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Direct action on climate change: successful tactic or Green nostalgia?

By Leigh Ewbank - posted Monday, 7 June 2010

Recently, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed called for increased direct action campaigning to encourage governments to act on climate change. “What we really need is a huge social 60s-style catalystic, dynamic street action,” said Nasheed in the Guardian. “If the people in the US wish to change, it can happen. In the 60s and 70s, they’ve done that.”

President Nasheed emerged from the last year’s Copenhagen Climate Conference with considerable clout among climate change campaigners, and rightly so. In the process of drawing attention to the plight of his homeland, the Maldives - a chain of small islands threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges, Nasheed became a leading voice for the vulnerable and poor in the international negotiations. Nasheed has since received several awards for his commendable efforts.

The Maldivian President’s comments will no doubt be music to the ears of some climate advocates in Australia, however, the merits of such an approach should be carefully considered. Is direct action likely to be as effective for climate change as it was for social issues in the 1960s? Is Nasheed’s optimism that renewed grassroots action will compel governments to implement effective climate policies well founded?


Nasheed points to successful direct action campaigns that occurred in 1960s America as a model, and this provides a good starting point for exploring these questions. Let’s take a quick look at the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement used various types of direct action between 1955 and 1968 to overturn Jim Crow laws that permitted racial segregation and other forms of discrimination in the United States. The largest of the marches, the March on Washington in 1963 (where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the historic “I have a dream” speech), is credited with helping build momentum to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The successes of American civil rights movement support the notion of grassroots movements driving change, but the world has changed since the 1960s, and so have the issues. While freedom and dignity where at the heart of the civil rights struggle, the role of freedom is not as clear-cut when it comes to climate change.

Climate change doesn’t readily lend itself to direct action campaigning for two reasons. First, the impacts of unmitigated climate change do not affect citizens from the largest carbon emitting nations in a visible and direct way. Attempts to link climate change with specific storms, bushfires, and heatwaves, have been of limited use because these “natural disasters” have been experienced throughout history and live in our social memory.

Unlike the civil rights movement, climate change has a complex causation. Its effects are indirect, systemic, difficult to perceive, and will increase over time. This is compounded by an absence of directly affected and disgruntled citizens in developed nations to demand action. The fact that future generations and people that are living in the developing world are, and will be, hardest hit by our changing climate, means that this crucial driver for effective grassroots mobilisation is missing in the west.

Second, in contrast to the emancipatory civil rights laws, the dominant climate policies could be framed as limiting freedom to those in developed nations. The key climate change policies advocated involve carbon pricing in one form or another. Whether it’s a market price or carbon tax, a direct action campaign would require a critical mass of people to protest for measures that increase the cost of energy.

In this scenario it is possible for opponents to frame demonstrators as attacking freedom, rather than promoting it, as was the case in the protests of the 1960s. This framing would be achieved in a similar way that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott rebranded the government’s emissions-trading scheme as “a great big tax”.


Putting aside these challenges, we should consider that recent grassroots demonstrations in Australia have a mixed record.

In 2003, between 800,000 and one million Australian’s demonstrated against the US-led invasion of Iraq and the Howard government’s commitment to send the Nation’s armed forces to war. This massive demonstration was the largest since the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1970s, but was it enough to pressure the government to withdraw Australian troops? No. Was it enough to build a movement capable of voting out the conservative Prime Minister at the next election? No. Did it translate into a legislative victory that would ensure governments require the approval of the Australian Parliament to wage war? No.

On the other hand, in the lead up to the 2007 election a successful grassroots movement was formed in opposition to the Howard government’s unpopular industrial relations reforms. In contrast to the anti-Iraq was protests years earlier, the reforms directly affected millions of Australian workers. The WorkChoices reforms threatened the rights of citizens and presented a risk to financial security. The effective campaign used direct action alongside other grassroots organising methods. A combination of intelligent campaigning by a galvanised union movement, progressive online campaigning, excellent messaging (“Your Rights at Work”), and a revitalised Labor party deposed the Howard government.

President Nasheed’s brief comments pose interesting questions about the effectiveness of 1960s-style direct action for climate change campaigning, but are not detailed enough to adequately gauge the role it might play. Direct action will continue to perform a cathartic function for climate change activists, but its ability to lead to transformative change like the civil rights movement in the US, or more modest victory for Australian workers against the Howard government, is limited. It is good to look to the past for inspiration but we mustn’t be blinded by nostalgia.

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First published on the author's blog, The RealEwbank, on June 2, 2010.

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About the Author

Leigh Ewbank is a graduate of RMIT University's Bachelor of Social Science Environment degree and was a summer fellow at the progressive think-tank the Breakthrough Institute. Leigh currently reports for and consults on framing and messaging.

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