As the world burns, should we continue a slow and measured response to the climate era?

Australians are increasingly having their daily lives interrupted by climate change, but do they want to hear stories about the issue?

Australian governments preach the transition from fossil fuels should be slow and measured. But immediate change is what many victims of natural disasters like fire and flood want.

It’s these survivors and their friends who often take to the streets, risking fines of tens of thousands of dollars or jail to spread the word about the impact of global warming. Having lost their homes they feel they have nothing to lose.

Just two years ago, the 2021 Netflix film Don’t Look Up used the parable of a comet threatening the Earth to talk about the world's reluctance to listen to climate scientists. Two years on, the crisis is directly affecting an increasing number of people. Europe has burned and flooded. Air quality warnings have been issued in North America as horrifying fires burn across Canada. The emperor penguin faces extinction in Antarctica due to melting ice.

Melbourne (left) flooded with people on boats in the street. New York City (right) blanketed in smoke.
From Melbourne (left) to New York City (right) world is experiencing an era of climate change. Source: Getty

Australian playwright David Finnigan believes audiences are now yearning to directly talk about these crises. Climate change is no longer a conceptual idea, it's a human story.

“The reason people haven’t wanted to talk about climate change is that it felt big, it felt overwhelming, it felt abstract,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “But that feeling has suddenly shifted.”

Disturbing reason new play is not science fiction

Mr Finnigan could be right — his new play Scenes from the Climate Era received a standing ovation — a rare occurrence in Sydney.

His play is a mosaic of scenes that escalate in urgency until the audience literally watches the sky fall onto the stage. While much of the narrative is set in the future, Mr Finnigan denies it’s a work of science fiction.

“Almost everything that happens in the play, past, future, or present, has already happened. It just hasn't happened necessarily in Australia,” he said.

He paints the picture of an uncertain future. It’s a world without beaches, children are dying from the heat in Western Sydney, and Chinese pilots are forced to spray sulfuric acid into the stratosphere to ward off the sun.

One character raises the ethics of having children in an overpopulated world that will be plagued by extreme weather."Getting pregnant is, like, the worst possible thing you can do, right?"

Government response to climate change is science fiction

Critics of government the government's response to the climate crisis argue many solutions are pure science fiction. Unproven technologies like carbon capture or carbon offsets are central to the net zero plan. It's argued we can have it all — carbon reduction while continuing to sell fossil fuels overseas and log our old-growth forests for woodchips.

Those frustrated by the lack of action from government have taken to the streets, attempting to momentarily halt business as usual, urging the population to stop and “look up”.

In response, climate activists have been attacked by government and criticised in the media. Outgoing Sunrise host David Koch said he would snip the wires holding up a young female protester who was hanging over a railway line.

Critics of the protesters have accused them of putting life in danger. Police alleged Deanne 'Violette' Coco blocked an ambulance when she blocked the Harbour Bridge last year, then withdraw the claim.

Meanwhile, climate-induced disasters like heatwaves, flooding and bushfires claim many more lives.

Two images from Scenes from a Climate Era.
Characters in Scenes from a Climate Era debate whether to have children. Source: Supplied

Australian governments shut down protest with new laws

One character in Mr Finnigan’s play offers a simple solution to stop heavy polluting SUVs like Ford Rangers and Toyota HiLuxes. He proposes pushing a single lentil inside the air valve to let the vehicles’ tyres down.

It's a small but effective move the character believes can help slow the impending era of climate change.

In reality, direct action is increasingly being shut down by governments who heavily penalise those who interrupt daily life by taking to the streets. South Australia’s Labor government proposed new penalties of $50,000 or three years jail after Extinction Rebellion protested outside an oil and gas conference.

Attendees at the event had been promised "the South Australian government is at your disposal" by energy minister Tom Koutsantonis. "We are here to help and we are here to offer you a pathway to the future," he added.

South Australia's penalties eclipse the $22,000 fines introduced by the former NSW Liberal government last year.

Whether you are for or against the harsh penalties, they appear to have worked. Multiple sources from within the climate movement no longer answer their phones and the regular protests that blocked Sydney streets are no more.

Government creates 'chilling effect' by shutting down protest

Sophie McNeill, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch said she is concerned new laws are designed to “create a chilling effect” on people thinking of taking to the streets.

“History has shown us that that's how you achieve massive social change… you have to disrupt things and make people feel uncomfortable with the status quo,” she told Yahoo.

Ms McNeill argues governments in Australia are trying to publicly position themselves as “mature grownups” who are tackling climate change in a “sensible way”. At the same time, scientists warn the situation is urgent.

“I do feel that there is this massive gap between those who recognise the urgency of the situation and where the government is at and the language they use,” she said.

“Just look at the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres who says that it’s not climate activists who are the extremists here, it’s those who are investing in fossil fuels. When you get that kind of language from a top diplomat who doesn’t normally speak like that it should put us on notice.”

Ms McNeill believes in the future the world will look back and see climate activists were on the right side of history.

"They're trying to shift the narrative and that's why it's so disturbing to see them targeted. Because it's not the narrative that's the problem, it's a climate emergency that's a problem," she said.

"It really does seem to be a case of shooting the messenger."

Scenes from a Climate Era is currently showing at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney.

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