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Power and agency: Lessons from ten years of climate campaigning (#4)
How do we make progress across the different layers, loyalties and interests in our democratic process to advance the collective good?
Yesterday I spoke at the Williamson Community Leadership Program, where the topic was agency in our democracy. I took a wild ride through ten years of losing – and occasionally winning – climate campaigns. And sometimes that meant wearing a giant mask and flying a hot air balloon.
If you’d rather listen than read, you can play the talk!
Taking democracy back from the polluters
The hottest day ever recorded by humans on Earth was a week ago, Tuesday 4th July.
The most polluting fossil fuel corporations are currently posting record profits totalling hundreds of billions of dollars.
They make Australia the third-largest exporter of coal and gas in the world. They have huge marketing budgets for "sustainability and net zero" – and huge expansion plans for coal, oil and gas.
They have essentially unlimited political lobbying budgets.
They pay little or no tax here.
And they’ve had Australian politics in a death grip for a decade.
It’s been a wild ride.
The Clean Energy Future package
Rewind to 2011. I was a baby climate campaigner and after a massive all-in campaign – complete with huge community Canberra lobby days and hot air balloon stunts – we celebrated as the Clean Energy Future package passed through the federal Parliament.
It was a law with two parts. The first part made the biggest polluting corporations pay for their pollution, and that money was redistributed to households, and to invest in clean energy.
The second part established a Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help fund the transition and get wind and solar projects off the ground all over the country.
It was my first major campaign and I was pretty pleased with us.
Little did I know that the regulations on polluters that we had just won would soon be destroyed, and I would spend the next ten years, not winning more progress, but defending the clean energy laws from destruction too.
It’s lucky I didn’t know, or I might have chosen a different career.
Polluters pay and pollution drops – for a while
The polluter pays law worked to steadily reduce pollution for two years. The sky did not fall in.
The Australian National University estimated it cut climate pollution by up to 17 million tonnes, and if it had stayed in place, it would have continued to work. But it was rebranded "the carbon tax" by Tony Abbott and when Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013, he eventually succeeded in repealing it.
Pollution immediately started going back up.
A senior public servant described his reaction to the celebrations in the parliament that day. "Honestly, I thought it was grotesque. It didn't even look like a high school schoolyard. It looked like a primary school schoolyard. Terrible."
The repeal of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was blocked in the Senate. (Ironically, by coal magnate Clive Palmer, but that is a whole other story!)
Fast forward back to this month. Just before the hottest day on record, a newly defined law to regulate polluters came into force. The “safeguards mechanism” will make 200 of the biggest polluters – like coal power stations, gas export facilities and smelters – reduce pollution by around five per cent a year.
A brutal assessment of this decade of work is that it took us ten years to win back regulations on climate pollution that are not as good as the 2011 polluter plays law.
Did anything change?
But by other measures, everything has changed.
Social movements create change by building collective power to win an agenda that serves the common interest. Change lasts when it becomes embedded as social norms valued by a majority of the public, and in institutional, financial and political systems.
When the heart-breaking Black Summer mega fires raged, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously explained his holiday in Hawaii by saying, “I don’t hold a hose mate.”
A couple of years later, mega-floods hit, and people had to cut tin rooves to rescue their neighbours who took refuge in roof cavities as the water rose quickly inside their homes. Morrison hid from community members on a visit to Lismore. These incidents became symbolic of his term and his character.
The 2022 federal election was a landslide vote for climate action that did not follow strict party political lines.
A political party with a rubbish climate policy is now arguably unelectable in Australia.
The Clean Energy Finance Corporation survived multiple attempts to repeal it or change its mandate to subsidise fossil fuels – protected by a mobilised social movement and various minor party and independent Senators with deciding votes.
It has become the world’s largest green bank, catalysing tens of billions in investment in clean energy on behalf of the public and accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels.
We have the largest uptake of household rooftop solar in the world, creating some of the cheapest energy on the planet. The community has led the renewables revolution, fundamentally changing the grid so that now old expensive coal-burning power plants sometimes can’t afford to run.
The fossil fuel industry knows that it has largely lost the social license to operate, and its only remaining strategy is to pretend it is “working to net zero” and hope the confusion buys it a few more years – or decades if they have their way – of profits. So far, this strategy is uncontested by a vague financial press and an army of “sustainability” leads from consulting firms.
To progress the collective good we must transform power
When you work on it every single day and track all the players you see very clearly that there is nothing random or organic in the way the climate issue plays out in the public sphere.
You see that NewsCorp is a campaigning organisation consistently pushing an anti-climate action agenda. You see the fossil fuel corporation talking points come out in government press releases. You see coal executives become Prime Ministerial advisers.
There is a revolving door of employment between political parties and fossil fuel and mining corporations. At least 180 lobbyists, senior executives, spin doctors and consultants have gone on to work as politicians, political advisors and bureaucrats – or vice versa – over the past decade.
So to make change in the democratic process and to advance the collective good we need to confront and transform power. We need to expose invisible forms of power that exclude certain issues or groups from even being heard.
And we need to transform the tendency of people to think of themselves as powerless.
The fossil fuel industry’s power is born of profits, and the narrow self-interest of hoarding more. It’s enabled by histories of colonisation and patterns of displacing people from land and avoiding responsibility for pollution.
The collective good needs collective power. It means listening and following people who are on the frontlines of climate impacts and fossil fuel extraction. And it means deep, sustained and creative collaboration.
Movements are transformational. They don't provide a service, sell a product or market a worldview. They transform people’s understanding of who they are, how they are connected, their agency, and what it is possible to demand.
“Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes.
In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.
One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love.
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr
So how has change happened?
Despite the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on politics and media, the vast majority of the public is concerned or alarmed about climate change. Only a tiny percentage actively dismiss it. Culturally and linguistically diverse people are even more concerned than the average punter.
We build people power
On top of this broad support, we have a large, organised and mobilised social movement of active people who have spoken out for climate action, organised in their communities, called out greenwashing, held corporations accountable and pushed elected representatives.
In the movement ecosystem, small and large organisations fill different niches and play to their strengths.
Traditional Owners have led campaigns against fossil fuel extraction on their country with a deep commitment to protecting water, country, the life of places and their cultural heritage.
School students have led huge mobilisations in our cities.
Large, national membership groups – and I’ve been lucky to work for two of them – have mobilised hundreds of thousands of people to take millions of actions.
We strategise and tell powerful stories
As the movement regrouped after multiple losses, we collectively settled into a loosely coordinated strategy.
We were clear and united on our demands – cut coal and gas pollution this decade and replace it with clean energy.
We mapped the constituencies we needed to influence and we set up multi-year efforts to do this.
We got our story straight. We had allowed Tony Abbott to reframe a sensible and effective policy that would protect people and ecosystems from serious, sustained harm and untold costs, as a “great big new tax.” But this time we stuck to the powerful and persuasive messaging that we knew engaged the public with the values they cared about.
We act, over and over again
And we had plans of action. Here is just one snapshot of one part of this diverse movement effort.
During the 2019 federal election, when I worked with the Australian Conservation Foundation, 1,732 volunteers led an incredible 1,178 community events, talking to people about why they cared and would be asking political parties to step up on climate to win their votes.
We made 145,122 phone calls to voters and knocked on 15,367 doors in three key electorates. And more than 615 volunteers handed out 185,360 climate policy scorecards at pre-poll and on polling day, in 32 electorates.
Generous donors powered everything by giving 6,473 donations to the campaign.
After a conversation, seven out of every 10 people we asked committed to being climate voters.
Our organising and mobilising programs were integrated, with 34 local Member of Parliament and candidate meetings, 12 candidate forums and 34,611 personal letters and phone calls.
By pointing our people power in the right places, we backed our inside track campaigners to lock in dozens of policy commitments from multiple political parties to protect climate and nature.
The climate election?
The #ClimateElection hashtag was picked up by key politicians and journalists. Our environment was the #1 issue on ABC Vote Compass. Climate change was the political issue most searched on Google.
And yet the outcome of that election was a disaster for climate action.
With the Morrison Government, we got three more years of policy inertia and billions more in fossil fuel subsidies to enable massive new gas projects – the fastest way to heat our planet and harm more people.
I went out dancing with a few hardy and bewildered colleagues after an end-of-campaign party, because what else can you do?
Our t-shirts said “Climate damage stops with us” and our badges said, “I’m a climate voter.” Random strangers came up to hug us, saying sorry and thank you for all you did.
It would take three more years for the wish on our campaign signs to fully land into reality, that, “This is the climate election.”
So now the Albanese Government holds power with a big program to accelerate clean energy. And yet they still approve massive new coal and gas projects – with the full knowledge that these decisions will harm people.
The gas lobby just launched a new ad campaign trying to convince us we need them.
So the work goes on. Complacency threatens.
And sometimes we need to take a break and sit by a campfire for a while.
We need to centre ourselves and understand the past decade is no guide at all to the next.
We will breathe smoke again. People will make painful decisions to abandon homes that were once full of dreams, love and laughter.
Things will get wild – and that will bring risk and opportunity for change faster than anything we’re used to.
In 2023, we need a movement full of groups who are vibrant with the kind of power that gets stronger, not when it’s hoarded, but when it’s shared.
Businesses must follow community leadership, bringing innovation and scale, without getting lost on the fossil fuel industry’s false trails.
This is not a story with a lone hero who prevails against all odds. It’s all of us. We need ordinary people to step into being visionary, connected, compassionate and above all, active.
People who show up, speak out and act are the democracy.
Thanks for reading! I’m curious about your journey grappling with the climate issues over the past ten years. What’s changed for you?
PS – I've changed this blog’s name from SkyKeepers to EarthCrew to match a new thing I'm cooking up.