Climate Change Conference of the People – a photo essay

This week, politicians from around the world will gather in Glasgow for Climate Change Conference of Parties. Our own Scott Morrison will be there, showing off his brand new “Australian Way” plan for pretending to do something about climate change. But across Australia over the last few weeks has been a different kind of gathering for climate action. In all the cities and towns of this continent, people have been out on the streets or on the climate frontlines – disrupting destructive work, raising awareness, reminding us all that we can have more of a role in the climate action discussion than just swearing at the news. It has been extraordinary in scale and diversity. These are just some examples of what’s been happening.

Let’s start on October 11th (first day out of lockdown in NSW!), when Illawarra residents blocked vehicles headed to the Russell Vale coal mine, opposing its proposed expansion. There are significant concerns about what the expansion will do to Sydney’s water catchment, as well as the fact that IPCC climate scientists are adamant that all existing coal reserves must stay in the ground.

Two days later, Rene Wooller scaled the roof above the entrance to Brisbane’s parliament house. He wanted to bring attention back to a situation the government seems desperate to keep out of sight – the fact that natural wonder and major tourist attraction the Great Barrier Reef is under serious threat from our inaction on climate change. Just in case politicians missed the banners, Rene hung pungent fish carcasses around the entrance and scattered around pages from the “Guide To Fishes” book.

Brisbane’s was not the only government building targeted. Extinction Rebellion in Canberra have been doing a remarkably sustained set of actions outside federal parliament, and probably would have done more if not for a lengthy covid lockdown in the middle of it. On October 18th, activists dressed as burning koalas, Scott Morrison, and environment Minister Sussan Ley (who is in court appealing the ruling that she has a “duty of care” to young Australians when considering new coal mine applications) have all superglued themselves to the road. It wasn’t the last disruption XR Canberra would cause either.

That same day, young Newcastle woman Mia Bloom stopped a coal train en route to the world’s biggest coal port. Like those in the Illawarra, people in the Hunter Valley are labelled as residents of a “mining town” by the industry that benefits from excavating their surroundings. Young people like Mia are fighting for a local identity based on something other than destroying the planet.

The next day, Extinction Rebellion in Brisbane were back at it – conducting a funeral march through the city carrying “corpses” that represent the lives that will be lost due to climate change. Health institutions like The Lancet and the Australian Medical Association have repeatedly described climate change as a health emergency, and retired doctor Lee Coaldrake was one of four people arrested for gluing their hands to the mall.

Striking visual images have always been a specialty of Extinction Rebellion groups, and the pram has become a recurring visual motif for the group ever since one was symbolically set alight in front of parliament on the morning the most recent IPCC climate science report was published. In the last couple of weeks prams have been used repeatedly across the country – often painted a ghostly white, or even hung off a bridge with flares while people blocked the road above.

Despite the horrific damage caused by bushfires two years ago and despite the fact that forests are our only carbon sequestration method that actually works, Australia’s native forests are still being cut down. Not satisfied with destroying irreplaceable biodiversity for the sake of exporting woodchips, it is incredibly still being proposed that these forests be burned to generate electricity – a process that is described as “renewable energy”. Here are a couple of blockades in parts of Australia with long historical track records of protecting forests – Bega locals blocking log trucks from getting to the local woodchip mill, and Port Macquarie locals stopping access to the Pentarch sawmill.

The tripod is an icon of Australian environmental protest – pioneered on the south coast of NSW not far from that Bega truck blockade, and used to protect forests and shut down roads all over the continent in the decades since. This one is blocking the main street of Adelaide, yet another Extinction Rebellion traffic disruption.

The COVID pandemic certainly slowed some of the momentum the climate movement had built up, but it hasn’t stopped people from taking action for our planet. The folks who had been organising the blockade of the IMARC mining industry conference in Melbourne have been stuck in lockdown for much of the last 18 months, but they are not letting the mining industry hold their zoom meetings in peace. Last week the aptly named “Mines and Money” conference was held online – so folks at home organised a “spam blockade” of it, taking over the hashtag and producing all kinds of quality online content for conference attendees to enjoy.

Also busy creating humourous images was comedian Dan Ilic. Ilic started a crowdfunder for some billboard images in Glasgow during the COP summit, trying to embarrass Australia’s leaders into climate action. When the public donations far exceeded his expectations, he decided to also rent the world’s biggest billboard in New York’s Times Square.

Scott Morrison famously said kids should be in school and not doing activism. Thankfully, the schoolkids of Australia have learned the basic arithmetic the PM hasn’t: too much carbon + selfish inaction = climate disaster. So often shut out of the debate about their future, those kids are still getting out there having their say with the kind of youthful enthusiasm we all need sometimes. School strikes were held all across the country on October 15th. I’ve included photos here from Perth and Ballarat, because we haven’t had any pictures from there yet but climate action is everywhere!

Many have noted that the government’s recent net zero plan included no mention of slowing down Australia’s vast fossil fuel export industry. This fits with Australian government policy of pocketing the cash from these exports while pretending not to have any responsibility for the consequences. It also fits with the tradition of having the mining indurty write our climate policy. The Australian public aren’t buying it though, and for many years the campaign against Australian coal exports has focussed on the proposed Adani mine and the Galilee Basin of buried coal. Sadly, Adani’s mine is edging closer to being built despite the determined campaign against it. But those opposing it haven’t given up yet – still targeting investment companies like HSBC who have money in the Adani group and have the power to make the mine a lot more difficult to operate. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Custodians of where the mine is haven’t given up their resistance to Adani either – their cultural camp Waddananggu on the mine lease is still going strong after two months camped out in harsh conditions.

With Australia lagging behind most other developed countries in climate action and with a government so unwilling to do anything about it, it may be that COP 26 is a place where other governments can influence Australia to do the right thing. Last week Kyle Magee and Juliet Lamont from Frontline Action on Coal shut down the massive Hay Point coal terminal in Mackay by locking themselves to the conveyor belt. They called for international governments to introduce carbon tariffs and trade sanctions on Australia if the government fails to take action on climate.

The COP summit is off to a rocky start already – yesterday the world’s biggest 20 economies (responsible for 80% of the world’s emissions) met together ahead of the UN meeting, and failed to come to any resolution – not even the basic goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Scott Morrison, naturally, used his speech to argue against taking any real life climate action, instead promising future technology would magically fix it.

This morning, Australians who are more grounded in reality did what we will need to do to solve the climate crisis – disrupt the status quo. There were Extinction Rebellion actions in all capital cities, the photo above from Brisbane where the William Jolly Bridge was shut down by four people clocked to a kayak.

When Scott Morrison turns up in Glasgow, he will claim that his government has made a plan for net zero by 2050. Leaving aside the deficiencies of this “plan”, it is just not true. For years he and his party have done everything they possibly could to resist taking climate action. While scientists, engineers, activists and community organisers were out there taking steps to fix this mess; Morrison was smugly waving around a lump of coal in parliament, or voting to dismantle every piece of climate legislation ever written in that building.

They certainly weren’t given any credit at Morrison’s “Australian Way” press conference last week, but it is the climate activists of Australia who forced that document into existence. For decades now we have diligently and imaginatively tried to educate and inspire the population; taking on a powerful fossil fuel industry that has managed to overthrow multiple Prime Ministers. We have been disheartened by the slow progress, abused in the streets, demonised in the media, criminalised by new laws brought in specifically to stop environmental protest. But the movement has never given up, and never stopped trying new tactics. If we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, it won’t be due to world leaders gathering to emit more hot air at COP 26. It will be people like those in these photos – ordinary folks, creatively and courageously fighting together for the future of this planet.

Andy Paine
31 October 2021

Andy anchors the Paradigm Shift on 4ZZZ fm 102.1 Fridays at Noon and has a blog @

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