In the past, action on climate change has been stymied by the dominant system of neoliberal capitalism. In contrast to endless economic growth, the solution is likely to lie in the de-growth movement and re-localisation.
Across the globe, many communities are engaged in struggles to defend themselves from the incursion of increasingly environmentally damaging fossil fuel projects, against a backdrop of scientific evidence demanding an urgent transition to renewable energy. Parallel with this is the need to rethink the consumer economy. To shift to a more frugal existence, and build a sustainable and socially just world.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at 402 parts per million (ppm), and rising by about 2 ppm annually. The average global temperature has spiked upwards to 1.3 degrees warmer than the late 19th century level. Risks for Australia include further loss of Great Barrier Reef coral, and a future where severe droughts are more likely.
In November, 2016, world leaders heralded the ratification of the Paris climate treaty, which aspires to keep the temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Its implications are momentous, and represent a global commitment to usher in a post-fossil-fuel era. Despite this, many countries, including Australia, are yet to significantly slow down their expansion of fossil fuel resources. Among G20 nations, Australia was ranked the worst in 2016 for action on climate change, and is pushing for the expansion of coal, including development of the massive Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
The science is clear. A 2015 study in Nature chose to focus on the concept of ‘unburnable’ known fossil fuel reserves that would have to be kept in the ground if the global temperature rise is to stay under a target of 2 degrees. These are 82 percent of coal (including 90 percent of Australian coal), 49 percent of gas, 33 percent of oil, and 99 percent of oil from the Canadian tar sands.
More important is a moratorium date for the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. A 2016 Oxford University study concluded that this would have to cease by the end of 2017 for a realistic chance of achieving a 2-degree limit, if all associated lifetime emissions are taken into account. To meet the 1.5-degree target, this deadline would have to be brought forward.
Scientists and environmentalists had long speculated that fossil fuels would be running out, in a ‘peak oil’-style scenario. They were wrong. Now that the easy stuff has been extracted, industry, like a desperate addict, is switching its attention to fuel that is harder to get at.
‘Extreme energy’ is a relatively recent term for unconventional types of fossil fuel extraction projects, including tar sands, fracking for gas or oil, deep water oil drilling, mountaintop removal for coal, and underground coal gasification. Its sister term ‘extreme extraction’ can equally be applied to increasingly environmentally destructive mining projects, a good example being the massive gold mine on the site of an old-growth forest in the Halkidiki region of northern Greece.
Factors common to many extreme energy projects include:
- The economics are sometimes marginal. Some tar sands and deep water oil projects are on hold due to the ongoing weak oil price.
- They require more input energy to extract than their conventional counterparts, leading down a cul de sac of diminishing energy returns. For oil extraction, the return on energy invested has traditionally been about 20:1, while for the Canadian tar sands it is roughly 4:1.
- Environmental damage is greater, and the environmental risks in a worst-case scenario are huge. The tar sands are an industrial dystopia on a spectacular scale, covering about 800 square kilometres of former boreal forest. Close to home, in October 2016 BP abandoned plans to drill in the pristine deep waters of the Great Australian Bight following strong protests.
- Social impacts are multiplied, whether they involve blasting near a 10-billion-litre coal slurry dam located above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia, or coal seam gas wells emitting toxic hydrocarbon gases 200 metres from the closest dwellings at the Spring Farm estate on the south-western fringes of Sydney.
Fossil fuels and environmental damage
Environmental harm comes with the territory when developing or running fossil fuel projects. There have been huge oil spills from tankers such as the Exxon Valdez, and from deep-sea oil wells such as the BP Deepwater Horizon. Mine dams, including the one run by a fifty per cent BHP-owned company in Brazil, have burst or overflowed, sending vast quantities of toxic water downstream and, in some cases, killing many fish.
In the US, pipeline spills are a daily occurrence, together with frequent explosions, and occasional oil train fires that are so hot that it is necessary to wait for them to eventually burn out. Existing regulation has limited effectiveness given that it is cheaper for the corporate players to just pay fines and damages than go to the steep expense of having a rigorous preventative maintenance program in place.
Australia is not immune from similar events; a risky underground coal gasification project contaminated up to 320 square kilometres of South East Queensland agricultural land, leading to a state ban. Following an accident in 2009, the Montara wellhead leaked oil into the Timor Sea for 74 days, creating a slick. In 2013, Santos reported that a coal seam gas holding pond had contaminated an aquifer in the Pilliga region with toxic chemicals, including uranium, at twenty times the safe limit for drinking water.
Extraction versus humanity
Governments in Australia and overseas are often considered to be too closely aligned with fossil fuel interests, in turn leading to several documented cases of murky collusion and outright corruption. Political donations are part of this picture.
In developing nations, it is common for villagers to be forced off their land for energy and extraction projects, with no compensation. When they are angry and courageous enough to protest, fatal shootings have occurred in such countries as Indonesia, China, Peru, and Burma.
Sometimes, however, somebody makes a stand. In the highlands of Peru, Máxima Acuña lives on the site of a fifty per cent US-owned gold and copper mine, and is blocking its development by refusing to move. This stance won her the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. At one point she had her house demolished, and has experienced a campaign of violence, harassment and intimidation at the hands of corporate security guards working hand-in-hand with the Peruvian police.
Very welcome recent news is that the International Criminal Court is adding a new category of crimes linked to environmental destruction, especially illegal exploitation of natural resources and unlawful dispossession of land.
In the extreme energy era, far greater swathes of the planet are now at risk than before, including large tracts of rural Australia. Many bush dwellers have deep-rooted connections with the land, and it takes a lot, namely the prospect of their home territory being trashed, to turn conservative voters into activists. Yet, this process has been underway for a while. Breaking the stereotype of the unemployed protestor, participants in fossil fuel protests are typically local people from all walks of life.
American author Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking book This Changes Everything promotes the challenging message that climate change is on a collision course with the economy, and brought the term ‘blockadia’ to a mass audience. Blockadia is defined as a ‘roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity’, with community members on one side and rapacious extractive industries on the other, frequently fossil fuel mining and its associated infrastructure.
Blockadia is no linguistic invention of Klein’s; the term had been coined a year earlier in connection with protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, necessary for bitumen from the Canadian tar sands to be transported to refineries in the US Gulf Coast area. Against all expectations, President Obama rejected the project in 2015, linking this stance to action on tackling climate change. Fuel from the tar sands has a lifecycle carbon intensity 23 percent higher than from regular crude.
Protest action often involves public meetings, marches, vigils, information sharing, legal challenges, and, if all else fails, non-violent civil disobedience. Protesters put themselves in harm’s way by locking onto equipment as a means of preventing it from being used, making themselves vulnerable to dangerous or aggressive treatment. It requires some courage, especially when suspended off the ground in a tree-sit or tripod.
At other times, a row of people block an entrance by linking clips attached to the wrist underneath metal arm tubes that can only be dismantled with an angle grinder. The experience of being locked on necessitates spending a lot of time doing nothing, perhaps providing plenty of time to reflect on why such lengths have needed to be taken.
Locking on in Australia and beyond
In May 2016, many coordinated direct actions and protests around the issue of climate change were held globally, involving at least 30,000 participants. Newcastle, the world’s largest coal export port, was targeted by about 1,500 activists, who blocked coal movements by sailing kayaks in the harbour and locking onto a bridge. Of these, a total of 66 people were arrested.
Close to Lismore, development of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry by gas driller Metgasco was halted in 2014 at the village of Bentley as a result of the strength of a blockade that ran for three months. Ready to be taken by surprise, community members were permanently locked onto the entrance night and day. Thousands of supporters arrived in the early hours of the morning to boost numbers when a surprise police raid was most likely. A plan to spend millions of dollars on using about 850 police to violently break the blockade turned into a logistical nightmare when local businesses declined to feed and accommodate them, and shortly afterwards gas licences covering the NSW North Coast were revoked by the state government.
On the Liverpool Plains of NSW near Gunnedah, some of Australia’s richest agricultural land, the farming community has been in revolt against short-sighted plans for coal mines such as the ANZ bank-funded Maules Creek mine that opened in mid-2015. During construction, there were hundreds of arrests following lock-ons.
Prominent in the news has been the major protest in America, targeting the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that is being constructed to transport fracked shale oil about 1,900 kilometres from North Dakota to Illinois. Members of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota have concerns about it being routed under the Missouri River that they depend on for water, given the track record of oil spills elsewhere. Since the start of the protest in April, 2016, numbers have swelled as non-Indians and members of tribes from all over the States and beyond have arrived to stand in support.
Phase-out and desperation
This global grassroots groundswell of protest is being heard, with fracking bans so far implemented in France, Bulgaria, and Scotland, and with moratoria in several other countries. Onshore gas mining has been banned in Victoria following a community campaign, and the Northern Territory and Tasmania have recently introduced their own moratoria. In the face of strong community opposition at Camden and Gloucester in NSW, AGL is in the process of exiting the CSG sector.
Time is not on the side of fossil fuel interests, and delays in the rollout of their projects may result in their never seeing the light of day. In this light, the actions of some governments suggest raw desperation. NSW has new anti-protest laws that target CSG, with protestors facing up to seven years jail and the fine for trespass increasing by over 1000 percent to $5,550. Perhaps in order to emphasise that it wants to penalise individuals more harshly than gas corporations, simultaneously the minimum fine for illegal gas mining was radically shrunk by at least 99.5 percent to $5,000.
In North Dakota, protectors have been attacked using security dogs, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tasers, water cannons, and have been subjected to humiliating strip searches and acoustic weaponry capable of causing hearing loss. At critical times, mobile coverage has been disrupted, interrupting feeds and preventing the media from reporting on events as they unfold. In response to these developments, 1.5 million people symbolically stood in solidarity with the protest by changing their Facebook locations to Standing Rock.
Elsewhere in the States, two independent filmmakers are currently facing decades in jail for filming anti-pipeline protests.
Reigning it in
In the struggle over the world’s climate and energy future, business-as-usual is no longer an option regardless of which path is taken.
Divesting from fossil fuels is a critical part of the picture, and takes in five key areas:
- The big banks (alternatives are Bank Australia or a credit union)
- Super fund (Future Super or Australian Ethical Super)
- Investment fund (Hunter Hall or Australian Ethical Investment)
- Mortgage (the broker Future Home Loans)
- Electricity suppliers (look at alternatives to the big fossil fuel generators Origin, AGL and Energy Australia, such as the best eco-rated options Diamond Energy or Powershop)
Scaled up, institutional divestment is having a big impact, with 580 institutions controlling USD $3.4 trillion (AUD $4.6 trillion) dollars having so far divested. Big divestors include the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund in Norway, the City of Sydney, and two of the world’s largest pension funds, both located in California. These decisions are often being made for economic reasons, based on the risk of fossil investments turning into ‘stranded assets’ as the world economy rapidly shifts towards renewables.
Personal actions include buying green power, reducing electricity use, installing rooftop solar, choosing electric or fuel-efficient cars, and cutting back on driving and flying. A top priority for Australia is to discontinue its annual $7.7 billion of fossil fuel subsidies, of which $5.5 billion is in the form of the mining diesel rebate.
The technological path towards a non-fossil-fuel lifestyle is likely to involve solar and battery combinations for domestic power, or solar-fed community-sized batteries such as the one being trialed at Alkimos Beach in Western Australia. A shift towards electric cars is being coupled with advancing plans to phase out the internal combustion engine such as Germany’s 2030 goal. However, the technological route alone is not enough.
Hitting the brakes
The 2007 Consuming Australia report produced for the Australian Conservation Foundation points out that thirty percent of household greenhouse gas emissions are linked to direct usage of resources such as electricity, fuel, and water, while the other seventy percent are associated with products and services consumed.
An inconvenient truth is that the consumer project and its associated industrial infrastructure are wildly at odds with the overriding need to radically cut greenhouse emissions. This is multiplied through the principle of planned obsolescence where products are designed to be replaced faster than is necessary. One way to tackle these embodied emissions is a more efficient use of resources via a circular economy that includes initiatives such as Repair Cafés and Libraries of Things, where a wide range of items can be borrowed for a modest charge.
A more radical approach would be to modify personal consumerist behaviour, changing the demand side of the fossil fuel production/consumption equation. This might involve simple living, frugality, and buying items secondhand where possible. The challenge is to quickly shift what are currently seen as ‘fringe’ lifestyle choices into the mainstream, with a minimum of coercion. One of the best options would be personal carbon budgets for both direct and embodied energy that would be tradeable, and which would contract over time.
This Changes Everything highlights how in the past action on climate change has been stymied by the dominant system of neoliberal capitalism. In contrast to endless economic growth, the solution is likely to lie in the de-growth movement and re-localisation. Resources are best stewarded through a social paradigm characterised by horizontal power structures, cooperation, the commons, and mutual aid networks, which in turn require the challenge of introducing a new economy.
No matter how dire things look, it is essential for us to continue implementing small and local solutions, if for no other reason simply because it feels better than being negative and cynical. American Indian activist Winona LaDuke speaks about her people’s prophecies when she says “This is a time when our people will have two roads ahead of us – one ‘miikina’ or path which is well worn, but scorched, and another path which is green. It will be our choice upon which path to embark.”
This Changes Everything www.thischangeseverything.org
Market Forces (divestment) www.marketforces.org.au
Consuming Australia https://www.acf.org.au/sites/default/files/resource/res_Atlas_Main_Findings.pdf
Repair Cafés www.repaircafe.org
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