Is a New "
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
the heart of coal country. Because coal is the largest
single source of greenhouse gas emissions both in the
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
power plants continue spewing coal smoke, their
governments will have absolutely no credibility in
trying to influence the policies of rising economies
legislation ensures that coal burning will continue
largely unchecked for decades to come.
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
heart of direct action on the climate-change issue in
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
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
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 "
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 350.org campaign organizer Bill McKibben,
joined in human chains to block the entrances to a
target of enticing symbolic importance:
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
The conference is taking place almost exactly 10 years
after the 1999
ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization
and altered the shape of globalization debates for
Hopes for recreating an event of that magnitude are
based on more than just a coincidental anniversary
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.
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
those planning around the
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-
Likewise, in the
timed to take place in solidarity with the
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
cities around the world. A coalition of groups,
including the normally satiric Yes Men, is managing a
site called BeyondTalk.net, 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
Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached
via the website DemocracyUprising.com. (An audio
interview with him on climate-change activism is
available by clicking here.) Research assistance for
this article was provided by Sean Nortz.