Just before dawn on Nov. 21 last year, 37-year-old Greg Rolles ascended a tall tripod set up over a railway line.
The railway is used to transport coal to a nearby export terminal, and Rolles wanted to halt activity for as long as he could.
He sat suspended in a harness above the railway for about three hours, watched by police, before a cherry-picker arrived and Rolles decided the game was up.
After descending to the ground he was arrested and charged with three offences: trespassing on a railway, interfering with a railway, and failing to follow police orders.
Anti-coal activists being charged over their protests is not new — but the argument Rolles used to defend himself in court is a novel one.
In Queensland, Australia, where he staged his protest, a defence called “extraordinary emergency” is written into the criminal code.
“It says that a person’s not criminally liable if they’re acting in response to a sudden emergency,” Rolles told BuzzFeed News. “My argument was that global warming presents an emergency.”
Rolles fought the charges in Bowen Magistrates Court, obtaining expert evidence from Griffith University professor Brendan Mackey that global warming could indeed be considered an extraordinary emergency.
Mackey identified numerous harms to human health from climate change: increased fires, heatwaves, floods and droughts; heat-related diseases; air pollution; food security; and others.
“Climate change will cause mass migration and most likely increase collective violence,” the professor wrote. He said there were “extreme” risks in allowing emissions to push global warming above 1.5C, and preventing this scenario will require “deep and rapid cuts” in greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is an unprecedented, exceptional and urgent matter requiring immediate action on the part of governments, business and civil society,” he wrote.
Mackey concluded there was indeed sufficient scientific evidence to support what Rolles was saying: climate change is an “extraordinary emergency”.
The argument did not hold up in court. Magistrate Ron Muirhead found Rolles guilty on all three charges, fining him a total of $7,000 and ordering that he pay $2,233.40 in restitution to the rail freight company Aurizon.
Rolles hadn't met the necessary test for the defence, Muirhead said.
"The defendant was not required to act immediately in response to being confronted with a sudden or immediate emergency or state of danger. The defendant's own evidence was that he has held personal beliefs on the dangers of climate change for a number of years.”
The situation was not an extraordinary emergency, Muirhead said.
He also considered if the defence held up with a subjective test — whether Rolles had acted reasonably with the honest belief that climate change presented an emergency. Still no, he concluded.
"I would have to be satisfied that the defendant had no other reasonable and practical alternatives available to him to avoid the effects of climate change except to break the law and suspend himself in a tripod over an active rail line,” Muirhead said.
“The sheer absurdity of such a proposition cannot be overstated."
Muirhead offered two alternatives: engage in a lawful protest, or contact his local MP. To Rolles, these are laughably inadequate.
“Our governments have continuously failed to act in the face of this ongoing emergency,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything left for ordinary Australians to do but use non-violent civil disobedience to protect our home.”
The railway line blocked by Rolles is used by Aurizon to carry coal to the Abbot Point coal terminal, owned by the Adani mining company.
After a spate of similar protests, Aurizon released a statement warning that near-misses on the track can cause long-lasting trauma to drivers.
An anonymous train driver quoted in the statement said: “It’s putting too much stress on the train drivers, worrying about whether we’re going to get home to our families if something serious happens, and whether we as a group could run over someone and potentially kill one of these protestors locked onto the track.”
Rolles said that activists took steps to avoid risks to themselves and to drivers before starting the protest. He declined to give specifics.
Rolles advocates "non-violent civil disobedience" to combat government inaction, but he also believes societies will begin to fray and violence will rise as the climate crisis worsens.
“It’s not going to take a lot of pushing for us to go into a big war as resources get scarcer and scarcer.”