Twelve days ago, in the middle of the Pechora Sea, Russian choppers hovered over the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise, and off-loaded special security forces. With guns drawn the Russian forces rounded up the crew and locked them in the mess, before seizing control of the ship. Fortunately three crew members, including an Australian radio operator, Colin Russell, and a young woman from the Sydney Greenpeace office, Alex Harris, managed to lock themselves in the radio room, keeping communication channels open until Russian forces smashed through the door.
The ship was then towed to the Russian port city of Murmansk. Once there, the 28 crew along with the freelance photographer and a videographer were taken into court and told they would be detained for two months while the authorities considered whether to charge them with piracy. That is where they currently remain.
A lot has happened since then. As a result of the retreating ice cover over the Arctic the first fully loaded coal ship has successfully navigated the North West passage for the first time in history – the historic voyage saved the company over 1000 kilometres and they were able to add 25 per cent more coal as a consequence.
And while the Arctic 30 were fronting the Russian courts last Friday, the Fifth Assessment Report (pdf) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released. For the first time, the report’s authors outlined what it would take to avoid locking in global warming above 2 degrees. It seems to have a 50/50 chance of keeping global warming under a 2 degree increase, the world must stay within a carbon budget of no more than 1000 gigatons.
Unfortunately more than half – 531 gigatons – has already been emitted. If other greenhouse gases were also taken into account, the budget would be reduced to 820-880 gigatons. This means two-thirds of the emissions available have already been used and without ambitious policies to cut global emissions we will have spent the remaining carbon budget within 15 to 25 years.
Locally, the new Abbott Government has spent their first few weeks in power unwinding government support for renewable energy, sacking former Australian of the Year Tim Flannery and abolishing the Climate Commission, an organisation providing independent scientific advice. The Government has also moved to scrap the Climate Change Authority – the Authority set up to guide the nation’s emissions reduction effort.
Despite this, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it last week, global leaders must now respond to an "unequivocal" message from climate scientists to act.
But as Russia’s response to Greenpeace’s peaceful action makes clear, big oil won’t take the global scientific consensus lying down. Whatever the national, international or even the interests of future generations are, they will do everything in their considerable power – and that is enormous – to prevent the world from decarbonising.
Meanwhile, Big Coal believes it has just been given a get-out-of-jail-free card by the election of the Abbott Government with the removal of the carbon and mining tax and the promise of environmental protections being slashed. But the simple truth is that to protect our lives and the places we love like the Great Barrier Reef we need to leave the coal in the ground. We need to accept the time of coal expansion is over and plan a fair transition for both the industry and the communities that depend on it.
Just before the Russian security forces stormed the radio room on the Arctic Sunrise, my colleague, Alex Harris, sent her last tweets. They read: “They’re almost in the room. This could be our last tweet for awhile. Thanks for all your support, don’t stop now! #savetheartic”
Then this: “Latest from the deck: Crew are sitting on their knees on the helipad with guns pointed at them. #savethearctic.”
And finally this: “This is pretty terrifying. Loud banging. Screaming in Russian. They’re still trying to kick in the door. #savetheartic”
It’s hard to imagine a clearer metaphor for the battle between those of us pressing for a clean, safe future and the fossil fuel industry going to any length to serve its narrow self-interest. With so much at stake, they cannot be allowed to have the final word.
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