After Extinction Rebellion, Australian politicians are on notice – change is coming

Nicky Ison

Spurred by global movements to fight climate change, the federal election shows that if major parties won’t change, voter habits will

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London’s Hyde Park last week.
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London’s Hyde Park. XR activists are staging acts of civil disobedience to force a global conversation about climate change. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

If I were in London over Easter I would have been at Waterloo Bridge or Oxford Circus or Marble Arch, the protest sites for the Extinction Rebellion .

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a movement of tens of thousands of people that has for a week blocked traffic across the UK in simple but powerful acts of civil disobedience. These have ranged from activists gluing themselves to a pink boat in Oxford Circus to a string quartet playing in the middle of Waterloo Bridge. The aim is to force a national and global conversation about climate changes.

Their demands are for governments to tell the truth about climate change, to reduce carbon pollution to zero by 2025 and to create a citizens’ assembly to oversee the whole process.

After more than 30 years of climate campaigns, international negotiations, policy change and practical action, climate pollution is still rising. Meanwhile humans have wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970 and species are dying at unprecedented rates. Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity. Mozambique has been flattened by two devastating cyclones in two months. Last month a cyclone flattened the city of Beira , killing more than 1,000 people, and in the last two days, Cyclone Kenneth has hit the northern province Cabo Delgado, where 30,000 people have been evacuated. Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched a report that said we only have 12 years to halve our global climate pollution.

Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic. In some projections, Arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.

So it’s not surprising that XR is taking the climate movement to the next level, not just in the UK but around the world. And XR is not alone. In the past six months we have seen the rise of climate campaigns that are bigger, bolder and more organised than anything the world has ever seen.

These climate campaigns are galvanised by a sense of urgency that a growing number of people feel about ecological collapse and escalating climate damage. All are asking people to take action in ways that are commensurate with the scale of the problem – civil disobedience and sustained action over weeks, months and years.

In Australia, there’s the Stop Adani campaign and the current Stop Adani Convoy, that won’t go away no matter how much Bill Shorten and Scott Morison would like it to. Last week also saw the first public actions from Extinction Rebellion Australia. These included a climate teach-in in the South Australian parliament, banner drops and the blockade of coal trains in Brisbane .

In the US, youth climate organisation the Sunrise Movement launched the Green New Deal campaign with a bang. In the week following the US midterms, they held a sit-in at now-house leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The Green New Deal is a society and economy-wide 10-year plan for climate justice. While initially US based, this campaign is now spreading around the world, with a similar campaign just launched in Canada.

Then there’s #FridaysForFuture, the global school strike movement started by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg . From one young woman striking over climate change just nine months ago, the school strike movement has grown to a point where last month young people led 150,000 Australians and 1.4 million people globally in one of the biggest days of climate action.

Hurricanes, droughts and coral deaths are few of the natural disasters caused due to climate change.

While these campaigns are all different – different asks, different theories of change and different strategies to win – in many ways they are remarkably similar.

Firstly, all are well organised with a clear strategy. Indeed, in the case of both XR and the Green New Deal, people were working on the campaign one to two years before launching publicly, giving them time to grow their supporter base.

Secondly and most importantly, all of these campaigns are trying to do the one thing we have yet to achieve – shifting the Overton window on climate change to get decision-makers of all stripes to do what is necessary, not what they deem politically possible.

Already these campaigns are starting to work. In the UK councils and famous cultural institutions such as the Royal Court Theatre have declared a climate emergency and are placing pressure on the parliament to do much more on climate. On Wednesday, UK MPs endorsed a Labour motion to declare a formal climate and environment emergency .

In the US, Democratic contenders for the presidency from Bernie Sanders to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are scrambling to back the Green New Deal. Further, it has forced Republicans to actively propose their own climate solutions, something no one would have expected given their climate-denialist president.

In Australia, we are in the midst of the climate election . We are seeing a swath of climate independents , and climate and environment has jumped from the ninth most important issue for voters to fourth, according to the latest Ipsos poll. According to ABC’s vote compass, environment is a top-two issue.

The Arctic would be ice-free by 2040. The Arctic is expected to be ice-free as early as the year 2040. A report from the Arctic Council states scientists believe that the summer of 2040 will witness the end of frozen north pole after a rapid shrinking of the ice coverage in the years to come.

Unfortunately, despite this growing concern, the public discourse on climate change is still dominated by the positions of the two major political parties federally. On one side there is the Coalition and its lip service to climate change (and occasional denial ), enabled by the Murdoch press.

On the other side you have the Labor party, which is endeavouring to look moderate and reasonable on climate action. To that end they have split the difference between the Coalition doing nothing and what the science is telling us is needed. Their 45% emissions reduction target is the lower end of what the Climate Change Authority recommended in 2015 would be needed given the climate science, and since then science shows things are getting worse more quickly. And while obviously significantly better than the Coalition, the recent science and real-world experience shows that all of our modelling (which targets are based on) are much more conservative than what is really happening.

This is the challenge for climate campaigns and movements in countries like Australia. How do we shift from where we currently stand to where the ALP’s climate policies are considered the bare minimum of what is needed? Because in the end, to quote Greta Thunberg: “Change is coming whether you like it or not.”

  • Nicky Ison is a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney and co-founder of the Community Power Agency.