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?

Peter Callender, Quit Coal



Like many campaigning groups, we are constantly grappling with capacity issues, a lack of funding/resources, burnout and how to best manage volunteers. While it's early days, the fellowship is already having significant flow on effects to the rest of the Quit Coal collective and the lessons we are learning are both effective and reinvigorating!


The Change Agency
2014-04-16T22:34:36+10:00
Like many campaigning groups, we are constantly grappling with capacity issues, a lack of funding/resources, burnout and how to best manage volunteers. While it's early days, the fellowship is already having significant flow on effects to the rest of the Quit Coal collective and the lessons we are learning are both effective and reinvigorating!
Emilie Carey

Emilie Carey, Solar Citizens


I really admired your facilitation skills. I learnt lots watching you guide us through the evening. I'll definitely be using lessons from last night. You're a total pro and I'm really grateful you're generous enough to share your knowledge.

The Change Agency
2016-03-25T10:35:26+11:00
Emilie Carey
I really admired your facilitation skills. I learnt lots watching you guide us through the evening. I'll definitely be using lessons from last night. You're a total pro and I'm really grateful you're generous enough to share your knowledge.
jason

Jason Lyddieth, Greenpeace

There are many learnings, skills, and tools I am keen to take back to my work to empower my teams and improve our campaigns. The people and the vibe at the trainings were amazing and truly inspiring. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to have been able to attend and privileged to be a recipient of such great learnings and in the company of such amazing people.
The Change Agency
2014-05-10T21:48:34+10:00
jason
There are many learnings, skills, and tools I am keen to take back to my work to empower my teams and improve our campaigns. The people and the vibe at the trainings were amazing and truly inspiring. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to have been able to attend and privileged to be a recipient of such great learnings and in the company of such amazing people.

Anna Keenan, Students of Sustainability Collective 2006

Thank you for your involvement in SoS this year and for your continued commitment over the years to effecting sustainable environmental and social change. Your co-facilitated presentations on activist learning, campaign strategy and activist sustainability were all very well received, generating discussion, excitement, considered thought and motivation from the participants, including myself. Not only was the content inspirational, but to see the way that the two of you work together and so effectively co-facilitate was a lesson in itself. At your “Moving beyond Tactic-Led Campaigns”, you so successfully engaged all in the room and drew from their experiences that it was the most effective workshop I attended through the whole conference. Your involvement in SoS 2005 has had a significant impact on the future of Australian environmentalism by sharing the tools of individual, collective, and community organising, and inspiring us to advocate for and take action towards positive social change.
The Change Agency
2014-03-30T07:52:56+11:00
Thank you for your involvement in SoS this year and for your continued commitment over the years to effecting sustainable environmental and social change. Your co-facilitated presentations on activist learning, campaign strategy and activist sustainability were all very well received, generating discussion, excitement, considered thought and motivation from the participants, including myself. Not only was the content inspirational, but to see the way that the two of you work together and so effectively co-facilitate was a lesson in itself. At your “Moving beyond Tactic-Led Campaigns”, you so successfully engaged all in the room and drew from their experiences that it was the most effective workshop I attended through the whole conference. Your involvement in SoS 2005 has had a significant impact on the future of Australian environmentalism by sharing the tools of individual, collective, and community organising, and inspiring us to advocate for and take action towards positive social change.

Claire O’Rourke, National Director, Solar Citizens

The fellowship has helped me further develop the skills and strategic thinking necessary to ensure that we deliver sound policy by working in partnership with our supporters and volunteers in communities across Australia.

Organising helps to build relationships and skills both within and between communities and the fellowship follows the same approach. The fellowship is essential for organisations that are working to build power within communities or considering making the leap into this work. 
The Change Agency
2015-03-17T21:03:10+11:00
The fellowship has helped me further develop the skills and strategic thinking necessary to ensure that we deliver sound policy by working in partnership with our supporters and volunteers in communities across Australia. Organising helps to build relationships and skills both within and between communities and the fellowship follows the same approach. The fellowship is essential for organisations that are working to build power within communities or considering making the leap into this work. 

Naomi Hodgson, community organiser, NW NSW

I can emphatically endorse the value of this time to build skills and awareness in strategic thinking and in specific and practical community organising tools. I am sure that with concerted application of the course content I will become a significantly more confident and effective organiser. Furthermore, the value of the relationships that have been forged among the cohort offer great potential for future collaboration and support to help build a more coordinated, cooperative and powerful environment movement in Australia.
The Change Agency
2015-03-17T20:49:16+11:00
I can emphatically endorse the value of this time to build skills and awareness in strategic thinking and in specific and practical community organising tools. I am sure that with concerted application of the course content I will become a significantly more confident and effective organiser. Furthermore, the value of the relationships that have been forged among the cohort offer great potential for future collaboration and support to help build a more coordinated, cooperative and powerful environment movement in Australia.

Jess Kirby, GetUp! organiser

The Change Agency fellowship has been a completely transformative experience for all of us. I’ve met 22 of the most diverse, interesting organisers and campaigners in the country, and been trained by more than a dozen experts on everything from critical pathways, to the history of the environment movement in Australia, to NationBuilder best practice. I can’t recommend this program highly enough.  
The Change Agency
2015-03-17T20:50:52+11:00
The Change Agency fellowship has been a completely transformative experience for all of us. I’ve met 22 of the most diverse, interesting organisers and campaigners in the country, and been trained by more than a dozen experts on everything from critical pathways, to the history of the environment movement in Australia, to NationBuilder best practice. I can’t recommend this program highly enough.  
Richard Yin

Dr Richard Yin, Doctors for the Environment Australia 2020

We had the privilege of working with James Whelan and The Change Agency over two days to clarify our understanding of campaigning and advocacy. With over 20 doctors and medical students from varied experiences in advocacy work present and a very complex and full agenda, the workshop was a huge success made possible through a very thoughtful and professional facilitation process from James. I can only commend the quality of his work and thank him once again for the weekend.
The Change Agency
2020-02-25T11:16:05+11:00
Richard Yin
We had the privilege of working with James Whelan and The Change Agency over two days to clarify our understanding of campaigning and advocacy. With over 20 doctors and medical students from varied experiences in advocacy work present and a very complex and full agenda, the workshop was a huge success made possible through a very thoughtful and professional facilitation process from James. I can only commend the quality of his work and thank him once again for the weekend.
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.
The Change Agency
2014-03-30T07:35:05+11:00
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 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.
Jane Stabb

Jane Stabb, Community Organiser, Environment Victoria

The Community Organising Fellowship workshop was extraordinarily impactful for me. I had a chance to investigate the theory behind effective organising and campaigning tools that I can use in my practice every day but very rarely interrogate or reflect on.  I found new frameworks and structures that will improve my practice so much. I had the space and place to interrogate my campaign with the assistance of masters!  And I was given the opportunity to build relationships with leaders in my field, to be supported in my thinking by them and to support them by sharing our practice and experiences... 100% pure gold.
The Change Agency
2014-05-23T16:45:53+10:00
Jane Stabb
The Community Organising Fellowship workshop was extraordinarily impactful for me. I had a chance to investigate the theory behind effective organising and campaigning tools that I can use in my practice every day but very rarely interrogate or reflect on.  I found new frameworks and structures that will improve my practice so much. I had the space and place to interrogate my campaign with the assistance of masters!  And I was given the opportunity to build relationships with leaders in my field, to be supported in my thinking by them and to support them by sharing our practice and experiences... 100% pure gold.
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