Sep 10, 2009

Politics has failed — time for civil disobedience

The protesters who expect to be arrested this weekend in the campaign to close down Hazelwood power station may break the law, but they have justice on their side.

The protesters who expect to be arrested this weekend in the campaign to close down Hazelwood power station may break the law, but they have justice on their side. With scientists predicting runaway climate change unless we take drastic action in the next five years, and the manifest failure of our democratic system to respond adequately to the overwhelming threat posed to our future, it is legitimate to step outside the usual boundaries of protest. Last year, six British Greenpeace protestors scaled the smokestack of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power plant in Kent and painted a slogan on it. They were arrested and charged with criminal damage. In court they did not dispute that they had caused damage but argued that they acted to prevent a greater harm -- the damage to the atmosphere being caused by carbon dioxide emissions from Kingsnorth. The 40-year-old Hazelwood power station is Australia’s largest single source of carbon pollution and symbolises everything that is wrong with greenhouse policy in this country. An industrial relic, Hazelwood was due to be decommissioned this year. The owners applied for an extension of its life to 2031. In 2005 the panel appointed by the Victorian government to review the application concluded that, if Hazelwood’s electricity output were replaced by natural gas turbines, carbon dioxide emissions would be two-thirds lower. But Big Coal won and the Victorian Labor government extended Hazelwood’s license to pollute to 2031. The extension of its life will add around 340 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. By comparison, in 2007 the whole electricity sector in Australia was responsible for 200 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. Over the next two decades, the carbon emissions from Hazelwood will wipe out more than half of the emissions savings from the Rudd Government’s 20 per cent renewable energy scheme. The jury in the Kingsnorth trial heard the arguments from defence and prosecution. They accepted that the protesters had a lawful excuse for damaging the power plant and acquitted them. The law was applied and they were found not guilty. While anyone can claim that their cause justifies civil disobedience, few receive such an unambiguous endorsement for their ‘law-breaking’ from fellow citizens. In history’s league table of great causes, fighting global warming is up there with campaigns for the suffrage and civil rights and against slavery and apartheid. In fact, it puts all others in the shade because the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Global warming is uniquely dangerous because victory can come too late. Unless it occurs now a sudden awakening by governments to the peril will be too late; the global climate system will have shifted course and the future will have been taken out of our hands. We are lucky to be citizens of a country that is peaceful, prosperous and governed by the rule of law. Yet runaway climate change jeopardises the stable and civilised community that our laws and our democracy are designed to protect. Those who have overcome the natural tendency to avoid or play down the facts and so recognise the awfulness of the threat we now face must ask whether they are bound to submit to laws that protect those who continue to pollute the atmosphere in a way that threatens our survival. The people who will gather at the gates of Hazelwood this weekend are some of the most law-abiding in the country. They are among the most civic-minded, the most committed to democratic participation, and the most respectful of laws that serve the common interest. They and thousands of others around the country have pursued every avenue -- petitions, letter-writing campaigns, media events, delegations to MPs, lobbying, peaceful protests and elections. It is now clear that the influence of the energy and mining companies swamps the effect of community campaigns and drowns out the warnings of our best scientists. Disobeying the law should be a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted. And they have been. Given the moral imperative for decisive action on global warming, the protesters who plan to trespass at Hazelwood this Saturday are morally justified in breaking the law. Their target is not the laws against trespass or criminal damage, but the failure of our governments to make laws that would see Hazelwood and other coal-fired power plants in Australia closed down in short order. Many hoped a new dawn had broken with the election of a Labor Government promising to take far-reaching measures to tackle Australia’s contribution to global warming. Many believed the Prime Minister when he declared that climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our generation. But it is now apparent that its true intentions were business-as-usual. It is now clear that beneath the superficial differences there is bi-partisan agreement that short-term commercial interests must come first and as little should be done as governments can get away with. The scattered acts of disobedience we have seen to date in Australia and other countries are a mere taste of what is to come. The only hope for the world lies in a campaign of radical activism aimed at shifting power away from those who do not care about the future. Never has a campaign been more necessary. It is a campaign for all of those who understand that the lives of our children and grandchildren are at stake. Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University.

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17 thoughts on “Politics has failed — time for civil disobedience

  1. Roger Clifton

    The establishment of an International Law on Crimes against the Environment would help our lawyers argue the righteousness of green activists charged under local laws.

    It will also stiffen the spine of advisers to government to know that some recommendations would constitute an International Crime against the Environment, regardless of the sentiments of the current legislature.

  2. Tom McLoughlin

    I feel a Rod Qantock ‘Jeff has won’ moment coming on.

    A campaign to change our genetics Clive. Admirable, good luck with that.

  3. mtats

    I find the comparison between the emissions of a single plant over the next 21 years, with the total emmissions of all plants in a single year, odd, to say the least.

  4. Frank Campbell

    Hazelwood should have been shut down years ago for many reasons, before AGW appeared on the horizon. Gas is the obvious alternative.

    So we have Clive Hamilton asking for civil disobedience. What then are the ethics of ramming useless wind turbines on defenceless people? What are the ethics of wind spivs who secretly sign up rentiers and gag them contractually? What are the ethics of failing to disclose noise levels, bird kills and puny, irregular and very expensive power production? What are the ethics of government denial about the deleterious effects of wind turbines and the absence of proper planning controls and compensation? Where is the admission that wind in Europe has been a corrupt farce, with turbine-saturated states admitting GGas emissions have increased not to mention the rapid expansion of fossil fuel power stations?

    People aren’t fools. Civil disobedience is spreading at the very time GG reforms are struggling to be accepted by entrenched industries. The credibility of AGW is undermined by the brutal imposition of wind turbines. Big windfarms cover hundreds of square kms. The footprint is vast. The regional economic effects serious. It isn’t “development”, but a driver of disinvestment. Solar meanwhile has been strangled at birth.

  5. meski

    Odd? It demonstrates rather vividly the level of pollution that that particular plant puts out, MTATS.

  6. D. John Hunwick

    Just as I start to query my membership of Crikey something of the quality of Clive Hamilton’s article comes alng to remind me tha tthis sort of input NEVER occurs in the papers I would otherwise have to buy. Great. As for the diatribe about wind farms- it is hot air to suggest that they cover hunddreds of square kilometres – here on Eyre Peninsula farming continues beneath them, no worries. The bird stike question is real, but with good prior inv estigation can produce the siting of wind towers where any chance of impact is considerably reduced. I would rather many more wind farms than the continuation of Hazelwood. It is always much better to be half right on time than to have the whole truth too late (Aristotle?). If it takes civil disobedience to counteract thos blooy mining lobbyists – count me in

  7. mtats

    Actually MESKI, it doesn’t without letting us know the total number of coal fired power stations that there are in Australia. I’ve no idea how many there are, if there are 100, then yes, it would be bad. If there are 10, then, not so bad.

    Just found it curious.

    Couldn’t Clive have just let us know that keeping power station so-and-so open for the next 21 years will increase greenhouse gases by X%?

  8. Liz45

    Thanks Clive! Living in NSW I wasn’t aware of this situation until now. I support the protest and civil disobedience. I’m angry that this is necessary. What’s the point of having elections if those elected speak out of both corners of their mouth at the same time? How can they carry on about climate change and allow this sort of filth to be pumped into the environment. The time for talking is over – it’s action now!
    Good on all those brave people who’ll be protesting – if I lived closer I’d be there too! For every one protestor, there’ll probably be hundreds if not more there in spirit.
    If we don’t take action soon, my grand kids future looks pretty shot – and yours and yours too!

  9. AR

    MTATS – 350M tonnes over 21 yrs = just under 17Mt pa so if all electricity generation in 2007 is 200M then Hazelwood produces <1/12 or <8%…. jes sayin'
    The mice all agreed that it would be a good idea to hang a bell on the cat but… after you Clive.

  10. AR

    MTATS – 350M tonnes over 21yrs = <17Mt pa so, if all electricity generation produced 200M then Hazelwood puts out <1/12 or <8%… jes saying.
    All the mice agreed that it would be a good idea to hang a bell on the cat but… after you Clive.

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