Just weeks before unprecedented wildfires broke out in Australia, killing about 1 billion animals, the prime minister said the country faced a terrible threat: environmental protesters.
"A new generation of radical activism is underway," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a speech in November. He added that there was a "place for peaceful protests", but would not advocate environmentalists who obstruct or delay mining projects, nor call on boycotts of banks that fund the country's coal industry.
He promised find a way to "successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of other Australians."
The fire crisis has begun – and Morrison went on vacation in Hawaii – before the prime minister could take anti-protest measures, but he was not making an idle threat. State legislators had already passed a new law targeting environmental protesters, criminalizing the use of locking devices that make it difficult for police to remove protesters during a demonstration and allowing police to search for activists without warrant. That fell short of what some state legislators of Morrison's ruling coalition had hoped for – they also proposed prison sentences for people stuck more than once during the protests.
Morrison's promise to crack down on environmental protesters in Australia is part of a global trend. Being an environmentalist for a long time is dangerous – at least 164 activists were killed in 2018 worldwide, according to the Global Witness NGO. Many others were threatened, arrested or assaulted by companies seeking to arrest them in court.
As the climate crisis intensifies, so do environmental protests. And many places – even countries with strong protections for free speech – are increasingly putting environmental activists as a new kind of extremist, and using broad powers to punish and marginalize them.
Nearly 100 lawsuits were documented worldwide against environmentalists or activists who defended the land rights of the corporate interests community last year by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center. Ana Zbona, who manages the group Business, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Defenders Project, told BuzzFeed News that such processes were more common in countries like Peru, Russia and the Philippines, but said it was rapidly becoming more common in the US.
"It doesn't matter if you are in Nicaragua or the US, powerful people want to stop it and the government is prepared to help, ”said Carla Garcia Zendejas, director of the people, land and resources program at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington. "And they don't just use brute force – governments use the rule of law and create legitimate legal support to arrest people because you equate environmental protesters with terrorists."
The movement against anti-mining protesters in Australia was triggered last year by a bitter fight in Queensland for a new planned coal mine that is expected to become one of the largest in the world. Carmichael's mine is scheduled to remain active for the next 60 years, and a scientific analysis found that it could produce coal that would aggregate about 77 million tonnes of carbon dioxide on average each year over the life of the project, more than all cars on Australian roads in 2016.
Australian environmental activists see the project as a serious threat as UN says countries must be making drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophic warming. As the project progressed, protesters became involved in acts of civil disobedience, including hanging above the railway lines or chaining to cement-filled drums block railway lines. They also used boycotts to pressure project-related companies to quit. The Morrison Government – which has close ties for the coal industry – responded by slanderous protesters with help from the media that are part of Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media empire.
The biggest change Morrison wants to make in federal laws is not to punish people for street protests – which are governed by state governments – but to make it a crime to boycott companies involved in supporting mining projects, a tactic known as “boycotts”. secondary education ”. One of the main boycotts and targets of protest from opponents of the Carmichael coal mine was Siemens, a German engineering company that builds the signaling system to transport coal from the mine.
One activist involved in the campaign against Siemens is 37-year-old Daniel Bleakley, who grew up near the site of Carmichael's planned mine and now lives in Melbourne. He was arrested last month during a protest organized by Extinction Rebellion, an environmental group that uses direct nonviolent action to demand progress on climate change, after clinging to a Siemens office in Melbourne.
"I think it really shows who has the power in our democracy," Bleakley said of Morrison's proposal to criminalize the secondary boycott proposal. "We are living in an authoritarian regime controlled by the fossil fuel industry."
The extinction rebellion began in the UK in 2018. The group first attracted international attention last April. paralyzing traffic in london with street occupations that lasted more than a week. Police initially worked in cooperation with the protesters, said Tobias Garnett, human rights lawyer for Extinction Rebellion's legal strategy team. But conservative lawmakers and right-wing tabloids in the UK – including some owned by Murdoch – damn cop how very lenient. Prosecutors decided to take a firm line and filed charges against all prisoners.
That increased in October as Extinction Rebellion prepared to launch another wave of protests. Police pre-emptively raided the warehouses the group was using to prepare and then imposed a general ban on protests in London, which a judge finally knocked over. More than 1,800 people were arrested during these protests, and police also requested legislators to give them broader powers to suppress the Extinction Rebellion in the future.
There is "an Extinction Rebellion policing standard that has attempted to undermine, criminalize, and classify as extremists those who are taking direct nonviolent actions to draw attention to the climate and the ecological emergency," Garnett said.
British counterterrorism police even added the group to a list of "extremist" organizations in a pamphlet distributed to teachers, police and other authorities who are required to report signs of "radicalism" alongside Nazi and neo-Nazi Islamic groups, the Guardian reported last week.
The police visited at least one person, the Guardian reported, after he was informed by a government clinic that he called to ask for advice on how to deal with his claustrophobia if he was arrested during a protest.
British counterterrorism police did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News, but the Guardian said police had withdrawn the pamphlet.
This was not the first time British police had placed environmentalists with terrorists – in 2016, local authorities in northern England supposedly classified opponents of a fracturing project in the area as extremists. On Friday, The Guardian reported that Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, among other nonviolent environmental organizations, have been added to a document distributed by Counter Terrorism Policing to prevent radicalization.
In North America, protests against oil and gas pipelines have also provoked strong repression in recent years. Canadian police, who are locked in a long-standing stalemate with an indigenous group that resists a pipeline planned to be built in the western province of British Columbia, allowed them to shoot protesters before a 2019 invasion, the Guardian said. reported. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police challenged accuracy of the report, calling it "unfounded, incomplete and inflammatory".
In the US, the Trump government recently asked Congress for broader powers to stop pipeline protests, such as the months and 2016 and 2017 protest to stop the Dakota access pipeline near Standing Rock Sioux Territory. Last June, the government urged Congress to add "prevent, stop or inhibit the operation" of pipelines – or those under construction – to an existing federal law that punishes "damaging or destroying" a 20-year prison pipeline.
This proposal has not advanced, but 10 states have adopted laws targeting pipeline protesters since 2017, according to the International Center for Nonprofit Law (ICNL), and similar legislation has been introduced in several others. Many of these provisions are modeled on a proposal distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing group supported by the Koch brothers, major political donors whose family made a fortune in the fossil fuel industry. ICNL legal counsel Elly Page said many state proposals also include broad language aimed at criminalizing the provision of financial support to anti-pipeline activists, or even by "encouraging" or "advising" activists.
The Trump administration is also classifying anti-pipeline activists as violent extremists, supposedly call a small group that disrupted the pipelines in 2016 as "suspects of environmental extremists," in a recent Homeland Security intelligence assessment that also targets white nationalists and mass shooters.
DHS did not respond to a comment request from BuzzFeed News.
Protests are likely to escalate as climate change contributes to the growth of disasters such as the fires now burning in Australia. In Melbourne, Bleakley of Extinction Rebellion said it is "absolutely disgusting" that lawmakers are pursuing activists trying to stop the climate crisis.
"The real climate criminals are the executives and politicians who continue to open new coal mines and really ignore climate science," he said.
Lane Sainty contributed reporting from Sydney