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?

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...
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...
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.
2014-05-23T16:45:53+00:00
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...
Naomi Hodgson

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.
2015-03-17T20:49:16+00:00
Naomi Hodgson
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...
kate

Kate Lardner, Doctors for the Environment Australia

During the Fellowship, I have embarked on an enormous learning curve that has resulted not only in exposure to concepts and skills, but knowledge of these things, through application of the teachings with leaders in their fields and the opportunity to be integrated into a real time campaign. I have been challenged creatively and analytically and been given the chance to create the openings and space to make my own opportunities arise.  
2015-03-17T20:53:26+00:00
kate
During the Fellowship, I have embarked on an enormous learning curve that has resulted not only in exposure to concepts and skills, but knowledge of these things, through application of the teachings with leaders in their fields and the opportunity to be integrated into a real time campaign. I have been challenged creatively and analytically and...
alexandra

Alexandra Soderlund, Solar Citizens

The fellowship has managed to achieve that elusive duo of being both a broadening and deepening experience - complete with delicious food. Learning as much from the incredible and diverse participants as the amazing facilitators, the ten days of the first workshop have flown by. I feel like I’ve come a long way as an organiser (and dare I say a person?!) already, I’m excited and a little bit scared to see where I end up. 
2015-03-17T20:59:30+00:00
alexandra
The fellowship has managed to achieve that elusive duo of being both a broadening and deepening experience – complete with delicious food. Learning as much from the incredible and diverse participants as the amazing facilitators, the ten days of the first workshop have flown by. I feel like I’ve come a long way as an...
thea

Thea Ormerod, Australian Religious Response to Climate Change

Whereas I had been working intuitively and reasonably well as a part of with a team of dedicated volunteers, the Community Organising Fellowship is providing a range of easy-to-understand useful tools which will help ARRCC to be much more effective. The training is carefully crafted to maximise skills development so we can use our limited resources in a way which will deliver results far more strategically. I already have quite a clear vision of how to successfully motivate our volunteers into participating more actively in the change effort.
2015-03-17T19:24:22+00:00
thea
Whereas I had been working intuitively and reasonably well as a part of with a team of dedicated volunteers, the Community Organising Fellowship is providing a range of easy-to-understand useful tools which will help ARRCC to be much more effective. The training is carefully crafted to maximise skills development so we can use our limited...
clairevh

Claire Van Herpen, Environment Victoria

The Community Organising fellowship provides a positive and nurturing environment in which to learn and apply the practical skills required to effectively mobilise communities to create change. It's a great opportunity to learn from others in the environmental movement and provides space for collaboration and reflection.
2015-03-17T19:26:27+00:00
clairevh
The Community Organising fellowship provides a positive and nurturing environment in which to learn and apply the practical skills required to effectively mobilise communities to create change. It’s a great opportunity to learn from others in the environmental movement and provides space for collaboration and reflection.
Chloe_A

Chloe Aldenhoven, Victorian Lock the Gate Coordinator

A packed program of skills, stories and discussions to figure out how to build the place of community development in our campaigns. So important to draw on the experience and wisdom of past campaigns and seasoned campaigners.  But not only that, an amazing opportunity to learn with and from the cohort of campaigners from across the country who between them have decades of organising experience.  Skills, conversations and connections that are going to be essential to us building a movement to achieve climate justice in Australia.
2015-03-17T19:27:44+00:00
Chloe_A
A packed program of skills, stories and discussions to figure out how to build the place of community development in our campaigns. So important to draw on the experience and wisdom of past campaigns and seasoned campaigners.  But not only that, an amazing opportunity to learn with and from the cohort of campaigners from across...
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....