A week ago today, I and several hundred other members of Rising Tide and were paddling around the entrance to Newcastle Harbour preventing the export of coal from the world’s largest coal port. The event was incredibly well organised and extremely safe for everyone involved. It lasted from Friday until Monday but the actual blockade was from 10am on Saturday until 4pm on Sunday.
Throughout those thirty hours, there were kayakers on the water blocking any coal ships from coming or going.
Not that any coal ships tried to run the gauntlet. The organisers of the blockade had successfully applied to the Police for a permit to stage the non-violent direct action (NVDA) for thirty hours and the port authorities, conscious of safety and potential bad publicity should any accidents occur, had very sensibly decided to avoid any ship movements during that period.
Although there was a strong Police presence both on the water and on the shoreline and adjacent campsite, there was no friction whatsoever. Indeed, despite the very serious intent underpinning the blockade, the protesters were relaxed and jovial. There were lots of entertainments and activities on the water and the land to keep the approximately 3,000 very diverse activists who attended over the weekend occupied.
I say there was no friction but, of course, anyone who has kept up with the news over the last few days will be aware that around a hundred people stayed in the shipping channel after the permit expired at 4pm and were arrested. I would be very surprised if the Police were not expecting something of this nature and as far as I’m aware this was handled very calmly and professionally.
What then was the purpose of the blockade?
Many P&I readers, indeed many Australians, share the frustration of the activists in Newcastle at the glacial progress being made within Australia and internationally to limit the emission of greenhouse gases; at the mostly half-hearted efforts of governments, including our own, to phase down and out the production and burning of all fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas; and at the incredible, obstructive influence of the fossil fuel industries on Australian and international climate action. It is of course relevant that the Newcastle blockade occurred just one week before the start of the current Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Dubai (COP28). This is a conference that is being held in a major oil and gas producing country, that is chaired by the CEO of the Abu Dhabi Oil Company (ADNOC), and at which there are hundreds of representatives of fossil fuel companies doing all they can to muddy the waters and limit climate action. So there can be no surprise that many of the protesters have lost faith in the COP process.
It is against this background that the blockade was organised with, to my mind, two principal aims. First, to draw political and public attention to the rapidly increasing threat posed by climate change to the environment and to human health and survival, and to the negligently slow action by governments to limit the threats. It is too late now for the consequences of climate change to be avoided, indeed they are already being felt all over the world, and it is inevitable that they are going to get worse. But rapid action now can still avoid the very worst environmental and human catastrophes.
The second aim was to build and energise the community of people who are both concerned about climate change and want to be active in building a movement, a rising tide, to force political action. This is necessary both because of the dire situation we now face and because Covid made campaigning extremely difficult for about three years.
There can be no doubt that the blockade was extremely successful in generating media and political attention.
All major Australian TV stations and many of the print media covered the blockade over the weekend, continuing into the past week. It also received media coverage overseas, including UK, USA, Germany, China and Korea.
Politicians and miners were, however, less than enthusiastic.
Chris Minns, Premier of NSW, didn’t support the blockade and would have preferred it hadn’t happened. He even justified NSW’s coal exports with reference to the income it generates (who cares about the future, eh? I won’t be Premier) and trotted out the old saw about needing coal for the transition to renewable energy. That argument might hold some water if we were actually phasing out the burning of fossil fuels – but we aren’t. We’re burning more of them and while we keep burning them, the more we increase global warming and catastrophic changes to our natural environments.
In a typical political pea and thimble trick, the Federal Minister for Climate Change, Chris Bowen, criticised the involvement of some Greens MPs in the blockade by talking about the government’s actions to increase the supply of renewable energy (good) but ignoring the government’s complete failure to get rid of fossil fuels (bad). In fact they are approving new coal and gas projects like there is no tomorrow – which there won’t be soon.
It goes without saying that Stephen Galilee, CEO of the NSW Minerals Council, denounced the protesters as extremists. He prattled on about the benefits of NSW’s coal for exports, the economy and jobs (ignoring current and future harms) and repeated the ‘but we’re so insignificant, it’s all China’s fault’ argument.
I’m an extremist!?!?!?! Stephen Galilee calls me and my colleagues in Newcastle extremists!
I’m not the one destroying the natural beauty of the Hunter Valley. I’m not the one damaging the wine and horse breeding industries in the Hunter. I’m not the one putting coal on trains to Newcastle in uncovered wagons and letting millions of tonnes of coal dust drift into gardens, homes, schools and lungs. I’m not the one producing the air pollution that causes untold health problems and premature deaths in not just the Hunter Valley but also across NSW. I’m not the one exporting the death and destruction to developing countries. I’m not the one principally responsible for climate change and the damage that it is already causing to people’s health all around the world – damage that is inevitably going to increase. The only question is ‘increase by how much?’ and that depends on how much longer we allow coal (and oil and gas producers) to keep producing their deadly poison so that the companies can keep generating profits for their executives and shareholders for as long as possible. And on how much longer we allow our pathetic governments to avoid the facts and their responsibilities and kowtow to the fossil fuel industry for short term political gain.
Let’s be clear, Stephen, I’m not the extremist here. It’s you and your members who are the extremists.
It’s not my Newcastle colleagues who are extremists, Stephen. They are the ones building a social movement, a Rising Tide, that is going to drive you and your coal mining friends out of business. Will it be in time to prevent environmental, social and personal catastrophes? I’m not so sure about that but we’ve got to keep trying.