Protesters Disrupt the World's Largest Coal Port: 'This Is Us Responding to the Climate Crisis'

Rachel Pennett / The Washington Post
Protesters Disrupt the World's Largest Coal Port: 'This Is Us Responding to the Climate Crisis' Two climate protesters disrupt coal export operations at the Port of Newcastle in Australia by abseiling off a machinery on Nov. 17. (Photo: Blockade Australia)

Two young women scaled a huge coal handling machine shortly before dawn on Wednesday, disrupting operations at the world’s largest coal port for several hours to protest what they say is Australia’s lack of action on climate change.

“My name is Hannah, and I am here abseiled off the world’s largest coal port,” 21-year-old Hannah Doole declared on a live-streamed video as she hovered high over massive piles of coal bound for export. “I’m here with my friend Zianna, and we’re stopping this coal terminal from loading all coal into ships and stopping all coal trains.”

Since officials met in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month to plot the planet’s path away from fossil fuels, Australia, the world’s second-biggest coal exporter, has showed little sign of changing course. Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said the coal industry will be operating in the country for “decades to come.”

When he agreed last month to go carbon-neutral by 2050, the man who once brought a lump of coal into Parliament promised that his plan — which was short on details and long on speculative technology — would not crimp coal exports nor cost miners their jobs.

In the face of that apparent lack of urgency from government, protesters are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. A string of protests has disrupted the Port of Newcastle and surrounding railroads in the past two weeks, prompting police to establish a strike force to crack down on the high-profile stunts.

The protesters, from an activist group called Blockade Australia, plan to converge on Sydney, the commercial capital, in June next year, bringing the city to a halt.

“This is us responding to the climate crisis. This is humans trying to survive,” Doole said on Wednesday. “We are trying to induce the social tipping points, which will give us a chance at another generation,” she remarked on camera, pausing to laugh ironically, before adding: “What a wild thing to want.”

Despite the progress made at the COP26 climate summit, optimism about the agreement hangs on whether countries will actually deliver on the promises made in Glasgow. Coal production in China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, has surged to the highest levels in years as the country addresses power outages.

Matt Kean, the environment minister for New South Wales state, speaking on Sydney radio 2GB on Wednesday, said police need to “throw the book” at anti-coal activists, describing their dramatic stunts as “completely out of line.”

On Monday, another protester locked herself to a railway line leading to the port, preventing coal cars from entering. On Tuesday, two activists strapped themselves to another piece of coal-loading machinery. They hung in the air for several hours before being arrested.

Interfering with a railway or locomotive with the intention of causing a derailment can result in prison sentences up to 14 years, police said, while other possible charges carry jail terms of up to 25 years. A local police minister described the protests as “nothing short of economic vandalism.” (A spokeswoman for the Port of Newcastle said other operations at the port were continuing, beyond the rail lines and coal-loading facilities.)

Doole and Zianna Faud, 28, were arrested and taken to a local police station about 9 a.m. local time. The live-streamed video showed authorities approaching on a metal gangway above the protesters, who were suspended on ropes below, with a police officer appearing to read them their rights.

According to a spokeswoman for the activist group, Faud appeared before Newcastle magistrates court on Wednesday, where she faced charges of hindering the working of mining equipment, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment, and entering enclosed lands. She pleaded guilty and was given community service and a roughly $1,090 fine, and ordered not to associate with her co-accused, Doole, for two years.

Doole and three other activists were refused bail and will be seen by the court tomorrow.

“We are running rings around the police and the push back shows that direct action is effective,” Faud said in a statement following her release.

In the video, Doole said she considered the dangers before the protest — imagining herself running across piles of coal with police helicopters in pursuit. Then, she thought back to the time, a couple of summers ago, when thousands of Australians fled from their homes as wildfires raged and skies turned blood red. She and her family hunkered down in their property as towns around them burned.

“Getting chased by a police helicopter, that’s not fun. … But you know what scares me more?” she said. “I just think back to that New Year’s Eve, when I thought I was going to die in a fire, caused by climate change. And that’s the barest glimpse of what’s going to happen.”

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