaging some communities, it is not difficult for people to see the wider picture once they get involved. And it is important to encourage this broader perspective. There is a lot of difference between a Kimberley ‘No gas hub’ campaign which counts a move to off-shore processing as victory and a ‘No gas’ campaign which sees the fight for James Price Point as one step in a wider struggle for a livable planet.

Vote Climate 2013

Since the Higgins by-election, Vote Climate have campaigned at several elections and a variety of locations, including inner city Melbourne in the 2010 federal election and the Victorian state election. This election, Vote Climate has gone national. The growing awareness that coal and gas must be left in the ground has provided a golden opportunity to link the climate movement with the growing strength of local movements opposing coal and gas developments and those working to preserve forests and build renewable energy.

There are other encouraging developments: numerous candidates are standing on a climate emergency platform including several from the not yet registered Save the Planet party and an independent, Peter Gardner; the Greens have revised their party platform towards a climate emergency position; and some of the larger environmental organisations are including opposition to coal and gas in their climate message.

If We Don’t Say It Who Will?

Time has run out. This battle cannot be won merely by changing light globes, or putting solar panels on our roofs. At election time, the fear of electing a politician with anti-climate action views operates a bit like a personal impact. It’s the easiest time to build a community movement large enough to take on the vested interests opposing action. There is no time to waste wrangling over which flawed mechanism will produce a miserly five per cent emissions reduction. We need to tell the bigger story and inspire a response proportionate to what the climate science demands. Grassroots groups linked to Vote Climate will be going house to house, person to person, talking frankly about the dangers that face us and the need for people power to push for the very large and very fast changes that are needed.

For more information go to: Vote Climate,<>.