Civil Disobedience and Climate Politics

Neil Rankine at 2019 XR demonstrations in Melbourne

The recent draconian jailing of a young climate activist in Newcastle for 12 months for delaying a coal train for 5 hours by standing on it highlights the difference between violent and non-violent direct action and the inconsistent responses of authority to them. By contrast, in recent anti-vax demonstrations in Melbourne hangman’s nooses have been displayed and political figures given death threats without, as far as I am aware, any charges being laid. Further, some conservative (read reactionary) political figures have participated in these demonstrations and worse still figures of prominence in the conservative parties have failed to condemn them.

The mainstream media are complicit in this in that they tend to concentrate on the ‘acts of violence’ often with little condemnation. Recent anti-vaxxer demonstrations commanded a huge media presence, whilst various climate demonstrations over the last decade numbering up to 100,000, have been ignored. The media are also complicit in that they have failed dismally to highlight or criticise fossil fuel propaganda and the politicisation of climate science.

The actions of civil disobedience demonstrators by comparison are non-violent and those carrying out these demonstrations are prepared to be charged, fined, or even jailed for their actions. Extinction Rebellion (XR) members are the main proponents of civil disobedience in Gippsland and their activities have mainly involved chalking signs on pavements in prominent areas in towns. A number in the pre-covid era were arrested for blocking traffic in Melbourne in 2019 (image) whilst more recent actions at Parliament House Canberra attracted international media interest.

Against this we can compare the real crimes of the fossil fuel protagonists who have done their best to delay meaningful climate action for three decades and worked hard to divide and politicise. How many deaths around the globe these actions have caused is impossible to calculate but must already be a large number. Recent studies* from the CSIRO on bushfires indicate that this century there has been an 800% increase in burnt areas due to a warming planet. One wonders how many of the over 400 fatalities in our 2019-20 bushfires were caused by global warming?

In this legal hypocrisy I am reminded of the anonymous quatrain about the land enclosures in England during the 18th century which went roughly as follows:- “The law does punish man or woman / who steals the goose from off the common / but leaves the greater villain loose / that steals the common from the goose.”

One thing is obvious. The current proposal for a massive expansion of the fossil fuel industry by our Federal government is madness, contrary to all the science and criminal. To stop global warming we must exit all forms of fossil fuel as quickly as possible and there must be no new developments. Against these proposed developments – currently a long list including Adani and Woodside’s Scarborough gas field – all forms of non-violent action are legitimate.

*brief summary of early CSIRO predictions here.