“Hell on Earth”: Extinction Rebellion’s Violet Coco on the Urgency of Climate Activism

by Paul Gregoire
Fire at Parliament House

The Federal Court of Australia declared on 8 July that in deciding on whether to approve fossil fuel projects going into the future, the environment minister has to consider a duty of care “to avoid causing personal injury or death” to children ordinarily residing in Australia.

This decision was based on evidence provided by ANU Earth Science Professor Will Steffen, outlining that the Paris Agreement target of keeping below 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level is unlikely, and global warming now has the potential to dramatically spiral out of control.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released its most substantial report since 2013 on Monday, which confirms it’s likely the globe will reach 1.5 degrees heating by the end of this decade, which means more extreme weather events: bushfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods.

However, on the day after the Federal Court declaration was made, rather than take heed to this responsibility to children, federal environment minister Sussan Ley announced she’s going to appeal the decision in an attempt to have the duty of care made void.

And, needless to say, climate activists are pissed…

XR activist in the foyer of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Escalating direct action

On Tuesday morning, a small band of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists staged a nonviolent direct action out the front of Parliament House in Canberra, as they sought to “raise the stakes” in terms of the impact of their activism.

The early morning action involved a woman setting fire to a pram, as she drew attention to the fact that the Morrison government with its continued fossil fuel agenda is damning all future generations, including the children that are now in our midst.

XR activists further spray-painted climate messaging in red upon Parliament House itself. While another group of rebels then proceeded to converge on the PM’s local residence, the Lodge, where they spray-painted “Duty of Care” on the exterior wall.

These actions followed multiple others that took place in Canberra and Melbourne last week, which culminated in another group of XR activists storming the foyer of the environment department where they drenched themselves in fake blood and spray-painted messaging on the walls.

A duty to rebel

Violet Coco is the Extinction Rebellion activist who was standing beside the burning pram on Tuesday.

At the time of writing, she had just spent the evening in the local lockup and was about to go before the courts. She is currently being held on remand until 25 August. Tuesday was the fourth time she’s been arrested over the last fortnight.

“We have to save our kids,” Coco told reporters at parliament. “I want to be a mum, but I can’t be because the government is refusing to act on the climate. We must act now: our children and our planet are in danger.”

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Violet on the day prior to the action at parliament, and while she noted that the protests were “escalating”, she couldn’t reveal the details of what was about to take place. So, she filled us in on the reasons why they’re necessary.

The Morrison government are committing much greater vandalism on a global scale

Firstly, last Friday, a group of XR activists occupied the foyer of the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.

Images show rebels drenched in fake blood and having defaced the interior walls of the building. This was part of a series of actions around the country last week.

Violet, what have recent XR nonviolent direct actions involved? And are they ongoing?

Yes, they are definitely ongoing. Not only are they ongoing, they’re escalating. We are doing that because we refuse to be bystanders in this emergency.

I talked to the eminent climate scientist Will Steffen a few weeks ago, and he said that we’re looking at hell on earth and a precipitous drop in the human population if we don’t zero out on emissions very quickly – an emergency transition.

We plan to continue to escalate, particularly building to 16 October, which is when a protest event called Reclaim Our Future will be held. We’re going to occupy Capital Hill in Canberra day after day for as long as we can sustain.

In terms of actions last week, the first one was put together on Barry Drive in Canberra. It was early morning, and it involved an old forest blockader technique: the tripod. We had two tripods on the road with two people suspended six metres in the air.

The reason we blockade in public is to sound the alarm. It is about letting people know that we’re in an emergency. As much as we don’t want to disrupt the public, they have a right to know how urgent the issue is.

The second protest we held was outside the environment office. We had children out the front of the protest and they had a banner that said, “We refuse to be the last generation”.

We were calling out for support from public servants there to pressure Sussan Ley into dropping the appeal.

We also had some people protesting on top of Josh Frydenberg’s office in Melbourne on Thursday.

Then on Friday, we occupied and redecorated the foyer of the environment department, which again was calling for Sussan Ley to drop the appeal and called on public servants to sign a petition asking her to do so.

Reminding the minister of her duty of care, whilst she’s at work

As you note, the multiple actions at the environment department were calling on federal environment minister Sussan Ley to drop the appeal against the outcome to the Federal Court Sharma case.

This saw the court make a declaration in July, stating that the minister has a duty of care to children to consider when approving fossil fuel projects.

How significant is the court outcome? What sort of impact could it have if it stands?

What is more significant than the outcome was the outrage that she’s appealing the decision. It really exposes her criminal negligence, and the negligence of this government.

We have scientists on one side saying we’re facing hell on earth and billions of deaths, and, on the other side, we have a government denying that it’s a problem.

This shows that the onus is back on the average person. So, what we’re doing under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion is forcing them to care. And we’re just normal people who recognise that our government is failing us.

But we have people like deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce saying that the only thing certain about 2050 is that he’ll be dead.

So, he doesn’t care about young children and their future. These politicians only care about themselves and the money that they can make. But there is no economy on a dead planet.

The outcome of this particular court case is symbolic of a much larger issue, which is we have a government that’s failing to protect our children.

Public attention right now is centred on the COVID pandemic. However, in the northern hemisphere there’s a spate of extreme weather events taking place.

In your understanding, just how urgent has the climate emergency become? And do we have time to wait for the pandemic to subside before taking more drastic action?

We absolutely do not have time to wait for the pandemic to subside. We’re in what’s called a converging crises. And we must take immediate action.

As I said, Will Steffen has said that we’re looking at hell on earth. And we need to zero out of emissions as far as humanly possible.

So, an emergency speed transition, plus drawdown – which involves planting trees – and halting biodiversity loss is needed.

A lot of people don’t know that losing biodiversity is a huge part of it. Losing biodiversity is like taking bricks out of your house and expecting it to still stand.

It is really important for the ecosystem to maintain itself and a lot of that ecosystem loss is from human hands destroying it.

So, we need to be protecting that in an urgent manner. So, we cannot wait at all.

The Morrison government is internationally notorious for its lack of climate action. How would you sum up the way our government is operating in this regard? And why is this the case?

The government has been captured by the fossil fuel industry and the Murdoch empire. Basically, they’re more focused on making money for themselves, than being able to address this issue.

This is exposing their criminality. Like I said, billions of people will die.

I come from a philosophical background, and I assert that when a government has failed its duty to the people, it’s the people’s duty to rise up and rebel against that government to right the wrong that’s happening.

We can speculate that it’s all about money. But when you get down to it, it doesn’t matter why, it just matters that it’s happening, and we have to do something about it.

At the same time the Morrison government unveiled its gas-led recovery last year, it was also fast-tracking the approval of a huge solar power farm to be established in the Northern Territory to enable Singapore to go green.

What are your thoughts on the government maintaining these two divergent positions?

These are not divergent positions, because the reality of the situation is that we either do an emergency transition to net zero, or we don’t. Those are the two positions.

So, it doesn’t matter how close to the ball of zero emissions that we get, if we do not achieve what’s necessary, billions of people will die, and the habitability of our planet is at stake.

They can open up a solar powered farm in the Northern Territory, but if they’re also conducting a gas-led recovery which creates more fossil fuels in the atmosphere, then it’s not two positions: it’s still the wrong position.

Scott likes to do creative accounting. He thinks that he can override physics with an Excel document, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Your activism is substantial. You’ve been taken into custody on numerous occasions. And so too, have a number of the activists who were led off by police from the environment department last week.

Why are you going so hard with your activism?

This is an emergency. People need to be treating it as such. And I’m going hard for several reasons.

One is that Christiana Figueres, the secretary general of the UNFCCC, said that it’s time to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience movements, wherever possible because it’s the most powerful way of shaping world politics.

Personally, I’ve been arrested about 20 times over the last three years. But I’d never been in trouble with the law before. In the last week, I’ve been arrested three times.

What we’re finding is that the courts are very sympathetic. They’re quoting Rawls at me. They’re coming back with philosophy about the government failing its duty. They’re giving minimal fines, and they’re not giving us any bail conditions.

ANU environmental scientist Dr Nick Abel, who has worked at the CSIRO, got no conviction.

We have nurses coming through with us and they’re getting very low fines – $100 or $200 – for premeditated crimes. But because they’re on the right side of history, the court is recognising this.

On a personal note, the reason I am able to donate so much time to this is because at 30-years old, I am at a time in my life when I am supposed to be having kids.

That would be what I am dedicating my life to, but I feel too afraid to have children. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do: to bring kids into this world with the current trajectory of hell on earth.

So, I’m putting all the energy that I would be putting into my own children into protecting the children that are already here.

Violet is led away by police on 10 August

And lastly, Violet, Extinction Rebellion has had a massive impact globally in terms of raising awareness on the climate emergency. However, as Professor Steffen explains, rather than improving, the crisis continues to get worse.

In your opinion, what sort of level of action is needed to see a substantial halt to the heating of the planet? And how is that going to come about?

We need an emergency speed transition to zero emissions and a halt to biodiversity loss.

To achieve that, we need a rebellion. We need a rebellion much like that of the Suffragette movement, the movement by Gandhi, and the Civil Rights movement.

We need regular people to stand up and say that what the government is doing is not enough. We need to demand more of them.

It’s a difficult situation, as normally this would come about by some sort of mass protest, but with COVID people are scared to engage in mass participation.

We’ve gone through the social science to look at the social triggers. There is a paper by Roger Hallam called Common Sense for the 21st Century. It addresses the idea that the more radical and sacrificial you are willing to be, the less people you need.

So, while still maintaining that strict nonviolent line, we need people to step up in smaller teams and take more radical and sacrificial action to compensate for the inability to gather in mass properly. And this is going to take a lot of courage.

But, as one of our protesters said as he came out of court, “I plead guilty, but I’ve never felt less guilty in my life.”

We need people to understand what’s at stake – billions of lives and hell on earth – and look at their children and nephews and nieces and really understand that they’re protecting them.

Main photo: Violet Coco taking direct action at Parliament House in Canberra

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Author

Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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