The disturbing personal threat to the CEO of Australia’s most polluting power station adds a new dimension to the increasingly intense debate about how to respond to climate change. Violence, or its threat, can never be condoned, but this episode does highlight the risk of growing social conflict as the gap between the reality of climate change and the inaction of our governments and corporate leaders continues to widen.
The attempt by Victorian Energy Minister, Peter Batchelor to link growing environmental protests with "eco-terrorism" is a snapshot of just how out of touch politicians are with community frustration over the failure of Australian governments to reign in the coal industry. The kind of cynical mud-slinging Batchelor is indulging in simply won’t work because it is so far fetched. Everybody knows that the climate movement is as family-friendly as it gets. It’s mums and dads, your sister and your brother, your neighbour and their kids, your doctor, your accountant. But increasingly this movement isn’t content to be ignored.
Climate scientists are becoming increasingly panicked in their warnings. NASA’s James Hansen has said that "coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet", and, along with Al Gore, has called for people to take direct action to stop new coal plants from being built. And this call is starting to resonate.
Last year, over 160 people were arrested in peaceful climate change protests around the country. A blockade of the world’s biggest coal port in Newcastle last July resulted in over 60 people being charged with trespass on one day alone. These were not your average young wide-eyed hippies. The people that are increasingly protesting about climate change come from all walks of life and span the generations. For many it is the first time they have taken part in any kind of protest, let alone civil disobedience, but the urgency and seriousness of climate change is just too much to ignore.
At Greenpeace, we receive countless letters from members of the Australian community who are deeply concerned, even frightened about the future on a warming planet. We’ve had calls from parents and teachers asking how they can talk about climate change without paralysing children with fear. For some it is just too overwhelming a challenge, and despair or denial are the only viable responses. Others get angry. And not without justification. Governments have known about climate change since the 1950s. The science was crystal clear in the late 1980s and yet in 2009, emissions are still rising, new coal plants are still being built, and the big polluters continue to fight against change.
Scientists are warning that hundreds of millions of people will lose their homes and livelihoods as a result of climate change, and we are likely to wipe out up to half of all life on this planet. It is a deadly serious issue. The disconnect between these projections, increasing public concern, and continued inaction is a recipe for social conflict. Pent-up anger and frustration is bound to spill out in unpredictable ways and the personal threat made to the CEO of Hazelwood is an unfortunate expression of this.
Writing polite submissions to government just doesn’t cut it any more. The incrementalism that has dominated environmental politics for the past 30 years is no longer good enough — not that it ever was. People increasingly understand this and are demanding more. The challenge facing our community is to channel anger and frustration over government and corporate inaction into creating peaceful and effective change.
Throughout history, social movements have transformed society through the moral power of peaceful direct action and civil disobedience. Like the relentless drip of water wearing away stone, Ghandi and the Indian independence movement slowly but surely won their freedom from British rule. Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement overturned racist laws and set in motion the wheels that led to Barack Obama being the first African American elected as President of the United States. We owe weekends and the 40-hour week to the protests of the labour movement. Women wouldn’t have the right to vote if it weren’t for the protests of the Suffragettes.
The same will be true of climate change. In the face of polluters who are putting our future at risk, and a government too weak to act, people are increasingly standing up for what they believe in and using peaceful civil disobedience to try create a better world. We aren’t left with much choice. Our generation is the last one that can prevent a climate catastrophe. Can you imagine the conversation with your grandkids when they are asking you how you could let it happen? If you’re anything like me you’d be feeling pretty stupid if all you could say is, "We asked our politicians nicely but they just wouldn’t listen …"
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