What If We Just Didn’t?

‘None of this is real’. That’s what I kept thinking: as the urns piled up in Wuhan and mass graves appeared in Iran and New York, as the ice rink in Madrid became a morgue. Not the virus itself – from the Black Death to SARS, infectious disease has always been a part of life; it’s only recently a privileged caste has been able to sustain a deluded belief in its own immunity. Rather, the sense of unreality came from observing the panicked rearrangement of social relations. Suddenly money could be conjured from thin air. Remote work, long sought by the disabled and decried by bosses as impractical, became not only viable but advised. In the space of a fortnight, politicians went from bragging about going to the footy and closing every second pokie in the casino to deploying militarised police to harass people sitting in the park. All that is air becomes solid; all that is solid melts into air.
 
‘The economy’ is not a fact the way that physics is a fact. Though both are inscribed in terms of mathematics, one reflects real and fixed constraints on who we are and how we live, while the other is an expression of power and relationships, individual and collective. It has changed in the past and it can change again. Though in our day-to-day lives the priorities of bosses, capital and the state are presented as immutable truths, they are not. Nor do they supersede the realities of biology and disease transmission, no matter what contradictory fictions we are asked to accept by authorities charged with defining what constitutes adequate ‘distancing’. Being less than two metres away from somebody is risky, unless you’re a hairdresser. You shouldn’t leave your house, but for some reason JB Hi-Fi is still open. White, wealthy cruise ship passengers comprise no risk except when they do; low wage and coloured workers on that same ship are a different story. Which work is ‘essential’? – all of it, apparently. Your employer gets to choose.   
 
These aren’t rules developed purely on the basis of stopping a disease. Work must go on – not because it is necessary for human flourishing, but because it reflects the priorities of business, of capital, which are never less and always more. A pandemic is a crisis which capital is deeply unsuited to handling – sans vaccine, the best means of controlling the spread is to stop, to do less, to shut things down. Yet this is not in the interests of a system premised on ever-increasing production and accumulation, whose public avatars are busy calculating how many grandparents they would trade for a 1.5 percent bump in GDP.
 
The production of goods is a physical imperative for us to live. Yet it is possible to feed people, to keep them safe outside of notoriously wasteful capitalist systems. Doing this too well, however, risks undermining the relations of hierarchy and dependence on which the employing class depends. Josh Frydenberg nearly made this explicit when explaining why the JobKeeper allowance will be paid via bosses – to keep employees ‘attached’ to their employers, so that they will be ‘ready to go’ once the pandemic is over. The differential allowances for job ‘seekers’ and job ‘keepers’ is, of course, all the better to maintain the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Never mind that even before the virus there weren’t enough jobs for everyone – or that many jobs are actively harmful to our social wellbeing.
 
Nonetheless, capital is taking a hit in lockdown just like the rest of us. While initially reluctant to act, authorities did jump into gear once they could get sick, as well; also, mass death is bad for the economy. Dead people don’t work and don’t buy stuff. So here we are: pubs and gyms closed, offices sent home.
 
Seeing less happening in real time has been illustrative. For my whole adult life it’s been known that we have to cut emissions, that failure to do will be catastrophic. Yet for all the talk of ‘green growth’, of ‘decoupling’ and ‘transition’, emissions keep rising, minor reductions achieved through technology wiped out by expansion in industrial production and the burning of fossil fuels. The cuts we are seeing now are unprecedented, their effects immediate and dramatic. What was needed, it seems, was a willingness to just stop: to simply turn off vast swathes of the industrial machine.
 
In this as in the other apocalypse, less rather than more is what we need to preserve our lives.
 
 
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I’m not against green energy. It is a necessary condition to mitigate climate change, a phenomenon I would prefer not to kill me and others. But it is not a sufficient condition. Fundamentally, installing green energy does not cut emissions. Removing fossil fuels cuts emissions. One of these things is in line with the priorities of capital. The other is not.
 
In September 2019 NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean pledged his commitment to coal, both in terms of ‘securing the supply’ for local power stations and as an export commodity. “Coal is absolutely here to stay for decades to come,” Kean explained on 2GB, a noxious radio platform known for inciting hate campaigns against Muslims and women of colour. “The people of NSW want to protect the environment, but not at any cost to their hip pocket.”
 
In January 2020, Kean’s government agreed to add another 70 petajoules of gas supply per year, even as the fuel was discovered to have ‘far worse climate impact than we thought.’  
 
In March 2020 Kean announced his climate plan to ‘lead the country’ to net zero emissions by 2050. This was hailed in the media as a model for ‘how you do climate’.
 
The specifics outlined in the NSW plan are far from exhaustive, but they are exhausting. There are subsidies for business – including cement, steel and aluminium manufacturers, three of the world’s highest polluting industries – to install ‘cleaner’ technology. This is the face of evidence that efficiency improvements get wiped out by the expansions in production inevitably demanded by profit-seeking investors. There are various nodes of ‘consumer choice’, including giving motorists the choice to ‘offset’ some emissions. Offsets are, for the most part, an accounting trick; they are also a deflection from business to individuals who get blame-educated on the size of their own ‘carbon footprint’. This concept was first popularised by mega-polluter British Petroleum, former conduit of colonial extractivism in Iran, which has now rebranded as BP and changed its logo to a flower.
 
Perhaps most egregious part is the ‘Coal Innovation Fund’, identified as a ‘priority program for bilateral funding’. The fund will seek technological means to reduce fugitive emissions – whilst providing a new revenue stream to ‘increase productivity’ at coal mines. Such technology was apparently just around the corner in 1993 and in 2012; in the interim, the impact of these emissions has grown to match that of the global aviation and shipping industries combined. But hey, that was before NSW government got in on the game. Matt Kean versus physics, who you gonna choose?
 
The NSW plan also contains regulatory changes and investment in infrastructure to support renewable energy. While positive, this fails to address how renewables’ growth has historically been accompanied by growth in emissions unless backed by suppressive steps against polluting industry. That is not what is happening. Cuts from the much-vaunted growth of renewables have been utterly overwhelmed by increases in industrial pollution – and in any case, these cuts were smaller in size than those ‘achieved’ via the deaths of livestock in climate-exacerbated floods and drought. Indeed, green energy is used to financially support and even to directly power the extraction of fossil fuels – as in the farce of Santos, a company responsible for more emissions than Ethiopia, powering oil wells through solar panels publicly funded via the national renewables agency, ARENA.

It’s an arresting image, a strikingly literal illustration of how ‘transformative’ technologies get absorbed in a destructive system. Here’s the thing: there is no part of Kean’s plan which levels a cost against greenhouse emissions. It’s all more and no less: all having one’s cake and eating it too, to borrow words from a jackass who thumbed his nose at nature before hilari-tragically discovering that he’s a part of it, too. Indeed, the only shadow of a consequence apparent in the plan is a ‘forecast’ 35 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. It’s that thing about maths all over again. The target is interpreted as factual because it is a number. Yet it is undergirded by no criminal, legal or financial penalties should it fail to be achieved, other than the government continuing to ‘monitor and report’. Presumably this will be scrutinised via the same regulators who oversaw major rises in emissions under the last such fund. Or the same media who, in applauding Kean’s ‘getting it done’ re climate, seemed unable to recall his commitment to fossil fuels made just two months before.

Who, under Kean’s plan, will own the new investments? Is it workers? Communities? To use the technical term: LOL, jokes. Just as Qantas, joint recipient of a $715 million Covid-rescue package, stood down 20,000 staff while forcing crew to work in virally-exposed conditions, so too will subsidies under the NSW plan be delivered to businesses and owners. Corporations who profited from trashing the climate now get to profit from the so-called ‘solutions’. Get paid to pollute, get paid not to pollute. Or at least to install some new tech to throw up a scrim of deniability; enough so your victims, overburdened with information, with responsibility, shrug their shoulders and move on.
 
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I could drown you in examples, in data, but what’s the point? We all know what’s happening. That’s why Greta Thunberg got so memeified when she made that speech, the one about ‘fairytales of eternal economic growth’. It was cathartic, wasn’t it, watching a young girl tell the truth and weep. Easier to get high off a child’s commodified pain than to do something about it.
 
Electoral democracy is sometimes offered up as a countervailing force to the imperatives of capital. Vote in better leaders, and they will save us. Observation reveals this as a sorely failing strategy. Failure to cut emissions in Australia is ongoing and bipartisan. Even as a billion animals burned, the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed climate concerns as the ravings of ‘inner city lunatics’ while the Leader of the Opposition pledged his commitment to keep exporting coal.
 
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the revolving door between industry and government, the normalised conflation of mining and national interest which reached its apotheosis with the appointment of a mining executive to chair the national committee for Covid-response. Although perhaps that apotheosis was reached earlier with the anointment of Ross Garnaut, former chairman of the vastly destructive Ok Tedi mine, as mandarin of Labor carbon policy. Less visible but no less pernicious are the structural ways in which capital embeds in the organs of the state. Australia’s ‘independent’ energy planning body, AEMO, draws 40 percent of its voting membership from corporate entities: profit-seeking entities that buy and sell electricity. There is, of course, no representation for environmental or scientific research bodies, or for Indigenous communities, none of whom are permitted to become members under current legislation.
 
One might be forgiven for thinking there is no such thing as Australia. There never was. It is three mining executives in a trenchcoat.
 
The term ‘regulatory capture’ is sometimes used, but I think this obscures more than it illuminates. It implies some sort of hostile takeover when really, the state and the market are not in opposition, they are co-constitutive. Politicians failing on climate are not a deviation, they are the predictable and incentivised result. Perhaps the greatest structural failure is the bordered and citizen-based electoral system – a fundamental deficit in accountability when the harms of emissions do not stop at national bounds. What can ‘democracy’ mean when Chennai, a city of ten million, risks running out of water because of drought fuelled by Australian coal?
 
It’s said by some clean energy advocates that fossil fuels will naturally vanish once ‘the economics stacks up’, i.e., once the cost of renewables falls enough to displace them via the unfettered workings of the market. I mean, good luck. I’d like for it to work, as well. Such advocates purport to know the interests of capital better than the capitalists themselves. Shell, for instance, touts its green investment wing while continuing to fund new fossil fuel exploration, as do all the major Australian banks.
 
Apart from elided distinctions between firm and non-firm energy sources, new and existing assets, between the cost of individual plant and surrounding infrastructure, and the environmental costs of renewables themselves – the idea ‘normal’ market forces do not include support for fading industry flies in defiance of experience and sense. Look at Kean’s energy plan. Business will be financially rewarded for installing (some) green tech, without obligations in terms of cutting back on their actual emissions. It is a flare in the dark, letting the owners of capital know they can continue to pollute without being punished, that they will in fact be paid. Just as in the last great ‘energy transition’, when the British government paid millions of pounds in compensation to former slaveholders and none to the enslaved.
 
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‘Protest’ and ‘resistance’ are different things. To ‘protest’ is to register symbolic disagreement. ‘Resisting’ is inhibiting the processes which cause an injustice to occur. ‘Protesting’ the treatment of refugees is holding up a candle; it is drawing a sign saying, ‘Not In My Name’. ‘Resisting’ is withdrawing finance from the border-industrial complex, it is physically blocking a deportation, it is refusing to fly a human being to danger.
 
I think most people intuitively grasp the inefficacy of protest unbacked by material disruption. How else to explain the mismatch between rhetoric and reality for the so-called Climate ‘Strike’? A term for the sometimes militant withholding of labour, pasted over a boss-and-cop sanctioned stroll from A to B.
 
Not that these modes can’t co-exist. I’m not trying to diss people: God knows I’ve been there, and I probably will again. One of the saddest things about institutionalised progressivism is watching hope eat its own tail. Compromise and rationalisation circling in on themselves, a self-reinforcing loop. Ideals absorbed and dissipated, talent dispersed in a shower of formless sparks.
 
What I’m saying is: don’t expect to fix this through your job. Jobs – in the private sector, government, wherever – reflect the goals of capital. You may do some good insofar as it aligns with those goals. You will not begin to address the underlying problems.
 
This isn’t a secret. They are practically yelling it at us, at this stage: the goals of capital are not the same as the priorities of life.
 
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To successfully stage a strike requires critical mass. From poet Wendy Trevino: “Have you ever danced in the streets? It’s better not to do it by yourself.”
 
One of the saddest things about the current crisis is how isolated we have become. The power of direct action lies in how a few people can materially and often physically disrupt the process of oppression, as in the ACT UP protests against government inaction in the AIDS epidemic. Creative workarounds notwithstanding, physical distancing requirements under Covid-19 make this very hard. We feel fragmented and alone, because we are.
 
In this we have something in common with the labour movement, also increasingly fragmented between categories of casual and permanent, employee and freelancer, documented and undocumented. Visions of workers united on the shop floor grow less and less reflective of the reality of modern, post-industrial employment. Capital can outsource and offshore, playing different kinds of workers and governments off against each other. In collaboration with the state, it creates its own legal and financial borders, further undermining workers. Hard to walk away from an abusive or underpaid job when you have no medical care, or when that risks detention and deportation. The capacity to oppress flows on to locals, too. As long as capital can move freely across borders and workers can’t, the injustice will persist.  
 
What is desirable and what is possible aren’t always the same thing. Successful organising requires attentiveness to both. But in a time of crisis, for better and for worse, the bounds of what is possible are changing by the day. The constraints of physics, of disease, of human need are real and immutable. The constraints of capital and its concomitant social relations are not.
 
Let us, then, push back against the ever-foreclosing window of the possible:
 
Paid work should not the foundation of one’s value as an individual, nor one’s right to live and flourish. In place of tiered hierarchies between ‘job seekers’ and ‘job keepers’, let there be a Universal Basic and/or Guaranteed Minimum Income, set at an adequate rate, for everyone regardless of employment or migration status. At a time when so much ‘work’ is inessential or actively destructive, let there be no false distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor. ‘No-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living’ – why does this even need to be said?
 
Under these conditions, let Coles and JB Hi-fi decide if it is really ‘essential’ for cashiers to expose themselves to viral risk without, at the very least, protective equipment and generous hazard pay. While they’re at it, let’s think about the logistical need to supply and distribute food during a pandemic – whether and to what extent this can be managed without the intermediary of a grocery chain at all. And, insofar as personnel are still required, how the risk this work entails can be shared between all of us as opposed to displaced onto low waged and often migrant workers.
 
Let there be no bailouts without ownership. Fuck Qantas. There should be a public stake in all ‘rescued’ firms, with worker representation on boards. Better yet, let them be worker cooperatives. Also, while you’re at it, fuck state-sponsored greenwashing. Make the polluters pay, not people. Let every single person in an ex-mining community get a cheque, or a series of cheques, and let them use it to work or not work as they please so long as that work does not comprise industrialised destruction. Bribery, you say? I don’t care. I’d rather bribe them than Santos.
 
Let whatever new plant or intellectual property is created through so-called ‘green energy’ funds be owned by communities and workers, not investors.  
 
Let the ‘carbon limit’ set by our needs as beings in the natural world be understood as the hard constraint on emissions, not finance or electoral strategy. This will entail major cuts to energy use and industrial production. So be it. I want all of us to live. And let this be backed by whatever instruments – political, financial, legal, extralegal – are necessary and at hand, to impose a material consequence on those who would despoil our only biosphere.
 
Crises can be transformative, as the full horror of unjust and unsustainable systems becomes apparent and people become galvanised to seek change. Crises can also be leveraged to advance racism, environmental destruction, and/or fascist ideology and practice. Nothing is inevitable and many things are possible.
 
One thing brings hope: across workplaces, industries, supply chains and borders, we are sharing an experience of not doing. One fifth of the world’s population is now under some kind of lockdown, undergoing what is not an identical experience, but one with common characteristics. We are learning the difference between work that is ‘essential’ and that which is useless and gratuitous, work which enhances our collective wellbeing and work which does not. We are learning we exist as part of nature, that the constraints of the physical world are as ‘real’ as so-called economic laws are mutable. And we are learning that by acting together, largely voluntarily, we can preserve our communities and lives.
 
It is possible to stop. We can just not. Our collective survival may depend on it.

After the Fires: Transformation or Eco-Fascism?

By Abbie Lam and Tahan Buay

Crises can be transformative, as the full horror of unjust and unsustainable systems becomes apparent and people become galvanised to seek change. 

Crises can also be leveraged by those with racist and authoritarian tendencies to advance fascist ideology and practice.

On 20 February the Morrison government released the Terms of Reference for a Royal Commission into the bushfires. The terms and the accompanying media release placed a clear emphasis on a militarised response:

“In particular, we need to consider the need to establish new powers for the Federal Government to declare a national state of emergency to trigger direct Federal Government responses to national disasters, including the direct deployment of the Australian Defence Force.”

While this process is being advanced by a right-wing government, the underlying ideas reflect messages frequently deployed by ‘left’ and ‘progressive’ voices in the environment movement including calls for the government to declare a ‘climate emergency’ and to mobilise as if for war.

This approach lays the ground for a climate response embedded in authoritarianism rather than justice. This is deeply ineffective, indeed counterproductive, in addressing bushfires as well as climate change, the underlying cause of why they are more frequent and intense. It also lays the foundation for the rise of eco-fascism more broadly.

The military is bad at responding to climate disaster

Military training and equipment is not geared towards providing an effective response to disasters such as bushfires. In addition to its violent, imperialist track record, the military is poor at helping the most vulnerable and frequently makes things worse.

The Australian Defence Force has a history of accidentally starting fires, including a blaze on the Gold Coast which burned for over two weeks and came within metres of properties. In a Pythonesque turn, members of the ADF supposedly deployed to fight fires in the recent crisis were responsible for starting a fire which comprised ‘the greatest risk to the ACT since the 2003 bushfires which killed four people’, after the heat from a helicopter landing light set the grass ablaze.

Meanwhile, the navy ship HMS Choules refused to evacuate young children, disabled persons or the elderly from a fire zone, claiming to be unequipped – although it was able to deliver 3000 litres of beer to a Victorian pub when road access was cut off by bushfires on New Year’s Eve.

It should be self-evident that the military is not a humanitarian aid organisation. The image of soldiers nursing a few injured koalas should not obscure its role as a key institution of the settler-colonial state which systematically deploys state violence. The military turns back asylum seeker boats, invaded Iraq on the myth of WMDs, decorates likely war criminals, has a history of breaking strikes, and supported the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ into Indigenous communities – all examples of how the rhetoric of ‘national emergency’ gives cover to harmful and coercive actions.

A particular irony of the ‘send in the troops’ response to climate disaster is that the military itself is a hugely emissions-intensive industry, responsible for a massive ‘carbon bootprint’. Casting the military as saviour is perverse given it is a key contributor to climate change in the first place, both through direct emissions and by helping secure the fossil fuel supply chains that literally fuel global warming:

…action on climate change demands shuttering vast sections of the military machine. There are few activities on Earth as environmentally catastrophic as waging war.”

The rhetoric of ‘leadership’ and ‘emergency’ supports authoritarianism

Much of the left and centre-left response to the bushfire crisis has been based around explicit calls for ‘leadership’ in the climate ‘emergency’ or the implicit use of that paradigm, as seen in the focus on symbolic issues such as Scott Morrison’s Hawaiian holiday. 

We carry no torch for Scott Morrison, a vile individual whose every holiday should be ruined if possible. But this approach – based in imagery rather than substance, valorising theatrical displays of ‘strength’, and without specific demands for what a substantive response would entail – risks supporting some profoundly dangerous trends. Historian T. J. Demos warns of the dangers of a ‘climate emergency’ framing in a context of oppressive forces worldwide:

Emergency politics is a dangerous area. In the States, President Trump has already declared emergency a number of times in relation to migration, for instance. President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is happy to declare emergency in relation to state security… Given the widespread ethnonationalism and right-wing populism, to ask governments to declare an emergency is potentially a gift to post-democratic totalitarianism.” 

In addition to providing cover for authoritarian responses, ‘emergency’ rhetoric is also being used to legitimise inaccurate and outright mythological right-wing responses to the fires. Disinformation about an ‘arson emergency’, often maliciously propagated by bots, is being deployed in support of a climate denialist narrative. This in turn feeds a ‘law and order’ response which supports a trend of increasing criminalisation. In NSW, this has included increasing the maximum penalty for a bushfire arson offence from 14 to 21 years imprisonment and raising the non-parole period of imprisonment from five to nine years – measures which contribute to the expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex whilst failing to address climate change.

Demanding ‘action’ and ‘leadership’ while not specifying the content of either also creates an opening for the opportunistic monetisation of disaster. False claims about bushfires being caused by a lack of hazard reduction burns have been used to call for national parks to be privatised and opened to logging – even though deforestation exacerbates climate change and its effects, as seen in the hugely destructive Amazon fires.

It’s about policies, not personalities

Approaching climate change as an individualised moral problem, embodied in the person of Scott Morrison, risks centering figureheads rather than the systems and structures which put them in power and guide their behaviour. Failure to cut emissions has been ongoing and bipartisan. It is based in the distorted incentives of a bordered electoral system, in which those who benefit from heavy emissions processes are systematically over-enfranchised and those who are harmed are disenfranchised. It is also based in a system of colonialist and capitalist extraction which keeps us ‘locked into an indefinite present of supposed economic growth and wealth accumulation’.

We should not be appealing to the imagined benevolence or moral sentiments of political leaders to save us from climate change. We need to build power behind specific demands for policy responses in our interactions with the state. These should include:

  • Supporting Indigenous sovereignty and land management. The latter is mentioned in the Royal Commission Terms of Reference as a potential means of mitigating bushfires; the former is not. While we welcome this inclusion, it is fundamentally unjust for a settler-colonial state to extract Indigenous knowledge for its own benefit without supporting self-determination for the communities and persons from whom this knowledge is derived.
  • Funding public infrastructure, including emergency services. This includes appropriately paying, equipping and otherwise compensating firefighters rather than relying on volunteer labour as in the NSW Rural Fire Service.
  • Addressing the cause of climate change by directly reducing emissions. This will entail ending the burning and export of fossil fuels, limiting high-polluting industrial processes, and removing legal and policy obstacles that prevent emissions reduction.

Mutual aid and solidarity, not ‘leadership’

The rhetoric of ‘leadership’ imagines people are powerless outside of their connection to authority, institutions and the citizen-based electoral system. In fact, effective response can come from individuals and communities rather than being dictated from above.

In NSW, informal ‘black ops’ fire brigades came together to fill ‘gaps in defences, taking advantage of their ability to quickly deploy to areas large fire trucks would struggle to reach.’ In Cobargo, a bushfire relief centre was set up by locals ‘who have just stepped up to do so—because they had to.’ A volunteer-run ‘Find a Bed’ service for those displaced in the fires matched 100 people with accommodation within a week of its launch via Twitter. In the words of its founder, journalist Erin Riley: ‘The best thing you can do is look for a need that no-one else has met and respond.’

Around the world, networks of mutual aid and solidarity have stepped in to provide disaster relief where the state has failed. After Hurricane Katrina, the Common Ground Collective founded by anarchist, anti-racist and community activists provided food, shelter and medical care to primarily black residents of New Orleans who were neglected or abandoned by authorities. In Puerto Rico, ‘anarchistic organisers’ responded to the blackout caused by Hurricane Maria by distributing food and water, providing basic medical aid and installing their own community-owned micro-grid to provide electricity months ahead of the state-owned power company. Climate justice solutions can be and often are built from the bottom up.  

Responding to the crisis: a better way

We encourage the ‘left’ to push back against the dangerous tendencies embedded in the climate movement.

For the purposes of state processes like the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry, we encourage you to attend, if possible, the Community Meeting in Lithgow this Tuesday 25 February at 5.30pm, to demand emissions reduction, Indigenous sovereignty and funding for fire services and public infrastructure. You can also make a submission to the NSW Inquiry by the end of March, which will feed into the Royal Commission.

More broadly we ask the left to resist the proposed expansion of the role of the military,  ‘emergency’ politics and calls for ‘leadership’, which ultimately support authoritarian theatre as opposed to an effective response. Instead, we call for mutual aid, solidarity and justice. Through such responses we can and must resist eco-fascism and seek the transformational change which these crises require.

A Few Thoughts On the Green(s’) New Deal

A few weeks ago Adam Bandt, the new Greens leader, announced their platform of a Green New Deal in Australia. Detailed policies aren’t out but the broad program is described as “a government-led plan of investment and action to build a clean economy and a caring society.”

I am neither for nor against a GND in the abstract. It is a slogan which can and does stand for a lot of different things. As a tendency rather than a specific plan, I think it is positive for a major political party to want to ‘do something’ about climate, to pair this with progressive/redistributive economic policies, and to articulate the value of ‘care’ and of ‘society’ in a society which systematically devalues both.  

Tendencies, however, can evolve in many ways. This blog has talked before about how ‘good’ things like green energy can get destructively co-opted. And how this risk becomes pronounced under the distorted incentives faced by any political party addressing a non-bordered issue like climate change via a bordered electoral system.

If you’re involved with the GND, hopefully there will be opportunities to shape the movement in ways that are good rather than bad, for want of better words. This will entail praising the good stuff, critiquing the bad and asking for more detail where detail is warranted. Some ideas below.

The good

Bandt has shown some willingness to acknowledge that addressing climate change isn’t just about more – solar panels! Batteries! Shiny things! – but also about less. I.e., cutting the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and paying for the harm which these and other industrial and energy-generating processes cause. His proposals include:

  • Phasing out thermal coal exports by 2030
  • Banning new coal and gas mines including Adani
  • Introducing a carbon tax.

In an electoral context this is unusual, brave and positive.

The worrying

Bandt has spoken of a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ and ‘an advanced mining and manufacturing sector’ powered by renewable energy, referencing economist Ross Garnaut’s ideas about Australia as a ‘smelting superpower’: ‘I want Australia to make things again’. This raises the question of what is being mined and manufactured, how, and what this looks like alongside major cuts to emissions.

Industrial and manufacturing processes are heavy emitters of GHG and will continue to be in the short to medium term future, which is also the timeline when we need to cut emissions. Technology is being developed to reduce the emissions intensity of various industries. But that does not actually cut emissions, which may increase – and have historically done so – if demand, production and consumption continue to grow.

The missing and also somewhat worrying

Absent from Bandt’s statements on the GND, so far as I can tell, is any mention Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous self-determination or Indigenous rights in general. This is problematic given Indigenous communities have the greatest track record of living sustainably, are in the frontline of climate harms, and are leading struggles against climate change worldwide.

This is particularly concerning given Bandt’s plan for Australia to become an exporter and ‘superpower’ of renewable energy. The largest project currently in the works is a massive set of solar farms round Tennant Creek in the NT and an undersea cable (‘Suncable’) to transport energy to Singapore. It will cover about 15,000 kmsq of land, much/all of which has importance to Indigenous people. It is being part-managed through the WWF, an organisation which systematically deploys paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people worldwide. It is also being part-funded by Andrew Forrest, who also has a very poor track record of respecting Indigenous self-determination.

Right now, the status of Indigenous land rights/ Native Title for large scale renewable projects is weaker than for mining, with no right to veto or withhold consent for a development and no protocol for how revenue from a project will be shared (if at all).

We’ll write more about this particular project later (info and tips appreciated!). As far as we know construction hasn’t started and there’s no allegation of anything improper. Still, we think it’s better to be pre-emptively concerned rather than after the fact.

Bandt has expressed commitment to respecting human rights in the pursuit of green energy. This stance is again unusual and positive in an Australian context.

Capitalism tho

Others have written in eloquent detail about an underlying problem with the ‘Green New Deal’ framing: capitalism. Basically the GND harks back to the actual New Deal, an expansionist economic programme in response the Great Depression. This framing is unsuitable for a problem which requires less growth, less expansion, less production and consumption, not more.

I agree with this critique. It’s troubling, if virtually inevitable, that the ‘more renewables, more manufacturing’ aspects of Bandt’s platform are getting a lot more coverage – and emphasis from Bandt himself – than the plans for cutting back on fossil fuels and pricing carbon, even though it’s the latter and not the former which actually reduce emissions.

I am not qualified to comment on whether this is effective as an electoral strategy. I do, however, have concerns about its truthfulness. Meaningful action on climate will require us to learn how to live with less of some things, pay some costs we’ve been avoiding, and to share these costs and these changes fairly between people. Whether or not voters want to hear that right now, they are going to need to hear it at some point if it is going to be done.

I’m concerned about a bait-and-switch where people get promised a magic solar factory and end up with a new tax they weren’t expecting. Or in the alternative, where they get the new solar panels and also the magic new solar-powered cement factory spewing carbon and everyone feels good for one hot minute and we all fry anyway. 

This isn’t my area, but it seems to me like Bandt’s pairing of a ‘green’ agenda with social policies like free education, dental care etc is an opportunity to start reframing the idea of jobs and ‘work’. Teaching, caring and sustaining relations between people is as real and as valuable as mining and refining heavy metals and should be valued accordingly. Rather than promising an eternity of magic zero-emissions smelters based on some technology that hasn’t been discovered, perhaps Bandt and colleagues could start imagining and communicating what a world based around this kind of work might look like.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Bandt or the Greens, who are fundamentally constrained by electoral imperatives. As previously discussed, I don’t think the most effective resistance to a non-bordered problem like climate change can come through a bordered state, especially not one like Australia with heavy investment in high-emitting industries. Still, there’s a lot of power vested in elections, and even marginal improvements can be very consequential. It is not where I, personally, would invest my energy, but let many flowers bloom.

TBC: the trouble with green nationalism

I am concerned about the nationalistic overtones of the Greens’ messaging around the GND, particularly Bandt’s rhetoric about being a ‘renewable energy superpower’. I don’t think a framework of nationalistic power and dominance is a good response to this or any problem. But let’s save that for the next post.

A Brief Tour of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

Today I am feeling sad due to a general sense human goodness has failed. No big deal.

As an illustration of the above, I want to share a case study of a particular organisation, the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, and the ‘work’ it does with respect to energy and water. 

For context: Walgett, a town with 50% Indigenous population, has no safe tap water. This is because of overextraction by white irrigators and cotton growers, mismanagement by mostly white politicians and regulators, and drought made worse by climate change caused mostly by white people. 

The Ethnic Communities Council gets some project funding from the NSW Climate Change Fund, among other sources, to ‘promote the principles of multiculturalism’ through  ‘advocacy, education, and community development’. 

What does this actually entail? I read their website so you don’t have to. That makes me pretty much Christlike because, oh my God. Apparently they were founded by ‘a mass rally of all ethnic communities in the presence of two former Prime Ministers, Hon. Gough Whitlam and Rt Hon. Malcolm Fraser’. I don’t know how that is even possible, physically speaking.

They’re the kind of people who use ‘diverse’ to describe an individual. ‘Culturally And Linguistically Diverse (CALD)’ is the term they use. They will never say ‘person of colour’ because that implies its corollary, ‘white’. Naming ‘whiteness’ implies whiteness as a category, with potential for resistance and critique. They do not want this.

ECC staff are a mix of whites and ‘CALDs’. The sole energy and water staff member is white and has been for as long as I can find records. The ECC has a remit of ‘Ensuring the rights of ethnic communities including effective participation in decisions which affect them and sharing of community resources.’.

What have they done about the water crisis? Zero. As far as their website and what I’ve been able to determine from other research goes, absolutely nothing. This at a time when the situation has become so desperate various crowdfunded campaigns staffed by volunteers have been driving up with vans filled with bottled water for the communities.

One might say the remit of the ECC is policy making rather than direct service provision. Yet it does not appear to have made a single submission to one of the 100000 government processes they are constantly writing to, nor raised the issue at one of the 10000000 forums they’re constantly attending.

Instead the ECC devotes its resources to some of the most ‘wtf?’ crap you can imagine. They ran a program called ‘Saving Water in Asian Restaurants’, going around telling Asian restaurants to use more ‘water efficient’ woks and also buying them. Which… thanks, I guess.  

They also ran a project sending bilingual trainers round to tell Arabs, Asians and other ‘CALDs’ how not to waste food, which… like, have you ever shared a kitchen with a white person?

(I wondered for a moment when exactly racists made the transition from making fun of us for eating the wrong bit of an animal, to this fresh bullshit. They I realised they exist in a superposition of both these states simultaneously).

The mentality in evidence here is so purely colonial. BIPOC just don’t know how to do things.  Money is available on that basis – but not from a position of dignity and power, or control of resources, or the simple acknowledgement people need water to live and you should not fucking steal it from them.

Non-Indigenous people in Walgett and other towns are also very much suffering – albeit with higher average ability to mitigate due to income, general access to resources and a greater tendency/ ability to leave. This is important. So often ‘poor whites’ are invoked as a reason to overlook race. In fact, these persons often become collateral damage to the extractivism, indifference and complicity which racism plays a part in legitimising. (See also: welfare reform in US). 

I don’t want to dunk too specifically on the ECC. (Well obviously I do, because I just did.) But it’s not just them. This mix of ignorance and complicity is mirrored up and down the advocacy ‘space’. 

Take, for instance, this report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF). Funded by Energy Consumers Australia (also described in this post), the ISF has been assisting cotton growers and large irrigators to access cheaper renewable generation. Green capitalism at its best – renewable energy used to help choke off the water supply more cheaply and profitably.

This is white supremacy in action. Resources necessary for life are seized from largely Indigenous communities and re-invested into profits for white-dominated industries. This occurs with complicity of ‘progressive’ orgs who both ‘conscience-launder’ and provide funding, personnel and support. 

(The ISF has also created an interactive ‘what would it be like’ VR climate change simulator. This was a) before the fires and b) because rich whites, boba liberals and other settler colonials find their own science-fictional pain more compelling than the actually existing suffering of Indigenous and poor people).

The people working at these organisations are well-intentioned and often fun, personable and ‘progressive’ to hang out with. If you asked them they’d probably say, ‘Well it’s not ideal… but what else can we do? The irrigators are going to take the water anyway, might as well do it carbon neutrally’. Yet another turn of the amazing cycle where white people, rich people and the intersect between the two create a problem which fucks you over. Then they say it’s too late to solve, except through the barest mitigation which also, uncoincidentally, fucks you over. 

The irony of course is that if any community has a claim to ‘expertise’ in sustainability and resource management it’s Indigenous people. Perhaps the good souls at the ECC could seek that expertise, instead of telling BIPOC ridiculous crap about how to recycle our strawberries….?

*

What if Indigenous sovereignty? What if reparations? What if Indigenous people had an absolute veto over mining and fracking projects on their land?

What if we demanded Energy Consumers Australia cease giving grants to cotton farming and irrigator extractivists, and remove these individuals from their reference committee/ advisory group? What if we demanded they and the ECC instead provide funding and support for access to basic resources in Walgett, Bourke, Menindee and other drought affected towns? (They have public forums a few times a year).

What if we asked the ISF why they have been collaborating with such damaging extractivist processes, and demanded they, too, divert resources towards the water crisis in Wallgett, Bourke, Menindee?

What if we lived in a completely different world?

Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities

Seize the bureaucracy

I read a hypothetical once about an animal that evolved to be so cute no-one would hurt it even though it was helpless and unable to look after itself. Something similar is going on with the Australian energy bureaucracy except here the survival strategy is being so boring nobody treats it as a site of action despite it being useless and/ or actively destructive re climate change.

Part One of this post will interrogate the rhetorical framing that calls on politicians to show ‘leadership’. This strategy is failing and will continue to do so. Treating politicians as unconstrained moral actors, who can or will respond to emotive invocations of ‘our children’, ‘emergency’ etc, misconstrues the nature of a system which structurally privileges those who benefit from emissions and disenfranchises those who are hurt by them.

Part Two will show that it’s misleading to posit the problem as an interaction between ‘government’ and ‘market’ as these are not distinct but co-constitutive. I’ll explain why I think bureaucracy, sitting at the intersection of these spheres, is a potentially effective yet under-utilised site of action, which we could use to leverage the ’state’ to act outside of the electoral cycle.  

Part Three will outline a potential starting point for action targeted at the Australian energy bureaucracy.  I’ll describe a piece of legislation, the National Energy Objective, which currently inhibits action to reduce emissions. I’ll make some suggestions for how it could be changed and what we might do to make that happen.  

Parts One and Two are a mix of philosophical and descriptive. Part Three is practical in a sense of, ‘tell me who should I yell at and where’. If you have limited attention, invest it accordingly.

Part One

Literally every day someone – journalists, activists, concerned people on Twitter – calls on politicians to show ‘leadership’ on climate. It has become synonymous with saying ‘this is bad’.

There is a range of intentions and I don’t doubt most deploying this framing do so in good faith. Their reasoning seems to be as follows:

  • Invoking leadership as an ideal, alongside the scale of the tragedy represented by the fires, will activate the dormant moral sensibilities of those in government; and
  • Decrying politicians’ lack of leadership will stoke popular anger and a will for change which translates into incentives at the ballot box.

Neither of these mechanisms is working very well. I have some theories as to why.

Elections are bordered but climate change is not a bordered problem

There is a difference between democracy as a normative ideal – everyone has the right to self-determination, input into decisions that affect them, etc – and democracy as an actually existing administrative system. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in a problem like climate change, which does not respect national boundaries and where activities within one territory can have calamitous effects in another.

The problem with state-led solutions to climate are that even in its ideal form, the state’s ultimate accountability is to voters within its borders, not persons outside of them. ScoMo and Albo can tour coal country forever, weighing that up against votes from ‘inner city greens’, but when Chennai, a city of ten million, is running out of water due to climate change-exacerbated drought there is a fundamental deficit in accountability that cannot be solved through Australian national elections.

In theory international institutions are supposed to mitigate this. Mostly they don’t; structurally speaking, they cannot. At the level of international governance, high-polluting states are relatively empowered while victims of that pollution are disempowered. The United Nations is a body constituted of states; it cannot be expected to override state interests on any consistent basis. Internationally-brokered climate agreements have historically been weak, unenforced and their goals unmet.

Within and across borders, those who feel the worst harms of climate change are systematically disenfranchised while those who benefit from emissions-causing processes are over-enfranchised.

Money buys access to government and climate change is rich people’s fault. If this isn’t obvious then you probably don’t need to be on this blog.

In Australia some electoral boundaries have been drawn so as to weight votes from mining and farming communities – two of the highest emitting sectors – up to six times more highly than votes from urban regions. By contrast those who suffer most from climate change, including remote and Indigenous communities, are under-enfranchised.

I would love it if, moved by the tears of Greta Thunberg, the masses rose up and began to DEMAND CLIMATE ACTION NOW, but it looks like both Liberal and Labor have made a calculation what popular anger exists isn’t enough to outweigh the real electoral disincentives against said action.

What leverage can we possibly achieve begging ScoMo for ‘leadership’ when, as the country burns, Anthony Albanese is simultaneously pledging allegiance to coal exports? You might as well wet yourself in front of the firing squad and hope they feel sorry for you. It’s not impossible this will work, in the way quantum tunnelling isn’t impossible. But really, have some dignity.

The definition of insanity

In a way it feels redundant to create theoretical explanations for why ‘arise, voters!’ is ineffective at fighting climate change. It is not working, either domestically or internationally. Refusing to cut emissions is bipartisan and what gestures there are towards changing that are pathetic and dishonest.

This isn’t to say we should devote no effort to the electoral process. Vast amounts of power are concentrated in the apparatus of the state; minor differences in corruption and venality within that can be very consequential. But we should be realistic about the limits of this strategy and prepared to deploy a diversity of tactics. In the immediate future, meaningful responses to climate change will require participation by institutions of government, but it cannot be led by government. Defining what needs to be done, creating the energy and will to do it – these can’t be pegged to electoral outcomes.

We need strategies that mobilise support which already exists, and which can be effective regardless of who wins whichever parliamentary horse race. Divestment campaigns such as Stop Adani have had some cool successes lately.

Part Two

Implicit in calls for ‘leadership’ is an assumption about the underlying goodness of government as distinct from the private or corporate sphere. There’s an idea of ‘government’ as a moral actor whose accountability is to ‘the people’. This is invoked either as a literal description of reality or as an ideal intended to shame members of said government into action.

This somewhat parental relationship with public authority lies, I think, behind the strategy, beloved of white enviros, of imploring governments to declare a ‘Climate Emergency’ – despite the non-specificity and even outright irresponsibility of that framing. Like parents, our leaders should love and protect us; like children, our only capacity is to plead and tell them we are hurt, not to understand or prescribe solutions to the injury. (Uncoincidentally, this rhetoric is often accompanied with highly commodified images of distressed children).

This isn’t working. I have yet to hear how declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ leads to substantive and positive change, though I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. Fundamentally, political leaders are not our parents (and parents aren’t that good anyway). In the energy sector, as everywhere, government is merged and intertwined with corporate interests on both a formal and informal basis. It is not meaningful to regard them as ontologically separate categories.

Wayne Swan, Stanwell, coal, the revolving door

The other day former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan was appointed as a director of the Stanwell Corporation, which owns 40 percent of the coal-fired generating capacity in Queensland. Critics pointed out this was part of a ‘revolving door’ between government and high polluting industry, also exemplified in former Coalition energy minister Ian MacFarlane being chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, former Liberal minister Helen Coonan being chair of Minerals Council of Australia, and former Labor minister Martin Ferguson working for oil and gas group APPEA.  

It makes little sense to regard government as a free-floating entity independent of its subcomponent parts, i.e., individual persons with incentives deeply embedded in entities that profit from emissions.

Corporate entities are embedded in official governance structures

Even at the level of official, structural governance, nominally ‘independent’ public agencies are intertwined with the corporate sector.

Take, for instance, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which plans and operates the grid. 40 percent of its members are drawn from industry – profit-seeking companies that buy or sell energy. There is no representation of environmental or scientific research bodies, and (of course) no Indigenous representation. Indeed, such organisations are not even allowed to become members under current legislation, which limits this opportunity to energy market participants.

Bureaucracy as a site of action

AEMO is an interesting case. Neither strictly public nor private, it forms part of a whole substratum of energy governance/ regulatory agencies which variously plan, regulate, fund and administer the energy industry. Together, these organisations help determine who gets paid for supplying electricity and how much, how infrastructure gets planned and constructed, and therefore – to an extent – what power sources we use and how much of them there are.

Officially, energy agencies implement decisions on behalf of elected governments. In practice the causation flows both ways, with bureaucrats making recommendations and engaging in day-to-day practice which then gets incorporated into policy. Bureaucracy is the praxis of government. It is the means by which ‘policy’ becomes substantiated into material, observable actions, determining who gets paid and what gets built.

I believe bureaucracies are a useful, and thus far under-explored, target for activism/ direct action on climate change.

They have electoral independence. Bureaucracies have day to day independence and are not beholden to voting cycles in the way of Albo and Morrison. This is by design as it enables consistency in administration of the ‘state’ regardless of electoral processes. Action to reduce emissions can be implemented at this level between elections and can be maintained in the face of fluctuating electoral outcomes.

They have power. Recently Belgium went 541 days without a sitting government. During that time life continued essentially as normal, with civil service and public agencies continuing to perform their ordinary functions. Apart from this being funny – it supports my intuition, at least, that most of us could lie face down on the carpet most of the time with no substantive change to human welfare – this illustrates how public, regulatory and civil service institutions have substantive practical power.

They have access to technical expertise. Working out the technical requirements to cut emissions will require major work by scientists, engineers and other specialists. Activists don’t have access to these resources; bureaucracies do.

The bad guys are doing it. Heavily polluting and emissions-generating companies and industries, including mining suppliers and fossil fuel investors, devote a huge amount of time, money and resources making submissions, attending forums, hiring full time personnel, and otherwise lobbying energy regulatory agencies. Two things I can tell you firsthand: that hanging round them is extremely boring, and that they know what they are doing.

*

Currently the governance apparatus surrounding the Australian energy sector is obscure, labyrinthine and highly duplicative. It combines chilling indifference to terrifying problems with a vast over-allocation of resources to jobs that don’t need to be done by anyone. It also has a lot of power to take action on climate which is currently going un-utilised. In the next section I’ll propose a particular piece of legislative reform we could demand – changing the National Energy Objective (NEO).

Part Three: the National Energy Objective

The National Energy Objective (NEO) is a law that provides the overarching goal for public energy agencies, determining how they plan and run the energy system. Currently the NEO is:

“to promote efficient investment in, and efficient operation and use of, electricity services for the long term interests of consumers of electricity with respect to:

  • price, quality, safety and reliability and security of supply of electricity
  • the reliability, safety and security of the national electricity system.”

There are some problems with this.

One is that the NEO contains no reference to emissions reduction. This inhibits action on climate, both by providing cover for those who are ideologically/ materially opposed to such, and by constraining other agencies and individuals who have some desire to act but are hamstrung by official goals as set out in legislation.

Another is that the NEO is framed in terms of consumer rights, not human ones. The fundamental consumer right is the right to consume – but, as previously discussed, unconstrained energy consumption conflicts with our human interest in living in a world that is not on fire (a goal I take rather personally).

Another is that the NEO contains no reference to affordability, equity or justice. Under the terms of the NEO, if you want to help poor people access energy, the key/ only means is via a ‘trickle down’ strategy of cutting prices for all entities – including, for instance, BHP – so that for every dollar any given person saves off their bill, BHP saves many more dollars which they spend digging up iron ore. This doesn’t bode well for a future where meaningful cuts in emissions will require major redistribution of wealth if we are to achieve any semblance of justice.

Amending the NEO to, for instance, contain a goal:

  • to promote emissions reduction in the electricity sector in line with limiting global average temperatures to a maximum of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”

and to substitute the ‘consumer rights’ approach for a more human-centred framing, such as:

  • “to promote access to energy for health, safety and social participation”

The wording here, of course, is speculative – the point is that framing emissions reduction and equity as goals at all would represent substantive change in leveraging bureaucracy towards better objectives.

Who can change the NEO?

The NEO is set by the COAG Energy Council, comprised of Australian federal, state and territory energy and resource ministers and the New Zealand energy minister. Typically the Council meets about twice a year, with the agenda (and precise location) not released in advance. This seems to indicate a desire to avoid the potential for direct action and the ensuing scrutiny that has fallen on IMARC, for instance.

COAG also works with and is influenced by a number of different energy governance bodies, including:

  • The Australian Energy Market Commission
  • The Australian Energy Market Operator
  • Energy Consumers Australia

In the next section I’ll describe a bit about these agencies, what they do and don’t do with respect to climate, and how amending the NEO might change that.

The AEMC                                                                                                           

The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) makes laws determining how different entities in the energy industry pay/ get paid for using and producing it as well as the technical standards they have to meet and legal procedures they have to follow. Things like generators, transmission networks, gas pipelines and so on.

The AEMC is explicit in disavowing climate harms/ emissions reduction as an impetus for how it does its job:

 “These objectives do not specifically require the Commission to have regard to the long-term interests of consumers with respect to climate change or the environment. Instead, the national energy objectives direct the Commission to consider the achievement of economic efficiency.

The NEO shapes the AEMC’s response to climate in ways that are bad:

  • In assessing different technologies (eg coal versus solar), the AEMC strives to be ‘technology neutral’ in the pursuit of economic efficiency. It considers monetary costs to investors and consumers but not our planetary interest in not being on fire.
  • The ‘economic efficiency’-based framing means the AEMC’s primary accountability is to profit-seeking entities which benefit from emissions (plus some minor participation by government-funded ‘community’ organisations, also known as the non-profit industrial complex).
  • The ‘consumer’ framing of the NEO means there is essentially no discussion, or creation of a legal and regulatory framework towards, constraining demand/ consumption to reduce emissions while maintaining equitable access to electricity.
  • AEMC personnel, especially senior ones, are nearly exclusively drawn from said corporate entities. On a technical level, there is a near total lack of expertise in the environmental or scientific dimensions of climate change and a concomitant lack of interest.

The AEMC holds and attends numerous public forums and conferences throughout the year including a big regulatory conference which happens once a year around July-August in Brisbane, where a whole lot of other agencies (eg ACCC), government reps, corporate lobbyist types etc are also in attendance. The main office is also conveniently located in the Sydney CBD near the Town Hall.

AEMO

As previously mentioned AEMO plans and operate the grid. In its current iteration, it is probably a bit more ideologically inclined towards acting on climate than the AEMC, but it is still very much constrained by the terms of its existence as represented by the NEO.

A big part of AEMO’s job is as an infrastructure planner – deciding when and where new transmission lines will be built, which in turn is based on forecasting when and where new energy resources (like electricity generators) will be located. This entails creating ‘scenarios’ for whether and how much the consumption of energy will increase, and which technologies will be used to supply that consumption.

There is, of course, a bit of chicken-and-egg going on here. AEMO declaring that, say, that Area X is a good place to put a windfarm and then helping build powerlines so you could build a windfarm there makes it significantly more likely that a windfarm will, in fact, be built. AEMO is cagey about this aspect since like all institutions it wants to take as little responsibility as possible. However this ‘system shaping’ role is one reason why it’s important AEMO’s goals are pitched towards emissions reduction.

Similarly, AEMO is well placed in a technical sense to determine how deep cuts in energy use might be achieved through a combination of energy efficiency and reduced consumption, and how those cuts in consumption might be allocated such that emissions are reduced while people’s essential needs are met.

The NEO as it stands inhibits this work from getting done. In planning the grid, AEMO takes into account the profitability of different technologies, interest from investors, and potential future government policies and actions, but it does not directly seek to address climate change. As a result whether and how much AEMO engineers the grid to reduce emissions is heavily dependent on things like the degree of partisan/ bipartisan support for climate action, and on investor interest in ‘green’ technology vis a vis fossil fuels. Much of the necessary work described above is not done or is confined to ‘scenario modelling’ which doesn’t get implemented.

AEMO holds and attends various public events including sending representatives to the Brisbane conference. It also has offices in the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs.

Energy Consumers Australia

Energy Consumers Australia (ECA) are largely a grant-giving organisation, supposedly the ‘voice of residential and small business consumers’. The NEO enables them to channel money towards high emissions industry. For example, Major Energy Users is an industry lobby group representing fossil fuel suppliers and users such as Orica, Iluka Resources and Bluescope Steel, which has received a total of $2.4 million from the ECA. Some of this cash been used to advocate against energy efficiency schemes and in favour of redefining activities such as burning paper as ‘renewable energy’.  

The ECA holds regular public forums in most capital cities which you can find on their website. It has an office in the Sydney CBD, near the Circular Quay area.

*

If I may break character for a moment, it’s been a shit year and it’s hard to keep going when shit is so fucked up and bullshit. Let the illustrated words of Woody Guthrie bring us comfort

Here’s to a better 2020 and remember, direct action gets the goods!

-TB

Green Energy Will Not Save Us

Renewables are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for emissions reduction.

A solar powered oil well might sound like an organic cigarette, or a low-calorie cyanide pill, but they exist and this kind of absurdity is why we’re not getting out of this mess.

Green tech bros are just tech bros are just bros are just generalised assholes.*

In this post I will illustrate the following:

  • Cutting emissions requires reducing demand/ consumption of energy as well as changing sources of supply.
  • Renewable energy businesses are businesses, profit-seeking entities as opposed to disinterested advocates for people and the environment. In many cases they are financially entwined with the same entities and industrial processes responsible for GHG emissions, either through direct ownership or financial contracting.
  • The predominance of ‘clean energy’ within the enviro discourse reflects co-option of that discourse by said profit-seeking entities. 

This information gives rise to certain concrete demands/proposals, namely:

  • Emissions reduction must be established as a goal independent of renewables
  • Government must cease subsidising fossil fuel extraction via ‘green’ power
  • ‘Green’ energy companies must divest from fossil fuels; and
  • The Australian environmental movement needs to divest from the WWF, an organisation which systematically deploys paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people.

Renewables aren’t enough

It would be nice if we could fix climate change by doing everything we’re doing but with different power sources but unfortunately that doesn’t work. Within states and internationally the penetration of renewable energy has been rapidly increasing while emissions either flatline or continue to rise (but mostly rise).  

It gets clearer (and bleaker) when you compare individual countries. If you’ve worked in the sector you’ve probably heard how Germany is leading the ‘Energiewende’ (energy transition) with 38% renewable generation. By contrast Pakistan has less than 9% renewables. But from the actual emissions data, in 2017 Germany emitted 797 Mt of C02 or 9.7t per person while the Pakistan figures are 197 Mt and 1.0t respectively. Germany, then, is emitting about 4x more on in total and 10x on a per capita basis.

(I chose these countries essentially at ‘rich world/ poor world’ random, but you could do lots of similar pairings – Norway and Sri Lanka, for instance. This hasn’t stopped white enviros from blaming climate change on brown people for having the temerity to exist.)

The numbers fluctuate but the overall picture is clear. Installing green energy isn’t enough by itself to cut emissions. What’s going on?

There is no truly zero emissions power.

Entropy sucks and ‘clean’ energy is a misnomer. Over their lifecycle, even the ‘greenest’ technologies generate emissions and other impacts. Renewables are better than fossil fuels but in no way are they environmentally cost-free.

Materials for constructing solar panels and wind turbines have to be mined and refined and the machines themselves made and transported. This is done using oil and gas burning equipment, generating GHG. The extraction process creates vicious localised environmental and health consequences, which disproportionately fall on poor and Indigenous people.

Solar and wind are intermittent power sources – they are only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Maintaining availability at other times requires a mix of strategies, such as using storage technologies such as batteries (which themselves have an emissions footprint), building overcapacity of renewables in different areas then using transmission infrastructure to transport the energy over long distances, and deploying ‘firming’ capacity at times when renewables are not available. At present there are no zero emissions options for this capacity, which mostly takes the form of gas, nuclear and coal.

To cut emissions in a way that will meaningfully address climate change we need to use less energy. This will take some combination of greater efficiency and just producing/consuming less stuff – which, in terms of both technology and justice, is totally feasible. Within and across borders, energy consumption is highly wasteful and unfairly distributed. I, for one, am surrounded by useless shit I don’t need and actively don’t want.

The relative absence of this demand from movements like the Climate Strike reflects, I believe, the extent to which the enviro discourse has been co-opted under capitalism. Renewable energy is a thing you can sell. Selling less stuff is not.

Speaking of, renewable energy businesses are capitalists. This isn’t a slur, it’s a description: they invest in assets and seek finance to generate returns. Their business is selling electricity. They will not tell you to use less of it, even though that is something we desperately need to do.

‘Green’ energy should not be at the centre of the climate movement

In the sense of ownership, investment and incentives, there is no hard line between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ energy. Many of the same entities that own/benefit from fossil fuels also have a stake in renewables, either via direct ownership or financial contracting arrangements.

‘Green’ energy is used to directly power the extraction and supply of fossil fuels. Some of this comes via subsidy from government. In 2018-19 ARENA, the Australian renewables funding agency, gave oil company Santos $4.2 million to pump crude oil using solar and batteries. The justification was that if the oil pumps ran on solar, they would use slightly less oil… in the process of extracting oil to be exported and burned, producing vast quantities of CO2. In 2018 Santos was responsible for 17.7 Mt of emissions – more than Ethiopia, a country of 112 million people.

The ARENA people seem pretty happy with themselves, they have plans to keep doing this. “This project… provides a test case for deployment to thousands of other sites in the Australian oil and gas sector,” said Mr Darren Miller, the CEO. (I have come across more people called Darren in the energy industry than women of colour in totality).

ARENA is also funding/collaborating with the WWF, an organisation that systematically hires paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people worldwide.

Incidentally, GetUp sent me an email the other day asking me to help save ARENA being defunded. While I still think it’s better for ARENA to exist than not, there need to be conditions on support. Asking a renewables agency to divest from fossil fuels and also, well, murderers feels a bit like leaving a note for your housemate not to shit on the carpet. But, here we are.  

https://twitter.com/rabbitandcoffee/status/1204225267499036672/photo/1

Renewable energy companies are financially intertwined with high-polluting industrial users via energy derivative contracts.  

Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are typically long-term contracts between an electricity generator and a buyer that pays for a quantity of energy produced. PPAs can entail the physical delivery of energy, as with (say) solar panels installed on site. Or, they can be purely financial arrangements where the user still sources energy from the grid but exchanges payments with the generator based on the price and quantity of electricity.

Large industrial users often sign PPAs with ‘green’ power businesses to hedge against fluctuations in future prices, caused by the changing balance between supply and demand for electricity. Green power businesses derive revenue from these contracts, which are often a condition for ‘green’ projects getting off the ground. This enables more renewables to be installed, but also constrains the industry from advocating for goals like emissions reduction, which would go against their clients’ interests.

It all gets quite complicated but the point is PPAs give renewables a stake in the ongoing solvency/success of the other party to the contract as well as an interest in maintaining good relationships both publicly and privately. Solar farms can’t lead a movement against climate change when they are getting revenue from high-polluting clients like steel manufacturer Bluescope – which has lobbied heavily against a carbon tax and other mechanisms to reduce emissions.

Greenwashing, co-option, a Venn diagram of bad

Investing in ‘green’ energy can be a deferral tactic against other, more costly (but potentially more effective) strategies for emissions reduction such as closing mines and fossil fuel plants and pricing carbon.

This year Molycop, a mining manufacturer, signed a long term solar/wind PPA with Flow Power, an energy retailer with mixed portfolio of renewables and non-renewables. An additional incentive was that Flow Power brokered access to ARENA support via the ‘demand response’ program (quite technical, won’t explain here but this a rock on which many consciences have foundered).

Molycop recently won an ‘environmental excellence’ award from this PPA. It has lobbied to be exempted from prospective obligations to reduce emissions.

Jamie McDyre, the general manager of Flow Power, is currently running for a board position at the Clean Energy Council, an industry group with lots of pictures of skies on their website. Curiously, reducing emissions isn’t listed as one of the Council’s goals – although ‘standing up for the industry’, ‘increasing demand’ and ‘growing the sector’ are.

Thinking about this makes me very, very tired.

What we can do?

To use the technical term shit is just so obviously fucked up and bullshit but it’s probably better to know about it than not.

Emissions reduction needs to be a goal above, and independent of, ‘green’ energy. Focusing explicitly on cutting emissions yields better results than just building renewables for their own sake. This needs to be reflected in messaging by the Climate Strike and any other climate movement. Ultimately renewables are (part of) the means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

Stop subsidising fossil fuels via renewables. ARENA needs to cut this crap out and so does any other government agency/ non-profit/ NGO. There are lots of opportunities for public engagement with ARENA incidentally, they hold ‘Insights’ forums a couple of times a year in Melbourne and Sydney which you can register to attend.    

Divest from fossil fuels. Green energy should not support the extraction and supply of fossil fuels, either by directly powering this activity or by helping fossil fuel investors manage their financial and reputational risk.

Divest from murderers. It’s not a subtle point but the WWF should not be welcome anywhere in the environmental movement.

NEXT POST! I’ll look at the bureaucratic morass surrounding energy regulation, how this blocks action on climate, and stuff we could do about that.

*Further elaboration in future post.

First Post; or, On chocolate squares for ExxonMobil lobbyists

The other day I went to a forum for young professionals in energy and climate. I wasn’t super keen because this would mean leaving my home at a time when outside was, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly foul. NSW was burning. The air was full of smoke, the skyline eerily blurred. It felt like a weird mix of the apocalyptic and surreally predictable. The thing people had said for so long was going to happen was actually, visibly happening.  

I went because my friend who is clever and patient invited me and I thought other such persons might be there, to speak honestly about what was going on and how to change it, because if we cannot tell the truth when things are literally on fire when can we tell it?

No.

First there were some speeches by people from the renewables industry. Some white lady told us how she used to be an ExxonMobil lobbyist but now works at a thinktank telling other people how to invest in clean energy. ‘I know, I was the bad guy!’ she giggled, and the audience obligingly tittered so she would know her pre-emptive bid for forgiveness had been granted. She and the other (white) panellists then proceeded to give us tips on how to fix the climate, which boiled down to being nice (to avoid alienating oil barons who might otherwise hear your message), watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and having kids (because before then she apparently didn’t care about other people).

Then a couple of white guys got up and showed some slides to illustrate that climate change is a) happening and b) bad. Wary of killing the mood, one of them broke character midway. ‘I just want to say, there’s hope. I used to come here, I’d park my bike on the rack, I’d be the only bike around. Now that rack is completely full of bikes!’

Automatically he gestured towards the open window under which his bike was parked. We looked – and saw roiling clouds of ash on the skyline. Because the world, as previously mentioned, was on fire.

None of the speakers mentioned power, interests or incentives. None seemed to consider the possibility that, far from being innocents in search of the right documentary, the ExxonMobils of the world and their enablers understand quite well what they are doing. And that climate change, therefore, is not (just) a problem of persuasion, but of resistance – finding the means to disrupt their activities.

A dude from the WWF, which systematically deploys paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people worldwide, was wandering round smiling at people. I wonder if he knew this about his organisation. He seemed nice enough I guess.

At the close of presentations the speakers got squares of organic chocolate to take home.

https://thenib.com/kc-green

About this blog

This is a blog about the Australian energy industry, climate, and ways we can leverage one to be less destructive of the other.

The goal is to describe ‘supply chains’ which produce and contribute to the climate crisis. These include not only the producers and users of fossil fuels, but also government and regulatory agencies which enable them, as well as nominally progressive institutions including some renewable energy businesses and non-profit/ green organisations.

This blog will seek to shed light on the following questions:

Why, despite growth in renewable energy, are emissions still rising? Increasing ‘green’ power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for decarbonisation. The predominance of ‘clean energy’ within the enviro discourse reflects the capture of that discourse by profit-seeking entities. Any successful climate strategy must entail reducing energy consumption as well as changing sources of supply.  

How do legal and regulatory processes in the Australian energy sector block action on climate change? Nominally ‘independent’ energy agencies are structurally constituted to privilege the interests of entities causing climate change.

Who are the ‘good guys’? Many nominally ‘progressive’ organisations, including non-profits and green power companies, have actively assisted with and/or been complicit with these processes.  

Against eco-fascism and for climate justice. The mainstream enviro movement in Australia tends to ignore or devalue the rights and wellbeing of Indigenous communities, persons of colour and persons across the border. Deliberately or inadvertently, many environmentalists promote a nationalistic ideology that assists in mainstreaming far-right, anti-poor and white supremacist ideas.     

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This isn’t intended as a purely theoretical exercise. Rather, I want to share information as a resource for those seeking to resist and disrupt these processes. While the issues won’t be unique to Australia, I’ll initially focus on that context to reflect my state of knowledge and yield analysis that tends towards specific strategies for action.   

Ideally, this can also be a platform for likeminded persons to connect, share information and support each other. If that’s you, please feel free to reach out at circuitbreakers[at]protonmail.com.

Thanks for coming!

Tahan Buay

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