Australia’s coal industry is being targeted by a range of campaigns from divestment to civil disobedience
Ben Pennings has recruited six so far but, according to his campaign group’s website, another 150 people are going to join for a day or two in support.
“We will only have water, and tea with no milk or sugar,” says the 41-year-old environment campaigner and activist. “It will be up to individuals when they end the hunger strike personally. No one will be pressured to continue in any way.”
Pennings is a founder of Generation Alpha, a Brisbane-based campaign group that is launching an assault on a proposed rail and port coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Pennings is one of seven “hunger strikers” going without food from today under the gaze of passersby from a rented Brisbane shop-front. His OverOurDeadBodies campaign is promising “creative direct action” and “civil disobedience” to pressure rail company Aurizon.
GVK Hancock’s proposed Alpha coal mine project will dig up 32m tonnes of coal per year from the Galilee basin and export it to Asia for burning in power stations. Analysts have claimed the project is financially unviable – a claim which the company rejects. The company also says that objections by environmental lawyers to the project’s mining lease are delaying the start of coal production, which is likely to be the first quarter of 2017.
Mining magnate and politician Clive Palmer also has plans to mine 40m tonnes of coal a year with his China First project, also in the Galilee basin.
The highest profile recruit to the OverOurDeadBodies campaign is the 49-year-old former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett, now the convener of the Queensland branch of the Greens.
Bartlett told me he felt the world was “heading over a cliff” on climate change and that he was willing to try a new activist approach. On the hunger strike, he said he was not planning to do himself “any great harm”. He said:
There’s the contradiction of stating support for climate action but then going full steam ahead with coal – it’s completely contradictory. There doesn’t seem any acknowledgement of that, never mind any attempt for us to transition to something else.
Queensland’s one of the biggest – in terms of contributors to emissions – of almost any province or state in the world and that awareness isn’t really there among Queenslanders.
A statement from Aurizon said the rail company had been an “integral partner in developing and exporting coal for the benefit of the Queensland economy for almost five decades” and that it had a focus on “safety and environmental responsibility”.
The statement said its project, which was still going through “due diligence”, would service several mines but no final investment decision had been made.
Aurizon has a long-term commitment to Queensland and the communities in which we operate and understands the need to earn ongoing support by operating responsibly and with care for the environment.
It is this need to earn a social licence which campaigners are targeting as Queensland and Australia’s coal industry comes under an ever-brightening spotlight from campaigners.
Greenpeace brought its iconic Rainbow Warrior boat to the Queensland coast in April to highlight the impacts of climate change and dredging on the Great Barrier Reef, which the United Nations is threatening to place on its World Heritage “in danger” list.
Activists clambered on board a loaded coal ship as it headed for Asia. Later, Greenpeace said a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience against coal was “justified” given the risks posed by climate change.
Campaigner and activist Jonathan Moylan is currently facing the possibility of a heavy fine and a maximum 10-year jail sentence after issuing a hoax press release claiming a bank was pulling out of a loan deal for a New South Wales coal mine.
But it’s not just environment campaigners putting the heat on coal. Some 16 religious leaders across multiple faiths – including the main Christian denominations alongside Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists – signed an open letter calling explicitly for Australia to “wind back our exports of cheap coal”.
“We are despoiling the world given to us as a sacred trust for future generations,” the letter said.
The Fossil Free campaign is pushing individuals and organisations to pull their investments out of coal projects. The World Bank and the European Union’s investment arm have both introduced self-imposed restrictions on financing coal power projects in the name of climate change. Barack Obama has also directed the US Export-Import Bank to restrict financing of new coal power projects around the world.
Preparing himself for a few days without food, Andrew Bartlett insists that the OverOurDeadBodies campaign is “not just a PR exercise” and he hopes it will encourage others to take action. He also says he is motivated by the future planet being built for his 11-year-old daughter.
I’m not criticising it at all, but there’s a feeling that traditional [campaigning] stuff isn’t enough. The corporate elites have still got a pretty strong hold on things. I don’t personally have the answers about what we should do – I just think that we need to do more.