How can climate change be stopped?

This article was based on a talk to Greenpeace activists in February, 2013.

The recent visit to Australia by climate campaigner, Bill McKibben, has highlighted the need for deeper and wider protests and mobilization to stop the relentless trend to global warming. McKibben has galvanized the US scene by his emphasis on grass roots campaigning, rallies and public protests. In particular, he has emphasized the need to target the fossil fuel industry – coal and oil – as part of these protests. (See McKibben’s website:

I want to talk today about the history of similar movements in Australia and the lessons for winning today’s battle around climate change.

One of the first big protests in which I was involved was the Vietnam Moratorium against the Vietnam war in 1970. One of the interesting lessons of this period might be called ‘A Tale of Two Demonstrations’.  In 1969 the anti-Vietnam  movement had been going for 4-5 years and it was largely  based on students.  In 1969 various student and Left groups called a big demonstration in December. They put enormous work into it and the result was a militant demonstration of 3-4,000 people. It had radical slogans, including support for the Vietcong and it skirmished with cops. It made an impact and the organisers saw it as a good outcome.

Yet six months later, Sydney and Melbourne saw massive demonstrations ten times as big as the 1969 demonstration. This was the Vietnam Moratorium.  In Sydney 35,000 packed streets outside town hall 100,000 in Melbourne. It wasn’t just a one day demo – the mobilising of the Moratorium sparked all kinds of little groups in suburbs and workplaces.  It was turning point in struggle against the war – and for social change in Australia.  The contrast between the two demonstrations was striking. They were organized by different groups of people with different strategies.
Part of the 'secret' of the Moratorium’s success was the breadth of the protests (churches, unions and other official endorsement from unexpected quarters) Another part of it was that it resulted from a genuine agreement and commitment from large number of diverse grassroots organizations.  Another part of its secret was that it was not a ‘quick hit’ or simple one day demo. Planning it involved 'thinking big' and setting a long term date on which to focus and build momentum through local committees.

The big Moratorium demonstrations crystallised the latent public opinion, which had existed for some time but which , until then, had not found  an acceptable way to take action (that is, people chose not to participate in the radical demonstration of December 1969). Forty years later some things are very different, but some things are very similar,

My point is about strategy. Strategy is the term used in politics and the military about the big picture – the broad canvas – about how to win a overall and long term war, rather than how to win this battle or that battle.  And the strategy I am interested in today is how to win the long term battle around climate change.

What I want suggest is that our current strategies and assumptions are demonstrably flawed.  They are  effective in briefly highlighting issues, and they  encourage certain kinds of activism, they may win short term goals, but they are not winning the long term war to deal with climate change.  

To force governments to act to actually lower greenhouse emissions  – which is an epochal, historical change  --  requires the active involvement of a large section of the community.  In politics this is called mass mobilization.  My argument is that, one or another, we will not win the battle against climate change unless there is a new element of mass mobilisation in countries like Australia.  A passive population has never won anything really big.

The main reasons for this is there are powerful forces which are determined that social change should be stopped. The first are global corporations, especially fossil fuel corporations, which have a vested material interest in continuing to dig or drill fossil fuel and burn it.  The second are governments which are at worst  hostile and at best  inert.  My argument is that, to successfully oppose this,  there is really only one force which has ever beaten them – that’s people power. I’ll explain this is more detail shortly  but first I want to talk about what I see as key weaknesses in the environment movement’s  current political strategies and assumptions.

The first problem is the extreme fragmentation of the groups who want to do something about climate change.  Having a diverse set of movements is not a problem in itself, and it can actually be a strength. But this fragmentation is accompanied by fragmentation in action.  That is, there is no agreement on how to proceed – how to organise political action on climate change.  Each group focuses on its own patch and its own factional territory. There seems to be no sense of a common purpose – or even of the need to have, at some level, a common purpose. As well as this, a key problem is that climate change is seen as purely an environmental issue.  This is quite false – it’s a survival issue for everyone -- but nevertheless this belief feeds the fragmentation and prevents the kind of unity needed.

Another problem is the assumption that if we can show the dangerous consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels,  then governments (and even business) will be convinced.  And ultimately they will change their policies. But being right is not enough.  That’s  because the forces which oppose change are not primarily interested in  what is right. They are focussed on their self-interest and  in what benefits them in the short term.

Being right is important of course,  but it must be backed by powerful social forces. That is, a very significant section of the community, must actually take some sort of public action.   And this means much more than achieving good public opinion polls.  

Finally, I think there’s a problem with what I call the ‘activist mentality’. All successful social changes begin with committed activists, but to succeed they usually have to transcend this. Today the activist mentality in the environment movement concentrates on multiple, small-scale campaigns or with dramatic actions by the committed. There is sometimes no real place for ordinary people with jobs and responsibilities. This leaves supporters in the general public with nothing to do but watch and applaud. The other side of the activist coin is the passivity of their supporters.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way.  If the activists see their role in building a broadly based movement, which allows a place for those I call ‘ordinary people with jobs and responsibilities’ they can succeed.

The most recent  comparisons to the kind of movement which I am talking about is  the ‘Your Rights at Work’ movement which helped undermine the Howard government in 2006 - 2007.  It was an extremely unusual movement ---- because the unions  had not done this kind of grassroots organising for a very long while. Instead, each union was normally focused on its own members and where they worked.  Each union lobbied and negotiated with the industrial relations system. They had something in common but little commitment to a real common purpose. As well, the unions  were deeply factionalised.   But by 2006, their backs were to the wall and they faced extinction under Howard  Workchoice laws. The Labor Party couldn’t help them and they couldn’t lobby the Howard government which wanted to destroy them.  The remarkable thing was that when faced with this, they were able to organise a grass roots, mass mobilization, they sponsored local committees and aroused their own passive supporters, and they dramatised things. They showed how Workchoices affected ordinary, everyday Australians. And to everyone’s astonishment they had a huge impact.

I believe we will get no real change unless we have some sort of broadly-based national mobilization on climate issues. The question I wish to raise is what would it take to organise such a mobilisation in Australia?

The most important thing is a political coalition

You need unity across a vast group of different forces – that is you need an agreement to act together.  The kind of thing I mean are a coalition of all kinds of groups – environmental obviously, but also trade unions, religious groups, students, and all kinds of concerned citizens.  To build such a coalition you need people to lay aside differences in the hope of building something bigger and more powerful because it is united.  And I don’t mean some sort of agreement at  the top of peak organizations – for example the ACTU and the Australian Conserve Foundation. Rather a genuine coalition for change has to be built on the local level with community leaders taking part in grassroots action.

I believe it is quite practical to talk abut the construction of a new kind of unified movement. It would obviously not be easy – but to me it seems the only way of actually making progress on climate.

* David McKnight works at the University of NSW. This article was based on a talk to Greenpeace activists in February, 2013.