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Stop saying yes: Conclusion

20 June 2012

This is the conclusion of a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

In this series, we’ve seen how Australian climate activists have increasingly failed to advocate, let alone achieve, action proportionate to the scale and urgency of the global climate crisis which threatens human civilization. We saw how the movement squandered the opportunity presented by the 2010 election result, choosing to uncritically “Say Yes” to any carbon price that might be agreed by the politicians. We saw how activists misguidedly campaigned on the side-benefits of climate policies, failing to explain the need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels to avoid dangerous global warming. We saw how our timidity has helped to push the political centre toward our industry opponents, and our failure to expose greenwash has enabled them to systematically sabotage government policy. We saw how the Greens have piled compromise upon compromise in negotiations with the Government. We saw how all this resulted in a weak policy riddled with flaws. Finally, we saw how even our meager achievements are at risk, and are already being used to argue against further action.

We can’t go back and change what happened in 2011. What we can do is think about how to do things differently in the future.

The strategy of 2011, flawed as I believe it to be, succeeded in winning us a limited victory: a carbon price. Now that strategy has served its purpose it is time to retire it, and it is high time to return to expressing the true urgency and scale of action required to solve the climate crisis. We’re running out of time to preserve a safe climate; we cannot afford to continue to mess around with incremental demands. We could still support pragmatic improvements, but we must not shy away from explaining where they fall short. Instead of mindlessly saying “yes” to any action at all, we should consider saying “yes, but”, “yes, if”, “no, unless”, or “no, because”.

We need to protect the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Renewable Energy Target, and all the other climate policies against the attack from business. But it’s not enough merely to demand the Government keep its inadequate promises. It’s time for the Australian climate movement to go on the offensive. We need to call out Labor on the myriad flaws in the Clean Energy Future, and campaign for them to be fixed.

Many Australian climate action groups are now focusing on pro-renewable-energy messages, for example AYCC’s “Repower Australia” campaign, or 100% Renewable’s “Build Big Solar” campaign. I welcome these new campaigns as huge improvements on “Say Yes”, but they too are guilty of “bright-siding” by downplaying the other side of the equation: the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels to prevent climate catastrophe.

I am guilty of bad messaging myself in this regard. In November I wrote, without sufficient thought:

In terms of messaging, we should replace our current message of “Say yes to a price on pollution” with a pro-renewable, anti-gas-fired energy message. Most political insiders are deluded that renewable energy is too expensive and unreliable, while natural gas is “clean energy”. In reality, we need to replace fossil fuel energy as soon as possible; gas is part of the problem and renewable energy is the central solution.

I still think the above is an important point because it counters some key myths, but it’s not the headline.

We need to honestly explain the urgency and scale of action required and the consequences of not acting. We need to clearly articulate that climate change is a catastrophe not just for the Earth but for humans. We need to connect climate change with present extreme weather, and outline the potential future impacts. We must explain that if we are to maintain our stable and hospitable climate, we cannot burn the majority of fossil fuels, and we urgently need to phase out fossil fuels and get to zero or near-zero emissions. We must say loud and clear that government policy remains a very, very, very long way from what science says is necessary. We must expose all the greenwash: remember we are up against an enemy who seek to mislead and confuse at every turn, and to defeat them it is vital to debunk their misinformation.

The first thing that must be replaced is the slogan “Say yes to a price on pollution”. To repeat a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. I know the issue is complicated and campaigners have to compress their message into soundbytes, but you don’t need a focus group to come up with a better slogan which fits on a placard – how about “Say no to fossil fuels”? It’s even shorter, but far more supportable.

We do need to “say no” to the fossil fuel industry. Australia’s so-called leaders suffer from “quarry vision”: seeing mining interests as equivalent to the national interest, and fossil fuels as the best thing since sliced bread. Fortunately, grassroots activism suggests community attitudes toward the mining industry are beginning to change. The growth of the anti-coal-seam-gas movement is inspiring, especially given it transcends old political divisions. Admittedly it focuses more on the local impacts of fracking than on climate change, but nevertheless it is an Australian example of a popular movement against fossil fuel development. We must build on this by explaining the implications of climate change.

The global movement 350.org has shown the goal of 350 ppm CO2 can be messaged effectively to mobilize large numbers of people. Although global warming can seem disconnected from everyday life, the need to phase out fossil fuels globally can be brought back to demonstrably effective, concrete, tangible, local actions: stopping specific mines, pipelines, rail lines, ports, and power plants. The flip side of the coin is, of course, deploying renewable energy, so anti-fossil-fuel campaigns like “Lock the Gate” could intersect with pro-renewable campaigns like “Build Big Solar”. (I can imagine the slogan: “Build Concentrating Solar Power, not Coal Seam Gas!”)

As important as it is to decarbonize Australia’s economy, we must not forget to also campaign against fossil fuel exports, because planned expansion of the latter would cancel out the former several times. This issue cannot wait until the next election: the next 18 months are a critical window in which much of the proposed expansion of fossil fuel exports is on track to be locked in.

Finally, as well as demanding government action, we should lobby investors to shift funding away from fossil fuels. Although it would be a mistake to emphasize them, economic arguments for action on CO2 emissions do need to be made. In my opinion, the strongest economic argument to make to investors is this: the fact that most fossil fuels are unburnable implies the global economy contains a “carbon bubble”. The valuation of fossil fuel companies is largely based on their reserves, so when the bubble inevitably bursts, those reserves will become stranded assets and the companies’ value will plummet. From an investment perspective, this is the fossil fuel industry’s weak point, and we must attack it. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: spreading the idea of a carbon bubble will help to bring about its bursting.

We will need massive public support to overcome the massive profit motive and force government and businesses to change their plans. The fossil fuel industry may seem unstoppable, but things which seemed unstoppable have been stopped before.

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