Australia: still silencing the climate alarm
The 15-month jail sentence recently handed to an Australian climate activist for blocking a lane of traffic is the latest alarming development in the criminalisation of peaceful protest. Australia is among several countries where laws have been adopted specifically targeting the disruptive but non-violent protests typically used by the climate movement. In multiple countries people have been arrested, detained and jailed merely for blocking roads and oil facilities – even when governments claim to be climate leaders. A lack of action by governments and corporations sufficient to prevent a climate catastrophe means disruptive protests are sure to continue. Governments should acknowledge this and respect and protect the right to protest.
Last April, a lane of traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge was held up for 25 minutes. It’s hardly the first time Australia’s drivers will have found their day disrupted and journey times lengthened. But for the crime of causing this minor interruption in routines, climate activist Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco, was sentenced to 15 months in jail.
Coco received her jail sentence on 2 December and served 11 days before being released on bail pending appeal. Her protest action, as a member of the Fireproof Australia group, had consisted of parking a truck and standing next to it holding a flare. Her demand was that the Australian government take stronger action on the climate crisis.
"You don’t have to believe Coco’s climate protest blocking traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a good idea, or helped her cause. But being sent to prison until July & denied bail while she lodges an appeal was a bad day for democratic expression in Australia" @adamlmorton https://t.co/OX1kT6iGKt— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) December 4, 2022
Coco was one of many people brought into activism by Australia’s devastating bush fires of 2019 and 2000. A vast plume of smoke spread across Australia, affecting 80 per cent of the population and killing around 450 people. Over 5,900 buildings were destroyed in the blaze and almost three billion animals were killed or displaced.
In recent years Australia has experienced several bouts of extreme weather, including high temperatures and droughts of the kind that preceded the 2019-2020 disaster. Peer-reviewed research has concluded that climate change is the dominant driver of Australia’s growing bushfire problem. Australia’s unique ecology is highly vulnerable to such climate change impacts, yet the country is one of the world’s highest coal producers and per capita greenhouse gas emitters.
Surveys show Australians overwhelmingly want stronger emissions cuts, as demanded in a recent surge of activism. The government’s policy was long one of climate denial, but the May 2022 election saw the installation of a new centre-left government promising to do better. Climate concern played a huge part in the campaign and candidates committed to climate action made gains. In September the new government passed Australia’s first climate change legislation in a decade, committing to cut emissions by at least 43 per cent by 2030.
Crackdown on protests
Australia’s burgeoning climate activism may have helped bring political change – but it’s also been met with harsh new restrictions. Coco’s act of peaceful protest fell foul of a new anti-protest law introduced by the state of New South Wales. Under the law, passed in April 2022, protesters can be punished for disrupting economic activity, which includes blocking transport routes and ports, with sentences of up to two years. The law came after a series of climate protests blocked a major port. Several other activists have been jailed or face sentences under this law.
Two other Australian states have recently passed laws to criminalise climate protests. Last August the government of Tasmania passed a law against obstructing access to workplaces, targeted at activists protesting against the destruction of old-growth forests. That same month, a law was passed in Victoria increasing jail sentences for the disruption of logging activities.
These moves came on top of a catalogue of other recent constraints on climate activism. In June 2022, around 100 police were involved in a pre-emptive raid on climate group Blockade Australia, detaining around 40 people. The raid had been preceded by covert surveillance.
In recent years numerous people have been arrested for protesting against a huge coal port development in Queensland, and in response to Extinction Rebellion protests, activists were branded as extremists and arrested, with highly restrictive bail conditions imposed to prevent further participation in protests. Restrictions were also placed on when and where protests could be held.
Voices from the frontline
Nelli Stevenson is head of communications and investigations at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
While tactics and approaches to climate advocacy among Australian civil society groups may differ, and there are legitimate differences of opinion regarding what forms of advocacy are most effective for winning hearts and minds, the fact remains that the harm caused by the climate crisis – catastrophic floods, fires and storms destroying homes, livelihoods and entire communities – staggeringly outweighs the inconvenience of one climate protester blocking one lane of traffic for 25 minutes.
The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to democracy in Australia. Many of the freedoms and rights we cherish as Australians were won and defended through peaceful protest: women’s right to vote, labour rights, LGBTQI+ rights and the conservation of so much of our magnificent environmental heritage.
But sweeping new laws were rushed through recently in a chilling and knee-jerk response to ongoing peaceful protests. These were the latest in a suite of increasingly draconian measures introduced to curtail peaceful public dissent.
These laws threaten to silence not only climate activists like Coco, or environmental and humanitarian organisations like ours, but every single one of us.
This is happening in other places too: across the globe, the ability of citizens to speak out against climate criminals is deliberately under attack. Civil society organisations across the globe must stand together and work in partnership to protect each other’s freedoms and enable each other to do the critical work of advocating for our planet and the world’s most vulnerable.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nelli. Read the full interview here.
A growing global trend
It isn’t only Australia. Numerous governments have reacted to a great global wave of climate activism by saying they recognise the need for action – while simultaneously criminalising protesters and moving to make protest harder.
The UK government went from talking up its supposed achievements as host of the 2021 COP26 climate summit to passing a law giving police wider powers to restrict and break-up protests, including on grounds of disruption and noise – something politicians justified with reference to climate actions. It recently announced its plan to further change the law to give police powers to pre-emptively stop protests before they begin. Dozens of activists from the Just Stop Oil group have already been jailed for acts such as blocking roads and oil terminals.
The UK is far from the only government claiming to be a climate champion while locking up those demanding action. In Demark, over 110 activists were arrested in two days of Extinction Rebellion protests last May. In March 2022 in Finland, 12 activists from Elokapina, the country’s Extinction Rebellion movement, were convicted of insubordination after blocking two streets and reportedly refusing police orders to clear the road.
Germany’s government, which includes the Greens party, was elected in 2021 following a campaign where climate change featured heavily, in the wake of devastating floods earlier that year. But last year it reopened coal power stations in response to the energy impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and this month police violently dragged away activists trying to stop the expansion of a coalmine, reportedly used batons, pepper spray and water cannon and briefly detained several campaigners, among them Greta Thunberg.
Canada is another country where environmental and land activists risk detention for civil disobedience. In May 2022, Indigenous campaigner Will George was sentenced to 28 days in jail for obstructing access to a terminal on the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline. Numerous US states have also introduced laws making it harder to protest near pipelines and mines.
Those who stand in the way of the powerful political and economic interests causing climate change can face physical danger too. In the decade since campaigning organisation Global Witness started tracking killings of environmental and land activists, 1,733 people have been killed – one every two days. Climate activists in East Africa – resisting the construction of a major new pipeline project across Tanzania and Uganda – are among those currently feeling the pressure. Campaigners have reported receiving threats, forcing some into hiding. In Uganda activists have also been arrested, detained and judicially harassed, and several organisations working to hold fossil fuel companies to account have been ordered to close.
The right to protest
In December, the new United Nations human rights head, Volker Türk, spoke out about the role of protest in driving climate action, and the need to protect civic space for climate protesters.
People have a right to protest. It’s one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in international conventions that pretty much all states, including Australia, have signed up to. Protests that cause disruption can still be peaceful protests. Protests have historically used disruption of everyday routines as a key means to communicate the urgency of an issue and emphasise the need for action. They’re how recognition of key rights such as universal suffrage, labour rights and Indigenous rights has been won, in Australia and many other countries.
The harm caused by the climate crisis staggeringly outweighs the inconvenience of one climate protester blocking one lane of traffic for 25 minutes.
The wave of mass protests and disruptive non-violent action that unfolded from 2019 onwards is the main reason climate change shot up the global agenda. People – many of them young people taking to the streets for the first time – felt compelled to act in response to their direct experience of the impacts of climate change and irrefutable proof of its reality, and a palpable lack of action to prevent further harm.
They have been rewarded with plenty of lip service and greenwashing – but the actions that drive climate change have largely continued. For all the declarations, like those made at the recent COP27 summit, governments keep promoting and approving extractive projects, fossil fuel companies keep developing them, banks keep investing in them, and all involved reap revenues and lack incentives to change course.
This means a change of direction will depend on people’s capacity to exert pressure and demand action. Some of the methods by which they do so will be controversial – such as transport disruption or the recent series of actions symbolically targeting works of art. Not all campaigners agree with these tactics, but because they capture attention and win headlines when other tactics get ignored, they’re sure to continue, however hard governments try to stop them.
Different tactics work at different times, in different contexts and in different combinations, and there’s no reason climate activists should give up any of the tools at their disposal. Alongside advocacy at international events like COP summits and the growing practice of climate litigation, disruptive protests will remain an important means of demanding action. The least governments can do is stop trying to silence the messenger and instead take the climate crisis seriously.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Australia must commit to respecting the right of climate activists to take part in protests and stop criminalising peaceful protesters.
Governments should recognise the legitimacy of disruptive tactics and non-violent direct action and abide by their commitments under international law to respect the right to protest.
Governments should urgently commit to much more ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit the activities of fossil fuel companies.
Cover photo by David Gray/AFP via Getty Images