Workers, environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry

April 26, 2008

Around 50 protesters occupied the construction site of Newcastle's third coal loader at Kooragang Island on April 19, forcing work to be stopped for around an hour and a half. The protest was organised by the climate change group Rising Tide Newcastle.

The construction, approved by the NSW government in April 2007, is aimed at increasing Newcastle's coal export capacity by 66 million tonnes per year from 2009. When burned, this coal would produce about 160 million tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2).

Rising Tide reported that "the protesters, including a number of parents and grandparents from the Hunter and other regions in NSW, have been forced to take drastic action because they fear that too little is being done to address our major contribution to climate change — our dependence on coal for power and as an export commodity".

The protesters called on the Rudd government "to help this region move away from coal" saying that the expansion of the coal industry "will come at a terrible cost".

Georgina Woods, a spokesperson for Rising Tide, said the protest was timed to coincide with the government's 2020 "ideas summit" in Canberra, adding that the summit's delegates should remember that coal exports are Australia's number one contribution to climate change. "If Australia's response to climate change fails to include a plan to phase out coal, it will be a failure", she said.

Sixteen protesters defied police warnings to leave the site and were arrested and charged with trespass. The others lined the fence of the construction site in solidarity with those inside.

Simon Cunich, one of the protesters, told Green Left Weekly that while this was an inspiring protest, "we need a lot more discussion about how to involve more people, including those in the fossil fuel industry, in the campaign for sustainability".

Cunich, a member of Resistance, accused the federal Labor government of hypocrisy for providing massive financial assistance to the coal industry while, at the same time, saying it is acting to stop climate change.

"The fact is that expanding existing fossil fuel-based energy and transport systems is currently more profitable than investing in the transition to clean energy, clean transport, sustainable building and agriculture. Just like the Bush government is in the pocket of 'big oil', so too the Rudd government seems to be in the pocket of 'big coal'."

Cunich said the process of shifting to genuine sustainability would be "like a revolution" as it would have to involve society in a nationwide discussion about how energy is produced, where it is needed, society's consumption patterns and who pays, among other things.

"The polluters are not going to wake up one morning and realise their error of killing the planet for money, and phase out their own business. That means we're going to have to fight for the changes we want", Cunich said.

An essential part of this struggle is to convince workers in the fossil fuel industry to take part in the campaign for renewable energy and, more broadly, for sustainability. "These workers are being told, unfortunately sometimes by their union, that groups like Rising Tide are not concerned about jobs. But that's not true: environmentalists are also workers, and we know that we have to make common cause with unions who cover people whose jobs contribute to the problem.

"The only way we'll be able to stop the polluters is if workers and their unions get involved in the struggle for a sustainable future. Environmentalists have a responsibility to break through the lies peddled by the coal industry and Labor governments at both state and federal levels.

"Sustainable communities means working communities, and part of the campaign to phase out coal has to involve demands on authorities to provide training and retraining for work in the sustainable energy sector", Cunich told GLW.

The Rising Tide action is a good example of how "well-organised direct action can put the spotlight on the coal expansion and its enormous contribution to climate change", continued Cunich.

"In contrast to the tiny handful of coal industry executives who want this expansion, our power is in our numbers. In the past, a combination of direct action, mass rallies and industrial action by the trade union movement kept the uranium industry from expanding for decades. We can learn from this."

The anti-coal campaign needs more public forums and awareness raising, lock-on actions and mass street demonstrations to build up its strength. There will be a protest against the coal expansion and the government push for the non-solution of "clean coal" at the Sydney May Day rally on Saturday May 3, which people should join.

More community direct action against coal exports is planned as part of the Camp for Climate Action in Newcastle in July. Resistance is taking part in the camp to help build the movement to stop climate change and for social change. For more information on Resistance, visit . For more information on the Climate Camp, visit .

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