Opinion

See You In The Streets: The Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion

Accepting an award from Amnesty International on Monday, Greta Thunberg rightly said, “Activism works — so act“. And as we turn to the streets, the Government’s desperate attempt to criminalise social protest and label activists as ‘terrorists’ shows that our protest is indeed working — as long as we all keep showing up.

Extinction Rebellion activists protest in March 2019 on Downing Street, London. Image via Shutterstock, ID:1339850438

On 20 September, people in over 139 countries, led by children, will be participating in the Global Climate Strike, while Extinction Rebellion protests continue to take place all around the world.

The Australian Government attempts to discredit these movements by portraying environmental activists as ‘extremists’ and telling children they should be in school lest they turn into ‘dole bludgers’. But from our perspectives, the real question is, why every single person is not out on the streets? What haven’t they been told? Or what have they been told by those who hide or deny the scientific consensus about what’s going on? Why exhort the values of education while disregarding and disputing the evidence produced by the world’s most educated and qualified scientists?

“The only radical ‘extremists’ are governments which fail to act in the face of climate-induced disasters”.

For us, the only radical ‘extremists’ are governments everywhere which fail to act in the face of climate-induced disasters – which are going to get a lot worse. If anyone believes that the Paris Agreement will save us – they’re wrong. It means very little when Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that Australia will meet its commitments ‘at a canter’. Under current commitments, the world is on track to a 3.2°C temperature rise before the end of this century, but there is a very real risk of a 4 – 6 degree rise if nothing changes. The difference in global temperatures between now and the last Ice Age is 4°C. That’s how serious things are. Globally, temperatures have already risen 1° C above pre-industrial temperatures.

It’s worth restating the basic facts – and every word counts here. Climate change is human-induced. The amount of carbon dioxide currently in our atmosphere is unprecedented over the past 800,000 years. We know this from ice core data. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told us in 2013 that a large fraction of climate change is irreversible over the next hundreds to thousands of years. Surface temperatures will remain at elevated levels for many centuries even if we completely stop emitting CO2 emissions right now, and about 15% to 40% of already emitted COwill remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years. In 2018, the IPCC warned us that climate change is already happening fast. Global temperatures are likely to rise by 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if emissions are not reduced and “[e]very extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes”. Global human emissions of carbon dioxide need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

The impacts of climate change on Australia are frightening. Crippling drought, blazing bush fires in winter where towns are running out of water period – including to fight the flames, a 50% bleaching of the coral reef, temperatures so extreme that in NSW average temperatures in January were 5.86°C above the average. Just pause for a moment – 5.86 degrees. Fires burn in Australia’s Gondwana rainforests which, according to climate scientist Dr Joelle Gergis , are normally “moss-drenched forests packed with primitive plant families dating back to the Jurassic era, some 200 million to 145 million years ago”. Massive fish kills in the Murray Darling Basin. Around the world the catastrophic losses from hurricanes interacting with climate-changed systems are tremendous. In the US alone the economic losses are: Hurricane Sandy – $75 billion, Hurricane Irma – $100 billion, Hurricane Harvey – $180 billion, and in the developing world we witness the destruction of entire cities, millions of homes and infrastructure, loss of livelihoods and the pushing of millions of people into poverty.

Meanwhile, the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services states that the rate of biodiversity decline is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss. And the IPCC’s 2019 Climate Change and Land Report states that climate change has adversely impacted already vulnerable terrestrial ecosystems and contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.

“It’s not the kind of emergency that governments declare to justify the use of force. It is we who are declaring the emergency on governments. We’re taking charge and demanding action for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and generations not yet born”.

Many people are calling this a ‘climate emergency’. But this ‘emergency’ is connected to longstanding racialised, gendered and colonial structures of power meaning that some people will ‘weather’ the emergency far worse than others. While addressing this emergency; we must address the social structures that got us here in the first place. And it’s not the kind of emergency that governments declare to justify the use of force. It is we who are declaring the emergency on governments. We’re taking charge and demanding action for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and generations not yet born. The Government’s desperate attempt to criminalise social protest, label protesters ‘terrorists’, and declare their tactics ‘sinister’, shows this protest is working. The protesters will not go away. No more excuses, no more shooting the messenger, no more pretending our economies can’t wear the necessary transition. The only action we can’t wear is a failure to move rapidly towards net zero by 2050, while ensuring that the process happens in the context of ‘just transitions’ for everyone.


On September 25, The Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law and the Sydney Environment Institute is hosting  ‘Extinction Rebellion: why and what does law have to do with it?’ at the University of Sydney Law School at 6pm. Chaired by Professor Rosemary Lyster, speakers include Associate Professor Nicole Graham, Dr Piero Moraro and Dr Astrida Neimanis. The event is free to all but registration is essential.


Rosemary Lyster is the Professor of Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney Law School and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law. Her books include Climate Disaster Law (Edward Elgar: 2018), co-edited with Robert M. Verchick, and Climate Justice and Disaster Law (Cambridge University Press: 2016). In 2015, Rosemary was appointed by the Victorian government to a three person Independent Review Committee (IRC) to review the state’s Climate Change Act 2010 and make recommendations to place Victoria as a leader on climate change. The government accepted 32 of the IRC’s 33 Recommendations which were included in the new Climate Change Act 2017.

Nicole Graham is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Law School. She teaches and researches in the fields of property law and theory, and legal geography. Nicole has written on the relationship between law, environment and culture with a particular focus on property rights, natural resource regulation and the concept of place.

Piero Moraro is a Lecturer at the Centre for Law and Justice, Charles Sturt University. Piero has lived and worked in Australia since 2011, after studying in UK and in Italy. He initially joined CSU as a contract lecturer in Philosophy, and moved to join Justice Studies as a permanent member in 2012. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Stirling (UK), and a MSC in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the relation between civil disobedient and the criminal justice system.

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and Key Researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies. Her writing has appeared in places such as HypatiaEthics & EnvironmentFeminist ReviewAlphabet City, and Harvard Design Review, and her books include Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (2017) and the co-edited collection,Thinking with Water (2013).