There’s no clean future without climate justice

In the quest for a renewable future, it’s the individuals and communities who will be impacted by the climate crisis the most who need a seat at the table. There’s no ‘clean’ future unless everyone is empowered to help build it, writes WorkforClimate director Lucy Piper.

Lucy Piper
February 21, 2023
6 min read
Tiwi Islanders Protesting

A big part of being in the climate movement is having to hold multiple uncomfortable truths all at once. Like the fact that we still need to figure out how to build wind turbines without oil, and the fact that – beyond a shift to clean energy – we all need to learn how to consume less of it. These can be difficult pills to swallow, but they’re real issues, and they can’t be ignored. 

Another issue that can’t be ignored is the fact that the communities that have contributed the least to the climate crisis stand to be impacted the most: lower-income groups, countries in the Global South, First Nations communities and marginalised people. The ones who tend to lack the resources needed to fight back. 

So while we need to maintain focus on decarbonising our economy, we also need to keep that same energy for fighting for climate justice. We need to fight for a cleaner future while fighting for the communities that are being taken advantage of today. And we need to do both of those things simultaneously.  

So, what does climate justice look like in action? It looks like last year’s takedown of energy giant Santos. 

See, in December 2022, there was one nugget of good news: Santos lost its appeal against a landmark decision that overturned drilling approval for its $4.7 billion offshore Barossa gas project. The full Federal Court agreed that Santos failed to properly consult the Traditional Owners of the Tiwi Islands, where the exploration would take place. 

“We want the whole world to hear our voice,” said Munupi clan leader Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, who led the legal challenge against Santos. “We will never stop fighting. Santos and every other gas company must take note that this is our country and we must be consulted.” 

Tiwi Islands Coastline

Appealing the decision, lawyers for Santos argued that the clan, whose sea Country they were proposing to literally drill into, did not count as “relevant persons”, and that it was impractical to consult with clan members in any case. This is a company, let’s remember, whose website proudly claims, “Our objective is to proactively partner with Indigenous groups…to build respectful and mutually beneficial relationships.” 

The Barossa project and Santos are the perfect example of why the climate justice movement is necessary. It showed the direct link between First Nations sovereignty and climate change, and why it’s important to stand up to power, wealth, corporate greed and rampant hypocrisy. 

If you’re looking for a climate justice boogie man, Santos might be top of the list. Santos are sort of the worst-case scenario when it comes to climate equity: a very wealthy corporation with no scruples, who contribute directly to carbon pollution, while at the same time undermining First Nations land rights. It would be hard to invent a less moral organisation without the existence of some kind of Death Star.

Unfortunately, the Barossa project wasn’t an isolated case. Late last year, despite intense resistance from Gomeroi Traditional Owners and their allies, a Tribunal granted Santos the drilling rights to the Pilliga Forest in NSW, extinguishing the Gomeroi’s Native Title rights. The ‘exploration’ is set to have grave consequences for both the water table and the land, pumping chemicals into the ground and releasing climate damaging pollution.

Santos claimed the project’s public benefit outweighed any First Nations concerns - but they don’t. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate justice, for every Tiwi Islands victory, there’s a dozen Gomeroi defeats. We’ve seen it with Adani and the Galilee Basin in Queensland. We’ve seen it with Rio Tinto and the Juukan Gorge. We’ve seen it with Empire Energy and the Beetaloo Basin.  

If I worked for Santos right now, I’d be angry and embarrassed – furious in fact – that my name was now complicit with these horrific human and land rights violations. When fossil fuel shareholders win, it’s usually because someone, somewhere, has lost. And we need this systemic abuse of our First Nations people and places to stop. Yesterday.

“We will never stop fighting. Santos and every other gas company must take note that this is our country and we must be consulted.” 

The individuals who work for these climate- and community-wrecking corporations have the collective power to make that happen. It takes organisation and planning, sure. And a boatload of persistence. But it’s possible. Even those of us outside of these corporations have power: we can march, we can lobby, we can use our voices and influence and resources to stop this behaviour in its tracks. 

Does this anger you? Do you work for Santos, or a company like Santos? If moral accountability matters to you, you’re probably not alone, even within the oil and gas industry. Last year we chatted to Alex Hillman, a former senior executive at petroleum company Woodside, who has since left to join the climate movement. The critical takeaway was this: talent, and employees, are what powers fossil fuel companies. Take those away, and the industry will be forced to change.

“Removing the fossil fuel industry’s access to talent will support the systemic change we need,” Alex said. “There's a whole heap of people whose livelihoods are dependent on oil and gas who wish oil and gas didn't exist… lots of them.”

Photo credits: Rebecca Parker

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