“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
“Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results,” Scott Morrison said in September. “We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future. Australia’s internal and global critics on climate change willingly overlook or ignore our achievements, as the facts simply don’t fit the narrative they wish to project about our contribution. Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions. Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.”
Nothing to see here folks. Climate change isn’t a problem, our government has it all under control. It doesn’t take an expert in climate or political science to see some level of tension underneath statements like this. For one, Morrison’s claims are just false. Australia’s carbon emissions are growing. 1.3% might sound small, but Australia’s population is 0.3% of the world’s and we are in fact one of the highest per capita emitters. Nor does that figure include the emissions produced by Australian export industries from which our country profits. The idea that we are meeting our Paris Climate targets is similarly based on the dodgiest of accounting methods, using the fiction of “Kyoto credits” to pretend we are meeting international agreements that we are not. Last time Scott Morrison was at the United Nations he took the opportunity to talk not of “global responsibilities” but instead to publicly complain about the international body meddling in his domestic affairs.
In Queensland the state government can claim, with slightly more credibility, to have the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy plan. They do this with notable regularity – the five government media releases about renewable energy in the last week being a not unusual sample. This also doesn’t tell the whole story though. The Queensland government doesn’t factor the emissions of the state’s coal exports into those figures. In fact, environmental approvals for mining projects don’t take downstream emissions into account. The Queensland government’s climate plan is either based on the pretty unlikely assumption that coal will never be burned, or the narrow perspective that the money the state receives from those exports has nothing to do with what happens with that product once it leaves our shores.
The federal and state governments’ support of Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine ignores one of the essential tenets of meeting that Paris climate agreement – as the IPCC report on meeting the goal says, “any production from new oil and gas fields, beyond those already in production or development, is incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”
So there is a tension inherent in those confidently made claims. Not an especially hidden tension – the claims are made by incumbent governments seeking not to inspire dramatic change, but to reassure the population that they are doing enough. Pretty much anybody can see that these claims are made not with climate justice in mind but are an attempt to disguise the fact that, as the world lurches into climate breakdown, our governments are unable or unwilling to to take the steps required to stop it.
The tension, mind you, is not limited to governments and mining lobby. It’s in the daily lives of Australians. Living in the midst of a human-caused environmental disaster and existential threat; we go about our lives as if nothing unusual is happening, no news more noteworthy than the everyday banalities of work and leisure.
This year, those tensions have come to the surface. Vast numbers of people have taken part in climate protests. And not just a Saturday afternoon rally. Kids and workers going on strike, cities shut down in chaotic traffic “swarms”, dozens arrested disrupting work on Adani’s mine or at businesses involved in the mine.
Last week was probably the most tense yet – demonstrations attempting to disrupt the smooth operation of the International Mining And Resource Conference in Melbourne were met with police batons, horse charges and pepper spray strewn into crowds as if it was silly string at a kid’s birthday party. Following public outcry and extremely distasteful revelations about some of the police involved, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews defended the police, saying “there is a big difference between peaceful protest and what we saw yesterday”, while opposition leader Michael O’Brien praised police for “trying to make sure that these ferals can’t stop people going about their lawful business in this state”.
Inside the Convention Centre, federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan was literally living in a fairy tale – his speech started with “Our friends in the green activist movement so often present themselves as the Big Bad Wolf. They make threats, they inflate their support base and they build themselves up to be scary to all. However, when it comes to actually blowing something over they are so often shown to be more huff than puff.”. Canavan’s vision is a fantasy where the mining industry (which naturally includes his own family) are the good guys heroically defying the unjust force of evil protesters. Where business is sacred and the profits of companies have no negative consequences.
The spectacle of riot cops defending the industry meeting was Martin Luther King’s quote acted out before our eyes. For all the talk about the importance of protest to a democracy, this is what will happen if there are enough of you to actually threaten the ability of mining executives to get together and discuss how to profit from the destruction of your future. It was not a pretty sight, but then pointing the light at those dusty corners where we like to keep the tensions hidden can unearth some nasty surprises.
In Queensland, the Dangerous Attachment Devices legislation outlawing “lock-on” devices came into effect on Wednesday. That day, Premier and architect of the laws Annastacia Palaszczuk gave a speech proudly repeating her refrain that the state had an ambitious target of 50% renewable energy by 2030. In the same speech, she announced she was opening up vast areas of the state for gas exploration.
Palaszczuk lives daily in the tension. In a state where her government holds a tenuous grip on power (especially after the federal election result), with a powerful mining sector on one hand and a huge tourism industry based around the rapidly bleaching Great Barrier Reef on the other. She spruiks the state’s credentials as climate action pioneers while the nation’s most symbolic climate battle rages in the middle of the state.
Queensland has also seen the country’s most disruptive climate civil disobedience in recent times – this year in Extinction Rebellion protests, and over the last few years against the proposed Adani mine both in Brisbane and central Queensland.
Palaszczuk’s response to the tensions has, of course, been to go on the attack against environmental protesters, demonising them as extremists and bringing in new laws against protest activity. She still tried to have it both ways by defending her environmental record and insisting the laws are aimed not at restricting protest but at “potentially dangerous tactics by a small cohort of individuals”. This is no more honest than the PM’s claims we are on track to meet the Paris Climate Agreements. The truth is Palaszczuk misled parliament and the public over make-believe “booby traps” and suspended normal parliamentary procedure to rush through the laws. All to keep up the facade that her party were the responsible middle ground between environmental action and economic growth.
On Friday, Brisbane was the setting for another politician talking up new laws to shut down protest. A day after the chaos of the IMARC protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was leaving no room for illusions about which side he was on. At a lunch organised by the Queensland Resources Council, Morrison railed against “selfish and indulgent” protesters and promised new laws to stop secondary boycotts targeting mining contractors. Of course, those protests aimed at a range of businesses involved somewhere in the fossil fuel food chain had begun precisely because the government had proven so unwilling to act.
Mass protests, violent policing, new laws criminalising dissent. It sure was a tense week in the world of Australian climate politics. But if politicians think you can just clamp down and suppress it they are battling the laws of physics.
Many of us have grown accustomed to living in a state of unbearable climate tension. Kids being told to go to school and study for a future that is being actively taken from them; citizens expected to follow law and order that protects those who destroy our planet and criminalises those who try to save it; activists setting aside their lives and interests to stand for a greater cause only to be repeatedly vilified, threatened and accused of being selfish parasites.
This is the hidden tension of everyday life in a time of climate emergency. No need to be surprised when it rises to the surface.
– Andy Paine