Six years ago I found myself trying to find shade from the mid-morning sun while having a chat with a farmer, Rick Laird. We were chained together, six metres above the ground, on the deck of an enormous super digger in a clearing in what would become Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine.
I had gone up to Maules Creek to show solidarity with the community protesting against the mine; to add my voice to the hundreds of others who joined the Leard blockade and had been arrested. From farmers to uni students, scientists and university professors, and the unforgettable 92-year-old second world war veteran, Bill Ryan. There I met Rick. A farmer, father and volunteer firefighter who had never taken part in any climate action before.
Rick is a fifth-generation farmer; Leard state forest, 8,000 hectares of box gum woodland between Narrabri and Boggabri in the north-west of New South Wales, was named after his forebears. The coalmine we were trying to stop is just a few kilometres from his property and 4km from his kids’ school. Rick grew up on and around the rugby field, so he swung past the blockade camp in the morning to satisfy his curiosity about me being there. We chatted about farming, life in the country, his family and their ties to the area. Then we talked about the mine. He explained how he thought it was going to affect his farm, his community and his kids’ lives. He came back later in the day and we talked over lunch. I could sense we were both grappling with how to respond to these challenges. How do you make decisions? What are you willing to do in the face of injustice? The next day we locked on together.
I was back up there last month catching up with Rick and his family. A huge swathe of the forest is no longer there. Gomeroi people have lost sacred sites, places they’ve known for tens-of-thousands of years. While grabbing a coffee on our way through town we bumped into some young farmers heading to yet another somber farewell to a family farm being sold to the mine. The mine has been worse than Rick ever imagined. “Far worse,” he tells me. Farming in Australia is tough at the best of times, but try farming next to a coalmine.
Whitehaven was fined for not complying with its own biodiversity management plan and fined for excessive dust pollution. The Natural Resources Access Regulator has also accused Whitehaven of taking water without an access licence and commenced prosecution in the land and environment court (in response, Whitehaven has cited the “complexity” of the state’s water management system and said some of the alleged non-compliances are “widely observed” in the sector). The company also outbid farmers for water licences during the drought, paying up to three times what farmers usually pay. And that’s just at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek mine – it’s an embarrassingly long list when you include its other mines. Just this week the NSW resources regulator charged the company with 16 counts of breaching NSW mining laws.
Six years ago, after being processed at the police station after our day on the super digger, the constable looked at me sternly and said: “You don’t want to continue down this road. The ramifications are simply not worth it.” I understood his warning but at the time couldn’t help but think that his words were a perfect summary of the situation facing us all. The ramifications of continuing with fossil fuels were simply not worth it, the scientists had been telling us for years, since before I was born.
Unfortunately, we have continued down that road. Our government sabotaged efforts for more ambitious international action in the Paris agreement and now point their fingers at the lack of international action as justification to continue approving fossil fuel projects. As well as subsidising fossil fuel companies to the tune of $12bn a year. The big four banks agreed to work to limit warming to 1.5C but have since funded $35.5bn of coal, oil and gas projects.
And we’re letting down even more farmers like Rick with the recent approval of an expansion of another Whitehaven Coal project near Maules Creek. Local farmers have opposed it, the council opposed it, yet it was found to be in the “public interest”.
After this last summer there is no doubt that climate breakdown is becoming personal for so many of us – people died, houses, forests and billions of animals were burnt. Things are changing. We’re eco-anxious. We know we have to act. Where scientists were calculated and understated, climate strikers are now angry and loud. Terrified they may not have a future. We are living in a time of climate breakdown, a time sorely lacking in courageous, moral leadership.
Yet Covid-19 has shown us we can act in the face of overwhelming circumstances. We can mobilise and meet the challenge. We can rely on the brilliant minds of scientists and other Australians working on these problems to guide our actions.
So what are we to do? Albert Einstein once said: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” We’re certainly facing some difficulty. We have the opportunity of a generation to spend a stimulus package on starting to build a new economy. The opportunity to create a hundreds of thousands of new jobs. We can take our place in history as the ones who finally turned things around, who courageously took on the challenge of a just transition. A transition from an economy that has made us wealthy, to one that will allow us to continue to thrive into the future. We have the opportunity to build the future we want.
This will require us making different decisions, choosing courage in the face of fear and learning to act truly in the public interest. This may be too much to ask for politicians wedded to fossil fuel interests, too much for a government that has sabotaged efforts to reduce emissions to ensure a liveable future, too much to ask for a prime minister who brought coal into parliament not long before his country would burn. It is maybe too much to expect politicians to stop putting short-term profits in front of economic growth, environmental health and our shared future.
During a time of lockdown, it can feel impossible to know what to do, how to change things. But one of the things we can do while stuck inside our homes is move our money away from the institutions that continue to fund projects that put us all at risk. We can move our super out of funds that continue to invest in fossil fuels, and out of the big four banks; banking with institutions that aren’t loaning money to fossil fuel projects. This may seem trivial but it’s not. Moving money away from businesses and institutions that don’t align with our values or the kinds of future we want to create has a rich history. It’s known as divestment and it was a key tool in the fight for civil rights. Here in Australia, it’s clear who is funding fossil fuels and while voting and protesting are a long way off, we can put our money where our mouth, or heart, is on this issue, push to end the fossil fuel era and start building something much better.
o David Pocock is a professional rugby union player and co-author of the book In Our Nature with his wife, Emma Pocock