Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

No time to be polite about climate



On 1 February 1960, Ezell Blair Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked for coffee and doughnuts. They were, of course, refused. For the men were black, and the lunch counter, like most facilities in the segregated south, served whites only.

A woman is arrested by police during the Extinction Rebellion protest in Sydney on 7 October 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)Nevertheless, the activists remained all that day. They came back in the morning, and they asked again to be served. Over the next week, the sit-in — despite organised harassment from the KKK and other racists — grew and spread, sparking a movement across many southern cities, which culminated in the desegregation of many public places and inspired civil rights activism throughout America.

Today, most people regard the Greensboro Four as heroes. But what would Peter Dutton have said to them?

This week, the Home Affairs Minister called for mandatory sentences for climate protesters who broke the law, claimed that activists who inconvenienced others should be 'named and shamed', and declared that those receiving social security should have their payments stripped. Senior Nationals minister David Littleproud agreed. He, too, denounced protesters, urging magistrates to 'slip into them'. 'What this should be is about respect. When they don't, we've got to call them out.'

All the same arguments were made in Greensboro in 1960. Woolworth's was, after all, just going about its business. Segregation was not only legal — it was mandated. By demanding to be served, the Greensboro protesters (who were, incidentally, like the climate strikers very young) were both breaking the law themselves and asking the staff to join them in criminality.

Their sit-in disrupted normal routines, just as much as any Extinction Rebellion stunt does. The Woolworth's lunch counter was a busy facility, providing food for thousands of hungry workers each day. As the protests spread, they inevitably inconvenienced apolitical men and women who were just trying to get on with their lives. That's why, throughout the south, prosecutors generally charged those defying segregation with crimes like 'disturbing the peace' or 'disorderly conduct'.

So would Littleproud have said that the Greensboro Four 'lacked respect'? If not, why not?


"They don't hate the tactic — they hate the goal."


Perhaps the difference lies in the cause. Few today will defend the moral abomination that was racial segregation. By contrast, the rhetoric from politicians about environmental protests suggests they view catastrophic global warming as a matter about which reasonable people can politely disagree. Scott Morrison, for instance, both refused to attend the United Nations Climate Summit and then warned against 'needless anxiety' about the environment.

That seems to be the basis on which he and his ministers present protests as an affectation, a foolish reaction to a problem that doesn't really exist. 'Everyone wants a cause these days,' explained David Littleproud, as if the deteriorating planet were an issue that activists simply plucked from a hat. 'They become angry and they impose their will on the Australian people.'

Unfortunately, climate change isn't a choice. The science doesn't alter according to our willingness to accept it. If Littleproud thinks activists impose themselves on the Australian people, wait until he discovers what the planet will do.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involved more than a hundred scientists from 36 countries summarising almost 7000 peer reviewed studies. It found unprecedented sea level rise that will transform hundred-year extreme flooding events into annual occurrences by the middle of the century. Given that a quarter of the world's population lives on the coast, the rising seas promise rather more inconvenience than a temporarily blocked city intersection. Which is, of course, the point.

Imagine you're sleeping in a house that catches fire at night. Imagine the person next door shouting to wake you up. Now picture Peter Dutton, creeping around outside, threatening your neighbour with jail for causing a disturbance. That's where we're at.

The disruption caused by a few Extinction Rebellion stunts palls into insignificance beside the disruption scientists say we need if we're to decarbonise society. Instead of fretting about the etiquette of protests, we should be discussing that process: the rapid implementation of a zero-carbon economy that would offer real alternatives to those at the sharp end of the transition. It's a huge task we face but we have to start somewhere. And right now, that somewhere is the street.

No-one should be fooled: the politicians and commentators who condemn civil disobedience are the same politicians and commentators who attack the UN for passing resolutions on carbon; who tell scientists to get back to the lab when they speak out on politics; who mock celebrities for supporting environmental action; and who do everything they can to keep climate out of the parliament.

They don't hate the tactic — they hate the goal. Great swathes of the political class remain opposed to the kind of action necessitated by the IPCC reports, and they will do whatever they can to prevent it.

In daily life, politeness might be a virtue, but there comes a time when you need to shout, not whisper. The American south was, after all, legendary for its chivalry, as well as its racism.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: A woman is arrested by police during the Extinction Rebellion protest in Sydney on 7 October 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, climate change, Covering Climate Now, Extinction Rebellion



submit a comment

Existing comments

I am quite prepared to listen to the call for action by the activists as log as it doesn't preclude the discussion of nuclear. If not then their actions and any Government that was fool enough to listen to them would be mere agitprop and window dressing respectively. How ridiculous is a society that says we are progressive and can break the taboo and safely legislate euthanasia / VAD , and yet is scared witless by nuclear.

George Fisk | 08 October 2019  

Great article Jeff. 13 yrs ago Al Gore published “An inconvenient truth”. Such a relevant title today.

Mike Currie | 08 October 2019  

Absolutely spot on, Jeff. The level of denial by government is mind-boggling. And its not just the Coalition. The Queensland Labor government is also complicit. The Premier is busy blowing her bags about "inconvenience to the public". When will they grow up?

Paul Collins | 08 October 2019  

Well said Jeff, While the disruption caused by the protesters is a nuisance to ordinary citizens going about their business, one should consider the potential disruptions to ordinary citizen's lives that will be caused by climate change triggered natural disasters such as droughts, floods heatwaves, severe storms and cyclone induced storm surges, not to mention coastal flooding due to sea level rise . One is reminded of King Canute trying to stop the tide coming in. Our climate sceptic politicians now seem to be prepared to use the law to prevent informed citizens expressing their concern at government inaction. Parallels to the reaction by conservative politicians and government to the Anti war Vietnam demonstrations are evident. We need to shout from the roof tops as the evidence is now overwhelming that Climate Change is real and it is happening now!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 08 October 2019  

All power and success to the protesters! Nothing else has penetrated the ignorant depths of the political mind in this country. Lets just hope that they don't end up buggering it up through mindless law breaking, violence, etc. The American Woolworth's protesters of the 1960s and Martin Luther King Jr are good examples to follow.

john frawley | 08 October 2019  

For an excellent critique of our Prime Minister’s speech to the United Nations, by the CEO of the Climate Council, Amanda McKenzie, I ask readers to go to: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/morrison-un-summit/ I admire those who take action, including civil disobedience, to help save the world from catastrophic climate change, because that is where the world is heading. I also admire Greta Thunburg and Sir David Attenborough for speaking out and taking action.

Grant Allen | 08 October 2019  

Congratulations on your measured but very powerful piece. Congratulations to all who under threat of arrest bring to our living rooms their concerns for the continued existence of our world as we know it. A young girl stands before the world angry on our behalf, elderly and not so old are dragged off whilst demonstrating the need for immediate federal action. As a great grand mother I thank those who act on my behalf to try and save this planet for the generations to come. I also thank you.

Patricia Slidziunas | 08 October 2019  

Very powerful Jeff. I love the way this is gathering momentum. Along with the despair I feel, a glimmer of just maybe ... something can be done. Why don't politicians want to do anything. I get the arguments about the economy etc but this is so serious, I cannot understand why people in parliaments just want to bury their heads in the mess we have made. Jorie

Jorie Ryan | 08 October 2019  

The protesters have been goaded into their actions by a political class fiddling while the planet burns. The latter peddle their culpable ignorance and Canute-like empty gestures, along with the scoffers and deniers on Sky News, not to mention the Alan Joneses of the world, or else they carry out puerile stunts like bringing a lump of coal into parliament, as if the headlines they achieve are a substitute for argument. Any young student can se through that, and the older generation ought to do so also. Do I need to point out the ridiculous incongruity between the rhetoric of our PM, with his Trump-imitating baseball cap and "make Australia Great" slogan and his stance on climate change? Unfortunately, the PM is far from alone among the power-wielding class!.

DENNIS GREEN | 08 October 2019  

Thanks Jeff. What got the efforts in Greensboro to take effect on discrimination? What will it take for the current politicians of both casts to change direction? My guess it will not be reason. When the Warren Commission and most thinking Americans knew Nixon was guilty what swung the national sentiment? The language on the Whitehouse Tapes. "To think our President would speak like that...!" That's what did it. History has other examples. When the conservatives, their media and PR are so invested so adamant that change would need massive pressure or humility. What can we do to bring this about? Civil disobedience for sure. But did even that stop Viet Nam? We need social scientists to take a lead in aiding us with means towards attitude changes among the masses. For my twopence worth forget about using the word 'scientist' and use the word "facts".

Michael D. Breen | 08 October 2019  

GEorge, nuclear power is not environmentally friendly

Marilyn | 08 October 2019  

Thanks Jeff for a brilliant article. Appropriate and timely. These responsible and dedicated law breakers are bringing hope to many while politicians continue to bury their heads in the sand.

John Whitehead | 08 October 2019  

I feel like there's a more compelling line of argument in favour of the rights of these protesters than just that their cause is a good one. That line implies it would be legitimate to take away welfare or impose mandatory imprisonment on people involved in civil disobedience campaigns linked to other causes left-wing people might not agree with - like anti-immigration, or anti-abortion protests etc. That seems like it puts far too much power in the hands of politicians. Surely the right to peacefully demonstrate without undue targeting by government should be accepted no matter the person's cause. Civil disobedience actions might lead to people being prosecuted, but it should be independent of the issue that they're campaigning about. The sort of targeting that's being argued for by Dutton and other right-wing commentators in this case shouldn't be acceptable from either side of politics.

Joseph Vine | 09 October 2019  

I’m with you, Jeff, as I think any thinking person must be. As for ‘imposing their will on the Australian people’ - are the protestors not Australian people, using their right of assembly to speak to each other and to their democratically elected representatives? Many of them don’t yet have the right to vote, but are they not yet citizens? Can some of them be punished by having their means of support removed, while others can’t? Can a Member of Parliament tell a magistrate what decisions they should be making? Do our representatives understand concepts like ‘the rule of law’ and ‘separation of powers ‘? David Littleproud apparently doesn’t! Finally, what god are our leaders worshipping, exactly?

Joan Seymour | 09 October 2019  

It's drawing a very long bow to equate the quiet actions and goals of the Greensboro 4 with those of some climate activists; it verges on emotive pleading to mix the two causes and suggest one (albeit noble) cause justifies another. Of course any individual must have the freedom / right to protest but when they put theirs or others safety, security or property at risk they must be responsible for the cost to police their activities. The Greensboro 4 didn't glue themselves in Woolworths... Protesters can cause fear in the community; excuse me for borrowing on your of mixing causes but who would have considered the Hong Kong "protests" could degenerate to Molotov cocktails and live fire? What level of disruption is acceptable here...? My guess is Pauline Hanson will get her wish for banning the niqaab when we adopt the new Chinese law prohibition of face masks!! Protest all you like but stay on the footpath. Get the kids at the rallies to ask the school principal to turn off the air conditioning.

ray | 10 October 2019  

Jeff says of the latest IPCC report: "It found unprecedented sea level rise that will transform hundred-year extreme flooding events into annual occurrences by the middle of the century. " In my leisure moments, I’ve explored the latest IPCC Full Report for a couple of days now. I find no hint of this metric of 1/100 year extreme flooding events being now annual events. True, the statement Jeff quotes, in good faith, is in the press release. But heck, I do journalism - I know about press releases. I've found other items in the press release that have no basis in the Report. For example: look at the startling statement that “Glaciers, snow, ice and permafrost are declining and will continue to do so. This is projected to increase hazards for people, for example through landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods.” Declining snow = increased avalanches? OK, I says to myself, warming during spring causes avalanches. But heavy winter falls ALSO cause avalanches! So with declining snow, wouldn't there be overall fewer spring AND winter avalanches? I turned eagerly to the Full Report for an authoritative citation or even better, a solution to the paradox that declining snow leads to increased avalanches. You can do it too! Search for the word "avalanche" or its cognates in the Full Report. What do you come up with? (Spoiler: as far as I can tell, not a single mention of the word “avalanche” or anything like it, let alone any discussion of the topic!) So now, all you who have read the Report and agree with Jeff's alarm about hundred-year extreme flooding events becoming annual by mid-century ... can you step up and give this denialist an education, by pointing to the place where the Report says this, and/or cites an authoritative source?

HH | 10 October 2019  

It may not be in that particular Report HH, but there are many published peer reviewed studies by experts in those fields who have reported that these events are happening already as Jeff has written in his blog. I suggest you consult Mr Google or other search engines to confirm what I have written.

Gavin A. O'Brien | 13 October 2019  

Good for you! I am tired of criticism of activists like Greta Thunberg who are warning us of the peril we are in. (See article by Steve Evans in Canberra Times of Sep.12th )The general public appears to be ignoring what eminent scientists say.Let's hope activists are more convincing. We are facing extinction and large numbers in society have their heads in the sand.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 14 October 2019  

Hi Marilyn, Don't take my word for it then - try this person instead: "Bill Gates thinks he has a key part of the answer for combating climate change: a return to nuclear power. The Microsoft co-founder is making the rounds on Capitol Hill to persuade Congress to spend billions of dollars over the next decade for pilot projects to test new designs for nuclear power reactors. Gates, who founded TerraPower in 2006, is telling lawmakers that he personally would invest $1 billion and raise $1 billion more in private capital to go along with federal funds for a pilot of his company’s never-before-used technology, according to congressional staffers. “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day,” Gates said in his year-end public letter. “The problems with today’s reactors, such as the risk of accidents, can be solved through innovation.” – Steven Mufson, “Bill Gates Comes to Washington – selling the promise of Nuclear Energy”, Washington Post, 26 January 2019 So are you willing to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

George Fisk | 21 October 2019  

I think there's significant difference between the sit-ins, which were truly non-violent as they just sat down and didn't block anyone from ordering lunch, and some of the recent environmental protest tactics, such as blocking peak-hour traffic, and even shouting into the faces of mining conference delegates. I think having a goal of blocking people's movement via physical force, trapping them in cars, seems like a mild form of violence. Many of the advantages of truly non-violent protest are thus lost. The coal lobby & supporting politicians are likely delighted to be able to focus on protest tactics rather than on the protest message, and to escalate the violence. I think the goal is not to convince these commentators but the broader community to take climate change more urgently.

Eugene | 10 November 2019  

Similar Articles

Small impactful climate action for the rest of us

  • Katherine Richardson
  • 11 October 2019

Ruling out an individual's efforts simply because they aren't perfect seems to be a fantastic way of discouraging people from joining what is an incredibly important movement. But climate action doesn't have to be about perfectionism — it's about doing the best you can, and sometimes even small changes can make a big difference.