By 11am the protest was underway.
A colourful crowd of a few hundred had turned up for the final day of the Climate Camp protest in Helensburgh. People were meant to be dressed in blue, but that didn’t impede creativity. There were signs, political paintings, tin drums and guitars. The spirit was festive, as people sang various songs, including one to the tune of "Hey Mickey you’re so fine" with lyrics directed at US based multinational Peabody, the villain of the day. Peabody owns the local coal mine that was the object of the day’s mass protest, and they’re a fitting target, having been ranked by Newsweek recently as the most un-green corporation out of the 500 it surveyed.
The crowd was a diverse bunch, with a surprising mix of the young and old. I turned up on Sunday, but most of the people had actually attended the whole camp, starting on Friday. We marched through the tiny town of Helensburgh, which was plainly unused to so much attention. One woman yelled out to us that she supported our right to protest. A young man with a few of his friends said "Maybe I should join you." When I encouraged him to do so, he replied, amused, "But I work for coal".
Not all of us had such pleasant experiences with the Helensburgh folk. The locals became increasingly rowdy, yelling "f*ck off" at the protestors and occasionally throwing eggs.
From the protestors, however, there was a very conciliatory attitude shown to the residents. While speeches at the starting point of the march were about climate change and the need for action, by the time the march ended up in front of the Metropolitan Colliery, the protestors were almost solely devoted to reaching out to the locals. The chants became: "What do we want? Green jobs! Where do we want them? Helensburgh!"
Those who were angry at the protestors, of course, may have believed their jobs were at stake. Protestors I spoke to, however, rejected the idea that there was a difference between the interests of workers and environmentalists. Greens Parliamentarian Lee Rhiannon was only stating the obvious when she told the crowd that coal was a "dying industry". Surely, coal jobs will run out eventually — either profitable coal will run out, or governments will eventually take action on climate change. Under these circumstances, a deliberate shift from coal-dependency to jobs in green industry is the best conceivable way forward for communities dependent on coal jobs.
Next, after various speeches, came the non-violent direct action. On stage, a woman, together with her mother and her son, announced that they were set to walk onto the mine site. She declared that her family represented three generations who needed to act on climate change. "We will not resist arrest and we will remain peaceful," she pledged.
They marched through a corridor made in the Climate Campers crowd, down to the police lines. They walked united into the row of police, who stopped them. They tried again, in a somewhat polite manner, and then they sat down. Next, a 61-year-old man and his father moved through the parted sea of protestors and approached police lines. The police were polite enough as they refused to budge, and these two also sat down in front of police lines.
After a few more attempts, there was not enough room in front of police lines, and people sat down en masse near the police.
Of course, this wasn’t too dramatic. Overall, Climate Campers are a well behaved bunch, and though they turned up in significant numbers, the police were largely unworried by the protestors. This is a striking contrast to how police behaved around APEC time, over the trumped-up threat of "anarchist violence". Yet it could be said that in many ways, Climate Camp has an anarchist flavour to its forms of organisation. Climate Camp is organised in a strictly non-hierarchical manner, and in its decision-making processes the greatest efforts are made to accommodate and respect minority views. They also maintain complete political independence by refusing corporate sponsorship. They operate on a shoestring budget, which forces their grassroots organising to be more dynamic, rather than creating a sterile top-down organisation.
Last year, there was one Climate Camp. This year, there will have been four, after the next one in WA in December. We can expect them to grow each year. Civil disobedience and direct action will naturally appeal to the Australian public, because they want serious action on climate change, and our government is failing to do anything about it.
Kevin Rudd is willing to commit to an emissions reduction of 5 per cent, whereas Malcolm Turnbull made a dubious proposal for 10 per cent. Neither is good enough — they’re not even close. If it is granted that the Liberals were voted out partly because of their weakness on climate change, what options will voters have at the next election when both major parties reject public opinion?
That is not all. Our government has bullied Pacific Island states to prevent their calling for stronger emissions targets. That is, we don’t want countries facing destruction through climate change to add to international pressure to stop ruining the environment. Last week, Oxfam complained that "millions of people facing greater floods, droughts and failed harvest after failed harvest will be the real losers if the US, Canada, EU, Japan and Australia continue as blockers to the UN negotiations".
Oxfam frames the issue perfectly in its report Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: by "failing to tackle climate change with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people". This is not just a future threat, says Oxfam: "hundreds of millions of people are already suffering" from climate change. One report estimates "that 26 million people have already been displaced because of climate change." Even "warming of 2°C entails a devastating future for at least 660 million people".
The report notes the IPCC’s finding that "climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger… And up to one billion people could face water shortages in Asia by the 2050s due to melted glaciers."
This is the results of our emissions. We could do less harm if we started systematically bombing poor countries. But that is not all: our government is actually escalating our war on the climate. The NSW Government is building two massive new power stations. It is likely they will be coal fired. It is also expanding coal exports, and increasing funding for coal.
With all that happening, what chance does the climate have? The NSW Government in particular goes mushy and weak at the knees for coal companies. It recently approved the expansion of the Metropolitan Collieries targeted by the Climate Camp protest even though the Sydney Catchment Authority has warned that the expansion could cause the dam floor to crack and "cause serious leaks from southern Sydney’s main drinking water supply". Even the NSW Liberals were appalled that the Government would "override two key agencies in this way". As one Liberal MP said, "If it comes down to a choice between coal and water, I know which one most people would support".
Coal companies can exert economic pressure on governments to get their way. From the other side, if public opinion isn’t enough to push governments to do the right thing on climate change, the public needs to up the ante somehow. We know that civil disobedience works: the Wall Street Journal is whining about Al Gore’s "liberal consensus" of the need for civil disobedience, whereby people acting on concerns about climate change have "succeeded in making new coal plants nearly impossible to build".
This is exactly what a small group of Climate Campers realised. While most of the protesters made their point at the gates of the Peabody mine, early in the morning four brave young activists (and a photographer) had gone to the BHP Billiton-owned Dendrobium coal mine further south near Port Kembla and locked themselves on to the conveyor belt. They stopped production for four glorious hours. I managed to interview Aimee, one of those arrested. Aimee is a pleasant and friendly activist, and she had a nice chat with the cops about the lousy weather while they figured out how to get the activists down.
Aimee, however, is an undergraduate student. She doesn’t have the time or money to make the kind of political example out of her civil disobedience that the Kingsnorth Six did. For her bravery to pay off, we don’t just need more Aimees, we need Australians to support her. That’s our challenge.
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