Protesters wearing Malcolm Turnbull and Gautam Adani masks at a protest on Sydney’s Bondi beach. October 2017. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
Last week, protesters rallied in the major cities across Australia, opposing Adani’s announcement for self-financing the controversial Carmichael mine. Adani’s Australian venture, the Carmichael mine-and-rail project, was initially proposed as an A$16.5 billion mega-mine with 60 million tonnes a year capacity. The latest announcement is the second time the project has been scaled down, and it now stands as a 10-15 million tonnes a year self-financed project at A$2 billion.
But as the various messages on display on the streets last Saturday demonstrated, public concern around Adani’s coalmine has snowballed into something much bigger. Apart from the red and white on black STOP ADANI posters that have by now become ubiquitous across protests and marches around the country, people also carried placards demanding “a renewable future” for Australia asking, “The climate is changing, why aren’t we?”
This is not a one-off event. The scale of the protests that were organised in a flash to respond to Adani’s announcement demonstrate the breath of the venture’s unpopularity, as well as the network of resistance that has built up over the years. Australia is witnessing a tsunami of climate protests, and a single name, Adani, has emerged as the byword for the government’s inaction on climate change.
Consider these two events from last month:
A week before these protests, students marched on the streets demanding that the government bring in a plan to tackle climate change. Inspired by the 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, thousands of Australian school children called a national school strike to march on the streets, and fill city squares to demand a safe future. Delegations of students met members of the state and federal parliament, asking what their plan was to stop climate change. Some of the most visible signs at the rallies included ‘Don’t be a Fossil Fool’, and “It’s getting hot in here, so get out all your coals”. Students also drummed up a chorus of “Stop Adani” chants during the demonstrations.
Two weeks before the national school strikes, bushfires swept through the drought-stricken state of Queensland. One of the many images that surfaced in its aftermath was of a scorched STOP sign on a dirty-track in a country town, against a flat, blackened landscape. Someone had scrawled ADANI under it. Queensland’s farmers, reeling under the impacts of drought have been demanding decisive climate action from a climate denialist Liberal Federal government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “let us pray for rain” response to this extreme event became a national joke.
For the ten years that I have worked along with environmental groups in Australia, I have seen the Adani group’s Carmichael mine emerge as the most popular and high-profile environmental issue. Ten years ago, Queensland was in the middle of a prosperous albeit highly environmentally destructive resource boom. At that time, the focal point for civil society’s opposition to rampant mining was the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef, the largest living organism on earth, is under severe risk of bleaching and dying from climate change. Activist groups, scientists and even the United Nations warned against the state government’s plans to expand ports and gas processing plants along the coast of Queensland abutting the Reef.
And then came the proposals for mining coal in the Galilee Basin, Australia’s largest coal reserve, a semi-arid region in Central Queensland as large as the United Kingdom. Adani’s Carmichael mine, at its initial proposed capacity of 60 million tonnes of coal per annum production capacity, was going to be its biggest mega-mine, and also its first. It was going to be the key to a total of nine projects. Five of these mines in the Galilee, including Carmichael, were going to be larger than any existing coalmine in the country.
Approvals for Carmichael and other mines in the region progressed through various stages, both state and federal, around the same time that the world was moving towards a Paris Agreement. Carmichael received federal approval with the single largest number of environmental conditions ever received – a total of 36 – in September 2014 under the Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Prime Minister Abbott’s tenure was known for an ideological championing of coal, opposition to renewables and a denial of climate change. Under Abbott, who dismantled the previous Labor government’s carbon tax, the Carmichael mine was deemed not only in Australia’s national interest, but also in India’s as an alleviator of poverty through the provisioning of electricity.
In stark opposition to the government’s mindset, Australian civil society considered the Paris Agreement a definite signal for moving away from coal. It has been estimated that to keep the world below the 1.5 degrees of warming agreed in Paris, the world’s existing coal reserves need to be phased out, and new coalmines must not be built. A scientific report “Unburnable Coal” by eminent climate scientist Will Steffen estimates that “90 per cent of known, extractable coal in Australia’s existing coal reserves must stay in the ground”. The report conclusively states, “…There is no justification for opening new coal mines”.
Australia’s coal exports have also declined on account of China’s reduced demand and Australia’s oldest coal port at Newcastle is now preparing for a future without coal. It is feared that opening up the Galilee Basin during such times would risk existing jobs in established coal regions. Even though both the Queensland and the federal government strongly support prising open Australia’s largest coal reservoir through the Adani mine under these economically and climactically contradictory circumstances, civil society groups joined hands against the Galilee venture for myriad reasons.
Its most notable face is the Stop Adani movement consisting of a network of 40 national, state and regional-level environmental organisations united under the common purpose of stopping the Adani mine as a first step towards making Australia move away from exporting coal. The network registered 100 new local groups from all around the country on their website within the first three months. At a Stop Adani town hall event in Sydney in September 2017 that I attended, the legendary environmentalist Bob Brown promised to make the movement the “biggest Australia has ever seen”. Such meetings occurred across cities, and towns not just as a show of opposition, but also to develop strategies for local actions in order to pressure elected members against the Adani mine.
Over the last two years, a pair of paper mache heads belonging to former Prime Minister Turnbull and Adani became as prominent as the Stop Adani signage at protests across Australian cities. At a Stop Adani protest in Sydney last October, I spotted the Indian businessman and Australian Prime Minister walking hand in hand with a stuffed bag with ‘Your Taxes $1 billion’ written on it. The Sydney protest drew of crowd of a couple thousands, and was part of Stop Adani’s ‘Big Day of Action’, a coordinated national day of 60 anti-Adani demonstrations around Australia.
The highly visible movement even sports its own catchy merchandise. Volunteers at protest rallies make brisk business from selling three or four different kinds of Stop Adani T-shirts, can coolers, key chains and coffee mugs, apart from variously sized placards and posters and tool-kits for local groups to start saying “no” to Adani “Street by Street”. Even Stop Adani dangler earrings, worn by both men and women youth activists, can be spotted at such events.
The year I landed in Australia, Australian Labor dealt a severe defeat to the incumbent Liberal Government of John Howard and Kevin Rudd formed government with a people’s mandate for climate action. Australia’s mandate for 2007 was climate change action. From 2008 till 2018, Australia witnessed an unusual decade of leadership spills across both parties and drastic backflips on climate policy. Rudd’s Carbon Reduction Pollution Scheme (CPRS) was struck down twice in Parliament, and his successor Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax was scrapped by the Liberal Government of Tony Abbott, the prime minister for coal.
There are two key differences to the focus of civil society groups between 2007 and 2019. The first is that emissions are now strongly linked in the popular imagination to “fossil fuels”, and in Australia’s case, particularly to coal. The second is that the ambition of both Queensland and federal governments to open up the Galilee Basin for coalmining has backfired not just on climate and environmental, but also on economic grounds.
Adani’s mine itself, labelled a “climate bomb” with emissions potentials as massive as the Keystone Pipeline in North America, along with concern over the company’s environmental track record and opaque corporate structure has lent itself to the Australian imagination as a focal target for a unified civil society resistance. The various arms of the Stop Adani resistance have captured people’s frustration over the Liberal government’s denial of climate change as well as the Labor Opposition’s non-commitment to the demand of ‘no new coal mines’ to exert pressure in electorates and influence voting patterns.
The debate over the Carmichael mine and the Galilee Basin continues to rage as it has done in the last eight years, with Resource Minister Matt Canavan’s vociferous championing of Carmichael and the Galilee venture being consistently countered by a variety of public concern representatives and groups. A poll of 1,400 people conducted by the progressive think tank Australia Institute found that 64 per cent opposed a $1 billion public loan to build the Carmichael rail network. Coal consistently came last on respondents’ lists of where they would like to see their taxpayer funds spent during the poll.
Recent political changes hint at a climate change election again in May 2019, 11 years after Kevin Rudd attempted to make Australia take a responsible step to resolve the “biggest moral challenge of all times”. The Liberals lost their longest held seat of Wentworth that boasts Australia’s iconic surfing beach Bondi to an independent, this October. This ‘Blue Ribbon seat’ was held by Malcolm Turnbull, the last prime minister and the only Liberal party leader who supported action on climate change. When Australia’s political rigmarole replaced Turnbull with Scott Morrison, a climate denialist, notorious for his coal stunt in Parliament, voters paid back in the Wentworth byelection.
At a pre-election candidates forum organised by Stop Adani coordinators at the pavilion by the beach in Bondi, the public sentiment reflected a zero tolerance towards the Liberal government’s lack of accountability on climate and the support for Carmichael. Volunteers also recruited people for a door knocking activity to speak to ‘as many people as possible’ before the elections to vote ‘for climate’ and against ‘Carmichael’.
Australian activists and farmers have been known not to see eye to eye on politics and environmental issues. Farmers have also been known to vote conservatively and either deny or remain silent on the matter of climate change. But the rampant scale of changes in the last 10 years, both climactic and government proclivity towards coalmining at the cost of other industries has united them. And their common focus, their first measure of accountability from governments, is stopping Adani. As the country heads towards a 2019 federal election, Adani will be the shorthand for failing Australia’s climate.
(Ruchira Talukdar is currently pursuing a PhD from the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Technology Sydney. Her research compares energy politics and environmental mass movements in India and Australia. Before the PhD Ruchira worked with national and international environmental NGOs based in India and Australia. Views expressed are personal.)