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De-mobilisation: Avoiding the post COP doldrums

Posted by KM on June 27, 2009

Anthony Kelly, June 2009

Original version of this article at ‘The Change Agency’

The Australian grassroots climate movement, like its counterparts in other parts of the world, risks a period of serious and substantial de-mobilisation of energy, resources, momentum and strategic direction following the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009.

The full impact and strategic consequences of this period will be determined largely by how the key groups and leadership of the climate movement frame, communicate and act up until and during the Summit itself as well as in the immediate aftermath. This article seeks to raise awareness of the dynamics of de-mobilisation and present some options for climate movement groups to respond in the months leading up to Copenhagen and in the period following.

2009 is undoubtedly a crucial year in the international effort to address climate change, culminating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, from 7 to 18 December. COP 15 as it is known is the culmination of an international framework of negotiations that began way back n 1990, and saw the signing of the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) in 1992, which aims to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes.

Climate groups throughout the world have mobilised huge resources in order to influence their respective government parties in the lead-up to this conference. Most of, if not all climate movement groups and networks in Australia have made a scientifically sound outcome of the COP conference a core if not the primary strategic campaign over 2009. Many plan to send delegations to continue their influence to the door of the conference. Greenpeace International has stated that COP “represents the best chance we have of reversing current emissions trends in time to prevent the climate chaos that we are hurtling towards.” According to Tony Mohr, the ACF’s Climate Change Campaigner, (i>“The Copenhagen meeting is probably our best, but possibly our last, chance to avoid dangerous climate change.”[1]

The Australian Conservation Foundation is optimistic that a global agreement to stabilise CO2 levels at 450 parts per million is a possible outcome from the conference. Greenpeace International is demanding legally binding emission reduction obligations for industrialised countries, as a group, of at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. In St Kilda, thousands of people mobilsed by the Climate Emergency Network formed a huge human sign calling upon the Australian government to negotiate a “meaningful international carbon reduction targets” at Copenhagen. Everywhere and in every way, the focus is on what happens at Copenhagen. Many movement activists report that the framing and communication from key climate groups has been about COP being our “last, best hope”. Much of this communication is internal to the movement in efforts to draw activist attention and energy to work around influencing the COP outcomes. Other communication strategies directed outward at media and politicians also highlight the importance and the desperate need for a substantial target and agreement. These movement communication approaches will be discussed further below.

Three possible outcomes at COP

Three broadly discernible outcomes of the COP event in December could be outlined as follows:

Outcome scenario 1: Strong targets and a binding international commitment to stabilise and reduce CO2. The Obama administration provides strong and visionary leadership, China and India comes on board, a strong international consensus is reached which creates impressive agreements that reach or approach the sought after targets of the majority of climate movement groups. Global media largely hail the agreement as historical shift away from disaster which is echoed by the more mainstream climate NGOs. There is minimal criticism or analysis about the ability or actual willingness of states to actually meet targets and begin the shift away from a high carbon economy. Industry representatives hail the agreement whilst continuing to position themselves for trade based profiteering in the new global carbon markets. Movement activists and engaged citizens are broadly positive about the outcome and perceive a movement success.
Outcome scenario 2: A mediocre but reasonably expected agreement is achieved. The US proposes strong targets and make impressive but non-binding commitments. China and India demonstrate tangible concern and progress but a compromise agreement is reached. The outcome falls short of movement’s hopes but meets many commentators’ expectations. The agreement is hailed by some commentators and mainstream NGO’s and is highly criticized by many others, which leaves most movement activists and concerned citizens confused as to how ‘successful’ the movement has been.
Outcome scenario 3: Obama fails to live up to hopes for strong leadership on the issue. China calls for delays and other countries point to the financial crisis and a reason to delay. A very weak agreement is reached with flexible targets which generates widespread and almost unanimous criticism from commentators and climate NGO’s. Conservative media and industry representatives hail the outcome as sensible and prudent whilst movement activists hold an almost universal view that the outcome represents movement failure.

Whilst the relative potential of these scenarios remains difficult to assess, each of these potential scenarios form serious challenges to the still emerging climate movement in Australia. Each scenario threatens to seriously de-mobilise climate movement activists and those concerned citizens who are considering or starting to become involved in movement activities. Whilst there is a great diversity amongst grassroots groups and large climate NGOs, with so much invested in a positive outcome at Copenhagen, the climate movement across the spectrum risks serious disenchantment and demobilisation.

Perception of Success

Whilst appearing a positive outcome, the first scenario posited above poses unique challenge to the climate movement to prevent history repeating itself. According to peace researcher Johan Gultung,[2] and reiterated by Australian nonviolence researcher and author Brian Martin, the high-profile signing of international arms reduction treaties between the Cold war nuclear powers throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties had a tangible de-mobilising impact upon the global anti-nuclear movement of the time.

Under domestic pressure to reduce nuclear arsenals, governments were able to develop arms reduction, nonproliferation and test ban treaties and agreements which could be painted as genuine political outcomes. In reality, and with the benefit of historical analysis, the majority of Cold War treaties represented acts that could be easily achieved by nuclear states whilst not serious impinging upon their strategic dominance or war fighting capabilities. By the time the first Partial Atmospheric Nuclear Test Ban treaty was signed in 1963, the above ground testing of nuclear weapons was essentially obsolete and could be signed away to meet a key movement demand. In the long running Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, (SALT I and II and then START) treaty partners agreed over many years to reduce largely superseded, overly expensive or redundant weapon systems, which could be replaced by newer, smaller and more tactically useful nuclear systems. These treaty negotiations attracted intensive media coverage as one US, USSR and European administration after another engaged in the continual negotiation rounds. They captured the peace and anti-nuclear movements’ predominate focus over decades. Throughout this time, treaties served to demobilise movements by giving the appearance that the problem was being dealt with by elites and thereby dampening public concern. Faced with large scale mobilisations, which by today’s standards would equate to millions on the streets, calling for the reduction of the threat of nuclear holocaust, each US and European government in turn were able to point to and eventuality sign with enormous fanfare a particular treaty. Each treaty signed after movement ‘demands’ provided a ‘perception of success’ to movement activists and a quandary for further mobilisation. Strategically very little had changed, most treaties failed to stop the build-up and spread of weapons, the underlying structural threats of nuclear war remained untouched and anti-nuclear networks left with the task of further mobilisation after yet another false ‘victory’. In this way, treaties and high level agreements throughout the decades of the Cold War, whether deliberately or unintentionally, often served to undermine, co-opt and de-mobilise domestic peace movements.

In a similar and related area, the widespread and highly active anti-uranium movement in Australia from the late seventies and early eighties saw large sections of the Australian population, every large environmental and peace NGO, church groups and unions actively oppose the mining and export of uranium. Historically large rallies, national direct action camps at mining sites, union bans and blockades were common movement tactics which succeeded in mobilising thousands at any one time. With a network structure akin to Australia’s growing network of local Climate Action Groups, local suburban and rural anti-uranium groups numbers in their hundreds at the peak of the Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM) existence. The elite of the Australian Labor party deliberately and systematically undermined union support for the movement and sought to co-opt the movement’s energy and political demands. The adoption of the ‘Three Mines Policy’ (“no new mines”) provided a perfect political compromise. In one swoop it was able to provide a ‘perception of partial victory’ for the movement which almost instantaneously led to a rapid and disastrous demobilisation effect.

Deliberate movement co-option and demobilisation may not be the intention of the Copenhagen Conference of Parties and the climate negotiations process in itself. But the dynamic is what the movement needs to be aware of and respond to. Elites are practised in providing outwardly impressive policy statements with little substance or which hide covert practises. Elite groups also have the advantage of influence over powerful communication channels. Many, if not all, national delegations at Copenhagen will be seeking the most politically profitable outcome at the conference and the appeasement of their domestic climate movements will be a part of their considerations. Whilst it is likely that experienced climate activists and lobbyists, already well versed in climate negotiation politics will be able to perceive duplicity in the COP outcomes, less engaged activists and the concerned public will be more likely to adopt the predominate messaging received via mainstream media.

This potential ‘perception of success’ poses differing challenges to the current climate movement. In a similar way to the movement’s downturn in the months following the election of the Rudd government and the symbolic signing of the Kyoto Pact, people, lobbyists and NGO leadership groups, can be deceived by an apparent successful political compromise. The belief that politicians hold the strings of capital and can make the structural shifts actually necessary to halt runaway climate change is mainstream and ubiquitous. This feeds directly into the commonly held belief that elites are essentially powerful and popular movements (and their activities) are not.

If COP results in something like Outcome 1 described above, even dedicated climate activists who already regularly attend movement events may find themselves wondering if all the effort is worth it now that the US, alongside the rest of the world have come on board and started to turn things around. Surely the thing now is to sit back and see how the international targets are met? Those people, who are looking for a reason not to come to the next rally, may well find one after COP.

Perception of failure

U.S. activist-educator Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan or MAP has provided valuable insights into key trajectories, trigger events, factors and influences impacting upon grassroots social movements. It is based upon the analysis of dozens of contemporary social movements and has been widely utilised as a training and analysis tool by movements throughout the developed world.

If the second or third post COP ‘Outcome’ outlined above come to pass, the Australian climate movement’s may find itself in what could be called a ‘Perception of Failure’ stage. This is often cited as a ‘Stage 5’ following a movement ‘take-off’ period’ and often seen to be preceding a period of mainstream acceptance of movement goals.[4]

According to Moyer, the characteristics inherent in this stage include: the widely held belief amongst movement activists that its goals remain un-achieved and power-holders remain unchallenged. Numbers are down at demonstrations as people feel that repetitive and formulaic actions are ineffective. Despair, hopelessness, burnout, dropout are common, membership, particularity active membership of groups declines. Numbers of ‘negative rebels’, those activists willing to take high risk actions without movement support emerge and garner negative public attention, which further alienates concerned people.

MAP as a whole seeks to alert activists to the common dynamic which Moyer labels a ‘culture of failure’ within social movements. In The Practical Strategist[3], Moyer writes:

Belief in movement failure creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and produce the following unhealthy movement conditions:

Discouragement, despair and movement dissipation
Movement participants and leaders who believe their movement is failing become increasingly discouraged, hopeless, despairing and burned out. This leads to a high drop out rate and lower levels of energy to carry out projects.

Reduction in recruitment of new members
The depressed state of the movement discourages new people from joining. No one wants to join a group which is negative and in a state of collective depression.

Getting stuck in “protest” mode
When activists believe they cannot achieve change, they can get stuck in the role of the protestor or dissident, without balancing this role with strategies and programs for positive change and alternatives.

Attitudes of anger, hostility and frustration lead to activities that turn the public against the movement
When activists believe that their movement is having no effect, frustration and anger at injustice can spill over into acts of desperation, without realising that such activities hurt the movement by alienating the public.

Inability to acknowledge and take credit for success
Failing to take credit for success deprives activists of a major resource for energy, enthusiasm and hope. It also allows opponents to claim movement-created changes for themselves, furthering the perception that the movement is powerless and that opponents control everything.

It appears likely, if not somewhat inevitable, that the Australian Climate movement will experience aspects of this perception of failure in the months following the Copenhagen conference. Whether these dynamics appear immediately or whether they exist for months or years depends somewhat upon how the movement prepares for and responds to the dynamic.

The Australian grassroots climate movement may be perfectly able to minimise the negative consequences of a post COP demobilisation, however it would be extremely difficult to avoid it altogether. Moyer’s MAP pays scant attention to the pervasive role of the mainstream media in highlighting and shaping public opinion.

How the international and Australian media frame and portray COP and its eventual outcomes will largely determine public perceptions of success or failure of the climate movement in Australia. The intense media interpretation and framing of COP outcomes will also shape and influence the perceptions of new and even experienced movement activists. The role then of movement leadership, communicators and activist educators is to provide alternative, realistic and long-term movement views for engaged activists, new recruits and the interested public.

What can climate groups do to avoid the doldrums?

All the action groups, networks, organisations, and institutions that make up the ‘climate movement’ in Australia are diverse and operate in different contexts. Each of the suggestions below may be more or less relevant depending upon those differences. Groups should be able to analyze their own post-COP situation and develop unique approaches to avoid de-mobilisation. Ideally, maintaining and building upon the past decade of movement building would be a widely shared and mutually reinforcing goal.

Don’t put all our eggs in one basket: Campaigners can be forgiven for trying to get everyone to focus on their action or initiative but in this context placing all our resources and garnering the efforts of so many people on a single event is potentially dangerous. Campaigners need to develop and communicate realistic outcomes of COP and refuse to paint it as the ‘last, best hope’. It’s not, and to get people to think that is self-defeating. Despite the urgency around the climate science, movement leadership has the responsibility to provide clear, realistic and untainted information to its membership and constituents particularly of the long term nature of social change struggles. Whilst providing an opportunity to mobilise people, immediate issues and one-of events such as international conferences can divert and diffuse efforts towards longer term structural change aiming to transform economies and institutions. Making sure other campaign strategies, projects or initiatives are kicking along is vital in the lead-up to December.

Highlight genuine successes: It is vital that we celebrate what we have done, not what political elites have told us we should be celebrating. In the context of the Australian climate movement trajectory over recent years, the mainstreaming of climate science and media coverage of climate science events and news, the emergence of Australia wide grassroots climate activist networks, the first nationally organised direct actions and events, the coal industry’s own admittance that coal is a ‘now a much maligned product’, all point to tangible and strategically relevant ‘successes’ for the movement. These represent real successes but not dependent upon political statements, policy positions or as yet unfulfilled promises by elites.

Clear strategy and planning helps groups to indentify these objectives and recognise them when they are achieved. In this way the movement maintains control of successes and refutes elite attempts to paint successes as theirs and the movement as less or not responsible for it. Each movement success identified can be highlighted in a variety of ways. Although articles, news stories, positive reports and other pro-active communication strategies are important, in particular, large public and participatory celebrations are most effective for challenging negative attitudes of movement failure. Celebrating anniversaries, (“Ten years since the first climate action arrest in Australia”, “12 months since Australia’s first Climate Camp”) are one such way of marking progress and successes.

Locate the movement: Movement leadership and spokespeople need to encourage and assist people to locate themselves along a movement trajectory that is longer than 2009 and goes far beyond Copenhagen in December, At conferences, rallies and within all internal communication systems, movement spokespeople need to highlight the years of struggle behind and in the years ahead. Spokespeople should deliberately highlight the fact that the climate will not be ‘saved’ by an international agreement and it is only a large and viable social movement that wields enormous political power that will. Key movement figures should place more realistic timelines on movement activities.‘10 years to continue the campaign’; ‘This organisation has a 15 year goal’.

Plan and act beyond COP: Already, movement groups should be speaking about, planning and highlighting actions, events and initiatives in 2010, sending a clear message that the movement continues after COP. Although it appears important to mobilise all available resources to target COP delegations and influence the outcome, having people actively planning and preparing for 2010 activities is equally important at this stage. It is strategically vital that planning and resources goes into viable and effective initiatives in 2010 and beyond that will inspire and maintain momentum in the post COP period. Activists who are engaged about future post COP events will provide much needed enthusiasm for other activists.

Develop tactics and strategies that don’t rely on elites: Numerous activists have highlighted how the climate movement in Australia has been heavily dependant upon lobbying strategies aimed at influencing policy and government action. Postcards, online petitions, office occupations or vigils, hunger strikes, marches, rallies, human signs, bike rides and other tactics adopted by the movement have all largely sought to generate public concern in order to influence decision-makers. Even the majority of coal infrastructure direct actions have focused upon influencing government policy. The development of tactics and a strategic framework that does not rely upon elite endorsement of the movements’ policy objectives is a vital process, particularly in the context of a widespread perception of failure in a post COP period. As Brian Martin and others have often pointed out, the limiting impact of relying purely on lobbying tactics can lead to movement entropy by itself.

This does not mean that movement’s actions do not influence government policy. In fact the tactics deployed within a framework of strategic nonviolence should aim to undermine the both the power and will of an opponent in order to make it impossible to actually carry out a negative policy objective and force the adoption of favourable policies and behaviour.[5] Lobbying and associated protest actions are a form of political action that seeks the ‘conversion’ of officials and decision-makers with logical or moral arguments without any tangible threat, beyond those of the ballot box. Strategic nonviolence, however, recognises that opponents often do not change their policies unless ‘coerced’ to do so economically or politically. Nonviolent tactics are designed to provide that coercion.[6]

The historically demonstrated insights of strategic nonviolence can play an increasingly influential role in movement strategy over the coming years. Large scale tactics of non-cooperation and intervention can gradually replace pure protest and lobbying action as movement activists become more experienced and the engaged and concerned citizens become more willing to take higher levels of risk.

History has demonstrated that mass-based movements rise most powerfully when there is a widespread recognition that elites and mainstream institutional processes have failed to bring about the necessary changes . It may be that the widespread perception of the failure of international institutions after COP could generate a renewed urgency and more effective political action. Hopefully we may see the Australian Climate movement develop effective tactics such as boycotts, strikes, mass occupations and interventions that will mobilise and engage the renewed activist energy in the years and decades after COP 15.

1. Quote from interview accessed 1/06/09
2. Gultung, R. Why Do Disarmament Negotiations fail? Gandhi Marg Vol 4 #2-3 (1982)
3. Moyer, Bill. The Practical Strategist: Movement Action Plan (MAP)strategic theories for Evaluating, Planning and Conducting Social Movements. Social Movement Empowerment Project, San Francisco, (1990).
4. MAP stages are as follows: (1) Normal times; (2) Prove the failure of official institutions; (3) Ripening conditions; (4) Take-off; (5) Perception of failure; (6) Majority public opinion; (7) Success; (8) Continuing the struggle
5. Burrowes, R.J. (1996). The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach. Albany: State University of New York Press.
6. Sharp, G. (1973).The Politics of Nonviolent Action Vols 1-3. Boston: Porter Sargent.


2 Responses to “De-mobilisation: Avoiding the post COP doldrums”

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