Why climate change activism around the world is now inevitable

On Sunday June 19, police raided a property in Colo, on the outskirts of Sydney, where members of Blockade had gathered ahead of protests that have hit Sydney this week. According to protesters’ accounts, members of the group had come across two police officers who were carrying out surveillance. As the undercover officers fled on foot and then in a car, some of those on the property gathered around them. The officers called for reinforcements which arrived in force. Seven were arrested on the spot and three more later.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Paul Dunstan later said the officers “feared for their lives”.

Blockade Australia’s first protest action targeted the port of Newcastle in November last year, when activists climbed over machinery, briefly suspending exports from one of the world’s largest coal ports.

Then, in March, members targeted rail and road lines in Port Botany. Around the same time, another small group of activists, Fireproof Australia, began blocking Sydney’s main roads. The following month, Extinction Rebellion activists took to the streets around the world.

“To this man, I would say that I am with you. It’s for you, it’s for your family that we’re doing this,” she says into her phone’s camera.

Footage of simultaneous protest actions in the city shows activists weaving among pedestrians as they try to block the streets with whatever material they find to hand. At one point, a car makes its way down a congested road.

Potential for harm: A car drove through a protest in Sydney’s CBD this week.Credit:Nine News

The violent potential of the events is evident in the footage.

Concern for tactics isn’t just for frustrated viewers. Leaders of several mainstream climate movement organizations say they are concerned the strategy is counterproductive, though those who spoke with the Herald and age were unwilling to be cited in the record on this matter.

Another Blockade member, Jonah Shabtay, 26, rejects criticism that antagonistic commuters could lose potential support from the climate movement.

If someone gives up on climate care because they were inconvenienced on the way to work, he reasons, they weren’t so concerned to begin with.

“You know, there’s a lot of awareness and a lot of sympathy for the climate movement, but we can’t wait for that sympathy to turn into action before we head to the edge of the cliff, and we’re headed to the edge of the cliff until we do the right thing now,” he said.

“It would be great to change the hearts and minds of everyone on this continent, but we don’t have time to wait for them to activate them and turn that sympathy into action.”

Many Blockade members are veterans of “defensive” protest campaigns designed to protect, for example, sections of forest from destruction.

Shabtay, a soft-spoken University of NSW graduate who works in the NGO sector, says Blockade and his tactics were born out of frustration at the failure of other protest methods to bring about change .

“Those involved in Blockade Australia are tired of this type of one-off reactionary activism. We are witnessing so much destruction happening in a systemic and organized way. To fight it, we would all have to set up camp across the continent waiting for a corporation to come and destroy it. There just aren’t enough of us to do that, so we’re going for the heart,” he says of Sydney stocks this week.

Blockade Australia to climate change protesters in Hyde Park this week.

Blockade Australia to climate change protesters in Hyde Park this week. Credit:SMH

The end goal is unclear, though Shabtay hopes it will inspire other activists to organize similar campaigns and join future protests against the blockade.

“We’re just trying to push the beast, and you don’t know how it’s going to react.”

He says Labor’s election will not dampen Blockade’s actions as the new government continues to back new fossil fuel projects, particularly in the gas sector.

Later Wednesday, Shabtay was among a group of blockade members who gathered to talk at a park in Turrella. They were met by ranks of police on the ground as a police helicopter slammed overhead.

On Thursday, Shabtay admits the overwhelming police response has disrupted the group’s plans for further protests, but he says the threat of jail will not deter the group from continuing the long-term campaign.

Blockade members, he says, are more afraid of climate change than of the law.

Social scientist and author Clive Hamilton, who has written extensively on the protest and was researching a book on the global climate activism movement when COVID hit, says he too wonders if he is reasonable or useful to target commuters.

But he notes that the tactic is not new. The streets were blocked by suffragettes, civil rights protesters and the youth movement against the Vietnam War. Hamilton believes the climate protests will also be vindicated by history.

Earlier this month, Hamilton was invited to lead a workshop on direct action in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. He had been asked to lead a discussion on the ethics and strategic utility of direct action.

The 30 or so activists present from Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands were almost unanimous in saying that the time for peaceful protests was over, he said.

Author Clive Hamilton says that as climate change accelerates, so will civil disobedience.

Author Clive Hamilton says that as climate change accelerates, so will civil disobedience.Credit:Rohan Thomson

Hamilton believes the global activist movement, which he says is tightly integrated, has been “turbocharged”, influenced not just by the advocacy of writers like Malme, but by the intensifying impacts of climate change.

He was driven to break the law out of desperation and fear for his children’s future.

“Nothing else I did worked. Nothing happened. You know, writing scientific articles, writing articles, writing books, giving interviews, it didn’t work.

“It wasn’t waking people up, something was missing, wasn’t it, an expression of urgency that couldn’t cut through the noise of all the other news, cut through all the worrying things going on in our society who are vying for our attention.

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