Clockwise from top left: Jill L. Ferguson, Robyn Gulliver, Jan McNicol, Amber Schultz (Image: Private Media)

Environmentalism can feel futile in the face of government inaction, Australia’s gas-led recovery and increasingly frequent extreme temperatures, weather events and natural disasters. 

But change is occurring and support for climate groups is growing, as environmentalist, writer and researcher Robyn Gulliver, writer, editor and former professor Jill L. Ferguson and climate advocate and volunteer Jan McNicol told a Crikey Talks event for subscribers this afternoon. 

Ferguson and Gulliver have published a book on nine women and their front-line and behind-the-scenes efforts to power advocacy, featuring Ferguson’s and McNicol’s activism. 

There’s a mismatch between policy and public sentiment

The reappointment as Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to deputy prime minister — having previously said climate change was “… an indulgent and irrelevant debate because, even if climate change turns out to exist one day, we will have absolutely no impact on it whatsoever” — sent a signal to Australia that mining interests would stay squarely front and centre in Australia’s policies. 

Despite Joyce presenting himself as the voice of those in regional Australia, both Gulliver and McNicol said many of those they’ve met while living, working and campaigning in rural regions want action on climate change. 

“Farmers are seeing it actually happening on their land every day,” Gulliver said. “The droughts are getting worse. The floods are getting worse, it’s getting hotter. They have a good understanding of what’s happening. 

“They need more organisations to counter the National Party’s rhetoric because… everything they do is contrary to their interests.” 

McNicol, who comes from a farming background, said many people don’t have the power to fit the narrative. 

“Often their cares are ignored by people who are setting those identity perspectives like Barnaby Joyce,” she said.

Her research has shown around 70-80% of respondents she surveyed identified as people who cared about the environment and climate change. 

Movements face hurdles. Is violence ever the solution?

Environmentalists around the world are facing increased violence and threats. The latest report from Global Witnesses showed 212 climate defenders had been killed in the previous year, the highest number since their records began in 2012. 

Ferguson, speaking from California where she lives, said this trend was particularly concerning given protest and movement had been limited during the pandemic. 

“The actual physical environmental activism in two places has been a little less than it has been in past years,” she said. 

“The world is changing whether they like it or not, but some people just retaliate with violence,” Gulliver said. 

In many democratic countries such as Australia violence is low, although McNicol said the government has other ways of keeping activists in check. 

“We do have numerous strategies the government is using to repress protests and other ways, most significantly through legislation, either restricting protests or restricting organisations’ charitable status which we’re getting money from,” she said. 

“Repression still happens, it just generally tends to be not violent.”

On whether violence was ever a solution to activism in extreme examples — such as blowing up pipelines — Ferguson, McNicol and Gulliver were united in their response: No. 

“Violence just plays into the hands of the opposition,” Gulliver said. 

“They are much better at violence than we could ever hope or want to be and it unifies the opposition and allows them to make up stories about us… it divides the movement.” 

Is population control the key? 

Gulliver is an advocate for limiting population growth, including capping certain kinds of immigration to Australia. 

“Coronavirus has shown us what happens when you have unsustainable population growth. That issue is solved, settled, and mass migration is never coming back,” she said, adding Australian businesses will have to adapt to paying people real wages, instead of relying on cheap migrants. 

McNicol, however, wasn’t sure. “We know that you can live sustainably with the highest population if you have policies and processes in place that mandate particular cradle-to-grave businesses and zero waste… but if the government and other power-holders are not willing to put those policies in place in this then, yes, population has a big impact.”

While investment in women’s empowerment and education, along with healthcare, has shown to curb birth rates, Gulliver warned these trends have to be in place for a long time.

“If we want to live sustainably, we cannot go on having more and more people consuming more and more stuff forever. We’ve come to the end of the line with climate change and coronavirus.”