NGOs Alone Won't Stop Climate Change


In 1997, a group of international colleagues put the hard word on me at the Kyoto Protocol talks in Japan. "Anna, there are two places in the world that we don’t have climate action networks: China and Australia." They were right — in those days, climate change was a blind spot for the Australian environment movement. That was my impetus to establish Australia’s first climate change NGO, the Climate Action Network Australia.

There are periods in a movement's history that need the shock of the new. The climate action movement has increased awareness and secured some important wins. But for the millions of hours and dollars spent on climate campaigning, we would all like our progress to be much more advanced.

The climate movement has a new blind spot — an area that is ripe for risk-taking and bold thinking. The movement's challenge isn't a lack of money, people, persistence or energy. It's a lack of political power. And not just the lack of power, but also the recognition of its importance, and the strategies to pursue it.

Climate change campaigners and organisations have all had their share of influence in the last two decades, but very little power has been built where it can have a lasting impact. Just being clever influencers is not enough anymore – we have been trying for nearly two decades and many of the tools are, not surprisingly, getting worn out.

Politics is where bold approaches are needed now if more significant gains are to be made. Canadian thinker and PEN International Chair, John Raulston Saul, was in Australia last year. He surprised people when he advised against joining NGOs or citizen movements to resist unethical political elites. Instead, he called on people to embrace electoral politics:

“In the 1970s many young people stopped going into politics because they were told there was no point: inevitable forces were at work around the world. After about 15 years of frustration they started creating NGOs. We now have a higher percentage of people under 40 in public service than ever before in history — but virtually none of them are in electoral politics. Electoral politics is where changes are made. Influence is influence; power is power. If you don’t have power you can’t change things in a radical way.”

The growth of NGOs has exploded. Now thousands of organisations compete for attention and step on each other's toes. Talented people are duplicating effort in a single area of change – the role of agitator and influencer. This is not a call to shut down any of the NGOs, but rather to spread the effort and money being invested into strategies currently seen as off-limits.

Suggesting that climate change campaigners get some "skin in the game" — running as candidates or joining political parties — is not a comfortable message. It is easier to keep politics at arm’s length and to influence from the edge. When things turn bad we can discuss politics, parties and politicians as something separate from ourselves — disappointing, hopeless, out of our control. We don’t imagine ourselves as being the decision-makers.

To keep levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere within liveable limits, we need to work out how to get the climate movement more political power, and how to get climate champions into positions of power to make the major changes we need to see.

Most great movements in history are confronted by this transition from just influencing to taking power. Workers of the labour movement did it by creating political parties with a structure that guaranteed their voice. The women’s movement did it by setting targets and agitating inside parties for more women to have seats in parliament.

The climate movement needs to decide what its strategy is for government in Australia. Perhaps we need an electoral system that encourages consensus and coalition politics in place of opposition politics. Research shows that multi-party parliaments ratified the Kyoto Protocol faster, and now have lower carbon emissions.

More climate champions from all political persuasions need to be elected to our parliaments but that will not happen unless the movement helps to make it happen, in the way that Emily’s List works to get women into parliaments.

Climate campaigners could join selected political parties to intentionally advance the issue — working together, sharing information, making climate action a core issue in all party pre-selections and leadership contests.

Not all efforts should be refocused on electoral politics — the work being done in awareness raising, direct action, legal interventions, and corporate strategies must continue.

But it would be a wise investment to also apply some of our strategic brain-power and resources to more seriously engage political power. The vested interests of all people in a stable climate, now and in the future, need to be represented in our parliaments. If we don’t, the vacuum created by the climate movement will be filled by its enemies.

This is an edited extract of a speech to the opening plenary the national conference of the climate movement, held in Sydney on 3 April, 2014.

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