Where is the Australian climate movement’s solidarity with Palestine?

Image: Collective civil society action calling for a Ceasefire at COP28, Dubai, December 2023. Credit: Friends of the Earth International.

Originally published in Overland.

In the sea of powerful statements of solidarity with Palestine from Jewish collectivesunionshealth workers, University staff and students, artists and many more, the climate movement in Australia remains notably absent. Everywhere I look there are groups organising; rank and file unionists, student strikes, people joining the BDS campaign, teach-ins, sits-ins at arms manufacturers, road blockades at Pine Gap and of Israeli boats at the ports. There are people organising in regional towns from a recent bake sale for Palestine in Bega to the regular Sunday rallies where I live on Djaara Country. So where is the climate movement?

Searching the press releases, news and social media feeds of several leading environmental NGOs, their CEOs and executive leadership, I struggle to see any posts since October 7th mentioning Israel, Palestine, Gaza or a ceasefire.

There are some exceptions. In mid-November Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), Tomorrow Movement and School Strike for Climate hosted a webinar; Brisbane climate strikers held a solidarity action as part of the last School Strike for Climate; Friends of the Earth Australia (FoE) have been active in their support; 350.org Australia published a blog and a solidarity statement: ‘Palestine is a climate justice issue’ and Move Beyond Coal posted the blog ‘No climate justice on occupied land’.

Many individuals across the climate movement are of course active in support of Palestine and many are organising to push their organisations to take a more public stance. Propelled by the absence of a movement-wide position, a range of groups — including ActionAid Australia, Democracy in Colour, Muslim Collective, Extinction Rebellion Australia, FoE, Loud Jew Collective, Jews against fascism, Tipping Point & 350.org Australia —last week hosted a Land and Climate Justice Webinar.

I understand there is some work behind the scenes to get a climate movement statement drafted and signed on to by key orgs similar to the one released on October 20th by Climate Action Network International – which Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) abstained from signing.

So why the delay?

It can’t be for lack of coordination or a precedent. The Australian climate movement coordinates itself through CANA, which comprises over 150 member organisations and an active email list and Slack channel. There are countless open letters circulating every few weeks across these platforms, encouraging organisations to sign on. Recent examples include: an ACOSS lead statement for Fair Fast and Inclusive Action on Climate Change; an open letter signed by 43 climate organisations encouraging members to vote Yes to the Voice referendum; a Climate Council hosted letter to Tanya Plibersek, and an Australia Institute lead open letter from scientists and over 50 climate organisations calling for No New Fossil Fuel Projects. A small handful of climate organisations — 350.org Australia, FoE and AYCC — signed on to the Australian Civil Society statement in solidarity with Gaza released in late October.

The climate movement has also responded quickly to other conflicts, including most recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Several of the aforementioned climate organisations and leaders have posted on the war in Ukraine and the ramifications of the conflict for the fossil fuel industry and the climate crisis. Some climate organisations shifted resources to enable campaigners to focus on the climate dimensions of the war and maintain their focus on that work today.

Perhaps organisations fear a backlash and the potential risk to their charitable DGR status? In 2017, the Guardian reported that

the Civil Voices report found that charities and non-government organisations operate in an ‘insidious’ environment where ‘self-censorship’ is rife because of funding agreements, management pressure and the ‘implied repercussions’ of political speech.

Or is it that environmental organisations are worried about staying in their lane? That there is not enough of a ‘climate angle’ to speak up? Aside from the fact that there shouldn’t need to be a climate dimension to speak up on a genocide, the fact is that there are myriad reasons to why this is a climate justice issue.

Palestine is a climate justice issue. War is a climate justice issue.

In 2017, Amnesty International reported that since 1967 Palestinians have had to obtain a permit from the Israeli Army to construct ‘any new water installation’. On top of this lack of autonomy, Amnesty explains that in Gaza, ‘some 90-95 per cent of the water supply is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.’ This was before the recent attacks during which Israel has maintained a blockade restricting resources moving in and out of Gaza, severely limiting people’s access to clean water. Abeer Butmeh, coordinator of the Palestinian NGOs Network explains on the Drilled podcast, ‘when we talk about climate change adaptation, we cannot cope with the climate change phenomena without full sovereignty on our water resources’.

‘Gaza Marine’ is a gas reserve of an estimated trillion cubic feet thirty-six kms offshore from the Gaza Strip. In June this year, Israel gave preliminary approval for its development. In a chilling example of disaster capitalism, amidst uncertainty about how long the bombings will continue and while bodies are still buried under the rubble, both President Biden’s energy security advisor Amos Hochstein and the energy news site Oil Price are speculating on the how these gas reserves could help Gaza’s recovery.

A critical consideration for the Australian climate movement is the involvement of Adani in weapons manufacturing. The company behind the massively polluting Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin has recently acquired a 70 per cent interest in Israel’s newly privatised Haifa Port and are in business with Israel’s largest weapons company, Elbit. Together with Elbit, they manufacture drones, while with Israel Weapons Industries (IWI) they make sniper rifles and machine guns.

Then there are the environmental implications of military offensives themselves.

Israel is armed with nuclear weapons and has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It is also a significant arms manufacturer and exporter. The use of chemical weapons such as white phosphorous, bombing of infrastructure and the energy-intensive operations of their army all have enormous carbon footprints and wide-ranging environmental consequences. Bombing leads to air pollution, contaminated land and poisoned water. This further impacts the health of land and people, the ability to grow food, to fish and to access clean water.

On November 18th, six weeks in to the genocide unfolding in Gaza, the Jordan Times published an analysis by engineers from Yarmouk University of the carbon emissions from the attacks. The report estimated that ‘in the first 35 days of heightened conflict, emissions amounting to approximately 60.304 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents were discharged.’ It is estimated that the global military footprint makes up 5.5 per cent of global emissions, these are currently excluded from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Ahead of COP28 the European Parliament has called for the closure of this ‘military emissions gap’.

Many have suggested that Palestine is a ‘litmus test for humanity’ and that what happens in Gaza now foreshadows possible futures for all of us. Which brings us to the issue of binding global agreements. The global climate movement pours enormous energy in to the UN Conference of Parties (COP) processes in the hope of creating a global agreement that compels countries to stick to the emissions reduction targets in line with best available science. If global peacekeeping agreements and international humanitarian standards cannot be upheld even when the whole world is watching Gaza, then what chance is there for global binding climate agreements to be achieved and respected?

Follow the money, hold space for complexity

With all this information in the public domain, why then are we only hearing from a handful of environmental and climate groups in Australia?

When I put these questions to climate organisers, I began to hear worrying reports of pressure not to speak out on Palestine or to discuss the issue at a network level. The reasons appear to be concerns for potential loss of funding and the possibility of fracturing coalitions.

Several people shared their experience and knowledge of one-on-one calls, emails and text messages from donors and climate leaders to CEOs and organisational executives discouraging people from speaking out in support of Palestine. I also understand a number of funders indicated that they would withdraw funding if groups took a public stance and that several organisations have already been advised their funding is at risk.

It appears that this has led to senior management and staff in some organisations advising workers that it is not acceptable to speak on Palestine or to wear symbols of solidarity such as keffiyehs at work or in media interviews. Despite this, it was heartening to see Palestinian flags and other symbols of solidarity at the Rising Tide People’s Blockade in Newcastle and to note that over 175 people attended the Land and Justice webinar.

Coalition-building is complex and there are many ways of coming at and understanding this work. In their Boston Review essay ‘How Much Discomfort Is the Whole World Worth?’ Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba observe that

broader movements are struggles, not sanctuaries. They are full of contradiction and challenges we may feel unprepared for.

They go on to argue for working with discomfort to be able to build larger movements, but also acknowledge there are times when we ‘have to draw hard lines.’

This moment is highlighting an existing tension about the identities and principles that animate climate organising on this continent. It may invite us to ask: is this a climate action movement or a climate justice movement?

There have been many attempts to organise with a greater commitment to climate justice principles as well as to build a more diverse movement. This is reflected in the recent CANA Power Through Collaboration conference program and in a range of internal movement mapping processes. It is fair to say that there are generational tensions as well as a climate action vs climate justice divide across the movement. How the leadership of large organisations respond right now will have far-ranging impacts on the trust and engagement of younger climate activists — especially those who are from the very communities that the movement wants to engage more with.

What I learned from climate organisers is unsettling and familiar. I am also hearing about similar pressure and fear of backlash and fall-outs in the arts and media industries in which I work. What really gets me here, though, is that the climate movement aspires to be a movement based on justice. The silence from the larger organisations in the climate space, however, raises concerns for the strength of the shared principles of the movement, as well as questions regarding the genuine understanding of and commitment to climate justice amongst movement leaders.

What do we mean when we say climate justice?

It is immoral that rich nations cannot find adequate funds for addressing climate impact, yet could instantly find billions of dollars… to support a war on the people of Gaza … There can be no peace without justice. And there can be no climate justice without human rights.

Tasneem Essop, Executive Director Climate Action Network, COP28, December 2023

Climate justice builds on the groundwork of environmental Justice, a phrase coined by movements led by people of colour on Turtle Island (USA and Canada) through the 1980-90s designed to highlight the unfair exposure of poor and marginalised communities, often along racial lines, to environmental hazards, waste and pollution. Organisers and movements in the Global South built on this framing when they issued the call for climate justice. Climate justice identifies both the disproportionate impacts on those who have had the least to do with creating the climate crisis and the need to centre and resource the leadership and visions of those communities in responding to the crisis.

The first Climate Justice Summit was held in 2000 alongside the COP6 in The Hague. In 2002, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice were ratified by a coalition of international groups. Since then, the term and the values it speaks to have gained significant traction, influencing the content of the COP meetings and framing debates and campaigns globally.

On this continent, climate justice necessarily encompasses colonial histories and present-day demands for sovereignty for First Nations people. The parallel struggles for land rights and self-determination are the foundation of longstanding solidarity and connection between First Nations people and Palestinian liberation movements. This is demonstrated by the decades-long support for Palestine by (among others) historian and activist Gary Foley and or the outspoken leadership of First Nations organisers backing Free Palestine rallies across the continent.

The robust and enduring connection between these movements has laid much of the ground for the organised response to the genocide here and is critical to listen to. This is especially necessary for the organisations that express their solidarity with First Nations people and regularly speak to the need to centre their wisdom in the climate movement.

Like the words, sustainability or reconciliation, climate justice is at risk of being hollowed out of value if organisations do not meaningfully follow the leadership of the communities most impacted by climate change and uphold an intersectional approach in their work.

If we are to build a robust climate justice movement on this continent we need to have a fundamental commitment to all human rights. We have to challenge all forms of othering and racism including antisemitism and Islamophobia. We need to stick by our principles even if it means risking our funding and stretching our coalitions. We need to be prepared to have difficult conversations and hold complexity. We also need to show up in moments of solidarity.

Step into the whirlwind

This is a powerful moment. People are finding one another, educating themselves, taking collective risks, putting their bodies on the line, joining countless signal groups, meeting fellow union members, researching, learning, connecting, organising. It’s global, dynamic and embodies a diversity of tactics and targets following the lead of decades-long organising of Palestinian liberation movements and of progressive Jewish voices around the world.

There is no doubt that this organising and mobilising pressure is influencing media coverage and policy decisions including the recent temporary ceasefire. It is drawing attention to and is building a deeper understanding of what is happening in Gaza.

Movement trainers The Ayni Institute, who have worked with the climate movement here, call times like this the ‘moment of the whirlwind’ – the heady, adrenalin-fuelled moments where power feels less fixed and change feels more possible. Mark and Paul Engler, who work with Ayni, describe this as a

dramatic public event or series of events that sets off a flurry of activity, and that this activity quickly spreads beyond the institutional control of any one organization. It inspires a rash of decentralized action, drawing in people previously unconnected to established movement groups.

The handful of times I have been part of moments of the whirlwind — around Jabiluka, Woomera2002, in the anti-globalisation movement and the mobilisations against the Iraq War — I have rapidly made deep new connections, many of which have carried through the decades that followed. If the climate movement does not visibly show up for Palestine, it will lose an opportunity to build power and connections with the diverse communities who are leading the mobilisations. We remember who shows up in these moments, just as people remember showing up. But beyond these strategic considerations, failing to show up would be a stain on the soul of the movement itself. It is not possible to build a climate justice movement if we do not have the ability to stand up for justice for fear of losing funding, having difficult conversations or of our coalitions not holding.

This essay is not intended as a call out, but a call in. It’s an appeal to those in positions of leadership in the climate movement to show up.

Let this be a line in the sand. Let us learn our history. Let us listen to liberation movements around the world. Let us draw connections between climate justice and self-determination on this continent and a Free Palestine, an end to the invasion of Ukraine and an end to all other assaults on human rights around the world. Conflicts for land and water will shape the decades to come. Showing up for each other and building power to demand justice is our only hope for a humane future.

Thanks to the many people I spoke to in researching this piece.

Image: Collective civil society action calling for a Ceasefire at COP28, Dubai, December 2023. Credit: Friends of the Earth International.

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