A few months ago, I thought that while I empathised with the actions of the protest movement Blockade Australia, I didn’t believe the tactic of disrupting commuter traffic was effective.
I thought that persuading the majority of Australians we need urgent climate action requires showing how that action can make their lives easier, not harder. And that commuters are not the right target because they are not the people most responsible for the state of the climate.
I thought stopping the CEO of Chevron getting to work was a better use of time and energy, and I wrote an op-ed along those same lines.
I received a lot of Twitter “feedback” from various supporters of the protesters (I used the mute button a bit, I must admit). I engaged with thoughtful responses from brilliant climate activists who have been fighting for the planet long before I got involved. And I felt torn about whether I should have written the op-ed or not.
My argument wasn’t wrong per se, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I had presented a complex issue in simplistic terms.
It is often argued that protest – even disruptive, criminal and widely condemned protest – has formed a critical part of all successful social movements. That is no doubt true, combined, of course, with the efforts of those with more of an appetite for compromise.
The need to address the climate crisis requires us to throw everything at it, from all quarters: it requires immediate and substantial action from the barricades to the boardrooms. And protests can change hearts and minds; it was watching the School Strike for Climate that turned me into a climate action advocate.
Soon after I wrote the op-ed, the state government introduced laws with large fines and significant jail terms aimed directly at the activities of Blockade Australia. I was dismayed, to say the least: I have yet to be convinced that the State requires new laws to address political protests.
And let’s not forget for a moment that all around the world people who are fighting for climate action are being harassed, jailed, and even killed for their work.
The police already had at their disposal the ability to arrest people for the kinds of activities Blockade Australia has been involved in. And as the human rights lawyer Greg Barnes has said, “people who are engaging in protest generally are happy to take the risk of being jailed or fined large sums of money because they’re motivated by the cause”.
In the rush to condemn these protesters, we often forget this cause they are motivated by. Namely, that we must stop burning fossil fuels to have a realistic chance of keeping global heating in and around 1.5%. Because life in this country at 2% or more means extreme fires, floods, droughts, less Barrier Reef, less Torres Strait, fewer animals, far less livable space and far less fun for everyone.
While we might question their tactics, I believe the protesters are actually responding in a pretty rational way not just to the science, but to the appalling tactics of denialism and delayism from those with the most power to address the climate crisis and the greatest responsibility for its causes.
While the vast majority of us live with some degree of denial about the state of the planet, these protesters clearly don’t. And while I worry this non-denial isn’t sustainable in the long term, it is quite admirable.
Even climate advocates of a more conservative bent (myself included) understand the fear, anger, frustration and sadness that drives these activists. There are times when I read about the permafrost thawing or the amount of CO2 already in our oceans and I feel an overwhelming desire to block the Harbor Tunnel.
It passes but it always comes back: that panic and alarm.
How do I cope with that? Well, I throw myself into activities that generate active hope. I try to raise some money, help a climate group, volunteer, hassle my kids about recycling. Vote.
If my tone here is coming across as ambivalent, its because that’s how I feel. The actions of these protesters should not be condemned, but nor should they be wholeheartedly endorsed.
Indeed, there is one thing keeping me from joining Blockade Australia (well, that and the fact that they don’t really like me much).
I still believe in the power of persuasion over disruption. The protesters’ position is that they are not about persuading others, they are about disrupting the system that drives climate change. That the time for persuasion is over and the usual tactics of advocacy have failed.
And yet I think (actually I know) we are just at the beginning of working out how best to persuade different audiences that climate action is not only important and urgent, but beneficial to themselves and their communities right now, rather than in some distant future .
The result in the last election was, in part, the result of countless small, community-lead campaigns across the country arguing just that. I saw in the research I did that approach worked. It shifted votes, changed the parliament and hopefully the country.
There were plenty of people stuck in traffic this week who voted for climate at the last election. We should let them get to childcare, work and medical appointments as quickly as possible, because they are allies to be won over, not targets for disruption.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism