Kayaks versus coal ships: taking action with The Pacific Climate Warriors

Hannah Fair reports from the low-lying Pacific Islands, under imminent threat from climate change, where The Pacific Climate Warriors are taking direct action against the fossil fuels industry.

December 11, 2014
5 min read

kayak1Tuvalu, Kiribati, The Marshall Islands; These low-lying coral atolls are often represented as drowning paradises, disappearing beneath the rising waves caused by anthropogenic climate change. Pacific islands pepper the rhetoric of politicians, journalists, and climate change campaigners. They stand in for urgency, for tragedy, for irony: the irony that the people who fuelled these climatic changes are not the people that now suffer this seemingly inescapable fate.

But what happens when these islands no longer stand in for the West’s ecological incompetence? Or when they resist the narrative of their inevitable demise? When instead these islanders stand up for themselves and their homelands, and tell the world they are not drowning, but fighting?

Last month in Australia, this is what the Pacific Climate Warriors showed me. In October 2014 thirty Pacific Islanders from twelve countries came together to put their bodies (and their visas) on the line. From the highlands of Papua New Guinea to the Rock of Polynesia, these young people, warriors and activists came, united and blockaded coal ships, occupied banks, wept at the destruction of the Australian bush and sang, danced and laughed with joy. And I had the honour to join them.kayak4On Friday 17 October, with seventy plastic kayaks, a few hundred Australians, and five handcrafted canoes, the flotilla managed to stop ten out of eleven coal ships due to collect their cargo that day from Newcastle, New South Wales; the world’s biggest coal export port. We held the waters and the beach for ten hours, while police aboard jet-skis impeded our vessels, at one point dangerously capsizing our largest canoe. The outrigger was snapped but the warrior spirit was not broken. With prayers and powertools the Vanuatu canoe was back on the water within half an hour.

Our adventures didn’t end in Newcastle. Following the flotilla, many of the Warriors dispersed across the country, sharing their stories, as Australian allies undertook secret direct actions in solidarity with their island neighbours. In Sydney twelve Australians occupied the offices of Whitehaven Coal, the company leading the construction of the Maules Creek Coal mine; a project that is being vigorously opposed by activists, farmers, priests and doctors in Northern New South Wales. And for eight hours the foyer of the global headquarters of ANZ – one of the largest banks in the Pacific, and a major investor in fossil fuels – became a site of pasifika struggle and song, as up to eighty protestors occupied the lobby, performing haka and collectively projecting their voices using an Occupy-style ‘human microphone’.kayak3These Warriors, organising through the 350 Pacific network, were not ‘professional protestors’ or an international rent-a-mob. They were students, civil servants, conservationists and police officers who could no longer abide how the expansion of the Australian fossil fuel industry was diminishing their homelands. They were new to direct action, and they were brilliant at it.

If we take the Pacific Climate Warriors seriously (and in my mind there is no doubt that we must) then we must cast aside the misconception that these are nations of helpless victims and prospective climate refugees. Or that political action belongs only to their governments. And most of all that any of these places or people are expendable. As Carol Farbotko highlights, if Tuvalu becomes uninhabitable, we will have the won the argument for the urgency of action on climate change. But in all other senses we will have lost.

Here in the UK, at the 2007 Climate Camp, we carried the faces of those who would be hit first by climate change. Now we paddle side by side with those whose kitchens are flooded by kingtides. We claimed we were armed only with peer reviewed science. Now our armoury has expanded. Ask any of the Warriors and they’ll tell you they have culture, heritage and religion on their side. They do not carry spears, but blessings from their elders, their God, their governments.kayak6For the Climate Warriors, this is only a beginning. A fossil divestment campaign targeting ANZ bank has been launched across the Pacific and the College of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia has committed to divesting. The Pacific Climate Warriors campaign forces us to ask ourselves what does a climate movement led by those most imminently affected by climate change look like? And as allies on the other side of the world, how can we stand in solidarity? Does Pacific direct action challenge the practices and conventions of predominately white European climate activism? And how does Pacific piety and placing Christ at the centre of the struggle speak to the staunch secularity of the UK radical environmental movement?

Most of all, I hope this campaign signals a shift away from speaking for (or even failing to acknowledge) Pacific Islanders, and instead shines a light on how we stand alongside with our brothers and sisters in Oceania, as they stand up for the Pacific, for Australia and for all communities that are threatened by climate change.

Hannah is a UK climate activist and a PhD student researching grassroots responses to climate change in Pacific Island countries.

Photos by Jeff Tan, see the full album herekayak2


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


299