History tells us that governments misread signals from public protest at their peril.
“We are in fact world leaders in this area. And so for people to be seeking to demonstrate and assert that we aren’t doing enough just shows what an extreme rabble they actually are.”
That was Senator Eric Abetz, speaking to a television news reporter about an Extinction Rebellion protest over the government’s climate policy failures outside his Hobart office last week.
Years of political and legal experience have taught the Tasmanian senator that when you don’t have a leg to stand on, you attack. So he claimed world leadership for Australia, whose carbon emissions continue to rise, and asserted in a TV debate before the protest that the current drought and fires were unrelated to climate change and less serious than previous events.
Linking drought and rainfall to human-induced climate change is indeed problematic, as University of NSW climatologist Andrew Pitman found in a recent study for Sydney Water which drew attention to the inadequacy of climate models in forecasting future water demand.
Senator Abetz seized on this to claim, wrongly, that Pitman saw today’s drought as unrelated to global warming. Science cannot pinpoint the impact of warming on one dry spell, but by changing the climate, human activities are changing the environment in which all weather events form.
As for his assertion that today’s droughts and wildfires are nothing new, David Jones, a Bureau of Meteorology scientist, has found the present drought to be the most severe in 120 years of rainfall records, and retired fire chiefs from every Australian state and territory said in a 2019 joint statement that current fire conditions are unprecedented.
But why do I bother? In the senator’s world climate change is not something we should talk about, just as we should never say anything that might undermine today’s dominant regime of barely-visible government and a free-market economy driven by corporate power.
A dozen years ago Senator Abetz agreed to meet me to discuss man-made warming. Seated at our table, at his invitation, was a long-retired scientist known for his contrarian views on climate. Our discussion was cordial, but it was clear throughout that the senator was not for turning.
The Hobart demonstration was one of countless Extinction Rebellion events around the world last week. In the face of public anger and legal sanction, large numbers of citizens, young and old, made their presence felt in streets in practically every country – a remarkable feat of organisation.
A year ago, many senior British scientists, academics and politicians, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, were among 94 leading citizens who signed a statement calling for “rapid total decarbonisation” of the UK economy.
In failing to act, the statement said, the UK government had broken the social contract. Confronted by a “worsening ecological crisis… it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.”
Extinction Rebellion – XR to its followers – took that message and ran with it. You’ll have seen XR’s sharp-edged hourglass symbol popping up everywhere on social media and TV, usually accompanied by police and paddy wagons. That’s what happens when you announce a rebellion.
I’ve met with many of these people, who come from all walks of life. Their ranks include people with mortgages and mouths to feed, parents and grandparents, people in jobs and out of jobs, retired people, and of course young people. Just like the rest of us.
Extinction Rebellion members have listened to what science is saying – that our future is severely compromised by the damage inflicted on Earth’s life-support systems by human-produced carbon pollution. Their concerns are deep, pressing, insistent and real.
In a world where no single country has managed to make emission cuts consistent with a safe future climate, they are appalled at the Morrison government’s cavalier attitude to the looming threat.
These people are putting themselves in harm’s way, where someone’s anger might cause them injury or police may arrest them and hold them in custody. No-one does this without good cause, and without being fearful about the consequences. They act not out of malice, but desperation.
Senator Abetz and all governments need to know this: the fossil-fuelled economy which he so prizes – as we all did when I was young – is consuming our security and our civilisation. Right now it’s just possible to think there’s no problem, but the evidence for a climate crisis is clearer with each passing year. Eventually it will stare us all, even the senator, in the face.
Like the Bourbon monarchy of pre-revolutionary France, he and his government can take the path of least resistance, ignoring warning signs, putting off hard decisions and calling street protesters a rabble.
But Extinction Rebellion is no rabble. It is the heart, soul and voice of our future, and we must take it seriously.