Power from the ground up
Around the country, small groups of ordinary but passionate people are banding together, lest they succumb to despair, to force action on global warming.
A FEW weeks ago, a small group of parents and young children — in orange T-shirts and sensible hats — sat in the park at the corner of Spring and Lonsdale streets. The parents sipped drinks and gossiped, and their kids squealed and bolted around the grass. Placards leaned against the fence: "All I want for Christmas is a future", and "My future is priceless".
The Walk Against Warming protest had just finished. This group was Families Facing Climate Change, a collection of 10 Ashburton women and their families. They live in Peter Costello's electorate, Higgins, and formed their group in 2006 in the playground of their kids' primary school.
"We just were really worried about our children and their future," Anna Mezzetti said. She's a 37-year-old mother of three. "We're just families. We're just ordinary people, but it's about being empowered to go and talk to the local MP and say, 'This issue is really important to us.' "
Her co-founder, Dimity Williams, added: "We read the science. When you read that, you can't understand why nothing's happening — we're still frustrated. We thought rather than just complaining about it and getting depressed we would actually try and do something."
They're not alone. Grassroots climate action groups are appearing like white blood cells at a wound. Over the past two years, an unprecedented, unreported and largely underestimated climate movement has sprung up throughout our cities and regions. Many of the members have dedicated decades to living simply and sustainably. The great majority though, are new.
Groups start up so rapidly it is difficult to know their numbers, but according to Melbourne's Climate Action Centre, Victoria probably has about 50, and most are less than two years old. Nationwide, there are well over 200, and Australia is not unique in this trend.
Before long we will see whether such groups can make a real difference in the wider world — one of rising temperatures and melting ice caps on the one hand, and the forces of status quo and instant gratification on the other.
The worldwide climate movement is comprised of small groups with different goals. It has no single agenda or set of policy proposals, but collectively (in some cases unknowingly), it is working to influence negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, where all countries will establish the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. There, our leaders must agree on swift, strong emissions cuts if there is to be any hope of averting catastrophic climate change.
James Whelan is one of the optimists. He runs the Change Agency, a Brisbane NGO that consults for activists. He has been around the block with any social issue you care to name and says the climate campaign is different.
"In the history of social movements in Australia, you can't find a parallel. There's nothing like it for its diversity, for its rate of growth, and for its inclusiveness. It includes coal miners. It's rural. It's urban. And it's a mistake for anybody to think the climate change movement is part of the environment movement. The climate movement is a much bigger beast.
"You can hold a public meeting in any urban centre in Australia now, and initiate one or more climate action groups," he says. "This is a movement where the grassroots element is taking the lead and the NGOs are following, some of them faster than others."
At Melbourne's Trades Hall, the Climate Action Centre has just opened. It will be run by, and for, these local groups. It aims to strengthen the movement by developing, supporting and forging links between groups. It will hold forums on current issues, and share resources and research.
Broadly, there are two types of climate groups, though often they overlap: political action groups, such as Families Facing Climate Change, and practical action groups. The latter may be solar bulk-buying collectives such as the Dandenong Ranges Renewable Energy Association, (or personal carbon-footprint cutters such as the Westside Carbon Rationing Action Group.
Their diverse membership bears witness to a wellspring of concern rising from deep within the nation's psyche. But they face a huge task.
Recently, I saw climate scientist Professor David Karoly speak to a one-third full auditorium at the State Library. He is professor of meteorology at Melbourne University and was a lead author on last year's report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Karoly said many rates of change are already at the upper limit or outside the range of the IPCC climate change projections — including increases in emissions, sea-level rise and arctic sea ice melt, and decreases in rainfall in southern Australia. The climate is changing faster than the IPCC projected.
Even under the most ambitious targets spelled out by the Federal Government's climate-change adviser, Ross Garnaut, there is a 50 per cent risk of global warming exceeding 2 degrees, a rise that would cause extraordinary human suffering. Karoly noted that not many people would take a train with a 50 per cent chance of heading off a cliff.
In this light, the Federal Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will be nowhere near enough. Labor's pre-election commitment to a 60 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 will not meet Australia's share of the worldwide burden. Cuts must be swifter and deeper.
As I listened to Karoly, I scanned the room and saw wide eyes and empty seats. Later, I left with a shocking and surreal message: the immediate future of our civilisation is threatened. The conditions of life on earth are certain to change. What we do now will determine by how much.
I'd just learnt about the globally accepted scientific research, but oddly, back on the street, my new knowledge felt radical and subversive, and somehow too confronting to share. This emergency is not widely understood. The climate action groups may be multiplying, but among the public at large, alarm about climate change has fallen from its peak.
In November last year, just before the federal election, 50,000 people crowded Federation Square for the Walk Against Warming. They wanted Howard out and, shortly after, they got it. At this year's walk, however, numbers were way down. The organisers, Environment Victoria, estimated 15,000; The Sunday Age reported 5000. It was a disappointing turnout.
Has an opportunity been lost?
Social researcher Hugh Mackay believes the public was ready for tough sacrifices earlier this year. "The willingness of the community to act in the first six months of this year was palpable. They were waiting to be asked to do something." That attitude could only last so long. "People's attention span on issues like this is quite short, unless they can convert their concern into action very quickly," Mackay says.
For many people, the climate emergency is no longer so pressing: the global financial crisis has emerged to divert public attention. Also, the Rudd Government has taken some of the pressure off by at least acknowledging the existence of the climate problem and initiating some green policies. But even the Government is sending mixed messages. In the furore over rising petrol prices, nearly all voices argued that rises must be restrained. As Mackay notes, when our leaders say we can use petrol as freely as ever, many people assume there isn't a carbon emission catastrophe after all. The same logic applies when the public sees that the biggest polluters are likely to receive compensation under Labor's proposed emissions trading scheme.
There's one caveat to all this gloom. Alongside the community's waning concern, Mackay says he has observed a contrary trend. He says we have woken up from a long stretch of disengagement from social, environmental and political issues. He's not certain how these two trends match, or what will happen next. But the grassroots movement has already influenced the debate. Last month, Tony Windsor, independent MP for New England in northern NSW, introduced a private member's bill, the Climate Protection Bill 2008, to Federal Parliament. Windsor calls it "the people's climate protection bill". It was born about six months ago in his electorate office, following a visit from concerned constituents. Since then, 65 climate groups have been involved in its drafting.
The bill would bind the Government to deeper emissions cuts: by 2020, 30 per cent below 1990 levels; and by 2050, 80 per cent. Among other things, it also sets steeper renewable energy targets and mandates greenhouse impact statements on new legislation. (According to Karoly, even those targets are not strict enough.)
The bill was loosely based on UK legislation, originally driven by grassroots organisations and just passed by their parliament. Windsor says his bill's success depends on the public will.
"The people can actually drive this, if they activate themselves. But if they just sit around and wait for the Parliament to do something, my guess is they'll end up with a watered-down arrangement probably not worth pursuing … I think people will ratchet the pressure up (on their MPs). I hope they do."
They might. Community organising is back in vogue — most notably in President-elect Barack Obama's grassroots campaign, which was fuelled and funded by record individual donations of time and money. American writer Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, argues that the start of the 21st century has seen the emergence of a compassionate, thriving global movement for environmental and social justice. He sees a movement of more than 1 million organisations, from neighbourhood associations to international charities, that is causing profound societal change, step by step.
Hawken writes that when asked for his view of the future, he always replies the same way. "If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart."
Dr James Goodman has long researched social activist movements. He is a senior lecturer in the school of social and political change at the University of Technology, Sydney. He and his team have interviewed climate activists in Britain and in Australia. "One of the things we explore is what motivates people, given the scale of the problem and given that governments don't seem to be listening," he says.
"It's a very intense personal responsibility. It's almost like an emotional reaction. It's the sense that 'we've got nothing else to lose'."
SO FAR, he says, the UK activists are generally pessimistic about the future, and the Australians are more hopeful, believing their actions can bring about the changes they want. In February, action groups from all over the country will meet in Canberra for the Climate Action Summit. Over four days, they will hold workshops, protests and strategy meetings. They will petition MPs and encourage one another to keep badgering their representatives all year.
That's what Families Facing Climate Change plans to do. It ran candidates' forums before the last state and federal elections, and has met state Labor MP Bob Stensholt and Peter Costello. "When we met with Peter Costello, he didn't know what green power was," said Dimity Williams in the afternoon sun.
"We explained to him what that was and how he could get 100 per cent green power for his house. I lent him Tim Flannery's book The Weather Makers, which he hadn't read even though Flannery was the Australian of the Year. I think we're doing him a favour. The politicians learn from us."
But at this year's Walk Against Warming, for a while at least, it was hard not to feel despair. Afterwards, I sat in the park for a while, hungry and tired, at first contemplating the science and then, the improbability and complexity of the response required.
I thought about what makes individuals form grassroots groups, about why some feel compelled to leave their lounge rooms and stride out against the gale, willing the whole world to do the same.
Anna Mezzetti explained her group's motivations: "If you don't try and do something, then you just despair. It's better when you band together with other people, rather than being alone, worrying. We actually felt uplifted when we discovered each other."
Dimity Williams went on: "It's harder and harder to remain hopeful, but I don't want my children to turn to me in 15 years' time and say why weren't you doing anything?"
A newspaper blew across the grass, its loose pages catching and spreading in the wind. Instinctively, the kids in orange T-shirts ran and gathered them as best they could.
There is hope in action.