Occupy Down Under! Environment and Activism in Australia

Join us as Human Impacts Institute’s representatives explore the ongoing evolution of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the connections between the 99%, the health of our communities, and environmental well-being. Over the next few weeks, Human Impacts Institute representatives and other MobilizeUS! Campaign partnerswill be exploring participants’ in the Occupy Movement opinions on “What is My Vision for a Green Economy”, as well as sustainable practices at Occupy Wall Street, our progress there, involvement of other environmental groups, and more.

It’s difficult to be complacent about environmental issues when living in Australia.As the driest inhabitable continent, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation are especially felt through the effects accompanied with almost constant drought. Threat of bush fires is common, and even those living in more urbanized areas cannot ignore the resulting discoloration of the sky. The water shortage is another example which overrides the disconnectedness from nature that is typically associated with city-dwellers. Policy responses to this have integrated water restrictions into people’s daily lives. Various levels of water restrictions are enforced according to the current state of the shortage in a particular region. Related educational programs have also contributed to the successful promotion of conservation behavior from individuals and businesses.

Even during the temporarily relief from drought during the wet season, last year’s stormsin Queensland were undoubtedly exacerbated by climate change, making it some of their most disastrous flooding in history. Unfortunately, much of the media focused on the damage to the Australian coal industry, the largest coal exporter in the world.

Under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Clean Energy Bill, which successfully passed in November 2011, a carbon tax will be adopted in July 2012 as a precursor to an emissions trading scheme by 2015. While the effectiveness of this approach to climate change mitigation is highly controversial, the coal industry’s strong lobbying against the bill suggests that it is, at the very least, a step in the right direction. The Green party also ensured that the bill included a commitment to investing in renewable energy.

Considering the abundance of solar and wind resources in Australia, there is immense potential for the transition to a zero carbon society within the decade.Although this seems like an obvious track to pursue, significant obstacles stand in the way. There is a pending plan to build a new coal-fired power station in Victoria, which is already home to Hazelwood, the dirtiest power station in the industrial world. Coal seam gas is also being explored, which is closely related to natural gas in the U.S. shale deposits, in terms of both its deceiving marketed disguise as a ‘clean’ ‘transition’ fuel and its dangerous extraction methods of fracking. Plans to export CSG (and liquified natural gas) to Asia are projected to increase traffic through the Great Barrier Reef by 200%.

Last but certainly not least, there are several environmental issues intertwined with issues of Aboriginal rights, such as nuclear waste dumping in the Northern Territory. This demonstrates the connection between socioeconomic inequity and environmental degradation, and also highlights the importance of amplifying the voices of indigenous communities — which Rio+20 aims to do.

As in the rest of the world, an emissions-free Australia will only be achieved with pressure from civil society. Many there will attest to a history of strong activism, especially in Melbourne, and there have been recent actions addressing the aforementioned issues.

So what role has the Occupy movement played thus far and what can be done in the future?

Check back soon to read the new addition to the “Occupy Wall Street and the Environment” series for a report back from a visit to Occupy Melbourne!

By Melanie Sluyter, 2012 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Intern

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