Report Climate Action Summit Canberra 2009
This was the first time that climate action groups had been gathered together to form a national body. People came from all over the country, though proceedings were dominated by the larger better-organised groups from NSW and Victoria. The Summit was a huge achievement created by a few dedicated people. The intention was to unite all groups behind a single policy while maintaining each group's autonomy.
The model for the conference was to obtain consensus. These groups had been organising around similar issues for years. They had done much to ensure the success of the Labor Party in the 2007 elections, and were now bitterly disappointed that promises on climate change legislation had not been fulfilled. Worse, the proposed Emissions Trading legislation not only reimbursed the largest polluters with public money, but enacted that these companies had a right to pollute and would have to receive compensation if it was ever altered in the future.
The policy document was an amazing achievement after months of work collating the proposals from all the groups. At a long meeting most of the clauses were adopted (with many reservations on the details). However, the most organized (such as the anti-logging lobby) had a greater input than others. For example there was only a single clause on infrastructure and no mention of rail, nothing on highways nor the growing reliance on B-double trucks to transport freight. Again, there was nothing on dealing with the consequences of sea-level rise nor developing ethical positions around climate change.
I have to take some responsibility here as I did not espouse these ideas in the preparatory stages that led up to the conference. I had not understood how the conference was to be run and that what went before was going to have a profound impact on the outcome. My error; I won't do that next time.
To obtain its goals the conference agenda was organised to create a consensus. This meant that the major groups with the most numbers and the most popular issues dominated the outcomes. In spite of the openness of the discussions little space was given to exploring ideas: for example, once a few campaign policies were voted on in a manner that excluded a number of original and interesting proposals, only 20 minutes was given for exploring the many exciting and original alternatives that were being offered.
This is one of the deep problems with consensual organisations: so much time is taken up with procedural issues and aligning everyone around a single campaign that there is no time and less energy for reflection or revision. So much is invested in obtaining consensus that subtle but really important views get swamped by the process. I heard a number of people complain of being railroaded. Some will think these comments unfair, and I understand the problems of time and the need for well-organised process, but it will not surprise me if we do not find these shortcomings returning to haunt us.
Governance, for example: The twin abhorrence of hierarchical organisations and being ordered what to do meant that a loose structure emerged from days of meeting. There is to be a secretariat but no leader, a co-ordinating body that meets though the net but has no power to give direction. An anarchical structure like this is unlikely to prevail against one of the most powerful and effective pressure groups in the world. The Australian fossil fuel lobby has turned a government dedicated to addressing the climate issue into a pawn for its own profits. How will a loose organisation prevail against that? The behemoth may simply shrug it off.
The only strategy that might have had an impact on Big Coal was one very specific and action-oriented proposal that was omitted from the final motion: that there be a co-ordinated program to close down one power station in each state by the end of the year. That would have grabbed people's attention, brought many new people into the movement and could have been effective.
In short, the policies adopted reflected those of the larger groups, with short shrift being given to anything else. The organisers may argue that this was a democratic process, and that is true in so far as it was consensual. They may also argue that individual groups can still run their own campaigns. This does not alter the feeling I and many others had that under the group enthusiasm there lay a powerful tendency to bulldoze those who differed.
It was consensus at the price of diversity.
In addition, there was little room for expert opinions. Vast energy was put into devising slogans by amateurs, without realising that effective slogans need professional input. The fact that none of them grabbed the group showed this. Again, there were delegates with considerable management skills whose advice on effective governance structures was over-ridden in favour of a loose network that is unlikely to work effectively in an emergency – and major campaigning is full of emergencies.
One other matter: the movement is dominated by oppositional thinking, of us against them. We presented a campaign that offered a plus-plus action. It would draw people to us while supporting all other proposals. It was centred on the 3 million Australians who would be affected by even a moderate sea-level rise. It was a hands-on proposal that included street theatre, community building, actions on the beach and the protection of the great icons of Australia. It offered the legal thrill of suing Councils that approved construction below the higher water line, and so on. Though many people responded with lights in their eyes to the possibilities in this proposal, the process saw it scrapped. As we were each allowed only 3 votes to share among the 13 proposals, the big teams had the numbers.
Again, I take responsibility for this, as I had not realised how important it was going to be to prepare in advance and advertise our proposal from the beginning. I needed allies, supporters who understood the implications and who would come to the Summit and vote. It seemed so self-evident to me that this was a great proposal that was positive and would bring in the maximum number of new people. I was naive. That won't happen again, but very sadly, this proposal for the maximum popular involvement will have to wait for another year.
Psychologically, there was a tremendously positive energy at the conference, yet I was aware of something else that crept in the moment any deep-seated views were questioned. People reacted sharply in a way that reflected deep anger. I feel that this is anger at the extinction of all that we hold dear. It has been developing in people, especially over the past three years. It still lies dormant, but may not be long in surfacing.
To understand this process I turned to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book On Death and Dying. She describes the normal reaction to the news of a terminal illness as being denial, followed by anger, then grief and finally acceptance. Around the threat to our planet we are in the denial stage. The open anger is yet to come.
This is why at the conference you could feel it just under the surface, forming the hidden power behind everyone's energy and passion.
The Summit has been a powerful and courageous attempt at unity. It will bring people together through the dedication and drive of the larger groups. I am glad I attended, and would do so again, though with better preparation.
For the Crisis Coalition Inc, at www.planetextinction.com
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