When you know something big is happening in clear view, something that presents a threat to human and other life on Earth, and people in power don’t seem to grasp the urgency of this moment, what should you do?
2023 was a milestone year. The world has now, at least temporarily, surpassed the critical Paris warming limit of 1.5C, a mark that on current trends will be completely behind us by 2032.
The next few months, leading climatologist James Hansen said last week, will see warming as high as 1.7C above pre-industrial levels before a temporary hiatus. Disturbingly, he warned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is seriously understating the “imminent threat of human-made climate change”.
Science has for years guided the thoughts and actions of two Launceston men, City Baptist Church minister Jeff McKinnon and medical doctor Scott Bell. Most of their years – not necessarily their best ones – are behind them: McKinnon is 69 and Bell is 73.
Both McKinnon and Bell are committed members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) Northern Tasmania. XR started in the UK in 2018 with the aim of helping government and communities to realise the urgency of acting against climatic and ecological breakdown by standing in people’s way to get their attention.
Both men keep abreast of the science. They understand the 2023 data and know what leading scientists are saying about it. They’re confronted daily with an imperative to bring to public attention the urgency of the situation and the absolute responsibility of governments and other leaders to respond appropriately.
As individuals, they feel an immense pressure to act. For years, with a handful of other XR members, they have persisted with protests in streets and other public places resulting in numerous arrests, court appearances and fines.
Now, “hungering for climate justice,” as McKinnon puts it, he and Bell are going a step further. At 11.30 next Sunday morning in Riverbend Park, Launceston, the two will take a “last bite” before embarking on a hunger strike. At 9 the next morning they’ll be at Parliament House lawns in Hobart. For two weeks or so the fasting pair will then travel to a dozen or so centres from Kingston to Burnie. During that time they will try to meet with all the state’s federal politicians.
Bell emphasises that he and McKinnon will have a life after this hunger strike – “this isn’t some sort of macabre competition,” he says. Their health will be monitored throughout and they expect to end their protest with a “first bite” in Launceston within two or three weeks.
Their risks in taking on the hunger strike, says McKinnon, are insignificant compared to the scale of risk for future generations. “As a person of faith I must see this climate emergency as extreme violation of the Creator’s intent, all because of short term greed and power… The injustice being perpetrated against future generations profoundly disturbs me.”
“We are seeing the slow unravelling of western democracy. The first things to go are hard earned values and slowly developed institutions. The rise of multinational corporations that are almost ‘above the law’ pressures political leaders to capitulate to their unethical demands.”
Bell’s response to the climate crisis is based on good and bad experiences in his formative years which gave him an evolving awareness of social justice issues and a strong sense of the fragility of the natural world in the face of economic growth.
“It is a privilege to live in Australia, where all of us have the right to peacefully protest,” he says. “I respect our rule of law and acknowledge the role our courts play, in helping to regulate the day to day running of society.”
The unfair advantage gained by corporate leaders now paid hundreds of times the salaries of their workers, says Bell, is bolstered by laws against popular protest action with the unstated motive of preventing action against climate change, pollution, and environmental damage.
“I’m apprehensive about the thought of home detention, or onerous bail conditions, huge fines, or time spent in jail. These are now potential realities for me. But I’m more apprehensive about the increasing risks of runaway global warming… To fail my children, my grandchildren, to fail to protect the natural values of our world , is not an option.”
This hunger strike is no act of despair, but an expression of profound grief at the damage being done to our world, anger at leaders’ failure of to make hard decisions, and a firm belief that this can be turned around. McKinnon and Bell intend to go on working to change minds, indefinitely.