A Red Ring Around Canberra


Last Tuesday at 9:00am I stood alongside 2500 other ordinary, impassioned Australians, holding hands in a huge ring of splendid red all the way around Parliament House in Canberra.

We demanded a swift, appropriate and ethical response to the climate emergency. Enormous red and white banners blared "100% renewables", "Our climate — our Parliament — our future", "Scrap the CPRS", and "Climate Emergency".

As I waved to the helicopter hovering above, and smiled broadly at the camera crews and MPs’ cars as they slid past, it felt like something had tipped.

The protest came at the end of the inaugural Climate Action Summit for grassroots climate groups. Self-organised and scattered across every state of Australia, 150 climate action groups, born from middle Australia and outwards, had met to network and talk strategy over three intense days.

Months ago, when I first heard about the plan to encircle Parliament as a symbolic action about taking back control of our governance, I was uninspired. I felt that it was a risk — that we’d never manage to draw enough people to ring the 1.6 kilometres around Parliament. I wasn’t sure that the movement was anywhere near strong enough to pull together the numbers necessary to inspire people to travel to Canberra just as schools were going back in the sweltering February heat.

I had cringed at the thought of a scant line of desperate people clearly showcasing apathy in the community, allowing our representatives in government to nod comfortably in their air-conditioned offices as they cede willingly to the demands of the fossil fuel lobbyists.

I’m a member of Climate Change Balmain-Rozelle, a collective of residents who’ve come together (under no party banner) to take personal responsibility for the future of our planet and the generations and species that will inherit it.

We’ve spent the last four years writing letters, holding community forums, organising solar PV bulk buy deals, getting solar panels on the rooftops of our local schools, meeting with MPs, organising public actions, writing submissions, holding stalls and educating our electorate. We’ve amassed a strong supporter base (500 households) in the community. There’s no doubt these people are worried, but hardly any of our supporters come to our meetings, or get actively involved.

In all honesty, if we just look at the policies on the table, the climate movement across the board has flopped. Our Government is shrouding itself in green while nipping off to the sauna with its buddies in the fossil fuel industry.

The Government’s giant climate salve, its so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme removes the right of people to make a difference on climate change.

The proposed emissions trading scheme is a dangerous mechanism through which the big polluters will have their rights to pollute enshrined, for 10 years at least, and will even be "compensated" as they pollute.

It will kill any incentive for householders to take their own action to reduce their footprint because, under the scheme, their efforts will simply allow the big emitters to pump out more greenhouse gases to replace those that the householders saved.

One of the questions that often arise among climate action groups is: How do we build a movement? How do we foster an uprising that will seriously unsettle our leaders and cause a seismic shift in power structures? We talk endlessly about why people express care but still don’t change their behaviour to address the scale of the issue (and I myself am a culprit).

And we wonder what more it will take — given the dire future that the science is pointing towards — to scare reasonable people enough to step out of their comfort zones and take to the streets, to join their local climate action group, or to take part in civil disobedience like the human chain around Parliament House (which was not sanctioned by the police).

We need to push our leaders into a state of nervous unrest or we will be lumbered with this phoney fix of an emissions trading scheme that will only give the big polluting companies property rights to the very stuff that is killing our beloved blue planet.

Perhaps there is much more room for civil disobedience in this movement. As one T-shirt at the summit spelled out so simply, "Be the trouble you want to see in the world". Unless thousands upon thousands of Australians step out of their comfort zones we can’t bring about anything near the scale of action necessary to change our Government’s thinking.

These were the thoughts that I had in the lead-up to the event in Canberra. So I was more than surprised when I entered the auditorium at ANU on the first day of the Climate Action Summit. In fact, I was overwhelmed. The room was humming with 500 community climate activists ready and eager to talk, learn, collaborate, and kick some big goals.

I’m not a fan of Australian band The Presets, but while Clive Hamilton revved the crowd up, and David Spratt delivered the latest sobering science, I couldn’t silence the auto-brain-jukebox that kept looping "I’m here with all of my people". 

On the second day of the summit, I asked another participant how many people make it to the Climate Action Network Australia annual conference. This is the gathering of all the large and small environment NGOs, the state-based conservation groups, climate change department representatives, green energy and other industry bodies and a few community groups.

The answer? About 200 people. Wow, I thought. That’s 200 people who, mostly, are paid by their employers to go to a two-day conference, who are put up in hotels, costs covered, and all in their working week.

Let’s contrast that commitment to the 500 people at the Climate Action Summit who paid for their own bus fare, who camped, were billeted, or paid for their own accommodation, and who organised time off work and managed tricky child care issues to get to the four-day summit.

Around each of these people are networks of others — their friends, neighbours and colleagues who weren’t there but are now connected to a national alliance that is growing all the time, forming the backbone of a strong and unified movement that is possibly unprecedented in Australia.

This movement is now calling for a just and equitable transition to 100 per cent renewable electricity in 10 years, just like Al Gore is telling Obama to do in the US. We want economic policies and incentives which take the issue seriously. We want to see atmospheric concentrations of CO2 brought back to a safe level of 300 parts per million as soon as possible.

That’s part of what we’re demanding, and we’re inviting people to get behind those demands, by getting involved with their nearest climate action group — or starting their own.

We now have a coherent platform shared by a broad alliance of groups from all over the country. The Australian grassroots climate movement is not just born, it has graduated.

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