climate movement strategy (March 2009)

Towards a movement strategy: reflections on grassroots climate change campaigning

James Whelan & the Change Agency collective
January 2009

Later this month, hundreds of people involved in grassroots climate action will meet in Canberra to create a national network, develop campaign proposals for the year ahead, discuss climate change policies and take collective action to press the Australian government for decisive climate action. The summit is an important event in the life of this national grassroots movement.

In the lead-up to the summit, people involved in climate change activism have been embroiled in discussions about strategy, trying to figure out just what it will take to avert catastrophic climate change.

These discussions have been active within the Change Agency too. We’re a six member collective that supports social movements through facilitation, education, training and action research. For several years we’ve been working with community activists concerned about climate change including large non government organisations and small local groups, groups that work primarily through formal government channels and those that seek change through other approaches including nonviolent direct action and building alternative energy systems, groups that focus on effecting political and legislative change and those that seek to change individual behaviours and values. All these groups are actively engaged in strategising for the year ahead.

In December this year, national leaders from around the world will gather in Copenhagen to determine the next global agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions. Some climate activists see these conferences of parties (COPs) as a crucial campaign opportunity and are determined to make the most of them. Others feel that the international climate policy deliberations (by governments) have generated very little change and that other pathways to climate justice are essential. Still others propose a mix of approaches in which international policy deliberations are seen as just one opportunity. Externally determined events like the COPs and the steady stream of consultation exercises can create a reactive environment for climate change activists in which it’s very difficult to be clear about your own strategic assumptions and stick to your guns. Many climate change activists are putting themselves (and each other) under intense pressure to come up with the ‘right’ campaign strategy, while dealing with a dynamically changing political environment.

I think of the strategy discussion in terms of choosing between levers. Have you seen those old fashioned levers that are used to change the direction of railway tracks? They take some force to budge. Achieving a useful campaign objective, like motivating the Australian government to adopt a strong target for emission reduction, is like trying to throw a lever. It will take the concerted and sustained efforts of a number of people. The challenge, though, is that there are dozens of levers that might be part of the change we’re trying to bring about. And we don’t have the resources or time to throw them all. We need to decide which levers are essential and reach some agreements about when and how we’ll cooperate. And we need to be realistic about just how much energy is likely to be required to throw each lever. The Australian government is under intense pressure from vested interests to maintain its ‘business as usual’ approach to climate change, so some levers will be extremely hard to shift.

Across the climate movement, approaches to strategy are very diverse. People are putting energy into trying to shift 100 different levers. Some climate action groups are focused on raising community awareness and encouraging individual action, while others are seeking legislative remedies. Some focus on influencing local government decisions while others target state or national government and others focus primarily on influencing the coal and energy industries. Everyone, it seems, has their own answer to the climate problem, and everyone is sure their answer is right. Some even endorse so-called clean coal, while others are certain this isn’t part of the solution. Many of the hundreds of community action groups that have formed in the last few years have found it almost impossible to know just what to focus their energy on and experience ‘action paralysis’. Finding people in your community who share your concern about climate change is the easy part. Working out just what to do together (movement strategy) is much harder.

The diverse approaches of climate change activists aren’t coincidental. They reflect different theories of change or political assumptions. A summit in Canberra may reflect the assumptions that (1) solutions will flow from legislative and regulatory intervention by the Prime Minister and Parliament and (2) that Parliament is responsive to petitioning by large numbers of constituents (voters) and media coverage that exposes the inadequacies of current policies. Occupying coal-fired power stations reflects the assumption that (1) the energy generation industry will shift from coal to renewable energy in response to disruption, civil disobedience and adverse media attention and possibly (2) that the government will intervene to resolve a confrontation or crisis that’s created this way by introducing climate-friendly policies. Protestors who disrupt coal mines and export infrastructure assume that this will result in Australia reducing or even stopping coal exports, thereby reducing Australia’s contribution to global CO2 emissions.

If there are 100 levers we could be working on, it seems certain that we can’t throw them all and need to make an informed choice (the most informed choice we can with the resources we have available). Take just two approaches described above. Is it feasible that the climate change movement can stop Australia’s coal exports through direct action? Is it more or less realistic to expect the energy industry will shift to renewable energy sources in response to disruption and sustained pressure? Does dangerous climate change require a national response? Would strong state-based campaigns and policies be sufficient? If a shift to renewable power requires legislative (government) intervention and industry will only shift when forced to, should activists target the industry or the government? Or both? It’s crucial that the movement creates opportunities for these discussions, especially if campaign objectives can only be achieved collaboratively – and most will. This requires dialogue, trust and patience. And it’s certain that people won’t work alongside us if they don’t share our sense of which lever needs to be leant on and why, or what success will look like.

Articulating our theories of change as clearly as possible will help build understanding and increase the likelihood of shared strategy. You may like to take some time to think about the following prompts, and write down your responses:

  • the nature of human beings
  • the nature and sources of power
  • the nature and sources of truth and authority
  • your analysis of the causes of social problems
  • the role of individuals and institutions in social change
  • your vision of the way it can or should be
  • the mechanisms of change (how change comes about), existing or potential

Your responses to these prompts form your own theory of change. Consider:

  • Does your theory make sense to you?
  • Is it consistent with your present observations of reality?
  • Is it flexible and comprehensive enough to deal with the unknown?
  • Can it be tested? How does this look in operation? Have their been campaigns or social movements which have utilised this theory?
  • How does your theory relate to the theories of other activists and organisations within your movement? What are the likely points of agreement or disagreement?

To assist climate activists to get clear about strategy, tCA has developed a straight-forward template. Our view is that activists positing well thought through proposals for strategic action provides a better starting point for developing collective strategy than arguing in circles about the problem. Our elements of strategy document provides background on the terms and concepts used in the template and lists other tools which can be useful in strategy development.

Even with the best strategy, it’s more than likely that some collaborative (or ‘movement’) campaigns won’t achieve all their objectives. By being clear about why we believe we’ll be able to throw each lever and what impact we feel it will have, we’re more likely to learn from the consequences and reorient our efforts.

Members of our collective will be in Canberra to facilitate some of the campaign strategy and network building sessions. We’re looking forward to being part of these discussions and to witnessing the building of an even stronger national grassroots network that will play a powerful role in achieving climate justice in the years ahead. As a collective, tCA has made a long-term commitment to supporting the climate movement and welcome dialogue about how we can help make a difference.

To support strategy discussions amongst grassroots climate activists, the Change Agency developed a template for movement campaign proposals which is available for downloading from this page. To illustrate how the template can guide without constraining the energies of a diverse and grassroots movement, we used it to map out the Close the Gap campaign which successfully demanded that the Commonwealth Government implement strategies to improve Aboriginal health outcomes.

The ‘theory of change’ questions in this article are derived from the Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. published by New Society Publishers in 1978.