At the Queensland Resources Council lunch held on November 1st, in Brisbane, a journalist from the UK’s Channel 4 News stood up and asked a question of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison:
“Given the efforts that other nations are making to reduce their carbon emissions, and given the places like the great barrier reef are, we know, under threat from climate change……. “
Halfway through her question, precisely after she mentions climate change, a single loud moaned ‘boooo’ rings out in the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. She continues.
“Your own government has issued multiple reports saying that climate changes poses the greatest threat to the reef. How can Australia justify opening new coal mines at this time, in the Galilee basin?”
As she finishes, the entire room breaks out into a loud chorus of angry discontent. The same low and loud moan as before, but this time emitted from hundreds of men, who are each one over-filled glass of white wine away from hurling chunks of coal at the woman who dared mention what happens when the product they pull from the ground is burnt.
Theatrically, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (no stranger to threatening people with chunks of coal) comes to the rescue. “Because we have the best mining industry in the world!”, he weirdly responded. Australia has the highest coal exports of any country in the world; so being very good at mining kind of makes the question more salient, not less.
When Morrison delivered his very motivational-coach-at-corporate-retreat reply, the moans turn to relieved, roaring cheers, and you can’t see the audience, but I’m guessing they punched the air, high-fived each other and took hearty bites out of the coal chunks like they were fresh green apples.
That moment was a mile marker. These men felt okay loudly shaming a journalist who mentioned climate change. It wasn’t a private event. It was live-streamed nationally. It was a marker of power and confidence. It’s odd to see this confidence, given support for decarbonisation has hit new heights, coal mining and burning remain deeply unpopular and a few months ago, the world’s biggest climate mobilisation hit the streets. Things aren’t looking up for them. So why do they feel no shame in collectively booing a journalist asking about climate change?
Because the way fossil fuels are defended has changed
In the past few months, it feels like Australia has seem something of an acceleration towards authoritarian crack-downs on climate protest. Scott Morrison proposed, in his QR Council speech, a ban on pressuring the companies that provide services to coal companies (say, a bank that lends money to a mining project) to not do that.
It’s a key component in modern climate activism. Corporations have failed, comprehensively, to take any meaningful action to reduce emissions. So have governments. Disrupting the flow of cash works. Fossil fuel companies have enjoyed the capability to displace the harm related to their products onto society, instead of paying for it themselves, and they are not reacting well to seeing that advantage erode.
Protests that focus on disruption and non-violent civil disobedience have been met with increasingly harsh responses from police and politicians, too. In Queensland, it seems extremely likely that evidence used to justify harsher laws for this type of protest was fabricated. At the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in Adelaide, a Guardian journalist filmed a police officer threatening to trample protesters with a horse.
This week, protests at a mining conference in Melbourne featured a police officer punching a woman in the back of the head and another police officer repeatedly hitting a woman with a baton (who had her hands up in defence). A police officer who’d been posting alt-right memes on his Facebook page (and who had called climate change a ‘hoax’) flashed a white supremacist hand sign at a Chinese protester who had ‘immigrant’ on her shirt. Another had a sticker on his uniform that said ‘Eat a dick, Hippys (sic)’. One video shows a police officer repeatedly punching a man who was already restrained and immobile on the ground. Footage shows police grabbing a Channel 7 journalist and hurling him in random directions, as he stumbles around, bewildered and trying, pointlessly, to do the right thing. There are many videos of capsicum spray being deployed wildly into crowds, including towards journalists, one of whom wrote:
“If you’ve never had the experience of being pepper sprayed before, all I can say is that’s it’s immeasurably worse than I ever imagined. What ensued in the moments after I was sprayed was an unbearable sensation of feeling like someone had lit a match on my skin before shoving it in my eyes. It took me at least 5 minutes to regain my sight, but even at the time of writing this—nearly 8 hours later, my vision is still blurry and my skin still burns”
What is incredibly clear is that there was a very significant, heightened sense of violence from the police at the scene. They wouldn’t have felt comfortable plastering stickers onto their uniform taunting the protesters if their minds weren’t already in a place of aggression and violence.
There is a demand for what is being supplied. Politicians and Australia’s media outlets have been agitating for increased acts of physical violence directed towards climate protesters, alongside more standard calls for excessive punishment and authoritarian crackdowns:
2019 is very different to 2009. There is widespread public support for climate action, alongside increasing frustration at those kicking the policy can down the road. The only pathway available, then, to sustain the fossil fuel industry is the use of government power to intervene in public speech – cracking down on boycotts and protest.
It is happening in energy markets, too. The government is actively figuring out how to use intervention to squeeze more life out of decaying coal assets, alongside tentative plans to underwrite new coal-fired power generation.
The long-running idea that climate deniers and fossil fuel supporters tend to be libertarians who love free markets was a little topsy-turvy. The ideology was a means to a fossil fuelled end.
Today, a free, democratic society openly and loudly says that the industries that extract fossil fuels ought to stop, because doing that hurts people. The free market says solar and wind are the cheapest options for new-build energy. Today, ‘freedom’ doesn’t automatically result in public support for coal, or new coal mines and power stations. The ideology doesn’t give the right answer, so it’s time to ditch the ideology.
Authoritarianism, force, coercion and violence are far more likely to lend support for new coal. So we’ll see more of that, in ratcheting escalations, to both silence public protest against fossil fuels, and to force investment in new mines and machines.
That room of mining men at the Queensland Resources Council luncheon were booing and cheering with unrestrained intensity because they had just found out the leader of the country realises the value of coercion and intimidation just as much as they do.