Climate Change: A Call to Action

With Ross Garnaut finding a conclusion that doesn’t match his own evidence, the challenge for the climate movement is to move quickly and strategically to ensure the Rudd Government does not settle on a weak target (eg. 10% by 2020) for CO2 emissions.

I propose that the time has come for a large-scale campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This proposal is based on the following analysis:

  1. The window of opportunity for this issue lasts from now until, at best, June 2009, when legislation for the emissions trading scheme will have passed. Within this timeframe, the key time is right now, because from about early November at the latest the government will have settled on its target.
  2. The government has demonstrated it is not capable of hearing rational policy advice and is paralysed by the size of the problem and the power of the big polluting industries.
  3. Large-scale, targeted, strategic nonviolent civil disobedience has helped shift the parameters of debates time and again. Indeed, studies of progressive social change suggest that such change is in fact dependent on significant disruption to the political system.

Each of these arguments is spelled out in more detail below.

Before turning to the analysis, I’ve also given some preliminary thought to some of the issues behind making such a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience strategic, rather than merely symbolic. You can read those thoughts here.

But mostly I want you to think deeply about what you can do in the coming weeks and months. If this is, as Kevin Rudd says, “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, what are you prepared to do to ensure we get it right?

Let’s look at each part of the analysis:

1. The window of opportunity is now

This is based on the timeline of decision-making for the emissions trading scheme:

  • 5 Sep – Garnaut releases draft targets
  • 30 Sep – Garnaut releases Final Report; also the end of the consultation phase for the Government’s Green (draft) Paper
  • Dec – White (final) Paper and draft legislation released
  • Dec to Feb – Phase 3 consultation on exposure draft legislation package
  • End 2008 – Firm indication by Government of planned medium-term trajectory for the scheme
  • March – Bill introduced into Parliament
  • Mid 2009 – Government aims to achieve passage of bill by Parliament at this time

The key points here are the White Paper in December and the legislation passing in mid-2009. Now, White Papers aren’t written overnight, so final decisions behind them need to be made well in advance. I don’t have any specific information about when that would be, but I’d guess about a month in advance.

That means if we want to influence the decision before it is finally made (much easier than afterwards!), we need to act by the end of October.

After that, there may still be a chance in the lead up to the introduction of legislation in parliament, especially with the government needing support in the Senate – but that’s a much harder job. That latter window closes with the passing of legislation, sometime between March and June 2009. After that, there is basically no chance of amending the target for a few years at least, and even that would take an external shock.

For those of you interested, in public policy jargon this is called a ‘policy window’, which you can read about here (586kb pdf), or a summary can be found on pages 1-2 of this article (150kb pdf).

2. The government is not listening to rational debate

As Ross Garnaut himself said, this issue seems to be “too hard for rational policy-making in Australia” because “the vested interests surrounding it [are] too numerous and intense, the relevant time-frames too long.”

Clive Hamilton also argued this pretty persuasively in a recent Crikey article (sadly, subscription needed but you can get a free trial):

Does anyone believe that Australians would be less happy if they had to wait an extra six months before they became twice as rich? The absurdity of the situation exposes a form of paralysis in our political system where we and our leaders have become imprisoned by a world view that has elevated economic growth to a sublime level.

Three other examples stand out:

  1. the government’s response to Garnaut’s initial, mostly excellent, draft report was to back away quickly;
  2. Penny Wong’s response to Garnaut’s targets paper was to suggest (absurdly) that it had demonstrated that a 60% target by 2050 was “very significant” (indeed: he declared such a target would guarantee the loss of the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu)
  3. Kevin Rudd’s response to leading climate scientists’ critique of Garnaut’s target, in which they pointed out Garnaut was giving up on the planet, was to declare Howard-style that “not all scientists agree and you can have people who have different views.”

All this after thousands of petitions, letters, personal delegations, and rallies; after Kevin Rudd declared climate change “the greatest moral test of our time”; after an election was won with climate change among the top 3 vote-changing issues.

If you want to read more on the government’s inability to understand, read this article by David Spratt.

There’s plenty of other evidence, but I’ll leave it there. In summary, the machinery of government appear “lost in a fog” (to quote Spratt), with no clear way out of a mess in which a pathetic response to the vast threat of climate change is almost certain.

3. Nonviolent direct action can shift the debate

There are lots of examples throughout history demonstrating that direct action can play a critical role in achieving social change, and indeed may be necessary. A classic Australian example is the saving of the Franklin River in 1982-83, which would not have happened without hundreds of people blockading the river and interfering wth dam construction work. Most people are also very familiar with the Civil Rights Movement in the American South, which ended segregation through a ten year campaign of nonviolent direct action.

In 1975, leading social movement researcher William Gamson published The Strategy of Social Protest. One of his conclusions from studying decades of protests was that the level of disruption correlated with the level of movement success. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, with many showing in specific campaigns that it was direct action that created the political crisis  that led movements to victory.

There’s a whole world of literature on nonviolence and the strategic value of nonviolent action. For those interested, a good place to start is Why Nonviolence? The Nonviolence Training Project has a bibliography with more resources as well.


I am certain there is a lot more I could and should say. Each of these points could have an essay written on them. Hopefully this brief sketch gives some justification for my thinking and links to more detail for those interested.

In a situation such as the one Australia is in right now –  in which a government knows the scientific facts but refuses to act on them, the overwhelming majority of Australians have repeatedly said they are willing to pay a little now for proper action, and all the policy and technology responses are ready to be acted upon – another petition or media release is not going to cut through.

Our political system needs a shock to jolt it out of its torpor. That shock could come from an external event – say a category 5 cyclone slamming into Brisbane (hopefully not!).

Or it can come from the climate movement doing something daring, strategic and driven by hope.

Note: the views in this post belong entirely to me and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pace e Bene Australia.

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