Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reflections on non violent civil disobedience to oppose Australia's coal export frenzy

I have been thinking a lot re non violent civil disobedience (NVCD) lately .. as some of you know I was arrested last week. I blocked a road for 50 minutes, the charge was damage to mine property by “rendering a road useless” . The maximum penalty is 7 years in jail, and the police statement stated that Whitehaven Coal would be seeking damages of at least $40,000.

Maybe the $40K threat is bluff and maybe the police won’t follow through with that extreme charge but the severity of both threats surprised me (though not that much) and is forcing me to reconsider suggesting NVCD to others. Even if both threats evaporate, there is a risk that NSW (and Qld) will further evolve towards fossil fuel-police states; in good conscience I cannot now suggest to virtually anyone that they take the risk I did, at least in Australia. (Maybe a very wealthy public figure like Dick Smith could take the risk, but how many people like that do I know?)

If I was in Nazi Germany (ie after Hitler took power) protests (eg Bonhoeffer’s) would be heroic but almost certainly ineffective in the life of the protester. NSW/Australia is not as extreme as Nazi Germany, but it is far further along a trajectory towards extremism than is comfortable (witness our illegal and immoral treatment of asylum seekers for a start). Social media is much on my side (and that of the former Australian rugby captain David Pocock who was also arrested this week) and mainstream media too is sympathetic, so far anyway, but I think we have to accept social media is far from representing majority opinion in Australia.

I am wondering if a tactic that might evolve is a protest seeking media attention (and public recognition that climate change is a very serious issue .. far more than NIMBYism) but that does not in any conceivable way harm mine property .. except its reputation could be a vigil outside the peak body in charge of fossil fuel mining and exports; maybe the office of the Minister of Energy. But doing what? A fast for a week? I am not prepared to fast to death or even to serious risk (and no fast at all at least not for the next 12 months) .. and this probably seems extreme to most people (I think such a fast has been tried in Australia?) but I’m just thinking aloud.

As for reputation – Whitehaven etc could evolve to Gunns 20 tactics – SLAPPS .. especially if the protesters start to look effective or get under their skin. (Gunns 20 might have had much to do with its CEO, John Gay’s particularly unpleasant personality). Whitehaven doing a Gunns must be under consideration by them but could also backfire..

But as I mentioned, the proximity of the risk as a tactic by big coal inhibits me from suggesting to others that NVCD is desirable (even though three of us have an in press letter in a public health journal saying exactly that .. but that letter was written when a SLAPP against climate protest seemed, at least to me, less likely.)

If I was to be involved in a fast, that could perhaps trigger a SLAPP but I think at the moment that is also unlikely.

I have no conclusion – I strongly support disinvestment, conventional academic means, think tanks and lobby groups; IPCC good science etc . But I remain of the view that those tactics are not enough. (I am certain of one thing though – violence will be counter-productive.)

Extreme climatic events work in our favour, but too many of them mean we are in peril. I met a senior climate scientist in the US last month whose opinion was that the recent apparent slowdown of land-surface ocean warming may persist for an unknown time .. even decades .. (ie deep ocean warming will progress, so will ocean acidification, so will sea level rise .. but perhaps the acceleration of more direct effects on human well-being eg drought will slow). .. but at the end of the day that scientist does not know. And this year looks to be the warmest on record, and again not a strong El Nino.

On the positive side, the ABC contacted me today and I am to be the subject of a cover story in a magazine called Medical Observer, which goes to almost all GPs in Australia.

I recently had an email exchange with a US academic who thinks Australia is irrelevant to climate change, that what alone matters is China/US. But Australia seeks to be the world’s leading coal exporter so I think there is leverage here. Also, protests as apparently extreme as NVCD in Europe and perhaps even in the US are not as warranted I think, because in both places the rhetoric is shifting towards encouraging the clean energy transition.

Of rich countries, Australia shares with Canada (and perhaps Poland) unique characteristics that suggest NVCD could be particularly useful:

1. Reckless national (and some state) government rhetoric largely indifferent to climate risk; 
2. We are an important fossil fuel producer and 
3. We are not (fully) a police state .. there is still reasonable media, still a tradition of fairly free speech and respect for the right to protest. 

But note my caution re the evolution of this towards SLAPPs and prison.

The other recent IPCC contributor I know of who was arrested, a Canadian in Canada, I believe faced a much lighter charge than I am.

PS I removed this on the advice of my lawyer, but recently reposted it. Since I wrote this I got a two year good behaviour bond, with no conviction recorded.

Another consequence of being arrested was that I was denied a visa to the US to attend a scientific meeting to which I had been invited. I was eventually offered one, valid for a very short time that has long since expired, after considerable time, cost and aggravation, but it was not granted in time to organise my travel. Even today, despite no sentence being recorded, I cannot visit the US without going through the same process again.

The meeting I was unable to attend
was part of the process leading to the Lancet/Rockefeller Foundation Planetary Health Commission.