research priorities for climate action (March 2010)

key forces for climate action: Future research agendas and the future climate movement

James Whelan, tCA Director
Written for the UTS ‘Key forces for climate action‘ forum, 5 March 2010.

How can we avert catastrophic climate change through a social transformation that is both rapid and just? What role can research and researchers play? The discussions today, along with my observations and experiences of climate movement research, suggest four defining attributes for climate movement research.

dynamic

The climate movement is evolving rapidly; asking and attempting to answer vexing questions with a sense of urgency. Activists are reflective, and theorise about their strategies and tactics, but in ways that may not look like research to academics accustomed to methods that move at a gradual pace over several years. Given the dynamic nature of the political opportunity structure that the movement operates within, the 24 hour media cycle and constantly-shifting focus of policy debate, activist learning occurs in short cycles: people experience challenges, reflect and generalise, generate and apply new information within days or weeks. Electronic communication facilitates spontaneous and global collaboration and information-seeking.

An important feature of this dynamic learning is catalysis. Climate movement research must be catalytic. Scientists often avoid research methods that influence the phenomena of interest. Action research, for instance, is sometimes labeled ‘manipulative’ as it ‘distorts’ the social landscape it seeks to understand. For climate movement research to be socially useful and worthy of activists’ involvement, however, it must be transformative.

inclusive

Research can be considered an abstract and remote business, and there are relatively few instances of sustained inquiry within Australia’s social movements beyond routine problem and policy analysis. Where are activists and researchers working together to address the big question: How can we effect social change to bring about social and environmental justice?

John Gaventa, former director of the Highlander Research and Education Centre in Tennessee, modeled research that engaged with social movements in the heat of their campaigns to build power. Gaventa extolled (1991, pp.121-122) a mode of social movement research that is “simultaneously a tool for the education and development of consciousness as well as mobilization for action.”

Patricia Maguire (1987:38-39) “Involving research subjects as partners in the entire research process also increases the potential to distribute the benefits of the research process more equitably.” In a similar vein, Randy Stoecker (1999, 2005), convenor of the excellent Comm-Org discussion list, identifies several ‘decision points’ for research collaboration. Climate activists and those motivated to facilitate research (including academics) must collaborate throughout the research cycle from the first steps of initiating inquiry and defining questions and research methods, through to gathering and interpreting data and developing and testing theories, then in the important stages of reporting and acting on research findings.

Climate movement research is a growth industry. Researchers are building their profiles on projects and publications that few activists will ever encounter written in language that activists are unlikely to find meaningful. This is neither just nor useful.

One important dimensions of this inclusivity will be internationalism. The social changes required to avert catastrophic climate change cannot be brought about exclusively by minority world activists in minority world locations. In the aftermath of the failed Copenhagen Conference of Parties, some activists have identified a key failing of their social movements. We have organised primarily at home and neglected to build relationship of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the majority world. One consequence has been that their national leaders did not arrive in Copenhagen committed to an alternative consensus – a vision and path of action capable of standing as an alternative to the unilateral Chinese and United States positions. Another consequence, of course is the striking disparity between the resources and political capacity of social movements in the global north and south. As Ariel Salleh observed during today’s forum, activists and engaged academics often use the pronoun “we” in ways that exclude women, economically disadvantaged societies and the majority world.

listening

To answer questions that are genuinely useful to the movement, researchers and activists drawn to purposeful inquiry need to listen. What challenges are routinely identified in conversations such as climate summits and campaign evaluations? What vexing questions bubble to the surface in different settings? The climate movement needs research focused on these questions, not on themes developed in obscure academic journals.

The Change Agency’s ‘climate action research project’ has been guided by a series of strategic questions (Peavey, 1999) based on what we’ve heard in the movement: What would it take for Australia and Australians to play our part in averting catastrophic climate change? What kind of social movement will being this about? How do we build and support this kind of social movement? What role can online technologies and communication play? How will the movement strategise?

risky

Useful climate movement research will take place in the heart of conflict, in the tiger’s mouth. Researchers cannot understand the movement from a disengaged and dispassionate position. Meaningful research in this context grows from relationships between movement activists and action research facilitators: relationships of solidarity that entail taking sides. Researchers – both activists and academics – learn about climate change activism through building and exercising power. This will be risky for career-conscious academics.

references

Gaventa, J. (1993) ‘The Powerful, the Powerless, and the Experts: Knowledge Struggles in an Information Age’, pp. 21-40 in Peter Park, Mary Brydon-Miller, Budd Hall, and Ted Jackson (eds.) Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Maguire, P. (1987) Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach, Center for International Education, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.

Peavey, F. (1999) Strategic Questioning Manual, Online: http://www.thechangeagency.org/01_cms/details.asp?ID=60

Stoecker, R. (2005) Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

Stoecker, R. (1999) “Are Academics Irrelevant?” Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research.” American Behavioral Scientist 42, pp. 840-854.

The Change Agency (2010) Climate Action Research Project, Available: http://www.thechangeagency.org/01_cms/details.asp?ID=73

What are people saying about us?

dave & gemma

Dave Muhly, Sierra Club

What began at Pittwater as a collection of skilled campaigners became a cadre of skilled organizers by the final day at Baden Powell. On Sunday evening as we gathered, I overheard one participant chatting with another at a picnic table and heard, "challenge, choice, outcome" as part of her conversation. Another commented at the final circle at how what had seemed like such a large group at Pittwater now seemed like a much smaller group, reflective of how closely this group had bonded as a team despite their vast differences in geography or organizational size or style, but based on a common goal and identity. Concepts like "building teams" and "building relationships" were part of the normal parlance and just a cursory review of the evaluations to date show an increased appreciation for and attention to leadership development and strategic planning. A number of participants reminded me of my off-the-cuff set of definitions about the differences between mobilizing, campaigning and community organising (focusing on local power), and one told me she has it on the wall of her office to inspire her every day. This has been the successful launch of an ambitious and visionary program. Many thanks to James and Kate for their vision, wisdom, and care in developing and nurturing the curriculum and the cohort. Kudos!

2014-09-15T10:27:41+00:00
dave & gemma
What began at Pittwater as a collection of skilled campaigners became a cadre of skilled organizers by the final day at Baden Powell. On Sunday evening as we gathered, I overheard one participant chatting with another at a picnic table and heard, “challenge, choice, outcome” as part of her conversation. Another commented at the final...
Julie Lyford

Julie Lyford, Groundswell Gloucester

Such a long fight. Without you and the Change Agency we would be floundering. Thank you so much for your energy, passion, wisdom and guidance and for all that you do in changing the world.
2016-09-30T13:24:47+00:00
Julie Lyford
Such a long fight. Without you and the Change Agency we would be floundering. Thank you so much for your energy, passion, wisdom and guidance and for all that you do in changing the world.
ben_fb

Ben Margetts, Australian Youth Climate Coalition 2007

I wanted to express how grateful I was for the experience to work with Sam and James. It was very special for me to interact with a part of social movements that I feel a lot of affinity with. I also think tCA shows a great example of 'best practice' in regard to organisational interactions. We at the AYCC have benefited immensely from working with you not just in your capacity as trainers, and the learning that was facilitated, but also with tCA as an organisation.
2014-03-30T07:33:22+00:00
ben_fb
I wanted to express how grateful I was for the experience to work with Sam and James. It was very special for me to interact with a part of social movements that I feel a lot of affinity with. I also think tCA shows a great example of ‘best practice’ in regard to organisational interactions....
Nick Aberle

Nick Aberle, Environment Victoria

Learning the theory and engaging with such practical implementation in such depth will definitely make me a more effective and successful campaigner and organiser. I’m looking forward to practicing my new skills in being more rigorous, thinking more strategically, and communicating more effectively. The strength of the bonds formed within the group has already strengthened the climate movement in Australia.
2014-05-10T21:42:00+00:00
Nick Aberle
Learning the theory and engaging with such practical implementation in such depth will definitely make me a more effective and successful campaigner and organiser. I’m looking forward to practicing my new skills in being more rigorous, thinking more strategically, and communicating more effectively. The strength of the bonds formed within the group has already strengthened...
Glenn Walker

Glenn Walker, National Campaigner, The Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society has embarked on a major organisational change project to embrace community organising as our core way of doing business. I’m leading on this project. The Community Organising Fellowship has helped me to define the key principles and approaches of community organising and has provided me with the space and support to plan for this critical change process within my organisation.
2014-03-27T02:09:18+00:00
Glenn Walker
The Wilderness Society has embarked on a major organisational change project to embrace community organising as our core way of doing business. I’m leading on this project. The Community Organising Fellowship has helped me to define the key principles and approaches of community organising and has provided me with the space and support to plan...
cherry

Cherry Muddle, Australian Marine Conservation Society

The Community Organising Fellowship has rooted in me a deeper sense of belonging to an intentional, international movement to create the positive changes we wish to see in society, environment, culture and climate. The program delivery is varied, fluid and always interesting. The strengths and highlights for me include learning through shared experience and critical analysis. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed forging strong connections and bonds between fellow organisers, facilitators and guest speakers.
2015-03-17T21:02:16+00:00
cherry
The Community Organising Fellowship has rooted in me a deeper sense of belonging to an intentional, international movement to create the positive changes we wish to see in society, environment, culture and climate. The program delivery is varied, fluid and always interesting. The strengths and highlights for me include learning through shared experience and critical...
alycia

Alycia Gawthorne, GetUp! organiser

The Fellowship has challenged the way I previously thought about campaigning and community organising, and made me rethink how I approach my work. It’s afforded me the space to take a step back and look at the entire movement. I feel like the skills I take away from the Fellowship will be invaluable, but far more important will be the deeper understanding I have about my role and how it fits within a larger movement.
2015-03-17T19:33:28+00:00
alycia
The Fellowship has challenged the way I previously thought about campaigning and community organising, and made me rethink how I approach my work. It’s afforded me the space to take a step back and look at the entire movement. I feel like the skills I take away from the Fellowship will be invaluable, but far...
John Hepburn

John Hepburn, Outreach Manager, Greenpeace Australia Pacific

When you stop learning, you stop growing. For social movements and organisations to grow and develop, they need to learn from their successes and failures. The Change Agency have played a key role in helping Greenpeace to do this, to reflect on our work, to focus on what is effective, and to map out some exciting new strategic directions. They've supported our staff and volunteers with some great practical training on campaign strategy, and, of course, they've been a joy to work with.
2014-03-30T07:35:05+00:00
John Hepburn
When you stop learning, you stop growing. For social movements and organisations to grow and develop, they need to learn from their successes and failures. The Change Agency have played a key role in helping Greenpeace to do this, to reflect on our work, to focus on what is effective, and to map out some...
toniwalkington

Toni Walkington, Secretary, Community Public Sector Union, WA

The Change Agency Campaign Workshop in Perth was a tremendous opportunity to learn skills and techniques to assist our campaigning work. I came away with a set of skills and techniques that are easily applied to our work. We often tackle big issues and are up against well resourced opponents. The tools I learnt at the campaign workshop means developing our campaign strategies is easier and we work in a structured way with clear objectives. Since participating in the workshop I have used many of the tools, particularly the critical path analysis – it’s really made a great difference!
2014-03-30T07:45:45+00:00
toniwalkington
The Change Agency Campaign Workshop in Perth was a tremendous opportunity to learn skills and techniques to assist our campaigning work. I came away with a set of skills and techniques that are easily applied to our work. We often tackle big issues and are up against well resourced opponents. The tools I learnt at...
Six Degrees

Sam Robb, Six Degrees

When I’m amongst passionate and talented people, I always feel like our movement can be powerful. But after the last 10 days, I not only feel we can be powerful, I know we can. I know how we can be and that is a unique and invaluable gift. The quality and consideration of the facilitation and subject matter was astonishing, and there was a group wide acknowledgement of both an immense privilege of being a part of the cohort and a resounding responsibility to use and share what we felt and learnt.
2014-05-23T17:11:47+00:00
Six Degrees
When I’m amongst passionate and talented people, I always feel like our movement can be powerful. But after the last 10 days, I not only feel we can be powerful, I know we can. I know how we can be and that is a unique and invaluable gift. The quality and consideration of the facilitation...