Students focus on climate emergency

August 22, 2009

From August 10 to 14, the University of Wollongong's (UOW) Environment Week brought together campaigners and environmentalists for a variety of events. The climate emergency was a central focus.

The UOW environment collective, which organised the events, is a coalition of climate activists from Resistance, the Greens and Friends of the Earth, as well as many campaigners not in any other groups.

The collective has grown this year, and was centrally involved in organising the June 13 World Environment Day rally. It is also part of the satirical Billionaires for Coal group, which has brought attention to environmental issues in the local and state media through stunts such as the "congratulatory" rally outside the ALP national conference in July.

The week started with campaigners staffing a stall — which continued throughout the week — collecting signatures on a petition for the university administration to increase renewable energy use and research on campus.

The administration announced last year that green energy use would rise to 15%. The environment collective is campaigning for an achievable but ambitious target of 100% renewable energy by 2015, and is calling on the administration to achieve that through research, development and installation of renewable energy.

Three films were screened throughout the week: Nowhere Here in the Middle, a documentary on the impact the proposed nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory will have on local Indigenous communities; Rivers of Shame, which documented the damage long-wall coalmining has already done to key rivers throughout New South Wales; and episodes of the cartoon series Captain Planet.

On August 12, 40 students heard retired coalminer and climate activist Graham Brown speak on a "just transition" away from coalmining and coal-fired power generation — a transition that ensures workers in dirty industries shift to green jobs. Brown's talk confronted the lies about "clean coal" and renewable energy, and stressed that workers and the environment have mutual interests in confronting the global greenhouse mafia.

The final event of the week was the Big Melt Climate Justice Tour speakout. Pemba Dorje Sherpa, holder of the world record for the fastest climb of Mount Everest, spoke about his experience of global warming in the Himalayas and the impact it is having on local communities.

Melting glaciers have left behind large, unstable glacial lakes, which cause severe floods as they collapse.

Damien Lawson, from Friends of the Earth, spoke about the crucial role the Himalayas, known as the "third pole", play in supplying rivers with fresh water across Asia.

Prakash Sharma, a Nepalese environmental lawyer and activist, said millions of people in the region were affected by the late onset of the Indian monsoon season this year.

The highlight of the week was the festival day on August 13. A wide variety of groups set up stalls on the university's Duck Pond lawn, including Sustainable Illawarra, Wollongong City Council Waste Department and Students Against Animal Cruelty, who also ran a vegetarian barbeque.

The festival also included cultural aspects; live music was provided for the large audience, and many students participated in a clothes swap. The City Council also ran a workshop on organic gardening and composting.

The central focus of the festival was a protest rally. Environment collective members spoke about the impact the climate crisis is having on communities in low-lying Pacific Islands. They also denounced the government's pathetic Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — which the Senate voted down that day — and the Wollongong region's role in shipping coal to the world.

Students were encouraged to take action such as attending the upcoming climate camp targeting coal mines in Helensburgh, as well as joining the collective's Green Campus campaign. By lunchtime that day, more than 1000 people had signed the petition.

The week was a huge success for the environment collective, involving many new students who had never before participated in political events at university. The momentum the Green Campus campaign built up in just one week was amazing, and the collective is committed to maintaining pressure until its demands are met.

More importantly, the week gave valuable experience to a wide group of dedicated and committed activists, and affirmed the vital role grassroots groups have to play in a democratic and just solution to the climate crisis.

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