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What does direct action on climate change really look like?

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As the disconnect between political obfuscation and climate science continues, how might individuals respond to climate change?

One theme that has emerged in my research is how people are beginning to reconsider their jobs and careers based upon a personal realisation of the urgency of the climate crisis. For instance, last week I received an email from a scientist in a US environmental agency, who related the increasingly tough choices she was having to make in her job. She was involved in overseeing fossil fuel developments in coal and gas, something she found increasingly problematic. After much thought she decided to no longer work for organisations facilitating the extraction and use of fossil fuels. As she explained:

…many have pointed out that my position allowed me to protect the environment. But that never sat well with me, especially as it relates to fossil fuels with their broad and wide externalities. After much introspection, and a couple of tears, I realized that an opinion like that is a flat view and it ignores the fact I have enabled interests that are contrary to human existence. It’s the enabling that drives us nuts. To this end, I now flatly refuse any work that deals with fossil fuels interests. It makes life much simpler for me and I suspect it will for others.

In an earlier post I noted how sustainability managers and consultants often battle with the conflict between their jobs and personal environmental concerns. One example was a senior manager in a global resource company who had undergone a personal epiphany about climate change. His concerns about the urgency of climate change led him to resign from his job and pursue an alternative path of climate activism and personal sustainability.

Making such choices is tough, particularly given the endemic nature of fossil fuels in our economy and society, however it also reflects a changing social mood. As climate science has revealed the fundamental threat fossil fuels pose to our environment and future, so social attitudes are beginning to change. Oil, coal and gas will inevitably become the next ‘sin industries’ with potentially huge implications. This change in social attitudes is evident in the growing public campaign of groups like 350.org advocating for major institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies, and in examples like former coal executive Ian Dunlop campaigning for a seat on the board of BHP Billiton on the issue of climate change as an urgent business risk.

Of course this movement is being fought tooth and nail by the fossil fuel industry, politicians and the media. To imagine an alternative to our current fossil fuel addiction is heresy. However, as Paul Gilding has argued this changing realisation will inevitably occur as our environmental situation worsens. Will we shift in time? I have my doubts, however the resulting social conflicts will be profound.

Indeed, last week Crikey columnist Bernard Keane provided an insightful reflection on this coming shift in public attitudes. Entitled “Climate policy: when adults squib it, youth should take direct action“, Keane pointed out that the current political “debate” around climate change in Australia (as elsewhere) is a mirage. The fundamental reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required involve much more drastic changes than 5 per cent cuts and “market mechanisms”. Indeed, as Bill McKibben points out we need to leave the vast bulk of remaining fossil fuels in the ground. While our new conservative Federal Government likes to talk about “direct action”, as the climate crisis worsens and its impacts become more evident, so we should expect far more dramatic forms of social reactions and protest. As Bernard Keane puts it:

Action to shut down the loaders and ports that export coal. Action to shut down coal-fired power plants. Actions to shut down the electricity-greedy industries we prop up, like aluminium smelting. Such action will be expensive, and damaging, and inequitable, and dangerous, but in the absence of real policies from political adults, it’s better than a status quo that will punish our youth as future taxpayers and citizens.

Welcome to the politics of the Anthropocene!

Christopher Wright is a professor at the University of Sydney Business School, Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies Network Leader, The Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN)

This article was originally published on the Climate, People & Organizations blog. Reproduced with permission

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  • finn

    I left my cushy, well paid Engineering Consulting gig about 7 years ago and got into renewables because helping Rio Tinto and BHP get coal out of the ground more efficiently felt very wrong. I felt like part of the problem. And I was!

    The more good engineers etc. leave the fossil fuel (and supporting) industries, the more difficult and expensive it will get to extract fossil fuels. The more good engineers and scientists devote their careers to renewables the more breakthroughs we’ll have and the cheaper and more effective they’ll get.