What does a climate insurgency look like?

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Final-Greet-the-Dawn-by-RJ-Poole.jpg

An image from the Australian documentary The Bently Effect

Emissions stop 400,000 Hiroshima bombs worth of heat from escaping the atmosphere every day. In Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (PM Press, £11.99) Jeremy Brecher warns the outcome will be either “doom” — 800 parts per million of atmospheric carbon, unsurvivable warming — or a plan to stop burning fossil fuels by 2050.

I’m absolutely with Brecher in his call for mass demonstrations, meetings, marches, civil disobedience, popular tribunals and other forms of counter-government in the face of the “governments and fossil fuel corporations of the world that go on destroying it.”

I agree that isolation induces despair, and that lack of confidence in change is a major barrier to action. I was also heartened by Against Doom’s prologue, which considers climate protection as part of the “wider resistance to Trump’s anti-social agenda,” on which “the future of the planet and its people depend”.

But Against Doom can read like wishful thinking in terms of the current balance of forces and the route to success. I wasn’t, for example, persuaded that the tens of thousands involved in the recently established Break Free From Fossil Fuels annual months of action constitute the beginning of the “climate insurgency”.

And while I think Brecher is right to blame a sense of helplessness for the gap between climate worry (75 percent of Americans) and political action (4 percent), I don’t think the key to generating confidence is “explaining” people’s power and their “moral”, “constitutional” and “legal” right to defend the climate. Action is what attracts others to act; rights are enforced through mass action.

For a founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, whose vocabulary includes words like “self-activity” and “dual power”, Brecher also gives a minute role to the organised working class: trade unions are just potential allies, rather than central to organising those who have the power to change the world.

This makes sense, though, if “the world’s people” have a “common interest” in climate protection and if the “dynamics of capitalism” only make climate protection “appear a threat to prosperity”. Although Brecher is disdainful of fossil fuel corporate interests and their government backers, and as much as he talks about climate justice, dissolving class interest into common interest separates climate from other class demands.

Campaigners are almost tasked with convincing the rich they have nothing to fear, while convincing the majority to act and making it so uncomfortable for the fossil fuel magnates that they will simply stop.

In real campaigns this spawns moralism and accommodation to imaginary Tory campaigners. The word “peaceful” becomes omnipresent. “Protection” is emphasised over “noisy” protest and the campaign must, at all costs, be “apolitical”. Fossil fuel magnates don’t feel half as uncomfortable as I’d like them to, but fossil fuel workers, who have the power to effect change, can become targets for real anger.

Multi-award-winning documentary The Bentley Effect (which will be out on DVD later this year) shows the magnetism of action in practice. It follows three communities as they defend themselves against a form of fracking in Australia’s Northern Rivers region, an area of gentle hills and morning mist not unlike my own North Yorkshire, which is also organising against fracking.

The film opens in Glenugie in 2011 with a march, a 700-strong public meeting, and mass picketing of the local MP. The community declares itself gas free and the mayor hails it “democracy in action”. But the government agrees to gas production and the Glenugie blockade is too small to stop the police bringing the drill onsite.

Then comes Doubtful Creek. There’s an underground lock-on and nanas knitting atop precarious rigs. There are 200 or so at the final blockade, but it’s still not enough and the police escort the drill in to shouts of “Shame!”

It’s two-nil to the industry now and the stakes at Bentley are high. The police have flexed their muscles and plan to finish the job. But the community have built a movement now. They’ve marched and protested and picketed and leafleted door to door. They’ve sung and shouted and toured an anti-fracking musical. They’ve created a hundred “gas free communities” and “kept returning to the seat of power”.

January 2014: Bentley’s new protection camp attracts a thousand people. It sets up a “rig” alert system with thousands of phone numbers. It swells to 3,000. The atmosphere is so tense that campers can barely breathe. But the police’s caterers renege on their contracts, their motel tips off the protesters and the media starts to come around. At a camp rally I spy health workers in their scrubs. I feel hopeful.

The emergency call finally comes one night in early May. The rig is expected, as are 850 riot police. 10,000 show up to stop them. A woman phones from the gate and says, “It’s over.” Over? Is the drill here? No — the state has rescinded the licences. The campaign has become too big to mow down.

British anti-frackers have taken protection camps and direct action from this Australian story without yet building a mass campaign. Yet the filmmakers told us the social movement needed to stop this in the UK will be “the biggest this country has seen outside of war-time”. And how finally had they persuaded the health workers to get involved? In the end, they said that “sheer momentum drew them in”.