Climate activists have blocked Sydney’s Harbour Tunnel and blanketed the city’s centre with a wave of major disruptions, as protestors move to push for bolder climate action through a series of demonstrations set to take place throughout the week.
At about 8a.m. on Monday morning, protesters from the climate activist group Blockade Australia gathered at the edge of Hyde Park before snaking through Sydney’s CBD, stopping at the city’s key entry points to block major public transport routes and cause general disruptions during peak-hour traffic.
Throughout the demonstration, police struggled to hemn protestors in, despite the state’s formation of a special police task force to surveil and thwart their plans.
As a result, officers could be seen chasing protesters without a strategy for the better part of an hour, as wheelie bins and construction materials were strewn across central city streets to hold up traffic. Even still, police say 11 arrests were made.
Separate to the core contingent of demonstrators was another, a 22-year-old named Mali, who at about the same time moved to block the Sydney Harbour Tunnel’s city-bound entrance by parking her car in heavy traffic, before chaining herself to the steering wheel, using what appeared to be a bike lock.
Monday’s Blockade Australia protest is only the latest in a series of high-profile demonstrations to target key Sydney infrastructure in recent months. Just a couple of months ago, the New South Wales government introduced new anti-protest laws to stop them.
A Blockade Australia protestor moves construction materials onto the road to block traffic and police. Photo by John Buckley / VICE
Last weekend, those laws—which could see protestors fined up to $22,000 and face two years in prison—empowered a NSW Police surveillance operation at one of Blockade Australia’s campsites, in Colo, a regional town about 80 kilometres north-west of Sydney’s CBD.
Two of the group’s organisers, Harriet and Alex, told VICE on Monday that the new laws are “proof that Australia” will go to great lengths to “oppress” peaceful dissent. All the group is trying to do, they reasoned, is create a wedge, and prevent “violent” climate inaction.
“It’s not about traffic, and it’s not about us having not applied for a form—that’s implying that there are some legitimate protests and some not,” Harriet said.
“It’s a way to scare us, and we won’t be scared. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes in the face of this climate crisis to get to a safe place in the future and know that we’re not headed towards utter chaos and utter disaster,” she said.
The pair said they don’t have plans to stop, even in the face of massive fines and jail time, until climate policy is elevated to urgent, priority status for prime minister Anthony Albanese’s newly-elected Labor government.
At the very minimum, they said, the Australian government should adopt far deeper short-term emissions reductions cuts and establish a blanket ban on new coal and gas projects nationally.
“We want to see climate action that is in line with the [United Nation’s] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other scientific consensus, that will actually have an impact on these tipping points, and slow down rising temperatures,” Harriet said.
“It’s good to have a cut in emissions [as Albanese has signed onto], but if we cut emissions like that, it’s absolutely meaningless when we are continuing to burn just as many fossil fuels.”
Under Albanese’s Labor government, Australia has promised an emissions reduction cut of at least 43 percent by 2030. The target has largely been welcomed by other world leaders, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where Albanese’s climate policy has been leveraged to repair relationships in the region, long neglected by former prime minister Scott Morrison.
The target, however, still falls short of the recommendations made by leading climate scientists, and a wave of local Australian politicians, where consensus would indicate a minimum target band of between 50 and 75 percent in cuts on 2005 levels by 2030.
NSW Police riot squad handle a Blockade Australia activist in Sydney. Photo by John Buckley / VICE
While Labor’s climate policy stands heads and shoulders above cuts of between 26 and 28 percent taken to May’s federal election by the former Coalition government, critics say Australians shouldn’t have to accept a “close enough is good enough” position on climate.
And members of Blockade Australia are among their loudest critics. In the face of “insane police overreach”, the group is committed to staging ongoing disruptions until the federal government pursues bolder climate policy. They know they’ve been heard—they want action.
“What is needed is to actually be disruptive to the system that is causing the climate crisis,” Alex said.
“I think Blockade Australia’s role is to be showcasing that, and giving people an opportunity to actually witness something and try to toughen up the culture in Australia a little bit.”
Human rights advocates and legal experts say they are watching on with chilling concern, for fears authorities may be trying to discourage protesters from exercising their fundamental right to protest around the country.
Sophie McNeill, an Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE the state’s police response to what has generally been a non-violent movement was “very concerning”.
“There has been a worrying trend in Australia recently, with police targeting peaceful climate activists with overly harsh tactics and charges,” McNeill said.
“Concerned citizens have the fundamental right to protest and that must be protected. It was very alarming that police tried to apply extremely strict bail conditions that would have seen those facing charges restricted from accessing phones and computers. I'm pleased the magistrate rejected these overzealous requests.”
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