By Sana A Dadani and Fran Molloy,

Natalie Shaw, four-year-old resident of Newcastle, Australia, likes the “crunchy sound” fall leaves make when she jumps on them, and breaks them. She stands on the slide in Foreshore Park which overlooks Newcastle Harbour and prepares to jump onto a pile of golden yellow and russet red leaves that scatter the sidewalk.

Her mother, Natasha Mone, stands next to the slide to make sure her daughter will not fall off. She is afraid there will be no more autumn leaves in future years for her daughter to jump on.

Kayaks block ships carrying coal from entering and exiting the Port of Newcastle.

Kayaks block ships carrying coal from entering and exiting the Port of Newcastle.

“It’s autumn, but it feels like summer,” says Mrs. Mone. “The temperature has not decreased as it should have and we all know why. If this happens every year, we’ll skip autumn and go straight to winter. We won’t even have winter. It’ll be summer forever.”

This current state of increased temperatures around Australia is a direct result of climate change. And Australia has a huge part in this expanding global crisis.

This country is the second largest coal exporter in the world after Indonesia, according to the International Energy Agency. When coal is burned, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the air and plants and oceans can only absorb so much of this CO2. Steadily climbing ratios of CO2 are leading to an imbalance in marine habitats, drastic changes in the weather, and disastrous effects on various hot and cold climates.

To fight the use and export of coal in Australia, Mrs. Mone joined 2000 other anti-coal protestors in May at the world’s largest coal export port at Newcastle, about 150 km north of Sydney. Many protestors jumped in kayaks, and around noon that day, they paddled out into the harbour to prevent coal export ships from entering and exiting the port.

Other protestors marched directly on to the railroad at Sandgate to prevent trains from accessing the rail line.

“I was out with the people at the rail line,” said Blair Palese, who heads up the Australian branch of climate action group 350.org. “There were 65 people occupying the main rail line where they ship coal

A kayak along the Newcastle Harbour has a sail that reads "No More Fossil Fuel

A kayak along the Newcastle Harbour has a sail that reads “No More Fossil Fuel

on coal cars to the port itself where they export the coal. People climbed on to the anchorage of the ships and locked on.”

 

Ms. Palese and her team at 350.org partnered with activists from Greenpeace to run the event at Newcastle.

The event was one of many other climate change protests taking place around the world as part of the Break Free campaign to switch from using fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas to other renewable forms of energy. Over two weeks, from May 4-15, events were held in Canada, the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

The events aimed to make a dramatic impact on creating awareness about how much coal is used in different countries.

“Newcastle Herald estimates about $20 million in coal was stopped on the day,” said Ms. Palese.

While preventing $20 million in coal from leaving the port in one day is a significant amount, it is small change for Australia’s coal export.

Australia earned $22 billion in 2012/13 from exporting 154 million tons of metallurgical coal (used for steel production), according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics—and that’s after global coal prices started to tank.

The previous year, 2011/12, about $32 billion was earned from the export of 140 million tons of metallurgical coal.

Although Ms. Palese reports an estimate of coal that was stopped from being exported that day, the Port of Newcastle said the action didn’t make a difference to the amount of coal exported.

“The port continued to operate,” said a spokesperson for the Port of Newcastle via email. “We don’t anticipate that the protest will impact coal export volume.”  The spokesperson directed enquiries about how shipping lines were affected and the role police played at the event, to the NSW Police, who have not yet responded to queries.

There’s no doubt that the police played an important role, however.photo 3

“Altogether, we had about 76 people arrested,” said Ms. Palese.

The action was one of the first to test the new anti-protest laws that was passed by the government of NSW in March. The new bill allows police to stop and detain protestors, and stop peaceful protests that are disturbing normal city functions.

But Mike Baird, NSW Premier, told ABC Australia, “Peaceful protests are fine. Anyone that puts the lives of themselves and others at risk, well we’ve put these measures in and I think it’s appropriate.”

And yet, Break Free organizers argue that the protest this past Sunday was a peaceful one, with steps taken to ensure there were minimal risks.

“Everyone who took part in things like the climb on to the anchorage of the ship[s that export coal out] were all trained climbers and they knew what they were doing,” said Ms. Palese. “The people on the train lines essentially walked on to it. It wasn’t a risky situation. And of course people on kayaks were experienced water people. I organized [information sessions on non-violent protests] with the organizing team.”

The number of non-violent protests against climate change that are occurring and will occur as Australia heads into its next election on July 2 is very important.

“Last week when they [the NSW government] released their budget plan, there was no mention of climate change whatsoever,” said Ms. Palese. “So there are currently no policies that actively address real reduction on greenhouse and how to transition to clean energy.”

Governments won’t act on climate change until voters make it a priority. The rationale behind Break Free is that the mass protests in Australia and around the world as part of the Break Free campaign are truly the key factor that will draw the attention of governments to taking steps to fight climate change.