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Climate protesters criminalised as climate crisis escalates

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Dozens of climate activists have been arrested for speaking up against government inaction on climate change (Screenshot via YouTube)

With anti-protest laws on the rise as our climate crisis worsens, activists are fighting back to raise awareness, writes Claire Burgess.

CLIMATE ACTIVISTS are increasingly using protest tactics that cannot be ignored. They are targeting Australia’s economic and political centres, contending that these systems built from colonial dispossession are responsible for climate destruction and inaction. Does this approach to bringing about change hold up empirically?

Is Australia a colonial and extractive-based climate pariah?

The extraction of “natural resources” is the backbone of colonial relations to the Earth — climate change is a symptom of this way of operating. The sixth International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report points to how marginalised communities, particularly Indigenous, disproportionately bear the burden and harm from climate change though they are the least responsible. Scholars now argue that climate action requires addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism.

Australia’s current extractive regime has its roots in colonial systems of violence and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The political and economic system sits proudly upon scarred and damaged land that was never ceded. Mining giants continue to be prioritised by governments, such as coal mining company Adani over the land rights of Traditional Owners.

Politics and economics have been identified by the IPCC as major impediments to climate action. This is particularly evident in the contradiction of Australian mining companies becoming both global leaders in “green” economies while expanding coal and gas production. The plunder for capitalising on the economic opportunities of new green economies is the latest threat to the planet.

Despite all the talk about “green” growth, energy-related emissions have accelerated, reaching record highs in 2021. The only slowdown of emissions occurred during the COVID lockdown. Degrowth scholars highlight how the myth of progress continues to underpin market approaches to climate change. They remind us of the hard limits on the number of natural resources left that we can use.

Every ecosystem is under pressure. First Nations elders and scholars have also long called for designing systems based on ecological relationality with the Earth.

The signs of both planetary collapse and the knowledge of regenerative ways of being have long been available. It is the dominating, extractive-based system that is maladaptive to our planet — not us.

How has people-power shaped this country?

The goal of non-violent direct action (NVDA) is to draw attention to contentious practices and in doing so, exert pressure on targeted actors. In lutruwita/Tasmania during the Franklin Dam blockade, a total of 1,400 people were arrested and gaoled including federal and state parliament members.

This campaign led to a large area of wilderness being saved from development. Grassroots, direct action galvanised the environmental movement in Australia and these tactics continue to be used to defend wild places.

NVDA can encompass open or covert tactics from blockades, sit-ins and occupations to street protests. In gaining land rights, the occupation of land outside Parliament House for establishing the “Aboriginal Tent Embassy” sent a message to the public about the impacts of landlessness and dispossession. Resistance in the form of land defence continues today, in blockading extractive industries on Traditional Lands.

Perhaps because of this history, governments are responding to climate activists with nationwide legislative crackdowns in the form of anti-protest laws. The link between the protection of extractive industries, political power and government repression of protesters should concern all of us.

Long-term environmental activist Bob Brown, Human Rights Watch and a network of grassroots campaigners have condemned the recent raids and police repression against climate protesters, joining in solidarity with a collective warning from 40 civil society organisations.

However, by criminalising protest, governments expose their allegiance to profit before the people. Rather than generate fear amongst us, this may just mobilise more people in defence of systems that threaten life on Earth.

Is collective action commensurate to co-creating a sustainable future?

The history of collective participation in deciding how we want to live, beyond mere voting, has fundamentally shaped our world. Global justice and environmental movements have already shifted public and corporate awareness toward climate justice and the importance of valuing nature — why restrict these important change-making voices?

These voices demonstrate that a 10-30 minute delay on the highway is nothing compared to dealing with the disruption of back-to-back floods and fire disasters, rendering homes, livelihoods destroyed and entire areas becoming uninhabitable.

It is in the resistance to extractivism that we see a better world, a regenerative world, is possible. To co-create this world, solidarity with First Nations, disruptive protest and mutual aid are paramount. It is in respect for the diversity of responses to the climate disaster where empowerment lies.

While the path toward transforming the system is hard, it can also reawaken what it is to be human. We face increasing and multiple threats now and into the future. Our capacity to work together in solidarity, to resist harm and regenerate, is where we find transformative change.

We have seen this in mutual aid responses with abortion rights in the United States and community collective response on the East Coast of Australia after the fire and floods of the past years.

Reclaiming our humanity in the face of planetary collapse is tapping into the one autonomous vehicle we have — our collective bodies. Speaking truth to power by drawing upon strategies that have worked in the past is an integral part of reimagining and bringing to life the regenerative future, one that we desperately need.

All we have is the Earth and each other.

Claire Burgess is a researcher, writer and Earth lover. Currently enrolled as a PhD student. Areas of interest are extractivism, resistance, anti-colonial political ecology and Indigenous systems thinking. You can follow Claire on Twitter @Claireburgo.

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Climate protesters criminalised as climate crisis escalates

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