Major new research has identified a clear and alarming trend that sees climate defenders increasingly being targeted and suppressed by Australian governments.Global Warning: the threat to climate defenders in Australia maps the systematic repression of communities and organisations advocating for climate justice in the wake of government inaction.

The report, by the Human Rights Law Centre, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and the Environmental Defenders Office, reveals how the unregulated political influence of the fossil fuel industry – a murky web of connections between governments and industry – is driving political inaction on climate change and the repression of those calling for action.

Forms of repression include:

  • The introduction of harsh, and at times unconstitutional, anti-protest laws targeting climate defenders
  • The enforcement of punitive bail laws and excessive penalties for minor protest related offences
  • Stifling civil society by defunding climate education and threatening to deregister charities that engage in climate activism
  • Targeting activists with litigation, and surveilling and infiltrating groups of climate defenders 

Anj Sharma, who secured a Federal Court ruling that the Minister for Environment has a duty to protect young people from the climate crisis, said: 

“When it comes to protecting the future of our planet, young people across the world are increasingly turning to activism to generate action, rather than relying on governments. We’re not doing this because we want to, but because we have to. This is an emergency. Instead of persecuting the messengers, it’s time for governments to not only listen to our message but act on it.”

In the face of governments’ inertia, climate activism has been vital in helping persuade big business to change their ways: Equinor, BP, Santos and Chevron have abandoned risky oil drilling plans in the Great Australian Bight, Australia’s four major banks have agreed to exit the thermal coal sector on or before 2035, and Australian corporations including Coca Cola Amatil, Bunnings Warehouse and Officeworks have committed to sourcing 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Global Warning calls for urgent and immediate reform to stop the attack on climate defenders, including by establishing a federal integrity commission, capping political donations, and strengthening legal protections for activists by introducing an Australian Charter of Human Rights.

Yusur Al-Azzawi, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“For those without money or political access, protest is a critical way to advocate on the issues they care about. Yet we are seeing an alarming trend in which climate defenders are increasingly being restricted, intimidated and attacked by governments and politicians wedded to fossil fuels. At a time when the stakes could not be higher, and dire warnings about the earth’s warming could not be clearer, this is nothing short of reprehensible. It’s time for Australian governments to take action on climate change instead of attacking those protesting their inaction.”

Katrina Bullock, General Counsel at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, said:

“Studies show the vast majority of Australians want stronger government action on climate change, yet the Morrison Government has been widely criticised for its inaction. We’ve just seen this play out at COP26, where Australia’s progress blocking and weak emissions reduction targets came under intense international scrutiny. 

“We live in a democracy which was designed to give effect to the will of the people, yet the voices of the general population calling for climate action are being drowned out by the disproportionate influence of powerful fossil fuel players. This report documents the disturbing pattern of repression experienced by peaceful climate activists in Australia as they attempt to be heard – from the laws introduced to criminalise peaceful protests to the excessive bail conditions, penalties and lawsuits endured by those who advocate for a greener, healthier future.”

Julia Grix, EDO Managing Lawyer, said:

“In our work representing climate activists we are seeing a concerning national trend towards an inappropriate use of police powers against peaceful protesters. What we are seeing is police placing onerous bail conditions on climate activists, including strict curfews and movement restrictions, despite these conditions being repeatedly overturned in the courts.

“In one instance two environmental activists with no criminal record spent more than 24 hours in police custody after refusing to sign bail conditions which would have imposed a curfew and severely limited their movement. These conditions were later thrown out in court.

“Most concerning is that this abuse of police powers is not limited to a particular jurisdiction. Around the country we are seeing an inappropriate and at times aggressive use of police powers against peaceful environmental protesters.”

For more information contact Maddison Bates-Wills on 0401 244 296