Thursday, August 13, 2009

Climate Activism: New "Seattle" in the Making?

Climate Disobedience


Is a New "Seattle" in the Making?


By Mark Engler


August 11, 2009


In the early morning of October 8, 2007, a small group

of British Greenpeace activists slipped inside a

hulking smokestack that towers more than 600 feet above

a coal-fired power plant in Kent, England. While other

activists cut electricity on the plant's grounds, they

prepared to climb the interior of the structure to its

top, rappel down its outside, and paint in block

letters a demand that Prime Minister Gordon Brown put

an end to plants like the Kingsnorth facility, which

releases nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the

atmosphere each day.


The activists, most of them in their thirties and

forties, expected the climb to the top of the

smokestack would take less than three hours. Instead,

scaling a narrow metal ladder inside took nine. "It was

the most physically exhausting thing I have ever done,"

35-year-old Ben Stewart said later. "It was like

climbing through a huge radiator -- the hottest,

dirtiest place you could imagine."


In the end, the fatigued, soot-covered climbers were

only able to paint the word "Gordon" on the chimney

before, facing dizzying heights, police helicopters,

and a high court injunction, they were compelled to

abandon the attempt and submit to arrest. They could

hardly have known then that their botched attempt at

signage would help transform British debate about

fossil-fuel power plants -- and that it would send

tremors through an emerging global movement determined

to use direct action to combat the depredations of climate change.


The case took on historic weight only after the

Kingsnorth Six went to court, where they presented to a

jury what is known in the United States as a

"necessity" defense. This defense applies to situations

in which a person violates a law to prevent a greater,

imminent harm from occurring: for example, when someone

breaks down a door to put out a fire in a burning building.


In the Kingsnorth case, world-renowned climate

scientist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard

Institute for Space Studies, flew to England to

testify. According to the Guardian, he presented

evidence that the Kingsnorth plant alone could be

expected to cause sufficient global warming to prompt

"the extinction of 400 species over its lifetime."

Citing a British government study showing that each ton

of released carbon dioxide incurs $85 in future

climate-change costs, the activists contended that

shutting the plant down for the day had prevented $1.6

million in damages -- a far greater harm to society

than any rendered by their paint -- and that their

transgressions should therefore be excused.


What surprised both Greenpeace and the prosecution was

that 12 ordinary Britons agreed. The jury returned with

an acquittal, and the freed defendants made the front

pages of newspapers throughout the country. The tumult

also produced political results. In April, British

energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband

announced a reversal in governmental policy on power

stations, declaring, "The era of new unabated coal has

come to an end." Discussing Kingsnorth, Daniel Mittler,

a long-time environmental activist in Germany, told me

recently, "it was probably one of the most impactful

civil disobedience cases the world has ever seen,

because it was the right action at the right time."


If Not Now...


The idea that now is the right time for more resolute

action to address the climate crisis is spreading fast

enough to dot the global map with hot spots of

disobedience. As it turns out, the Kingsnorth Six are

part of a rapidly growing population. Joining them are

the Dominion 11, arrested after forming a human

blockade to stop the construction of a coal plant in

Wise County, Virginia, in November 2008, and the Drax

29, who went on trial this summer for boarding and

stopping a train delivering coal to a power plant in

North Yorkshire, England, last year.


In fact, arrests are piling up quicker than journalists

can coin name-and-number nicknames. The Coal Swarm

website keeps track of an ever- lengthening list of

protests. New headlines now appear weekly:


"Activists scale 20-story dragline at mountaintop

removal site in Twilight, WV" "14 Arrested at TVA

headquarters in Knoxville, TN" "10 activists board coal

ship in Kent, England" "Activists shut down Collie

Power Station, Western Australia"


In August 2007, Al Gore, Nobel-prize-winning author of

An Inconvenient Truth, told Nicholas Kristof of the New

York Times, "I can't understand why there aren't rings

of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them

from constructing coal-fired power plants." By the time

Gore made that statement, some young people had already

started blocking bulldozers, and many more, young and

old, would soon follow.


Still, Gore can be excused for feeling that such

measures were overdue. With global warming, perhaps

more than any other issue, there is a disjuncture

between a widespread acknowledgment of the gravity of

the situation we face and a social willingness to

respond in any proportionate way.


The landmark 2007 report from the Intergovernmental

Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that a two

degree Celsius rise in average temperature, likely by

2050, would create severe water shortages for as many

as two billion people and place between 20% to 30% of

all plant and animal species at risk of extinction. It

gets worse from there. An April 2009 Guardian poll

reported: "Almost nine out of 10 climate scientists do

not believe political efforts to restrict global

warming to 2C will succeed." More probable, they

believe, is "an average rise of 4-5C by the end of this

century," a level that could create hundreds of

millions of refugees fleeing areas afflicted by

desertification, depleted food supplies, or coastal flooding.


That these consensus predictions may feel remote and

improbable to much of the American public does not

reflect a real scientific debate, but rather a common

reluctance to face unpleasant facts -- and also the

considerable success of the coal and oil lobbies in

dampening the electorate's sense of urgency about the

issue. Those two realities are precisely what direct

action intends to confront.


An Inconvenient Politics


When Vice President Gore started endorsing civil

disobedience, Abigail Singer, an activist with Rising

Tide, a leading network of grassroots climate groups,

noted, "It'd be more powerful if he put his body where

his mouth is." She had a point.


As it happens, 68-year-old James Hansen, arguably the

most famous climate scientist alive, has been less

reticent about putting himself on the line. His

involvement has furnished a great deal of mainstream

respectability to those turning to more confrontational

means of expressing dissent, and the trajectory of his

political engagement catches an important trend.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hansen published many

groundbreaking papers demonstrating the reality of a

warming planet. Just as the work scientists had done in

the early 1980s proving that human activity was

creating a hole in the ozone layer had resulted in a

1987 treaty against chlorofluorocarbons, Hansen assumed

that the work of those documenting climate change would

result in swift legislative remedy.


"He's very patient," Hansen's wife Anniek told

Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker. "And he just kept

on working and publishing, thinking that someone would

do something." This time around, however, industrial

interests proved far more entrenched. In order to help

move glacially slow climate negotiations forward,

Hansen started speaking out and, more recently, has

begun risking arrest at demonstrations.


Of course, there is never a shortage of people who will

question the tactics of civil disobedience and direct

action. "We're every bit as worried about climate

change as the protestors," a spokesperson for the E.On

corporation, the energy company that runs Kingsnorth,

said upon the announcement of the famous verdict, "but

there are ways and means to protest and we would

suggest their demonstration was not the way to do it."


There are far less compromised skeptics, too. Many

harbor a distaste for social-movement theatrics or

operate on the belief that, sooner or later, science

will speak loudly enough to force the political

situation to sort itself out. Harvard University

oceanographer James McCarthy expressed such a view when

the IPCC released its 2007 report. "The worst stuff is

not going to happen," he said, "because we can't be that stupid."


Sadly, the latent hope that politicians will eventually

come to their senses cannot suffice as a political

strategy. The stark facts of segregation in the

American South never put an end to that longstanding

injustice; it took an unruly civil rights movement to

force change. In this case, presumably less farsighted

and more profit-hungry energy companies than the

climate-concerned E.On have invested tens of millions

of dollars in convincing elected officials and

newspaper editorial boards that reducing emissions of

greenhouse gases is neither practical nor particularly

needed. The operative force at work here is not

stupidity, but political power.


Hansen and others motivated to confront the industry

head on have concluded that, unless there is a public

counterbalance to the organized money of those who

profit from the status quo, what science has to say

will be largely irrelevant, no matter how theoretically

convincing it may be. Unless citizens themselves become

inconvenient, the truth will remain a minor



The Disaster You Can See


It is no accident that, on June 23rd, when Hansen was

arrested for his first time, it was in West Virginia,

the heart of coal country. Because coal is the largest

single source of greenhouse gas emissions both in the

United States and worldwide, and because there is

enough coal left in the ground to heat the planet to

catastrophic levels, that fossil fuel has been the

focus of much new protest. As long as U.S. and European

power plants continue spewing coal smoke, their

governments will have absolutely no credibility in

trying to influence the policies of rising economies

such as China and India. Nonetheless, current U.S.

legislation ensures that coal burning will continue

largely unchecked for decades to come.


In West Virginia, concerns about coal's impact on the

atmosphere have intersected with a local environmental

atrocity known as mountaintop-removal mining, a

practice that Senators John McCain and Barack Obama

both claimed to oppose in the presidential campaign,

but which continues today. This has made Appalachia the

heart of direct action on the climate-change issue in

the U.S. -- or, as a blog tracking area protests puts

it, "Climate Ground Zero."


"You stand at the edge of one of these mountaintop

removal sites and you'll never feel the same way

again," says Mat Louis-Rosenberg, a staffer at Coal

River Mountain Watch in southern West Virginia. The

practice turns rolling mountains and valleys into flat,

desolate moonscapes. Locals regularly hear the blasts

of surface mines from their homes and then drink the

resulting contaminants in their well water. When newly

created lakes of toxic coal waste give way -- as

happened last December as a billion gallons of sludge

flooded 300 acres of land near Harriman, Tennessee --

they are the ones whose homes stand immediately downstream.


These dangers have given organizers a chance to create

campaigns that connect the abstractions of climate

change to specific sites of environmental ruin. "You

can get a visceral and immediate sense of how bad this

is," says Louis-Rosenberg. "It's not an invisible gas

and a bunch of science that most people don't understand."


This year, in a series of escalating initiatives,

environmentalists in the area have chained themselves

to rock trucks, obstructed coal roads, and climbed up a

huge crane-line mining machine to halt its work. A

delegation of concerned citizens, including Hansen,

crossed a police line onto the property of Massey

Energy, a company responsible for mountaintop removals.

Louis-Rosenberg places such direct action alongside a

raft of other activities: community organizing,

research for environmental impact statements, and

gathering co- sponsors for a Congressional ban on

filling valleys with mining waste. "Ultimately, things

will have to see their resolution in some sort of

federal regulation or legislation," he says. "But at

this point there is not the political will to deal with

the crisis. I see it as my role as an activist to

create that political will."


The Next "Seattle Moment"?


When the Kingsnorth decision was announced, an E.On

representative said the company was "worried that this

ruling will encourage other protestors to engage in

similar actions at power plants across the country."

The worry was justified.


The diverse local protests taking place internationally

are starting to feel like part of something larger,

especially since they are already beginning to have an

impact. Of the 214 new coal plants proposed in the

United States since the year 2000, more than half have

been cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold. The website

Coal Moratorium Now, which tracks public campaigns,

shows that citizen dissent played a critical role in

many of the cancellations or delays. Other results have

been less obvious but no less real. Facing greater

resistance, and the prospect of costly public relations

battles, power companies are simply proposing to build

fewer coal plants than was once the case.


Environmental organizers are planning for still larger

mobilizations. In March, hundreds of people, including

Hansen and campaign organizer Bill McKibben,

joined in human chains to block the entrances to a

target of enticing symbolic importance: Washington,

D.C.'s Capitol Power Plant, a coal-burning facility

built in 1910 that provides steam and refrigeration

power to Capitol Hill. Police avoided making arrests,

which could have easily exceeded highs for any previous

act of civil disobedience around climate issues in

American history. Nonetheless, the gathering produced a

desired effect: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate

Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Acting

Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers requesting that

the plant switch to natural gas.


On a global level, activists are starting to envision

an international day of action that might launch

disparate local campaigns into the mainstream spotlight

and create a more unified global movement. A buzz of

expectation and organizing now surrounds a December

U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, where

environmental ministers and other officials will gather

to create a new treaty to replace the Kyoto protocol.

The conference is taking place almost exactly 10 years

after the 1999 Seattle protests which overwhelmed the

ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization

and altered the shape of globalization debates for

years after.


Hopes for recreating an event of that magnitude are

based on more than just a coincidental anniversary

year. Before Seattle, localized activity by global

justice advocates had similarly swelled -- with a wave

of student anti-sweatshop drives, environmental boot

camps, organic food gatherings, corporate ad spoofs,

indigenous rights battles, and cross-border labor

campaigns already simmering. Seattle united these into

a recognized "movement of movements" more potent than

the sum of its parts.


Organizers have suggested that as many as 100,000

people might take to the streets in Copenhagen. Among

those planning around the Denmark conference, there is

currently a debate about whether to converge on the

conference itself or to target a heavily polluting

company somewhere nearby as an example of bad climate-

change behavior.


Likewise, in the United States, where events will be

timed to take place in solidarity with the

demonstrations in Copenhagen, there is a debate about

whether to try to work with the Obama administration or

turn up the heat on it. In the end, a range of tactics

will no doubt be deployed in Copenhagen and in other

cities around the world. A coalition of groups,

including the normally satiric Yes Men, is managing a

site called, which allows people to sign

a pledge expressing their willingness to join in

nonviolent civil disobedience as the conference date nears.


As of this writing, 3,210 people have signed on.

Compared with the numbers of people who will ultimately

have to be persuaded of the need to act in order to

force meaningful solutions to climate change, that

remains a modest tally. In terms of the growing levels

of dedication and personal sacrifice it represents, its

significance is far greater. After all, that's more

than 3,000 people willing to take the chance that a

determined action, even a botched one, might ultimately

reverberate far and wide. It's more than 3,000 people

who may just be willing to climb for hours through a

huge radiator in order to stop the planet from becoming

one in all too short a time.


Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a

senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus and author

of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the

Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached

via the website (An audio

interview with him on climate-change activism is

available by clicking here.) Research assistance for

this article was provided by Sean Nortz.



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