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Sydney Peace Prize laureate Naomi Klein calls for climate justice

Alan Hartstein
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Published: 12 November 2016

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Naomi Klein, one of the most powerful voices and recognisable faces in the fight for global climate action and economic justice, was awarded the 2016 Sydney Peace Prize before thousands at a ceremony in the packed Town Hall on Friday night.

She joins an illustrious list of past winners including human rights and refugee advocate Julian Burnside AO QC, author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy and former East Timor president Xanana Gusmau, to name but a few.

The award was presented to Klein by the president of the Human Rights Commission Prof. Gillian Triggs, who also received tumultuous applause.

Aboriginal activist and WA Senator Pat Dodson, another past recipient, was one of several speakers who honoured Klein, commending her commitment to indigenous people the world over. “She understands the connectivity not just of people to people but of people to the resources of the world. She also understands, like indigenous people, that we are mere guardians and we have a responsibility to educate people about the uniqueness of the world. We have to come back to the earth, to fall in love again with it, to nurture it,” he said.

Two versions of speech

In accepting the award, Klein gave a thoughtful and at times moving speech, having prepared two versions of it, depending on who would win the US presidential election. Trump’s victory, she said, shows that we should never underestimate the power of hate, especially in bad economic times. “When one culture puts itself above another culture, and its own personal gain above the Others’ pain, this can only end in disaster, especially for minorities and indigenous people.”

Klein said it had always been the poorest people who suffer most from excessive air and water pollution and the same applies to the burning of fossil fuels and global warming. She also believes that real climate action has to meet the test of racial, gender and economic justice, and that they are inextricably linked.

“The greed motive is what has led to privatisation and deregulation, making it easier for big fossil fuel companies to poison the earth, the air and the water. In the move to renewables, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to put justice at the centre of our energy projects.”


Low marks for the federal government

Klein said Australia’s contribution to global warming as the largest coal exporter in the world is cause for considerable alarm. “We have been told by scientists that if we burn all known coal and gas deposits being exploited today, we will go well over 1.5 degrees, the agreed temperature limit objective of the Paris Accord, and get close to 2 degrees.”

She was alarmed by the Turnbull Government’s insistence that fossil fuels should be part of Australia’s energy mix for the foreseeable future and its encouragement of new ventures, mainly by foreign companies. “Multibillion-dollar mega projects such as Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine in Queensland have the potential to blow out Australia’s carbon budget for a very long time, and that will affect the whole planet, not only Australia. The fossil fuel frontier is closed.”

As a fascinating aside, Klein told how in researching her speech she had discovered that The Endeavour, the ship that carried James Cook and his crew up the East Coast and led to the British claiming Australia as a colony in 1770, had initially been commissioned as a coal ship and had been refitted for its voyage of discovery. Six years later, James Watt’s steam engine revolutionised the world, “so Australia was effectively born as a colony at the start of coal-based global capitalism, an economic development based on colonialism and slavery. Is it any wonder your government has a love affair with coal?”

Klein dismissed the notion that coal can help to drag poor people out of poverty in places such as India, where it is in fact already causing illness and heatwaves on unprecedented scales.

but high praise for local activists
Despite the doom and gloom statistics about extreme weather patterns and tipping points, Klein’s message was generally one of optimism, and she is encouraged by the work being done by local climate and environmental groups on the front lines, which is where important battles are being fought, particularly on indigenous lands.

“It’s the people at the grass roots that build movements through long, sustained actions, not just as an afterthought. The fossil fuel industry has much to lose and is not going to go quietly. That’s why we need climate warriors to fight the good fight, to pressure governments to take action and to draw attention to the excesses of big polluters like mines.”

One such local activist is Janet Kossy, a leading member of the Sydney Inner West Chavura and iwJAFA (The Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance) who was first attracted to environmental activism after reading Klein’s seminal work, This Changes Everything.

She was one of 66 people arrested near Newcastle in a protest by the Break Free from Fossil Fuels group earlier this year. This was Janet’s first arrest, at the age of 67, along with others, including a fellow ex-school teacher Elisabeth Drake, 70.

At the time of her arrest, Kossy said in a statement that, after a lifetime as law-abiding citizens, she and others were moved to participate as an act of conscience. “If we don’t make the change from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy within the next few crucial years, human life on this planet, including the lives of our children and grandchildren, will suffer incalculable harm. Future generations won’t forgive us if we neglect to act.”

Kossy, Drake and some other arrestees had their day in court on November 8, pleaded guilty to the charges and received 6-month good behavior bonds, with no convictions recorded. Before passing sentence, the presiding magistrate praised their altruism.

A display of people power
Kossy’s story is a great example of how people who may not previously have had a militant bone in their body have come to feel so strongly about this critical issue that they are no longer prepared to wait passively for governments to act, a reaction and phenomenon that may grow globally now in light of Trump’s ascendancy.

Speaking to The Jewish Independent, Kossy said that environmental activism had never been part of her world. “I don’t like facts and figures and never remember them. I don’t like camping. However, after I read Naomi Klein’s book it really did change everything. It was written for people like me, and it worked.”

Following that revelation, she decided to find a worthy local cause. “Klein’s book convinced me that local environmental fights can make a difference. I wanted to find something where I could act as a foot soldier and not get embroiled in the politics.”

The WestConnex transport infrastructure project struck Kossy as ideal, as a local example of promoting yet more vehicle traffic and fuel burning despite the climate consequences. “I joined an action alert list and went to a small protest at a WestConnex drill site. People attempted to prevent the work from going ahead, succeeded in causing delays, and the police came. Nobody was charged, but I saw how civil disobedience works as a media draw, and a way to raise awareness and build community.”

Life-changing experience
Kossy said the experience of occupying the rail bridge over the Hunter River to block coal trains was a highlight of her life. “I was with people of all ages and backgrounds, including a number of religious leaders, scientists and engineers, older retired people like myself and committed environmental activists. We shared a fantastic feeling that we were actually doing something powerful, both real and symbolic, against Australia’s addiction to coal. We were blocking shipments from the largest coal port in the world. We were there for only a few hours but we brought the folly of continuing down this path to people’s attention via the evening news. Staying on the lines until we were escorted off by police emphasised the point that reducing dirty CO2 emissions is much more important than keeping our clean criminal records.”

Use your talents

She also recommends for those interested in getting involved, that they start by joining whatever protests are happening, and that individuals use whatever talents they have, as much as possible.

“I’m currently working on an anti-WestConnex art exhibition, which is right up my alley. Whatever you do, don’t give up – remind yourself that we only have a limited amount of time to make a real difference.

I was raised an American Jew in the 1960s and we learned about the reality of evil and the need to resist injustice. WW2, the Holocaust and Hiroshima were very recent history, and the fear of nuclear war clouded our middle class peace and prosperity. Jews and liberal Americans grew up with a strong sense of gratitude for the good life they had, and a feeling of responsibility for the future. We can’t just ignore big problems.”

Kossy also had her own take on the election of Trump and the fact that the world’s second-highest CO2 emitter (but much higher than China per capita) was going to be led by a climate denier. “Trump has promised to cancel the Paris Agreement and to dismantle US environmental protections, inadequate though they may have been. The likely impact of his presidency on the future – not just in the US but all over the world – is horrifying beyond words.”

This The Jewish Independent article may be republished if acknowledged thus: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.thejewishindependent.com.au

About the author

Alan Hartstein

Alan Hartstein has worked in publishing for over 20 years as a writer and editor across a range of sectors including finance, business, politics, and IT. He has also held senior roles on major broadsheets and magazines such as The Australian Financial Review and BRW.

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