Extinction Rebellion protestors hold line amid COP28 climate warning

An abseiling member of Extinction Rebellion triggered tough new anti-protest laws in South Australia earlier this year. As international climate change negotiations continue at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, meet the members still risking arrest in their fight for urgent action.

Dec 04, 2023, updated Dec 04, 2023
Extinction Rebellion members in SA, from left: Dharma, Cate Mettam and Louis Umlauf. Photo: Tony Lewis

Extinction Rebellion members in SA, from left: Dharma, Cate Mettam and Louis Umlauf. Photo: Tony Lewis

Cate Mettam has been arrested three times for protesting over climate change with South Australian members of Extinction Rebellion.

She has appeared in court, spent time in the Adelaide City Watchhouse and has sat terrified in the pitch-black of a police van.

The former health consultant who joined the environment group in 2018 says she is prepared to brave the wrath of the state government in her bid to highlight the threat of bushfire, floods and drought as climate change impacts her community.

The 68-year-old is teary when telling how the memory of her sister-in-law Mary Williams dying in a car with her four children at Kalangadoo during the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 underpins her commitment.

Mettam is terrified about governments failing to better respond to warnings that bushfires in SA will become more frequent as human-induced climate change triggers extreme weather events that get “worse and worse”.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion member Cate Mettam. Photo: Tony Lewis

“My worst fears were realised the other day when I got a message from my daughter-in-law in Western Australia telling me my grandchildren had just been evacuated from school because of a bushfire, we are now 40 years on from when the Ash Wednesday bushfire happened,” Mettam says.

“Now this is in suburban Perth, in the suburbs.”

Mettam, along with Extinction Rebellion (XR) members Louis Umlauf and Dharma, say they are “ordinary people” trying to raise the alarm about the “reality of climate change” through non-violent civil disobedience.

Most of their work revolves around traditional petitions, lobbying and meeting with politicians, but several times a year the group organises public protests where members may glue themselves to the road to block traffic or hold a “die in” at Rundle Mall.

All are resolute about facing tough new anti-protest laws rushed through State Parliament by Premier Peter Malinauskas in May this year that increase fines and threaten jail for public obstruction.

The Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Amendment Bill 2023 was introduced to State Parliament days after a traffic-stopping XR protest against the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) conference being held in Adelaide.

Mémé Thorne, a 69-year-old XR protestor from Willunga, was arrested after dangling from the Morphett Street Bridge above North Terrace for around 90 minutes, forcing peak-hour traffic to be diverted.

Photos: Ten News/Tony Lewis/InDaily. Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

The new law was passed days later with Labor and Liberal support, triggering new protests among unions and civil rights groups about the harsh penalties.

Mettam, Umlauf and Dharma are appalled that the media and government spent far more time focusing on traffic impacted by the protest – that Dharma says created far less chaos than recent Adelaide 500 car race restrictions – than the threat of emissions from cars, mining and energy companies on the world’s climate.

Besides increasing the maximum fine 66 times from $750 to $50,000, the legislation also introduces a three-month jail term.

It makes defendants potentially liable for emergency services costs responding to the obstruction, and broadens the offence’s scope to include indirect obstruction of a public place.

Santos was a key player at the oil and gas industry conference and is often an XR target.

The company did not respond to questions about whether it supported the bill at the time, but a spokeswoman pointed InDaily to Santos managing director Kevin Gallagher’s speech at the oil and gas conference, in which he said: “South Australia is a great friend to our industry and none more so than (Mines and Energy) Minister Tom Koutsantonis.”

There are about 60 active Extinction Rebellion members in South Australia, including lawyers who provide pro bono legal representation for those charged under the new legislation.

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Dharma, a social worker and practising Bhuddist, is 69 years of age and grew up in a “conservative family who valued law and order and a humanitarian approach to caring for others”.

During her thirties Dharma says she stepped out of the mainstream and then, in 2018, discovered XR while living in the United Kingdom.

She has been since arrested for protesting about a lack of action on climate change but wants the public to know she and the activists in XR are ordinary people who have “stepped into their courage” to face police and public judgement to draw attention to destructive fossil fuel companies.

Just last week, Climate, Environment and Water Minister Susan Close released a series of report cards outlining climate change impact research to coincide with the opening of the United Nation’s climate change conference COP28.

The research found SA is experiencing more fire danger weather and “a strong warming trend since the 1970s, with average temperatures currently 1.1C warmer than in the 1970s”.

“The frequency of days reaching 40C in Adelaide in the past decade has been three times the average frequency of the preceding four decades,” according to SA’s Environmental Trend and Condition Report Cards.

It is this science that drives Louis Umlauf.

The 31-year-old law student who also works in his family’s pet business, joined XR in 2019 after being deeply shaken by climate change predictions.

Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion member Louis Umlauf. Photo: Tony Lewis

Umlauf has been since involved in numerous protests including supporting activists with food and water, along with ensuring the belongings 0f arrested activists are safe, and that they have “someone waiting for them when they leave the watch house”.

He was taken to the Adelaide City Watchhouse in a police van after gluing his body to the road into the conference centre car park to prevent the infamous APPEA conference from starting on time earlier this year.

Umlauf was charged with obstructing the path of a driver, then put on a good behaviour bond for six months and has completed that without reoffending.

“I think the story that the government has that they have this under control (climate change) is a total farce,” he says.

Umlauf says there are doctors protesting over climate change, farmers protesting over climate change and many others “sounding the alarm”, but he believes the government is still not taking enough action to prevent the situation from getting worse.

“A prison sentence is way less terrifying to me than the climate catastrophe that is coming.”

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