It was the re-election of a Coalition government in May 2019 that altered the trajectory of Sam Noonan’s life and politics.
“I didn’t really care about politics until then,” Noonan says. “But then a lightbulb went off, and I kind of went, ‘Well, this is not working, we need to do something.’”
At first the 48-year-old helped organise climate rallies in her region, but it was Extinction Rebellion – the group which London was disrupted in November 2018 – that captured her attention.
The group members’ willingness to face a strong possibility of being arrested appealed to her, as they appeared to take the catastrophic risk of climate change seriously.
“[I felt] these, you know, radical, annoying, disruptive, interfering sort of tactics were probably our last chance of doing something,” Noonan says. “I just knew, intuitively, that this is where I needed to be.
“I always said to my husband once we started all this activism that even if all else fails and we can’t save the planet, I want to know that I tried and be able to say to my grandkids, I really did my best, I did my best at the time.”
A few months after Noonan joined, Extinction RebellionThe Black Summer bushfires of Victoria, New South Wales and parts South Australia changed her life.
Noonan, a blind woman, was faced with the possibility of fleeing from her home in the Illawarra south of Sydney.
“Fires were coming from three directions at once,” Noonan says. “I was there wondering if I could evacuate out of Dapto because I didn’t have anyone who could drive the car and a lot of the train lines were down.”
After the devastating event that left 18,000 Australians have been internally displacedNoonan joined Fireproof Australia, a new protest group.
Recent weeks have seen the group grabbing headlines by blocking major roads during the morning peak hour to call on climate change action immediately. This includes obstructing traffic at least three times on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The NSW government To curb protests, strict laws were passed in a hurryDominic Perrottet (premier) attacked Fireproof Australia for its disruptive tactics.
“This type of behaviour needs to stop,” Perrottet said. “People have the right to protest, people have the right to free speech, we promote that.
“But don’t do it at the expense of people trying to get to and from work, trying to get their kids to school, stopping people earning a living and a wage – that’s what these protests are doing.
“We’ve passed the laws, we’ll throw the book at these people, because their behaviour is completely unacceptable.
“And if you really want to lose support in the community for your cause, keep acting like that.”
‘We tried protesting’
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released this week its most comprehensive review. “now or never”To prevent a catastrophic climate change
In response to what they perceive as an emergency, protest groups around the globe have become more ambitious.
Groups such as Fireproof Australia, Floodproof Australia and Blockade Australia are local variations who employ direct action in a campaign of “civil resistance” against governments which they believe aren’t acting fast enough on climate change.
Violet CoCo, who is a member Fireproof Australia, claims that the group split off Extinction Rebellion’s May 2021 to bring the protests to a higher level.
“Fireproof Australia is designed to be more disruptive and more accessible in that disruption,” CoCo says. “All you need to do is sit down on a road to participate, you don’t need to wear a fancy costume.”
They also have different needs. Extinction Rebellion wants governments to declare a climate emergency and rapidly cut emissions to zero by 2025 while Fireproof Australia’s goals are More immediate.
CoCo stated that they want an Australian-based, permanent air tanker fleet for fighting bushfires, smokeproof schools, aged-care and disability centres to protect those most vulnerable, and an immediate plan for rehoming flood and fire survivors.
Some commentators who support urgent action to address the climate crisis have criticized direct action tactics as being counterproductive and warned that they could alienate those who are most in need of their support. Writing in the Nine newspapers last month, the social researcher Rebecca Huntley said people who were “disengaged, uncertain or sceptical” were less likely to listen to someone who was making it harder for them to get to work.
“In the qualitative research I have done, groups such as Extinction Rebellion come up in conversation in a very negative way and can be a barrier to talking about global warming and how climate action might actually improve their lives,” Huntley wrote.
CoCo claims that every attempt to get governments to take action has failed.
“We tried,” CoCo says. “We tried protesting to the politicians. We’ve tried one-day marches. Nothing happened. And so now we need to escalate these disruptive tactics.”
This group is often associated to Blockade Australia, which has members who block physical infrastructure like rail lines or cranes. However, the two groups are distinct.
Blockade Australia’s membership is drawn from several campaigns, including Rising Tide, which was directed at the Newcastle coal industry and anti-Adani protestors from Queensland.
The group’s first major action was obstructing coal trains at Newcastle, the largest coal port in the world in November 2021, prompting an attack from Barnaby Joyce, who said $60m in exports were lost in a week.
In recent weeks the group has targeted Port Botany in Sydney, Australia’s largest container port, which led to the arrest of Maxim Curmi, who was Four months imprisonmentAfter he had scaled a 60m crane.
Blockade Australia is not like other groups. Maddie, a spokesperson who declined to give her surname citing the risk of arrest, says it is focused on “building momentum” as it “doesn’t see any worth in appealing to the goodwill of a system that doesn’t have any”.
‘Method to their madness’
The hurried NSW legislation in response to the street and industry blockades has been branded a “draconian” attempt to criminalise the right to protest by 40 civil society groupsThe NSW and Act Aboriginal Legal Service, NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the NSW Council for Civil Liberities, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the NSW Human Rights Law Centre, Environmental Defenders Office and Australian Democracy Network.
Piero Moraro, a lecturer in criminology at Edith Cowan University who studies civil disobedience, says the right to protest can simply be restrained to “waving flags under the eyes of the police”.
As much as governments and commentators may cast militant or disruptive protest groups as troublemakers and even criminals, Moraro says they can drive change thanks to the “radical flank effect”.
“It is a reference to Martin Luther King,” Moraro says. “One reason why he was successful is that you also had the Black Panthers. White America was faced with the choice to either go with King or face more radical protests.”
Associate prof Hans Baer, an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne, says there is a risk disruptive protests will “put off mainstream Australia”, but they are also necessary.
“It’s the more radical people who get the attention that pushes the more middle of the road people to act,” Baer says.
“There may be a method to their madness. So long as it doesn’t hurt people, if it only hurts infrastructure that is doing damage and that in turn hurts a lot of people, well, why not?”