The COP26 Global Day of Action in Melbourne: A Report and Some Reflections

By Sam King

This contribution is written by a Melbourne-based participant in the November 6 global day of action for climate justice. The event is significant as an early attempt to rebuild the strength and momentum of the climate justice movement as it existed at the end of 2019 immediately before the global pandemic hit and consigned mass climate action to the freezer. This response reflects the writer’s perspective that re-building a mass climate movement is an urgent priority for the Australian and international left.

There were two actions in Melbourne on November 6 and another in Geelong the following day against a proposed LNG importation terminal in Corio Bay. The writer attended a rally in Melbourne’s CBD but not a mock-funeral organised by Extinction Rebellion – complete with a giant burning Koala – held in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.

For the central Melbourne rally, credit has to go to the Uni Students 4 Climate Justice group who were the principal organisers of the action. Without them, the protest likely would not have taken place. It was a small crowd – perhaps 300 people – however as one of the first climate actions able to take place in Melbourne for two years, this small initial step can be seen as a necessary part of re-assembling the necessary pieces for re-establishing mass-based movement.

It is worth remembering that just before the pandemic hit, the global week of action in September 2019 reportedly mobilised six million people in 150 countries, around two million of who walked off schools, Universities and workplaces – including some 100,000 people in Melbourne’s CBD.  Clearly it was not realistic to re-create that scale immediately but will take a little more time and work.

Publicity for the central Melbourne action indicated a fairly broad coalition of organisers. Listed speakers included Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, Victorian Socialists candidate Emma Black, Luci Nicholson from the Tomorrow Movement and Mark Conroy from Extinction Rebellion (Westside). Besides the speakers there was also many short contributions from the two event MCs both from Uni Students 4 Climate Justice (US4CJ).

Yvette, Chloe and Zac travelled from Geelong to be at the Melbourne climate change strike. Credit: Sumeyya Illanbey

Apart from the US4CJ contingents (which overlaps with Victorian Socialists and Socialist Alternative) there was little apparent mobilisation by any other organising groups. For example, there was no visible or organised presence by The Greens, National Union of Students or Extinction Rebellion.

Probably wisely for a short action, none of the speakers attempted to detail many environmental aspects of the crisis but concentrated instead on their various perspectives for building the movement to solve it. Overwhelming the perspectives put forward were of the most general nature – along the lines of emphasising the urgency of the overall crisis and the need for the government to do something, drastic, now, etc. But even at this very general level, there were no clear demands made by the protest or speakers on either state or federal governments.

The publicity material for day on the US4CJ Facebook event does mention general demands:

“We are protesting to demand an immediate end to the fossil fuel industry, funding and support for those communities and countries that will be most devastated by climate change, and public investment in renewables and other technologies needed to make the transition. We are under no illusions that these demands can be met easily.”

Mark Conroy spoke for Extinction Rebellion (XR). He made several very valid points about the alarming rates and signs of the climate disaster and then outlined XR’s perspectives for action and change. XR “choose truth” and “Demand action now”. How to get this was expressed in terms that, to this writer, seem to be far ahead of the immediate possibilities of the movement as it actually exists. Conroy said XR advocates a “radical expansion of democracy”, involving “representative assemblies” because  the “time for petitions and election campaigns is over”. “Representative assemblies” presumably means some sort of popular alternative to the current parliamentary system (and perhaps to capitalist corporations), or a challenge to their dominance.

A similar sort of advocacy for all out revolutionary movement and change was put forward by US4CJ rally MC Anneke Demanuele: We need to build the climate movement in order to “take down Scott Morrison”, “take down Anthony Albanese” and “take down all the climate destroying politicians”. Again, to “take down all the climate destroying politicians” has to mean replacing virtually the entire Australian political establishment. A worthy goal, but it raises the question, “what is the next step that the actual movement we have can take?”

Emma Black from Victorian Socialists was similar in tone though less clear. She warned that if the climate crisis doesn’t get us first, we might die in a nuclear war against China. Black repeatedly put forward the slogan “all climate COPS are bastards”. Besides playing on the word / acronym “COP” – as in COP26 – it was never explained what the purpose of the slogan was besides venting hatred of police. Black’s lack of emphasis on giving direction to the movement concluded with her rendition of Greta Thunberg’s viral tune: “You can shove your climate crisis up your arse”.

Luci Nicholson from the Tomorrow Movement – which appears to be some sort of newly established, funded, professionally staffed and colour-coded organisation along the lines of GetUp! – revealed that she had “spent three days at parliament house” prior to Morrison departing “demanding the government take appropriate action” and advocated the need for climate jobs especially for young people.

It wasn’t really clear from any of these speakers (besides to some extent the Tomorrow Movement, what exactly they were calling on the government to do. We heard that “2050 is greenwashing”. Emma Black raised the issue of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a greenwash. These are very important points to highlight. But what was the action demanding happen instead?

The Need for Clear, Concrete Demands

To this observer the question of demands seems critical. For the movement to exert real pressure on our evasive and time-wasting governments it is imperative that we know and say clearly what exactly we are fighting for. We have to clearly know and say these things to government – i.e. make clear demands. But in doing so – and most critically – our movement is then communicating clearly to working people what we think needs to happen. Without that, how is it even possible to raise the consciousness of working people about possible solutions to the climate crisis?

It seems having a basic, clear and succinct program of action for our movement is an imperative necessity. Without that clear picture in our mind of what we are actually rallying and fighting for, there is no prospect of winning anything.

The question of basic demands is not hard to answer – and countless other organisations and individuals have put forward various workable, plans, proposals technical solutions, policies, even costings to rapidly mitigate the great bulk of carbon emissions. But there was almost no connection with any of that at today’s action.

The Greens speaker turned out not to be Lydia Thorp but Tim Read who is the state member for Brunswick. In this writer’s view he was the most relevant speaker to the question of providing some sort of direction to the movement.

In his current role as a Victorian state politician, Read took aim at the green washing of the Victorian Labor Government which, while – according to Read – is doing the right thing with solar panels and subsidies, is totally undoing any progress made seeking to allow the expansion of the gas industry in the state. Outrageously, Victoria this year gave permission for onshore conventional gas exploration – something that has so far gone largely unnoticed and was only mentioned by Read at today’s rally.

Read said Victoria consumes some fifty percent of Australian “so called natural gas” (i.e. principally methane) and that most of that consumption is used to heat homes. These seem to be highly relevant points because they highlight one example of a juicy “low hanging fruit” from an emissions point of view.

Legislation that reversed the onshore gas exploration permissions would cost the state government little or nothing. Further, many studies say Victorian gas demand could easily be reduced so that no new gas production (or importation) is necessary. That would involve such moderate reforms as amending building codes to prohibit gas connections to new homes and other buildings. Within its existing policy framework, the Andrews government could easily increase the subsidies for households to switch over existing gas to electric heat pumps (i.e. “reverse cycle” air-conditioning and water heaters) and induction cook tops.

Such minor policy tweaks are – according to various studies – able to completely negate the need for any new gas in Victoria – either through production or the contested LNG importation terminal in Corrio Bay, Geelong. It seems to this writer that the climate justice movement needs to humbly and studiously work at building up this kind of concrete campaign.

A simple slogan in Victoria would be “no new gas!” and the explanations behind it simple, practical, popular and winnable. Just as critical, this kind of moderate demand has the potential to win support from the overwhelming majority of people. Opinion polls show that the majority want more climate action from governments. But it will only be a small minority who today will support “people’s assemblies” or “bringing down” the political class.

How can we build momentum out of the actual political situation?

This and other actually winnable demands – are “moderate” in form but arguably more radical in fact than even the most r-r-revolutionary sloganeering if the latter is made in the absence of any social force with the potential to enact it. Winning – yes actually fighting for and winning – a “moderate” victory, like that outlined above, is likely to have an immensely more far reaching and catalyzing effect, i.e. radicalising effect, stimulating the confidence and power of the movement than even the most “radical” speeches if these are devoid of a strategy.

A successful public campaign to begin the wind down of Victorian gas consumption – or even a serious fight for that – would likely also have an immediate and powerful impact on the climate movement nationally. It would be a huge boost to Lock the Gate and other groups that are fighting SANTOS and the NSW Government over the plan to frack Narrabri. It would also pump up the crucial campaigns against Woodside’s monster gas export expansion plans on the North West shelf of Western Australia. The same is true for federal government and gas industry plans to open up the Beetaloo basin to fracking. Same goes for the tireless and excellent campaigning by the Stop Adani group and many others.

The same is true in reverse. If, for example, the Narrabri campaign (presumably with plenty of support in Sydney and elsewhere) could fight to a standstill and defeat SANTOS that would have an enormous national impact. Needless to the say the same is true if the Adani mine is finally defeated or falls over.

The current political climate is characterised in part by these features:

  • most working people cannot even remember a social movement victory on anything
  • most working people or young people are not part of any social movement
  • an overwhelming majority of the population are in favour of greater government action of climate and
  • a large and significant section of the population is extremely concerned about climate change such that they are willing to participate in projects they see as effective.

In this situation, the actual impact of any victory – especially where people can see there was a real fight – is anything but “moderate” or minor. We desperately need some fighting victories as this will be like a lightning bolt to popular consciousness and confidence. What better training could there be for the new generation of school age students, high school graduates and others?

The urgent need to bring existing environmental organisations, activists and individuals into a united campaign

The left and environmental groups have no capacity at this stage to target every concrete environmental attack. It seems to this writer that it is necessary to prioritise targeting one or a small number of attacks or policies in each state.

In Victoria, the obvious examples seem to be, as suggested, stopping new gas exploration and importation and possibly also targeting the brown coal generators for early retirement. In particular, shutting down the four turbines at the ancient and unreliable Yallourn Power Station – which was commissioned in 1975 but is not scheduled to close until 2028. Yallourn emits around 14 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) annually.

Whatever the best focus, working out a collective priority that can involve many or even most of the numerous scattered environmental organisations, socialist groups and other activists and individuals will require groups and individuals with very different outlooks and ideas to work together on what is commonly agreed and work out a collective framework for action.

There are groups like Front Line Action Against Coal (FLAC), Stop Adani and Lock the Gate that are already engaging in necessary concrete campaigning work – though in many cases they are still too small to win on their own and the linkages and co-ordination between different groups is not yet adequate. These ongoing campaigns are an important strength the movement already possesses. This strength could be built upon by better co-ordinating, linking and profiling and working with the activists involved until they become integral to actions like today’s.

There is an urgent need to unite as far as possible all of the existing environmental groups and individuals wanting to take public political action. Again, doing that will require finding the concrete issues that different groups and individuals are willing to unite around. This has to mean targeting specific measures and not “people’s assemblies” or “bringing down” the government – as much as some of us might support those as longer-term goals.

It is understandable that in today’s seemingly apocalyptic scenario activists feel the urge to call for things like “take down all the climate destroying politicians”, or for “representative assemblies” to renew the whole society – i.e. for revolution. But in this observers view it is clearly a tactical error to make this the sole focus of agitation at actions which do not have the capacity to achieve those things and neglect agitation, organisation, serious planning and thinking about the next small steps that we could actually fight and win.

No matter how loud revolutionary slogans are screamed, revolutionary outcomes won’t come before working people (and in this case environmentalists, regardless of their social class) build up the capacity to win things. There is ZERO prospect of “system change not climate change” if we have not yet built up the forces to stop the expansion of gas, the expansion of coal! There are many concrete environmental attacks that we can and should target. These should start with the most unjustifiable in the public mind.

For ongoing public actions outside of the parliamentary sphere

It seems the need to precisely target specific reforms will be even more pressing if Morrison is able to win the coming federal election.

It may also be tactically useful focus on demanding state governments shut specific projects down. State and Territory Governments will likely claim otherwise but in reality it is probably the case that almost any fossil fuel project could be shut down by the state or Territory government where it is located. People exasperated with Morrison or demoralised about a LNP victory might still be mobilised to pressure Andrews, Palaszczuk, Perrottet / Kean or McGowan.

Regardless of the coming Federal election outcome we will need to expand ongoing climate organising and action outside of parliament.  Based on observing today’s action the necessary ingredients for the next steps towards an expansion of ongoing campaigning don’t appear to have come together yet.

I have mentioned that two groups (Extinction Rebellion on the one hand and US4CJ / Victorian Socialists / Socialist Alternative on the other) did not put forward any concrete plan besides perhaps more public actions likes todays. The third group – The Australian Greens – did have many useful things to say about immediate measures to reduce CO2 emissions. From this we might hope for another Labor-Greens coalition government as the most conducive scenario.

However Tim Read’s speech also seemed to express the principal limitation of the Greens as a force for climate action. As an essentially electoral party Read could make very valid criticisms of Labor and LNP governments but say nothing about how to oppose them. He didn’t need to state his strategy to oppose them because everybody knows it already – vote for the Greens.

Yet even if the Greens are able to form another coalition with the ALP, which remains their aim, there is no guarantee it will go any better than last time, when the ALP-Greens government’s imposition of a carbon tax that affected consumer prices and its refusal to force corporations to bear the burden of the transition allowed Abbott to mobilise public opinion against their environmental policies, get elected and reverse many of their policies.

The Greens have not renounced this disastrous policy. Have they even modified it?  Along with the bulk (or perhaps all) of the pro-climate wing of the establishment today, they campaign for a “price on carbon” as the “most efficient” way to affect the transition to renewables.

It is possible an ALP-Greens (or an ALP only government) would get away with a similar today. They would be able to say a carbon price is necessary to trade with Europe and other regions. Also, most Australian business lobbies and many major corporations have now come out in favour. However, it seems like a disastrously dangerous path to tread. No doubt Peter Dutton and a good many others will be salivating at the prospect of such an opportunity to hoist themselves up Abbott-like, or Trump-like on the votes of working people and others if workers are forced to pay costs of the transition. That could transpire even if workers are forced to pay only what, for most, would be only negligible costs. Or the costs are limited “only” to the most affected communities.

How the costs of the transition are allocated, and to who, is another sphere where the climate movement needs to be super clear – and that means having specific things to say. “We’ve got a climate fix, tax, tax, tax the rich” is a fine chant, as far as it goes. But more concretely what do we say to the most affected communities about what our policy is for them? What do we demand the government should be offering them? What is the plan that they could support? I.e. what actual policies does the movement put forward to try to win them over?

If we say nothing, the two alternatives will be Morrison versus Albanese / Bandt. And if that is the case, we are not really building anything, but leaving everything up to chance or just hoping for the best.

Footage from the Sydney action and US4CJ speech can be found via this link:
https://www.facebook.com/unistudentsforclimatejustice/videos/262282679245458

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