Climate activism requires a nuanced security response

| September 5, 2021

The Taliban’s rapid return to power in Afghanistan has sent the Western world’s counterterrorism agencies into a tailspin. They’ll be spending a lot of time considering whether the end of the US’s longest war marks the beginning of a new era of mass-casualty attacks.

Yet a lot has changed over the past 20 years. Afghanistan could once again become a terrorist haven, but, then again, the Western world’s security regimes are much stronger. And the belief systems of Salafi-jihadists are not as widely supported as they were before the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

Once they’ve got their heads around what’s happened in Afghanistan, intelligence and security agencies in Australia and elsewhere will be keen to turn their attention back to the increasing threat of right-wing extremism. They might also want to spend some time thinking about what could come next in terms of terrorism risks. At the top of possible threats for consideration should be radical environmental groups. But that thinking needs to be very nuanced.

Most Westerners find the belief systems of Salafi-jihadists and right-wing extremists to be vile and baseless. In stark contrast, the belief system that underpins radical environmental groups is attractive and based on science. For starters, climate change is genuine.

Everyday Australians seem to increasingly agree that governments must act to limit climate change, and tentative efforts by authorities in both Australia and the UK to frame climate action groups as extremists have failed miserably.

Political debates on terrorism and extremism that draw comparisons between right-wing extremism and Salafi-jihadism are valid. It’s clear, though, that asserting some ideological or moral connection between, say, Islamic State, Aryan Strikeforce and Extinction Rebellion is ludicrous. The logical argument that ‘they’re just as bad’ fails to resonate with what is now a widely accepted social and political movement.

To add some legal clarity to this discussion, terrorism in Commonwealth law is defined as an act or threat that is done with the intention to coerce or influence the public or any government by intimidation to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.

Conduct falls under this definition if it causes death or serious harm to or endangers a person; causes serious damage to property; poses a serious risk to the health or safety of the public; or seriously interferes with, disrupts or destroys critical infrastructure such as a telecommunications or electricity network.

Protests are exempt from this definition if they are not intended to cause death or endanger a person’s life or create a serious risk to public health or safety.

In October 2019, more than 300 climate activists clashed with Victorian police at a mining conference. Several officers were injured and more than 50 protestors were arrested. As one protester said, ‘We’ll be here all day, and we’re willing to fight for what we believe in.’ The violent protests really did appear to be acts of intimidation focused on forcing government to change.

In March this year, a group of climate protestors posed as dead bodies on Melbourne CBD intersection. As one protester said, ‘Until people listen, I am afraid we will have to keep doing this.’ Another said they wanted to ‘force action’. While the ends might be noble, it does appear that the means being used are focused on coercing the Australian government to advance an ideological cause.

In April, seven climate activists used hammers and chisels to break windows at Barclays’ London headquarters. They said that they were protesting the bank’s ‘continued investments in activities that are directly contributing to the climate and ecological emergency’. Again, it could be argued that the protestors were trying to influence the bank’s decision-making, with this act and the possibility of similar acts in the future.

On 4 August, approximately 50 climate protesters blocked one of Canberra’s major thoroughfares during peak hour at 5 pm. The aim of this action was clearly to influence the Australian government. Arguably, the activity disrupted Canberra’s transport infrastructure, though there’s no evidence that there was any intent to cause harm.

On 10 August, protestors in Canberra targeted Parliament House and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s parliamentary home in Canberra with red spray paint and flares. Others set fire to a pram outside the parliament. One protestor said, ‘When our government takes no action, it’s up to people like us to call this to the attention of everyone. Time is running out.’ It seems clear that these activists will continue to undertake this type of action if the Australian government doesn’t change direction on climate.

Of course, these examples fall well short of the legal definition of terrorist acts. But they do reveal a few potential problems. First, a growing number of Australians are dissatisfied with the nation’s progress on addressing climate change. Second, they feel that traditional ways of engaging with political processes, including elections, aren’t having the desired impacts. Third, it seems that more radical steps to forcing change are being normalised in Australian society. The argument here seems to be that the ends justify the means.

This is all new territory for Australia’s security and intelligence agencies. While terrorism may not be supported by many Australians, there’s broad community support for doing more on climate change, and forcing the government to do more through radical measures.

While a revolutionary change in the Australian political landscape and how it addresses climate change is theoretically possible, it hardly seems likely for the foreseeable future. In the interim, any use of narratives that paint climate activists as extremists is set for failure. Any government counternarratives that argue that the interpretation of the ideology or the cause is wrong are factually incorrect.

This raises the genuine question of what climate activist groups are willing to do next if their current ‘radical’ moves don’t work. What means might such groups be able to justify, given the ends that are at stake?

Governments can ill afford to ignore these developments or approach them in a heavy-handed manner. It’s time for genuine public discourse on this issue before the situation deteriorates and starts to further affect social cohesion.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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