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Human rights for the climate 'apocalypse'



If you live on the east coast of Australia then you, like me, have probably been choking on smoke haze for weeks now. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling as though this eerie, apocalyptic atmosphere is a grim reminder of the future we're heading into.

Protestors hold up banners during a protest at Kirribilli House in Sydney on 19 December 2019. Protestors organised the rally outside Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Sydney residence over his absence during the ongoing bushfire emergencies across Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)If you're even less lucky, you might be living in one of the many regional towns across NSW that are rapidly running out of water. In some places, there's even talk of evacuation. Tuesday was also the hottest day ever recorded in Australia. Ever. And the rest of this week is a heatwave that's unprecedented for this time of year — with some areas set to hit 50C.

Toxic air, dwindling water supplies, extreme heat: it's pretty bleak stuff.

And yet, on Sunday afternoon, the UN Climate Change Conference — COP 25 — finished up with very little progress. Although governments recognised that we are currently heading for +3C, and that new short-term targets are urgently needed, few new targets were set, and little progress was made on other fronts. As a result, we way off track to meet the already inadequate Paris target of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

In the face of existential threat, and our new visceral appreciation of what it feels like to live on a rapidly warming planet, it is easy to feel as though confronting climate change is the only relevant game in town. But the fact is, we can't tackle climate change through individual action alone.

Incredibly, research has found that just 20 companies are responsible for over a third of global carbon emissions, while another 70 companies are responsible for a further third of emissions. What this means is that even if you go vegan, adopt a zero waste lifestyle, ditch your car, switch to renewables, and plant hundreds of trees (and, look, this would all be awesome), our planet is still going to warm to +3C or higher, unless we also do something about the vested interests that continue to profit from our demise. And they aren't going to give up their power (or profits) just because we ask nicely, which is where human rights come in.

Human rights are often legitimately criticised as elite liberal tools that work to uphold the status quo, but we need them right now more than ever. We particularly need our rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful protest, in order to make ourselves heard and to force those in power to listen.


"It has been claimed that people can still exercise their rights to protest; they just have to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt lawful activity. But often the whole point of these protests is to question the lawfulness of these disrupted activities."


The problem is that these rights are under serious threat around the globe, including in Australia. In recent years a series of laws have been passed to regulate and criminalise protest, particularly where it might disrupt resource extractive industries.

Perhaps the best known of these laws was the Tasmanian Workplaces (Protection from Protesters) Act 2004, which was successfully challenged in the High Court case of Brown v Tasmania. The Protesters Act excluded protestors from entering 'business premises' and 'business access areas', which included forestry land, land on which forestry operations were being carried out, and the areas around and outside those premises.

The applicants in the case successfully argued that by excluding protestors from such broad (difficult to identify) areas, the law 'impermissibly burden[ed] the implied freedom of political communication contrary to the Commonwealth Constitution'. In other words, it went too far in stopping people from engaging in protest activity. But this hasn't stopped the Tasmanian government from attempting to resurrect this law — with amendments to remove explicit reference to protestors.

Meanwhile, other state governments have been passing their own anti-protest laws. The NSW government's most recent of contribution is the Right to Farm Act 2019. Although presented as a law to protect agricultural activity, this Act actually works to criminalise a whole range of protest activity on 'inclosed lands' — a term that includes public land.

Similarly, the Commonwealth government recently passed the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Act 2019 (Cth), which makes it an offence to use a carriage service to distribute material 'with the intention of inciting another person to trespass on agricultural land' (i.e. using social media to promote a protest). We were assured that this law was necessary to protect family farms from 'vegan extremists', but 'agricultural land' was defined to even include land used for wood processing facilities or forestry, and land accessible by the public.

Finally, in October this year, the Qld Parliament rushed through a law to criminalise the use of so-called 'dangerous attachment devices', which include a wide range of lock-on devices on the basis that these devices can be used to 'disrupt lawful activities'. When the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee called for public submissions on this bill, almost all of the submitters opposed the bill out of concern for its impact on the right to protest. A notable exception was the Queensland Resource Council, which supported the bill while calling for a broader, more flexible definition of 'dangerous attachment devices' in order to prevent protestors from avoiding criminal penalties by adapting.

What all these laws have in common is that they prioritise the convenience of businesses — often resource extractive businesses — over the right to protest. It has been claimed that people can still exercise their rights to protest; they just have to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt lawful activity. But often the whole point of these protests is to question the lawfulness of these disrupted activities. And, let's be honest, they'll never be as disruptive as a bushfire or running out of water.

The reality of living in a changing climate has become all too apparent this year. In response, it is natural to want to do everything we can to reduce our emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change. Ultimately, this means confronting the powerful vested interests who continue to profit from their destruction of our planet. But to do this, we need to protect our human rights — especially the rights to freedom of expression and protest — and to pay more attention to laws that encroach on these rights from governments around the world, including here in Australia.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Protestors hold up banners during a protest at Kirribilli House in Sydney on 19 December 2019. Protestors organised the rally outside Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Sydney residence over his absence during the ongoing bushfire emergencies across Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, human rights



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Existing comments

I get the vibe of the article but question the authors comparisons in the second last paragraph. How is it relevant that activists' disruptive activities will never be as disruptive as a bushfire or running out of water? I wouldn't like to face the magistrate on tresspass charges with that defence... Despite the authors "green" living advocacy almost every reader will be a consumer of sorts; alternative lifestyle just shifts the consumerism, the real power of the big 20/70 emitters is their products and their profits are woven into every choice you make. The big miners are also farmers, recycling businesses and water managers; your superannuation will have shares in them and their "value added" products...and they're global so it doesn't matter where you go, they've got you and your money. Sell your car? They make the trains and buses... Go renewable? They supply raw materials to the manufacturers. Capitalism ensures that selectively buying "green" will drive up prices for that alternative...and if the masses do reject the polluters they'll simply declare bankruptcy, fold and kindly neglect their site rehabilitation obligations to remind us of our folly. I refer to the "HOW DARE YOU" protest sign graphic; who dares wins.

Ray | 19 December 2019  

Australians still have the right to vote! Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time, so in future vote for politicians who are serious about climate action, not politicians whose first priority is to accept big donations from the fossil fuel industry.

Grant Allen | 19 December 2019  

In a free market, the price of a good moves up the more it is demanded, all other things being equal. So if a scarcity of water emerges, the price of water would increase, thereby encouraging resourceful individuals to find ways to economise on the use, or to create extra supply. In our current non-free market arrangement, the price of water doesn't increase when scarcities arise, (or lower when they disappear) so individuals are not thereby encouraged to lower demand or to create extra supply. I hope I don't need to point out the obvious and time-tested solution to this "problem".

HH | 20 December 2019  

The argument that somehow the existence of natural challenges – such as a prolonged shortage of rainfall, and the attendant level of fire activity and associated smoke – somehow justifies the anarchists to rise up and disrupt individuals going about their lawful business of producing goods and services holds no water. While I recognise that anarchists know a lot about shortages, their skills are in creating shortages rather than ameliorating them. I therefore would suggest the revolutionaries grab a shovel and add some value to society by helping extinguish the fires, rather than railing against businesses that feed, clothe and provide shelter.

Andrew | 20 December 2019  

While I support all that Cristy has said re the need to protect our fast-diminishing rights to protest in sufficiently annoying a way to get the attention of governments, business councils and large corporate entities, I believe that protesting in favour of emission reduction alone is now too late. We were warned of the dangers to our current lifestyles in Australia and other well-off nations, from greenhouse gas emission to atmosphere, at least one generation (25 - 30 years) ago. To hold average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius was chosen as feasible at the time, and not expected to cause insurmountable change to our world. But most of us chose to ignore the warnings, many even choosing to deny the firm science supporting those warnings. Happy in our consumerist world, we continued to buy goods and services from the 90 companies responsible for two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, at 3 degrees increase above the average world temperatures at pre-industrial times, we must focus on adapting for change. Reducing emissions must be part of that adaptation, but simply reducing emissions will no longer be adequate.

Ian Fraser | 20 December 2019  

Ray asks: How is it relevant that activists' disruptive activities will never be as disruptive as a bushfire or running out of water? Quite simply, if no one ever protests, the polluters and exploiters will never learn the truth about their activities. If the polluters and exploiters maintain business as usual there will be bushfires and water shortages that make what we are seeing now look, in retrospect, like the signs of things to come that they actually are. But by then it will be too late. The scale of disruption from bushfires and water shortages, among other afflictions, will be on a scale beyond our capacity to respond, adapt or even cope. A small amount of disruption and inconvenience now is a small price to pay if it succeeds in raising consciousness and prodding the consciences of policy makers who have the power to scale back the polluting and the exploitation. That, after all, is the meaning of the word apocalypse.

Paul Smith | 20 December 2019  

A friend of mine lost a lot of weight only after being told by his doctor that he had two alternatives: to lose weight or to die. It seems that the political leaders of our world need a similar confrontation before they get real about their response to climate change. Of course the best form of democratic protest is to throw a government out of office at an election but that demands an Opposition with real credentials to offer some solutions. It requires even more: such an Opposition needs the skill to simplify their message and sell it to the electorate. To have a multiplicity of irons in the fire by way of policies that befuddle and divide sections of the electorate makes it too easy for the governing party to deride them. I hope that the Australian Labor Party has learned its lesson. While I too believe in the right to protest being upheld, I sometimes ask myself why those protesting don't use advertising through the media to inform the public of their reasons. The more reasonable and rational the argument they put, the more likely are they to garner public support. As a wise man once said about law: a good law doesn't need to be enforced because the wisdom in it will be obvious to all.

Ern Azzopardi | 20 December 2019  

We should have a right to clean water and uncontaminated air and we can only have that if we prioritise fixing the very environment we have destroyed. We only have the one planet and at 3 degrees it may become a living hell for most humans. It may also then be too late to save mankind and maybe that is for the longterm benefit of the planet. God created the world and humanity has doing its best to destroy it. We are creating our own cataclysms and few of our world leaders are showing any leadership potential. Can we sue those who destroy the viability of future generations? No law can protect us once we have gone over the climatic tipping point. No economic rationale can turn the tides.

Anna | 20 December 2019  

Thank you Cristy. You raise a very important issue about people having the human right to take protest action to protect the environment. I think Anna's point is a valid one that all human beings have the right to clean air, water and soil. We also need stronger laws to protect out environment from being polluted by the big polluters. And these laws need to be backed up by having a well resourced and proactive enforcement system. Our politicians have mostly represented the interests of the large corporations which have been polluting our air, waterways and soils which means that much of our food is contaminated. To ensure that our political system cares for the environment and the rights of ordinary people we need an Australian human rights code that spells out these rights which is enshrined in the Constitution In addition, we need legislation to protect people from the big polluters who have been allowed to pollute our environment and seriously jeopardising our environmental health. I suspect however that achieving this scenario would involve a huge political battle.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 29 December 2019  

Grant Allen yes " Australians still have the right to vote! " One of a few rights we have in this country. But who influences our votes? Where do we get our news and our ideas? Apparently more than half of us rely on Rupert Murdoch, since he owns much of our mass media. If it seems that many of us might vote against vested interests, then it only takes a Clive Palmer with $55 million to spare to flood us with his pithy opinions and that swings things around. How many of us cast an educated vote? In the days when many belonged to trade unions they were educated in politics, given views that might have "balanced' those favoured by right wing media. Who is there that can do that now? And when we do vote, what happens? In 1972 I, like many, voted for the party of Gough Whitlam. He was not ousted by voters but by some nefarious forces, some say from the CIA, some suspect with tacit approval of the Crown. I vote at every election, and try to make my vote count, but I have little confidence in this system we call our "democracy"

Janet | 09 January 2020