All aboard for disruption

A new level of climate activism is about to hit New Zealand. Bruce Munro talks to Rosemary Penwarden about why a call to restore passenger rail could lead to disruptive civil resistance in the country’s capital, and elsewhere, in coming days and weeks.

What Rosemary Penwarden is soon likely to do can be traced back more than a decade.

In 2011, three significant events converged for the Dunedin medical laboratory scientist and mother of two.

The first, was being present for the birth of her first grandchild.

Not long after, Penwarden attended a packed climate science lecture by the former head of Nasa’s space studies institute, Dr James Hansen.

"He was terrified of the future," Penwarden recalls. "A lot of it went over my head. But what hit me was the fact that this man knew what he was talking about, and he was terrified."

Climate activist Rosemary Penwarden says she is prepared to face the 
Climate activist Rosemary Penwarden says she is prepared to face the consequences of non-violent civil resistance if that is needed to bring about climate change mitigation. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Not long after, she heard Green Party co-leader, the late Jeanette Fitzsimons, talking about plans for a new Southland coal mine.

"It was at that point, I saw the opportunity to jump on board.

"The mine would have increased New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20%, if it had all gone ahead.

"I feel as though we were able to have some small part in stopping it."

Eleven years later, Penwarden says climate change activism is now poised to enter uncharted territory for New Zealand - non-violent, civil resistance that disrupts people’s lives with the aim of forcing the Government to act on greenhouse gas reduction promises.

On Tuesday, Restore Passenger Rail delivered an ultimatum to the Government, demanding it reinstate train services throughout the country or face unspecified "disruption" in Wellington from early this month.

That "ramped-up" activism could also spread to other centres, Penwarden says.

She is one of several dozen people nationwide who The Weekend Mix understands have been planning and training for this escalated climate action, drawing on the playbook for similar campaigns overseas, many of which have blocked motorways causing traffic jams across Europe, North America and Australia, resulting in fines, arrests and even imprisonment.

"At this point in the climate crisis, that is what is needed," Penwarden says.

"It’s about a few people ... stepping with love and compassion into civil resistance.

"It’s uncomfortable. It’s necessary. And I will do that unapologetically."

The earth is on target for a cataclysmic 4.5degC of global warming by the end of the century.

That compares with the 1.5degC-to-2degC of warming that climate scientists have warned nations to remain below.

Even an increase of more than 1.5degC would mean a world of increasing heat waves, droughts, storms, ocean acidification, floods, crop failures, climate refugees, social disorder and inter-state conflict.

At 1.2degC, we are already beginning to see what could lie ahead.

"Our planet is burning," United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres said recently, calling on world leaders to end their "suicidal war against nature".

"The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time," he added.

"It must be the first priority of every government and multilateral organisation. And yet climate action is being put on the back burner — despite overwhelming public support around the world."

Since 1990, global greenhouse gas emissions have not declined; they have risen by more than 40%. In New Zealand gross emissions have risen 21%.

"For decades, Aotearoa New Zealand failed to bring down its emissions," Climate Change Commissioner Dr Rod Carr has said.

"The more we wait, the more the impacts of climate change, and the costs of our inaction, will compound and cascade ... it is now or never."

The red, flashing, warning light on the world’s climate dashboard says emissions need to be halved by 2030.

Dr Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been quoted saying the question that keeps him awake at night is not "What’s happening?", because we know what is happening; it’s not "What are we going to do about it?", because we know what we need to do about it; rather it is "Why don’t we do what we know we should do?".

Forcing governments to do what they know they should do is the aim of the new wave of climate activism being felt around the world.

The first of the civil resistance campaigns began in the United Kingdom (UK), a year ago.

In September, 2021, Insulate Britain activists, calling for the government to insulate UK homes, by 2025, started blockading major motorways, gluing themselves to fuel tankers and covering roads with fake blood.

Insulating homes would improve health, reduce costs and reduce the need for fossil fuels for heating, they said.

Liam Norton, a spokesperson for the campaign, said it was not a protest but rather a "non-violent civil resistance triggered by government criminality".

Just Stop Oil is the name of the current UK campaign.

In Germany, since January, Last Generation has used similar tactics to push for an end to deep sea oil drilling.

Spokesperson Miriam Meyer says it is about forcing people to choose sides.

"We have to disturb ordinary people ... All these people have to either be angry at us or support us," Meyer says.

"We cannot afford to be ignored ... We have two to three years to get this climate situation under control."

In April, Fireproof Australia activists began blocking major Sydney roads, demanding the government tackle fire and flood threats the country faces as global warming gains pace.

In Italy, climate activists have blocked roads around Rome and, in July, glued themselves to the glass covering Botticelli’s Primavera in a Florence art gallery, to bring attention to their call for an end to gas and coal extraction.

An end to logging of ancient forests is the aim of the Save Old Growth campaign, in Canada.

Campaigns have also started in the United States, France, Norway and Switzerland.

Dozens of people have been fined and arrested. A handful have been imprisoned.

In recent years, most Australian states have passed laws allowing people participating in "illegal protests" to be jailed for up to two years.

In July, the UK brought in new laws giving police extra powers to tackle "guerilla" protests.

The New Zealand campaign, Restore Passenger Rail, has links to the various overseas climate campaigns, under the banner The A22 Network, Penwarden says.

"It’s a loose network of different campaigns.

"New Zealand is the youngest. We’re the newest campaign ... [There are] weekly zoom calls, that sort of thing."

The New Zealand activists have chosen to focus on passenger rail because it is "do-able" for the Government and would have climate, employment and societal benefits.

"Getting people out of cars, out of planes, and giving them that third option, which they don’t currently have," Penwarden explains.

"It has to be accessible though, so it will have to be subsidised.

"The tracks are there. It’s just a matter of reprioritising what’s already there.

"It’s crazy how neglected rail is in New Zealand and how easily it could become a solution."

Dunedin City Council appears to agree. This week, city councillors voted to back a submission to a parliamentary select committee, calling on the Government to resume inter-regional passenger services between Christchurch and Invercargill.

It is the same select committee Restore Passenger Rail representatives delivered their ultimatum to, this week.

"We demand that the New Zealand Government commit to restore passenger rail to its year 2000 extent, with affordable and accessible services," the letter, which The Weekend Mix has seen, states.

"This means working with mana whenua to create subsidised passenger lines connecting at a minimum: Auckland to Wellington, Tauranga, and Rotorua; Wellington to Napier; and Christchurch to Picton, Greymouth, and Invercargill."

If the Government does not quickly accede, civil resistance will begin, the letter says.

"Restore Passenger Rail will begin disrupting business-as-usual in the capital in early October, until the Government agrees to enact our demand."

Minister of Transport, Michael Wood, has not taken kindly to the group’s dictates.

In response to questions by The Weekend Mix, the Minister says the Government is "committed to supporting rail in New Zealand" and is doing upgrade work ahead of "considering whether we introduce additional freight and passenger services".

"I would also encourage advocates to consider how we can build public support for the cause, rather than issuing ultimatums and disrupting commuters."

Minister Wood did not respond to a question asking whether the Government was considering new laws to deal with escalating climate activism.

Dunedin software developer James 
Dunedin software developer James Cockle is a trainer and mobiliser for the Restore Passenger Rail, civil resistance, climate activism campaign. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Planning, mobilising and training for Restore Passenger Rail’s non-violent, civil resistance has been happening in New Zealand, online and in-person, for a couple of months, James Cockle says.

The Dunedin software developer, who last year challenged James Shaw for co-leadership of the Green Party, says it is hard to know exactly how many people are "on board".

More than a thousand people are following the group on social media and "about 220 people have come to one of our talks" in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin.

An online video featuring Meyer, in Germany, outlines the training involved and what the activism entails in that country.

She mentions de-escalation and legal training and describes how Last Generation conducts non-violent, direct action.

"We wait [at highway exits] for the cars to have a red [traffic light] ... and then we go on ... and we stand in front of the cars.

"As soon as we see a car coming too close ... we all just sit down to de-escalate the situation.

"As soon as the Police arrive you will see all of us ... put superglue on our hands and put them on the street."

Cockle says he will certainly be taking part in the planned action if Restore Passenger Rail’s demands are not quickly met.

"If we hit two degrees of warming, that will mean a billion people on the move. That’s not going to be pretty, that’s going to be pretty bad," Cockle says.

"So that’s what’s made me decide ... this is my life’s mission, this is the most important thing I can be doing."

Restore Passenger Rail is just a first step, he adds.

"We really need for them to go further."

Penwarden is recovering from a Covid-19 infection, but hopes to take part, if it comes to that.

The time for picketing, petitions and protests is past, Penwarden, who has done all of the above, says.

"Maybe it embarrasses the companies, the corporations ... momentarily. But it doesn’t stop the planet’s accelerating progress towards the destruction of everything we love.

"I find it too hard anymore to write submissions, to write letters, to sign petitions, to be civil to business leaders and councillors. For years, I’ve tried all these things.

"I’m a naturally polite and positive person, but I’ve reached a point where I know we need to move into a peaceful, ethical, civil resistance that is in line with the seriousness of what we’re facing."

She believes Restore Passenger Rail offers a pathway for many people to voice their climate concerns.

"I can’t understand, why isn’t everybody feeling these feelings?" she says of her fear for the future.

"Maybe they are, but they don’t know what to do.

"So, this feels like a pathway for ordinary people ... who are paying attention to the signs ... to make their voice heard by taking an action that is going to get the attention of the Government."

Penwarden is willing to face the consequences, which, overseas, has included jail time for some people.

"I’m willing to be a little bit uncomfortable now if I can help to make my grandchildren’s future a liveable one.

"I think the most important thing that we’ve been learning is that we are there in service, in selfless service, because we are facing the possible end of civilisation."

As it was a decade ago, it is her grandchildren who catalyse her to a new level of action now.

"I’m 63 ... I fear my my granddaughter will never get to know what it’s like to be 63 years old.

"She will turn 63 in 2080. She’s 5 now. That makes me incredibly sad."

It would be much easier to sit back and think somebody else is going to sort this, Penwarden says.

"But they’re not. So if you ever wanted something meaningful to do in your life, it’s staring you in the face."