As Governments Clamp Down on Protest, Climate Defenders Are Using New Tactics

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No to coal

Over the autumn of 2022, climate defenders taking direct action on the streets to demand that the NSW government act on the global heating emergency were transformed into public enemy number one, even though they’d recently been part of a flourishing societywide mass movement.

Conveniently for the fossil fuel industry and government, COVID killed off mass protests. And after a post-lockdown crackdown on such actionssmall bands of determined climate activists began taking more disruptive nonviolent actions, which were necessary measures in the post-pandemic climate.

By March last year, climate groups Fireproof Australia and Blockade Australia were having such success in raising the crisis in the public mind via these demonstrations, that the NSW Coalition government, with bipartisan approval, passed laws so punitive it brought a halt to these actions.

This recent extreme clampdown on nonviolent climate defenders has since been replicated in jurisdictions across the country, as well as in other nations of the Global North.

But the tide is turning. In recent weeks, NSW and Victoria have seen emerging and seasoned climate defence groups using new tactics to mobilise outside the boundaries of the current draconian antiprotest regimes, with larger numbers now willing to participate.

And while this resurgence in direct actions taken in defiance of the crackdown has been impressive, it’s hardly surprising either, as extreme weather events are now periodically hitting locally and are a constant across the planet.

Indeed, as nature doesn’t obey antiprotest laws but rather reacts to the actions they serve to protect, governments need to act to on the will of the people, or else climate will ensure their downfall.

Safety in rising numbers

“The change in tactics reflects the end of mandated isolation, which necessitated smaller teams operating on behalf of the mass,” said climate defender Violet CoCo. “Now momentum can build again to mass engagement.”

Relatively new climate group Rising Tide conducted a 16 April direct action that saw over 100 climate defenders blockade a coal train bound for the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle. And whilst this blocking of a coal train was not the first action of its type, the huge numbers involved were.

CoCo was a noted participant in the event, as she recently faced 15 months inside under the new NSW antiprotest regime. This punishment, dropped on appeal, had been handed down in response to her part in a Fireproof action that briefly blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2022.

The activist was also amongst a band of Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters that, in the face of the downturn in demonstrations due to the lockdowns, carried out dramatic actions in the capital in 2021 that involved burning a pram at parliament and spray painting the walls of the PM’s residence.

“It seems to be true that operating in mass protects us from harsher punishments,” CoCo told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“Although let me be clear when I say, peaceful protesters should never be taken by police.”

Violet CoCo promoting the XR Occupy for Climate action to be held later this month in Melbourne 
Violet CoCo promoting the XR Occupy for Climate action to be held later this month in Melbourne 

“When you’re about to have the water lapping at your door”

Rising Tide first made a splash when it occupied former NSW premier Dominic Perrottet’s office prior to the March election. And the group then held the well-attended Camp for Climate Action, with the aim of reawakening the movement and formulating changing tactics in a new legal environment.

But the group really grabbed global attention when it blocked the train last month, with about 20 activists climbing atop a carriage to shovel out coal. Forty seven were then arrested and charged with offences relating to rail corridors and were later released with court attendance notices (CANs).

“Despite dire warnings from the UN and the world’s leading scientists that fossil fuel expansion threatens the survival of humanity, Australia has 116 new fossil fuel projects in the pipeline, which is simply insane,” explained 22-year-old renewable energy student Jasmine Stuart in a statement.

Rising Tide, however, has gone one step further in changing the face of direct action in aid of climate, as it’s staging a mass water blockade of Newcastle coal port in November, which will involve the obstruction of the port using water vessels, such as kayaks, tinnies, yachts and surfboards.

But Rising Tide is not alone in changing the game, as XR is conducting a renewed push down in Melbourne. And last Friday saw an Extinction Rebellion activist scale the spire above Arts Centre Melbourne, as others occupied the area below, which heralded in a May month of action.

The Occupy for Climate event will be staged in Melbourne over three days starting on 25 May. This XR action is set to involve over a thousand community members occupying a central business district site for three days and nights to raise awareness, disrupt business as usual and build connections.

Hell on Earth, it’s a-coming

CoCo has recently been in Victoria promoting the occupying Melbourne CBD event, which is a far cry from the walls of prison that she could have been subjected to if the NSW District Court had not determined 15 months gaol time for blocking a lane of traffic was a tad extreme.

In April last year, the Perrottet government enacted laws that make it an offence punishable by two years imprisonment and/or a $22,000 fine for the unauthorised obstruction of a road, bridge, tunnel or major facility, in response to a rise in climate actions the month prior.

The incoming Minns government has confirmed it will be continuing with this disproportionately harsh regime, as Labor has, for all its promises of taking necessitated climate action, continued down the same road as the Liberal Nationals, which is a path lined with gold for the fossil fuel industry.

The Albanese government promised to end the “climate wars”. Yet, last year saw it pass legislation to lower emissions by only 43 percent on 2005 levels by 2030, which is an inadequate goal, considering the escalating crisis, that likely won’t be achieved on our currently trajectory.

“This is not a situation where close enough is good enough. Labor’s plan is not aligned with the bare minimum to keep us below 1.5°C warming,” CoCo made clear.

“Between 1.5 and 2°C are the tipping points that send us into a collapse of our food systems, inundates coastal cities with sea water level rise and causes mass migration – yes within Australia,” the renowned climate defender added. “So, Labor is failing us.”

Profiteering and punishment

These remarks about the Labor government’s failure to take adequate climate action, include its most recent scheme, which is an update of the Abbott-era Safeguard Mechanism that’s supposed to reduce industry emissions, but experts say will allow corporations to pay to avoid doing any drop.

So, the danger for the movement is that Albanese’s greenwashing efforts will create a sense of false security in the community as to the growing climate dangers, while, in the meantime, for those who refuse to stop raising the issue, the state will continue to attempt to punish them into silence.

CoCo pointed out that last Friday, two protesters were intending to disrupt the Woodside annual general meeting, via the letting off of smoke flares and stench gas. However, the pair were arrested prior to any action, charged with aggravated burglary and spent the night in the police lockup.

“This makes them the first Western Australian environmental protesters to be denied bail,” the climate defender explained. 

“I see more criminalisation of protesters on the horizon, as the legacy fossil fuel power structures grasp with their dying breath onto our democracy.”

“But this is too important for us to give up. There is too much that we love at stake,” CoCo said in conclusion. 

“So, we will continue to face their trumped-up charges, and bail, in defence of a liveable planet.”

Main image of the Rising Tide coal train blockade. Image sourced from the group’s Facebook page 

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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