Thursday, November 27, 2014

Why I was arrested on November 26, 2014 at the Whitehaven coal complex, NSW Australia

Yesterday, I was arrested protesting the Whitehaven coal complex, in north-western NSW.

In 1991 my first scientific paper concerned climate change and health. Since then, concern for what I have called “environmental brinkmanship” (of which climate change is a major part) has steered my academic career. Now, increasingly, it drives my personal life. In early 2013 I sweltered through the two hottest days in Australian history. Unprecedented heat reached our cabin in the Tasmanian forest. What should have been a holiday was instead spent continually checking bushfire status. Towns were burned, some people survived only by sheltering in the sea. Australian fires can outrun cars. Had a fire entered our valley we could not have tried to leave on the single road. It was an anxious time.

On the second morning I was awoken at 3 am with sinus pain, caused by smoke. It roused me. I checked the internet. Luckily for us, at least at that time, the smoke was from 60 miles away. The fire was contained, the smoke was not. That personal experience, integrated with my academic work and the knowledge that, left unchecked, climate change will lead to many more such events (and worse) propelled my declaration of intent to be arrested by end 2014. That promise, made publicly, was fulfilled in northern NSW on November 26.

We need a whole-of society effort to transform to a clean-energy fuelled future. If we don’t, climate change will undermine civilisation, including by acting as a “risk multiplier” for famine, migration, social unrest and conflict. My recently released edited book “Climate Change and Global Health” explores these issues. But I now believe that my academic work of writing, speaking and editing, while necessary, is insufficient. We need to work even more effectively to end Australia’s coal frenzy, and civil disobedience is an essential component of that. 

Civil disobedience has a long and honourable history, and was central to giving the vote and other rights to women in some countries. Civil disobedience lessened racial discrimination in countries such as the US. Peaceful mass protests, including hunger strikes, helped free the Indian sub-continent from British rule. In Australia, a direct challenge to state power in the form of large-scale civil disobedience is now called for, in order to prevent the lucky country from becoming an even more aggressive “Earth poisoner”.

Coal combustion was once of net benefit. But today, we know that the enormous scale of coal burning loads the ocean and atmosphere with a dangerous burden of toxins, especially the invisible gas carbon dioxide. After decades of effort, affordable clean energy technologies are emerging. But instead of encouraging their rapid development so that Australia can become a clean energy superpower, the policies and statements of our government reveal attachment to the old energy paradigm that is marvellously contemptuous of modern science. Senior Australian officials openly express their disbelief in climate science, sometimes from national media platforms. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott even proclaimed recently that “coal is good for humanity”.

Yet climate science reveals that our addiction to fossil fuels, especially to coal and tarsands is poisoning our common future. The dose we are administering to the biosphere is toxic, especially to future generations. The “social license” to burn fossil fuels needs to be removed, just as is smoking in hospitals. 

Like Bill McKibben, I believe that people of my age (59) should be willing to make what is a tiny sacrifice compared to the enormous risk that the path pursued by our politicians is leading us along. I cannot stand by any longer. On the other hand, if NSW continues to evolve towards a coal-police state then the risk may not be so small after all.

There is also a spiritual dimension to these protests, as well described by the journalist Graham Readfearn.


A video was recorded in 2015, before the devastating 2016 fires in Tasmania. It tries to explain why I, a contributor to the 2014 IPCC health chapter, was arrested to protest coal exports from Australia. Thanks to Jody Lightfoot and everyone at Common Grace for this chance to explain my actions further.

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