In the late 2000s climate action became a defining feature of the international political agenda. Evidence of global warming and accelerating greenhouse gas emissions created a new sense of urgency. In what some political science critics dubbed “the world’s first climate change election”, the Labor Party won government in Australia in 2007, holding out the promise of meaningful policy measures being adopted to reduce emissions. However, a proposal to introduce an emissions trading system was frustrated by the inability of the Labor government to carry the numbers in the Senate. This mirrored the resistance of many governments throughout the world to take the necessary steps to meet the challenge despite consensus on the need for action on climate change and underscored the growing failure of international climate policy initiatives.
It was in the face of this policy intransigence that we witnessed the forging of a new political space, the emergence of social movements that sought to craft a more vibrant and provocative climate politics. This climate action upsurge was in part a reaction to the realisation of the poverty of a strategy that had long defined the campaigning of established environmental movements, of trying to progress policy initiatives by engaging with the state. By 2007 a ‘climate justice’ movement was surfacing and developing a strong critique of existing official climate policies and engaging in new forms of direct action to assert the need for reduced extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
My new book, Climate Action Upsurge (co-authored with James Goodman and Rebecca Pearse) offers a critical appreciation of this period in climate movement politics. The study draws on the perspectives of activists who mobilised around the ambition to translate into a political project the climate science message of the urgency for action, which was to avert runaway climate change. The book details this radical turn in climate politics, analysing its origins in grassroots campaigning and activism, its anti-elitist emphasis and, in questioning the legitimacy of the state, given the failure to introduce measures to combat climate change, as well as of capital engaged in fossil-fuel intensive enterprise, and its increasing anti-systemic political definition.
A particularly interesting focus of the study’s concern is with elucidating the ways in which the climate movement worked at building a political community to confront the status quo as well as to chart a sustainable future. Through observation and interviews of individual activists’ wrestling with the challenges of fashioning and engaging in this mobilisation, and our own involvement in these processes, we chart the collective initiatives to establish the discursive frames and the organisational structures that provided the foundations for attracting people from very diverse backgrounds to become engaged in this political community. We examine one of the main organisational forms that drove the climate action upsurge, the ‘Climate Camps’ set up to occupy climate change hotspots – coal mines, coal transport and loading facilities and coal-fired generation plants – and which became a key springboard for contesting the legitimacy of the fossil-fuel intensive economy.
In bringing people together, Climate Camps were organised around learning and sharing and consolidating the sense of inclusiveness and solidarity, of establishing community of like-minded people who were committed to taking action to contest the anthropogenic causes of climate change. The novel form of organising, with the setting up barrios, or neighbourhood groups, and ‘spokescouncils’ that created a forum in which the voices of the barrios could be heard provided a democratic structure in which climate change could be debated, and the medium through which strategies for challenging state policy and fossil-fuel intensive activities could be explored. The organisational form proved crucial in instilling the confidence in individuals and the collective assemblage in the justice and the wisdom of their cause, and importantly the confidence to pursue direct actions, to launch non-violent civil disobedience campaigns to bring to a halt fossil-fuel intensive enterprise. Moreover, while defined in terms of the local, while concentrating the political focus on particular fossil-fuel hotspots, shared and formulated strategies with climate campaigns in other locales, so that this turn in climate politics was also decidedly transnational in its orientation.
In considering this dynamic moment in a resurgent climate politics, Climate Action Upsurge celebrates the efforts to forge an anti-systemic political project. But, in its critical appraisal of this political project, the book highlights not only the promise of the social movement, but also the frustrations in the efforts to build a movement whose organisational form remained comparatively fluid and open-structured in its determination to accommodate the diverse constituents and the varied politics that accompanied this diversity. In identifying the different political possibilities and policies being canvassed that were the catalytic force driving the upsurge, we tease out the strengths and limitations of a movement launched to contest one of the fundamental contradictions of global capitalism and the fetish for growth, and in so doing point to some important lessons for radical social movement politics.