Start where you are and do what it takes: organising for climate justice

It is one hundred seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock and Australia is waking up to a charred and flooded landscape. After our burning summer, how will things be different? As communities recover and rebuild, let there also be this reckoning: it is not just climate action this country needs, it is climate justice. Not only will justice help address the root causes of the climate crisis fairly, it will also help communities, sectors and individuals take these steps forward together, building community cohesion around the changes. Generating the public momentum for change means drawing positive links between climate action and social inclusion and cohesion, job security, work life balance, and safer and more flexible working conditions in times of emergency. This is where the future lies. This is how our communities can start to build the vision of a safe and stable future.

If Australia and the world are to do what it takes to tackle climate change, the next decade will demand the restructuring of our entire society. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels will mean also altering accommodation, transport, food production and the broader economy. While there is a clamour for governments to do more, at the grassroots level change is already happening. A broad range of activists, experts and community workers are already building organising capacity that marries social justice and labour movement consciousness to climate activism. At the core of these efforts is a tension: turning the efforts and interests of vastly different groups and sectors into a collective push in the same direction. How can a movement that aims to change everything ensure no-one is left behind?


Solving the climate crisis could transform society

Western Australia’s Climate Justice Union is one such new actor, aiming to draw together the trade union and social justice experience of its founders to develop understanding and consensus between and among sectors, activists and communities.

‘Essentially our long-term goal is to ensure nobody is left behind as we rapidly transition to a zero-carbon and then negative-carbon economy and society,’ CJU secretary Luke Skinner says. ‘That means a lot of things, including reducing inequality, vulnerability, and reversing our emissions. The ultra-rich aren’t going to save us off their own backs and the corporations won’t either. We need systemic change.’

This summer we have seen the way inequality paints itself as natural: towns were cut off, fuel ran dry, Governments fumbled and private donations from celebrities and corporations were praised and gratefully accepted. Climate inaction is championed specifically to maintain the position of the handful of very wealthy at the expense of everyone else. It is only with keen awareness of these systemic failures can communities push back.

‘The more I looked the more I saw the impacts were disproportionate, those who had contributed the least to the problems and those with the least resources to respond were going to be impacted first and hardest – and indeed already were being impacted,’ CJU convenor Jaime Yallup Farrant told me. She continued:

Climate justice is also the idea (or set of ideas and principles) that our solutions to the climate crisis can be transformative. That the solutions and processes for implementing the solutions can be ‘just’ and/or can bring justice. That the solutions can address the root causes of these injustices (climate, poverty, racism, ableism etc) and therefore undo the systems that created the problems in the first place. And linked with this is the idea or set of principles that only with justice at the centre will we solve the climate crisis.

Recognising the systemic causes of climate breakdown, helps to identify the injustice that underpins it. Intergenerational justice, worker justice, class justice, global justice. Climate change is a product of colonisation, the lie of Terra Nullius, a system of theft, extraction and sale. As communities in bushfire affected regions come to terms with their loss, politicians suggest conscripting young people into compulsory rebuilding efforts. Everywhere you look, the responses to disaster and climate crisis further entrench inequality.

Climate justice advocates work to break down these systemic barriers, by marrying issues of climate to social injustice, such as colonialism, employment precarity and wealth inequality. In this battle ground environmentalists, First Nations people and workers are allies. However, as Andy Mason outlines in his essay triangulating the interactions of unions, environmentalists and First Nations people, in practice it doesn’t always work that way. Opportunist lobbyists can successfully position climate action as the enemy of job security. Environmentalists can misunderstand, ignore or misappropriate Indigenous perspectives. The media emphasises the activists who are white, middle class and English speaking, to the exclusion of others, as exemplified recently by the removal of Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate from an image that featured Greta Thunberg and other white activists.

Centring justice in solutions to the climate crisis forces a reckoning with privilege and recognition of those failures. In her meditation on the value of emotion and rage in climate activism, Amy Westervelt notes that privileged voices are more inclined to tinker at the edges of social change or focus on individual responses as opposed to systemic ones. It is from a position of privilege that governments commit to fossil fuel jobs in what will, eventually, become stranded assets. White, middle-class commentators often fail to see the scope of the change that is necessary, or people’s unequal degree of vulnerability, because they benefit from the current system themselves.

‘It seems simple but people do not understand the interconnections,’ Yallup Farrant says. ‘Even those who have dedicated their lives working to address climate change do not realise they have at times become a part of the problem.’

Outside the climate movement, people are working in choking smoke, or watching their business or home burn down. Helping people recognise these events as climate change-related and recognise the inherent injustice in the situations they face will help bring their perspectives to the table. The need for climate justice reveals itself along the lines of existing social difference and inequality. The solutions need to be created to bring justice along those lines too. In this way a broader movement can show that the future has something to offer people – self-determination, connection, safety, security.


Apply a climate justice lens to what you already do

Here’s Jaime Yallup Farrant, again:

Climate justice is firstly about people. The idea that the causes of our current climate crisis come from the same root causes in our cultural systems – world views and economic systems – that say it’s ok to waste or throw away people, that some people are more important or worth more than others, and that ‘profit for some’ is a greater priority that the health and wellbeing of our communities.

People new to the conversation are often entering because they are seeing and experiencing climate injustice – they may not articulate it this way but that is what is happening. The challenge is climate justice solutions are not always simple and often take work and time. They include unlearning and significant cognitive dissonance.

Helping develop the connections between inequality and climate, or between injustice and climate, is a part of the work the CJU is ideally positioned to do, occupying as it does the intersection between environmentalism, the workplace and social justice. The union aims to empower people to take the climate justice fight into their own communities, or workplaces or areas of influence:

There is so much limited understanding in the current sector of how to work in a way that centres justice so the very pragmatic approach of teaching, mentoring and sharing resources is critical. We have and continue to broker relationships across silos, bring people together to question and respond thoughtfully, these are all important actions.

Enshrining a justice focus has the power to bring new sectors to the table, such as social services and education, which bring vital knowledge and skills that can be shared. In the long run, Yallup Farrant says the movement needs as many people as possible working to restore ecological and social systems, but it’s likely they will only step into the field when they see the connections with their existing priorities. Surely, that time is now?

Refugee advocates cannot abandon their work to work on climate, however they can be refugee advocates who integrate the work and thinking of climate justice into their practice. Same for those working in the social services sector. Many in the social services sector are reluctant to engage in climate work. They feel they ‘don’t know enough’ about climate change and aren’t ‘climate scientists’. We don’t need these advocates to become experts in climate and science, we need their wisdom about social services and to bring that to the conversation of climate change.

Centring justice focuses on the needs of people, and the actions that would achieve that goal are as varied as peoples’ needs, and taking into account the specific impacts of climate change on the elderly, people with disabilities, people with specific medical needs, homeless people and people on low incomes requires talking directly with all those affected. So, too, does assessing climate responses that may affect electricity prices, transport, food prices and accommodation. Climate change and the actions taken to mitigate it will have different impacts in rural and regional communities and communities of different cultures. These skills are vital in the climate discussion, as are many others that are drowned out by a louder discussion that is purely environmental or focused on the role of technology.


What does a just transition look like?

As the narrative in support of business-as-usual narrowly links fossil fuels to jobs, climate justice demands the involvement of unions and workers in the sectors that are facing existential threat. By working to break down silos, the CJU has been building bridges and consensus among communities.

‘We’ve been working hard to remove some of the obstacles to strong climate action in WA – particularly around achieving a just transition for the workers and community of [coal-mining town] Collie,’ Skinner says. ‘We worked hard throughout the year [2019] in partnership with Beyond Zero Emissions to support the production and launch of the Collie at the Crossroads: Planning a future beyond coal report, which was released in November. That’s primarily been an exercise in building mutually beneficial and respectful relationships across the community, especially with energy workers and their Unions.’

The Collie at the Crossroads paper was developed in collaboration with the WA branches of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, CFMEU Mining and Energy, Electrical Trades Union and Australian Services Union, and it outlines opportunities of the coal mining town in sustainable manufacturing, recycling and renewable energy. It is underpinned by, and highlights, the need for a rapid transition to renewable energy across Western Australia. Putting workers and communities at the heart of the transition, it claims the 1250 current coal industry jobs could be replaced with 1750 jobs in a range of industries including renewable energy, manufacturing green construction materials and recycling of renewable energy components. The community should also be supported, and social license bought, through sustainability grants for small business, a community fund and electricity co-operative.

The paper brings together the unions, First Nations people, social services and renewable energy proponents and urges decision makers to harness the strengths of the region’s existing workforce to allow it to maintain Collie’s place at the heart of the power grid. It argues that not only is a 100 per cent renewable South West Interconnected System network possible by 2030, but that it would insulate electricity consumers from increasing prices in the future as State Government subsidies are withdrawn. Crucially, it also demands free, prior and informed consent with Noongar people. It represents the bridge to the future, and the ways in which existing communities could be an empowered part of the transition to a zero-carbon world.

Projects like this show successful co-operation between sectors, without government leadership. They highlight how crucial unions will be in supporting workers through these changes. It should inspire individuals to demand their union consider climate justice as part of its existing mandate, and drive unions to be a proactive part of creating climate action that centres their members. But perhaps most importantly, it shows that this it is possible, with the time and the effort, to create a deep understanding of our shared interdependence, and plan a just future.


Start where you are and do what it takes

Last summer will be remembered as the year climate change made itself physically felt, brutally felt to mainstream Australia. This, the first year a broad cross section of Australian people were witness to climate impacts first-hand, has also revealed the reality: climate change is not evenly distributed. Among the stories out of the fire zone: reports emerged of NGOs turning away First Nations people. Concerns emerge about support for people with disabilities. People on Indue cards, with no cash and no phone signal, are told to call Centrelink. Our current circumstances, mid-pandemic, and as racial injustice is challenged in the streets, show us that, during a disaster, already vulnerable people suffer the most. The challenge of climate justice activists is to link these things to our climate future, and to the systems and inequality that have led us here.

‘In the short term, if we don’t bring justice we further entrench the very systems that created this in the first place,’ Yallup Farrant says. ‘Without a justice analysis we celebrate the ‘donations’ of billionaires, prioritise rich white men from elsewhere, ignore local solutions, disempower First Nations folk and allow more and more power to be captured by those already benefiting from the cultural and economic system that created this crisis.’

Skinner believes this will be this decade that decides the course of history. People will resolve that they’ve seen enough inaction over the past ten years, and will commit to do whatever it takes to drive action. And while committed national action will require the involvement of state and federal government, it is the connections between people and sectors – driven by a justice focus – that will determine the extent to which communities are supported through the process. New Greens leader Adam Bandt has offered his party’s support for a Green New Deal, which may galvanise the community. However, as a society we simply cannot wait until the next election to act. To mobilise as many people as possible, the CJU strives to help people find out what they can do and who they can influence from where they already are.

Tim Hollo’s essay ‘The End of The World As We Know It’ encourages the reader to respond to the failure of our political system by taking matters into their own hands, at the local level. The rise of new activist groups like the School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion shows a desire for purposeful, strategic action to create social change. Extinction Rebellion and other groups are establishing People’s Parliaments and deliberative democracy experiments. Throughout the climate movement people are learning how to be leaders, how to listen and how to be responsive to justice. Groups like the CJU can help deepen this into structures that rebuild social foundations. The future will demand the skills that activists are developing but it also needs everyone else. It demands that everyone, in their offices and vehicles and worksites and on their farms, turns to someone next to them and ask who do we need to speak to make the future a place we can live in? Who was here first, who will be here last? Who is the neighbour I have forgotten?

In a society that supports individualism over collective action, breaking down barriers and forming connections between groups that have at times been at crossed purposes will be no less than revolutionary. If sectors and groups work towards solutions together, fossil fuel lobbyists will not be able to pit them against each other. If done successfully, it could recreate societies, making services better able to support people at the local level, offering job guarantees and training, and supporting communities to look to the future with optimism. Now is the time. How Australia meets the climate crisis, and the nature of the society that emerges, will depend not just on solidarity between activist movements but between all social groups, deep listening, learning and practical commitment to walk alongside each other, all the way, whatever it takes. 


Image: Flickr

Rachel Watts

Rachel Watts is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. Her work has been published in Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue and more. Her climate change novella, Survival, was released in March 2018.

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  1. Thanks for your article Rachel. You are on it. I live in Perth and am trying to work out and do things that may make a difference. One thing I aim at is to clarify and quantify the discussion. Nothing gets done (for many reasons), one being we are not disciplined enough to insist that we talk about Annual Tonnes of CO2 emitted, Australia is up to 550 MTa, WA around 100, the MacGowan Govt want to increase this by 17.2MTa (+ tier 3 much worse) for the next 50 years in order to expand the LNG industry through the Browse, Scarborough and Burrup disasters. No one knows this, why ? Thats our job, get it out there and stridently challenge the madness. You want find a polly that will engage in this one in the ALP ? Let me know when you do.. im gonna start looking for one. I will challenge them.

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