This fall is becoming a breakthrough season for the emerging social movement for climate justice.
Published in Yes! Magazine.
In early September, 2006, Johann Hari, a columnist for the British newspaper The Independent, visited what was then an unusual gathering: a climate action camp. A village of tents had appeared in the shadow of Selby, England’s towering Drax coal-fired power plant—one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Europe. Hari found some elements of a counter-culture festival, but he also witnessed what amounted to an “open-air science seminar, where 600 protesters discussed climate chaos with a level of knowledge that would shame our news broadcasters.”
The camp was also a launching pad for direct action, culminating in an effort to temporarily occupy the power station. “These protesters,” Hari observed, “were tired of praying the world’s scientists have made some unprecedented collective error, or waiting for a political Messiah to solve the problem.”
Like earlier mass movements in their infancy, the campers had plenty of knee-jerk detractors. The right-wing Sun newspaper dubbed them “naïve beyond belief.” Hari saw it differently. He pointedly asked in his column, “isn’t the real naïvete coming from people like them who say we should just sit back… and continue to drastically change the chemical composition of the atmosphere?”
Leaving the camp, he declared “the birth of a new protest movement to force action on global warming.”
Climate-change activism has been taking place in some form for decades, but in recent years the ripples created by events like the Selby camp have been swelling into something larger—something that is attracting ever-greater numbers of mainstream environmentalists, gathering support from top climate scientists and prominent public figures, and starting to look a lot like a mass movement.
This movement is set to produce a broad wave of dissent this fall in the United States and internationally, and it is not afraid to think big. “The Civil Rights Movement, the suffragettes, India’s movement for independence. That’s the sort of scale we need to be thinking on when we’re thinking about climate change,” says Abigail Singer, an organizer with the environmental group Rising Tide and co-coordinator of the Mobilization for Climate Justice coalition.
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A Global Uprising
While nothing of historic proportions has yet materialized in the United States, environmentalists elsewhere are providing impressive models for climate disobedience. “You’ve got activists in Italy doing multiple day-long sit-ins at coal-fired power plants that actually shut them down,” says Jennifer Krill, a forest and climate campaigner at Rainforest Action Network. “And in Australia you’ve got massive blockades of coal trains, as well as the coal plants themselves.”
Since Selby, climate camps have become recurrent events in the United Kingdom and have also popped up from Germany and Holland to Ireland and Australia. They have made the names of major coal-fired power plants—such as Drax and Kingsnorth—synonymous with militant protest.
And they’ve had an impact on policy. Public pressure compelled Britain’s energy and climate minister, Ed Miliband, to rethink previous plans to allow plant expansion and declare in April that “The era of new unabated coal has come to an end.” Facing concerted opposition, the E.ON power company announced in October that it was shelving its plans to build a major new coal-burning facility at the infamous Kingsnorth site.
For activists from the Global South, the December 2007 UN climate summit in Bali was a landmark of coalescing resistance. There, a broad network of grassroots NGOs such as the Third World Network, the farmers’ coalition Via Campesina, and representatives of communities directly affected by the early impacts of global warming came together under the banner of “Climate Justice Now!” The network has maintained a visible presence at international negotiations, pressuring advanced industrialized countries that, in the words of one network statement, “have refused to live up to their own legal and moral obligations to radically cut emissions and support developing countries’ efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts.”
The lesson Krill draws: “We need to turn up the heat in the United States.”
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Bringing Home the Heat
“In the U.S., historically, [large-scale mobilization] has tended to work best when there’s a progressive leader in power and some kind of mass awareness of the problem,” argues Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men. “We have both of those things now,” he says of the climate crisis, “we just don’t have people taking to the streets.”
The Yes Men, pranksters famous for impersonating corporate spokespeople at high-profile events, are part of one coalition working to change that. They helped create BeyondTalk.net, where visitors can sign a pledge of resistance, vowing to be one of thousands willing to risk arrest at protests that will take place simultaneously in major cities before the December U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
While the United States lags behind some other parts of the world, activity has proliferated here in the past two years. This is particularly true in Appalachia, dubbed “Climate Ground Zero” by organizers who are challenging the ghastly practice of mountaintop-removal mining. The CoalSwarm website keeps a running tally of protests, and its swiftly growing list of events in West Virginia and North Carolina includes civil disobedience marches that cross onto mining sites, tree sits to halt mountaintop blasting, and an action in which climbers scaled a dragline excavator to stop its use.
On the other side of the country, in the Navajo Nation, ongoing resistance at the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant contributed to the EPA withdrawal of its air quality permit this summer. Indeed, CoalSwarm cites over 75 coal plants cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold countrywide in 2007 and 2008, owing in large part to organized community opposition.
In early March, a coalition effort to channel local actions into a national mobilization produced crowds demanding closure of the Capitol Power Plant. The plant, one of the dirtiest coal-burning facilities in the country, sits in downtown Washington, DC, and helps heat the chambers of Congress. The protest took place immediately after the massive Power Shift conference, which drew over 12,000 young people to the nation’s capital to attend workshops on climate activism and lobbying techniques. Thousands of people—including many Power Shift participants, as well as movement luminaries such as writer Bill McKibben and world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen—risked police reprisal when they blockaded the Capitol Power Plant’s entrances.
It worked: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid preemptively announced that they would instruct Capitol officials to shift the plant to natural gas. Activists regard this as only a partial victory, citing natural gas, along with nuclear power and “clean coal,” as among the “false solutions” currently being promoted for climate change. Nevertheless, the mobilization served as a promising sign for future resistance.
“There were massive numbers of people willing to commit civil disobedience on climate change,” says Singer. “That just hasn’t happened before.”
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The Road to Copenhagen
Environmentalists almost universally agree that the upcoming Copenhagen conference represents a critical moment for the planet, and thus a key time for the public to exert pressure. Groups in NGO offices, church basements, and action camps are contributing to major climate organizing campaigns—including citizen lobbying, public awareness, and direct action—each of which could be the largest of its kind in history.
On October 24, environmentalists throughout the world joined creative demonstrations that drew attention to 350—what McKibben calls “the most important number on Earth.” He writes, “A NASA team headed by James Hansen reported that the maximum amount of carbon the atmosphere can safely hold is 350 parts per million, at least if we want a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.’ Since we’re already at 390 ppm, the message was clear: we don’t need to buy an insurance policy to reduce the threat of future warming. We need a fire extinguisher, and we need it now.”
350.org was coordinated by the same organizers who created the Step It Up campaign in 2007, which produced 2,000 demonstrations spread across all 50 states to demand that Congress cut domestic carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. This time, they worked internationally, and they were awed by the growing momentum.
“I can’t really believe it,” says organizer May Boeve of the events in more than 180 countries. “We have scuba divers off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and we have monks in the Himalayas, and we have musicians in all different corners of the world.” Photos or video from each site were sent to world leaders, she says, “to communicate this sense that the public is not only paying attention to Copenhagen, they know what the outcome needs to be. They know we need to get to 350.”
Another day of action, taking place on November 30, a week before the start of the Copenhagen summit, will be more likely to result in jailed activists. The Mobilization for Climate Justice, Rising Tide, and other allies will be coordinating events that target major polluters, interfere with carbon-emission-as-usual, and demand strong regulation. “For people who feel they can’t get arrested because they have too much at stake right now, the BeyondTalk.net site has an ‘action offsets’ program,” Bichlbaum explains. “Just like you can buy carbon offsets, you can buy action offsets” that will pay for training or bail for someone who can risk arrest.
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“Seattle” the Summit?
A significant precedent for this fall’s protests is the 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Not accidentally, the November 30 events fall on the 10th anniversary of Seattle’s pivotal day of action. With tens of thousands of people rallying outside the WTO sessions, Seattle brought together an unlikely coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous rights advocates, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and small farmers who recognized that the exploitative model of corporate globalization championed by the WTO cut across diverse causes and communities. The success of those groups in working together to derail the WTO talks is routinely forgotten by those who depict Seattle as a mindless riot.
Drawing inspiration for the present, a Rising Tide statement argues, “This year we have the opportunity to construct a movement of movements around climate, and find common ground in struggling for our collective survival.”
Regardless of the final shape that Copenhagen protests take, the crucial role that citizens must play in forcing better solutions is clear. “In order to get any sort of climate policy that even resembles something good,” says Singer, “we’re going to need massive amounts of people to get involved in these sorts of mobilizations.” Bichlbaum adds, “We have the technology that we need right now to stop climate change. The technology we need is a pen and a piece of paper. All we need is to sign the right laws. And the demand for that goes through the streets.”
Research assistance for this article provided by Sean Nortz. Photo credit: Art and Activism for Climate Action / Wikimedia Commons.