Friday, February 10, 2017

Climate change and activism: time for protests to rival those against the Vietnam war

In late 2014 I was arrested at the Maules Creek mine, opposing coal exports, becoming the first Australian contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be arrested for coal disobedience. I don't regret that (even though it effectively ended my chances to go to the US again), but it has clearly been woefully inadequate.

Even Cory Bernadi should now be able to connect the dots

I originally wrote "Blind Freddy" instead of "Cory Bernadi" (an ultra conservative Australian politician) but it was pointed out me that this discriminates against the blind; apologies for that. The evidence of trouble from adverse environmental change is now overwhelming; but (to use another metaphor) we appear to collectively stand frozen, like a kangaroo in the headlights.

In recent days (continuing as I write at 03.30) there has been another infernal heat wave in much of Australia. In parts this has been compounded by blackouts. It's not only unpleasant, but can be highly dangerous and disabling, including to people with chronic cardiac, renal and neurological illnessses, including dementia, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Not to mention to people who are homeless, poor and in other ways vulnerable, including many who work outside, the elderly and some with mental illness. Added to this is the risk of devastating bushfires, including urban.

Note too that urban temperatures are often higher than officially recorded, due to the heat island effect, made worse by the killing of urban trees for cars and trams. Perth in Western Australia had its coldest February day ever, followed by an almost record deluge. That may seem paradoxical, but in fact climate change is not just about heating; it's also about the jetstream deforming (leading to paradoxical cold) and heavier rain, including "rainbombs". Parts of interior Australia have also been affected by significant extreme heat-associated infrastructure failure, including of mobile phones, the internet and the access to electronic cash

Australia: shooting itself in the brain

As civilisation gets closer to its apparent end we collectively seem to be functioning with less intelligence; just like a human being with advancing dementia. Part of civilisation is still alive and well - but those who can see the problems most vividly are probably aged between about 15 and 40 - and they lack the power to bring about real change. (Though this age cohort was very effective in ending our involvement in Vietnam.)

A scientific paper in Nature Climate Change has recently lamented the bias (I would say flagrant negligence) by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) against funding research on climate change and health, most plausibly because they don't want to risk their political capital.  (Disclosure: when still an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, in 2014 - before I was arrested at Maules Creek - I led a research bid to establish a "centre of excellence" on global environmental change and health. It was the third NH&MRC climate and health related attempt I was involved with in 3 years, we paid great attention to the feedback from the bid in 2013, yet one review we received in 2014 was almost contemptuous.)

Three of our 15 proposed research projects concerned heat and health, others concerned conflict and climate change and the rest were about biodiversity loss, heat, infectious diseases, disasters and climate change. The Australian Defence Force was a willing partner, something I thought would at least make the NH&MRC take our bid seriously. The Australian Red Cross and two state health departments were also involved, as were the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Veterinary Officer.

However, Tony Abbott ("coal is good for humanity") was then newly elected as Australian Prime Minister. I don't think it is paranoid to consider that the NH&MRC dared not risk offending "Captain Abbott" when the NH&MRC was itself vulnerable to further funding cuts?


South Australia's investment in renewable energy, which is a courageous step to protect us against extreme weather events, has been perversely blamed for blackouts, which are in fact more to do with climate change exacerbated storms and private enterprise profiteering. Federal ministers have even carried lumps of coal into the Australian parliament, which they seem to worship like icons. Professor Clive Hamilton has resigned from the Climate Change Authority. I don't blame him.

Even Mark Butler, the ALP shadow minister for environment, has failed to endorse the emergency phasing out of coal. We phased out asbestos; coal is even worse.

Do Australian politicians collectively lack leadership and courage, or do they inhabit such a bubble that they do not understand the immense risks the world now faces?  Or, perhaps, both?

In the US, a thoughtful article in the Atlantic, by David Frum, argues that protests, on their own, will shore up Trump's power. (The wilder the US political environment, the more his supporters in rustbucket states will appreciate Trump's autocracy.)

But Australia is a little more democratic. Just watching the world heat up, the weather to turn even wilder, and crops and animals to suffer is not going to do much good. 

Massive civil disobedience is needed - I wish it were more likely

I'm not sure that massive civil disobedience (on the scale of that against the Vietnam war) about coal in Australia will do any good, but just sitting in the frypan is futile. Such disobedience seems unlikely to occur, however, for several reasons:

1. Australians have many other stresses and priorities.


2. This heat wave will pass, and so will memory of it.

3. Globally, we are not like Syria or Yemen; we can afford food price rises, (see my open access chapter about food prices and climate change here) and we are already spending a significant sum deterring asylum seekers. Australians are not among the worst affected by climate change; we are still among the least affected. Here I disagree with some academics who point out our vulnerability - we are vulnerable, but we have the means to protect ourselves from the worst for a few more decades, though large urban bushfires scare me the most in Australia's near future. 

4. As inequality grows, so too does Australian public acceptance of the dreadfully named "harvesting effect" of heat on the vulnerable. 

5. The "eco-social" links between catastrophes such as in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan and adverse environmental change are substantially suppressed. (That is, these causes are ecological as well as social.) Since many academics deny, or fail to understand, such links what chance does the Australian media have of publicising them? Without widespread understanding of these factors, how will enough people be motivated to protest?

6. The Australian Federal and state governments will be increasingly draconian (I was initially threatened by the police with having to pay over $40,000 in compensation to the mine). The situation in Tasmania (where I was also arrested, opposing the Franklin dam) is also draconian, though Bob Brown is courageously challenging this. However the courts will probably be more sympathetic.

7. Finally, the massive (and entirely justified) protests in Australia and elsewhere against our participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq were completely unsuccessful. That is discouraging.

Trying to end more positively

We truly are behaving like a slowly boiling frog. I wish I could be more positive. We need a new compact, a new economy, new leadership. President Trump may be replaced by Senator Warren. Like so many Australians I once had hope for Malcolm Turnbull, who I met in about 2011 - we talked then for ten minutes then solely about what I call the "tertiary" - civilisation wrecking - effects of climate change, and he seemed to understand. I think he probably still does, but he still feels he cannot dare risk the wrath of the Australian right.

I attended a moving funeral service for the late Professor Basil Hetzel two days ago (in the heat).  Basil was a very important mentor for the late Professor Tony McMichael. Basil devoted himself to public service and medical research, but had some understanding of the peril of the Anthropocene - the modern age. Tony, even more so, appreciated this. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke attended the funeral, and it was great to see him (at a distance). At the tea and sandwiches I spoke to a pastor who mentioned that Bob Hawke's accord was founded on a less adversarial approach to politics which had evolved in (convict-free) South Australia.

There is certainly something wrong with Federal politics at the moment, and not just here. We need more of what Thich Nhat Hahn calls "deep listening". Could this emerge as the world goes deeper in crisis? I think it might just be possible. In any case, despair does not help. Action to try to bend the world towards more justice is probably despair's best antidote. And, if anyone under 40 does read this, I hope you will contribute to the organisation of massive - but peaceful - protests. That is still a democratic right in Australia. Not everyone needs to get arrested.

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Colin Butler is an adjunct professor of Public Health at the University of Canberra, Australia, and co-founder of the NGOs BODHI and BODHI Australia. He is founding co-chair of Health Earth and lead author for the section on health in the forthcoming flagship Global Environmental Outlook report of the United Nations Environment Programme, called Healthy Planet, Healthy People.