Averting climate catastrophe – Panel Discussion

17 October 2019, University of Tasmania

Broadcast on ABC Radio National –https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/will-extinction-rebellion-succeed-where-others-have-failed/11676668

Thank you for inviting me here to speak tonight on an issue that is very close to my heart.  And welcome to Hobart Neil, it’s a pleasure to have you in our beautiful city.

I think one of the reasons I was invited to speak is that I am a relatively newly elected Mayor, and am someone that also spent many years working in NGOs in the early days of raising awareness about climate change.

When I established the Climate Action Network Australia in 1998, my first task was to get the environment movement to understand and focus on this issue and put campaign resources into it. About 10 years later we reached a tipping point of interest with NGOs and the public and politicians very focused on the issue – and even competing to be seen as the leader in this space. There were some changes  made in politics and policy….but nowhere near not enough.

Another 10 years have passed and there are new groups, new movements and new strategies – bringing us to another tipping point where we will either act or fail.

Reflecting on Neil’s speech – his overarching message is that we are struggling to see action fast enough with emissions continuing to rise and the politics still not where they need to be.

It’s hard to be positive when the Tasmanian House of Representatives yesterday voted overwhelmingly AGAINST a motion to ban new coal mines in this state. It’s so irresponsible and illogical and begs the question – why don’t we have more rationale and climate aware people in our parliaments? I will come back to that question later.

Neil’s speech reminds us that we need to stay focused on taking effective action on to change the politics around climate change – yes we can these days do many interesting and important things as climate aware consumers. BUT Neil makes the compelling case that keeping in touch with politics and keeping the pressure on pressure on politics remains our most important role as citizens in this pivotal era for climate solutions.

Neil’s work on Extinction Rebellion is important as their profile is rising – in the last couple of weeks we have seen the brave actions of these people who have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way, to be arrested, to receive the wrath of those who want to blame the messengers, rather than listen to their message.

I want to say thank you in particular to the young and old in our community today – the young people who have recently organised the most inspiring and uplifting climate change protests I have experienced in Tasmania.

And to the ‘knitting nannas’ who were arrested earlier this week for simply sitting in an alcove outside Parliament – perhaps it will be the older generation who become the champions of Extinction Rebellion…the ones that put themselves forward and make a stand. The authoritarian crack down that we have seen on young protesters is hard to do when dealing with elderly activists. I hope older generations also recognise that it’s very difficult for young people to sustain direct action, court, police records and fines when they are struggling to get employed and housed in a much more unequal world than it used to be.

Neil’s talk suggests that Extinction Rebellion’s approach is perhaps more effective than the work of other NGOs who have chosen other paths – but as he also notes, every movement has chapters when different groups take centre stage. Every movement has waves that have their time of influence before this wanes and another wave comes…change is a constant, and needs to be.

They say timing is everything in politics….but it’s also everything in political life. It’s important to try and make the most impact you can, in the way that makes most sense for the times and for you personally at the time.

I personally don’t think there is a need to spend too much time focusing on which NGO is the best location for action – we need people taking action on climate change in every place and sector. Neil talks about this as a ‘web of influence’ – I agree…we need to surround climate change from all angles.

An early environmentalist, Sara Parkin, wrote called Positive Deviants – and it was all about the need for positive disruptors. Her theory is that we will only get change by having people in every sector willing to break some rules…in a positive way…because we live in a perverse world.

Her message and my message is that we need all hands on deck – whether its action on the streets, in community organising, in small and big business, in political parties, in local government. It’s hard to predict exactly which advocate, which disruptor will make the most impact…but all together they we hope make the impact they need to.

As Neil says it’s clear we have so little time to make a difference before the climate system reaches an irreversible tipping point.

Another response from Neil’s paper is one that I make as a politician – I get concerned when change is talked about in terms of ‘them and us’…them the politicians and us the people.

One reason I decided to go into politics was because I felt not enough climate campaigners were in decision making roles.

The climate 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 NGOs have all had their share of influence in the last two decades, but being 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 – even though it seems like a place of despair – is actually where bold fresh approaches are needed now if new gains are to be made. Canadian thinker and PEN International Chair, John Raulston-Saul, was in Australia a few years ago and 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. He said and I quote:-

“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.”

Now I am not advocating for activists to stop their important work. But have seen a huge growth of NGOs, with thousands of organisations competing for attention and resources and all trying to influence disinterested politicians and corporates.

I would love to see just a few more of these climate change campaigners running as candidates or joining political parties – now this may not be a welcome message for many. It has become so much easier to keep politics at arm’s length and to try and influence from the edge. When things turn bad, we can discuss politics and politicians as “them” – something separate from ourselves – disappointing, hopeless, out of our control. We don’t imagine ourselves as being the decision-makers.

But now is the time that climate campaigners embrace and use politics rather than shun it. And standing here as a Mayor today, my message is to consider joining the political movement of cities acting on climate change by running for local government.

In last year’s City of Hobart election 30 candidates stood for Council – I was the only person to have a published climate change policy released as part of the election, there were only 2 or 3 others out of 30 that talked about it.

Around 20 of the 30 candidates standing to be a Councillor were on the conservative side of politics….in a progressive city like Hobart, many people struggled to find candidates to vote for that matched their city vision.

The vested interests of all people in a stable climate, now and in the future, need to be represented in our city governments. If we don’t, the vacuum created by the climate movement will be filled by its enemies…if climate campaigner’s won’t run, our cities will be run by people who turn their back on the problem, or say that local government mustn’t work on this issue.

And that would be a missed opportunity – because as the tier of government closest to the community, we have a significant role in acting on climate change. We are uniquely positioned to be an agent of change, or as referred to by Professor Gunningham a key player in the ‘coalition of influence.’

Imagine if in the next 5 years a movement of citizens concerned about climate change started being elected into majorities of every major city in the country and the world – there is another ‘bottom up movement’ and its one made up of decision-makers that can make local policies and laws, spend city budgets in a positive way, shape all sorts of things that impact on emissions and prepare our cities for the inevitable change and disruption that climate change will bring.

In a time where progress across the globe has been uneven and, sometimes, even discouraging. Mayors of some of the world’s biggest cities gathered last week to tell the truth and to share their stories about success on climate action.

We know emissions must peak by 2020 – and at the recent World Mayors Summit it was announced that 30 of the world’s largest cities, representing more than 58 million citizens, have now reached this crucial milestone.

As António Guterres, secretary General of the United Nations said at that gathering –

 Cities are responsible for more than 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing their footprint is absolutely vital. They are also in the front lines of the impacts of climate change. Cities are critical, and they are largely where the battle will be won or lost.

Every decision we make between in the next few years will be one that either aids extinction or creates future opportunity for the world.

We need city decision-makers that understand this and are willing to tell the truth – and at the local level, that truth is about the growing threat of catastrophic bushfires in our neighbourhoods and the fact that building new roads and carparks is not in keeping with a safe future.

The crisis we are facing will need cooperative and collaborative communities at the centre – I hope that everyone who is concerned about climate change can see a way to be part of this effort in the city of Hobart…whether it’s an activist, or community worker, thinker, planner, investor or as a new generation of climate ready local councillors.