The Hot Topic: A Growing Climate Change Movement Emerges

Bryan Farrell Nov 19, 2009

ACTION FROM BELOW: Climate camp activists protest the coal-fired Hazelwood Power Station Sept. 12 in Australia. PHOTO: FLICKR.COM/HAZELWOOD2009

Hundreds of climate activists swarmed down a hill toward Britain’s largest coal-burning power plant Oct. 17 with the intention of shutting it down. Within minutes, dozens had broken through the perimeter fence, erected specifically for this protest, and entered the site, known as Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station. But 650 police officers rapidly secured the breach and over the next six hours battled about 300 activists determined to topple other sections of the fence.

While a few broke through again to block the main gates and occupy railway tracks, many were injured by police batons or dog bites. By the next day, 57 arrests had been made without a single service interruption at the plant.

Nonetheless, organizers of the event — dubbed the Great Climate Swoop — considered their effort a “massive success.” In a press statement, Natasha Blair, from Camp for Climate Action, said, “We’ve achieved what we came here to do: to show that coal has no future and there is a growing movement which is prepared to take action on climate change.”

British climate activists have been stressing this message for a few years now. In fact, the storming of Ratcliffe came on the heels of a recent announcement by German energy corporation E.ON that it was shelving plans to build Britain’s first new coal-fired power station in 30 years. Although the company blamed the recession, climate activists believe their work was a deciding factor.

Groups like the anarchist-influenced Camp for Climate Action, known for its weeklong gatherings of mostly young people that end in direct action, and the suffragette- inspired Climate Rush have worked with international fixtures like Greenpeace since 2007 to wage a campaign against E.ON. They’ve shut down a coal conveyer belt, blockaded company headquarters in Nottingham, occupied the roof of the PR firm it employs and won a major criminal trial using climate change as a legal defense.

Due to such widespread and effective activism, many see Britain as a climate movement leader. British weekly political magazine The New Statesman recently said, “Climate change activism is more developed in this country than anywhere else in the world.”

Some argue, however, that this perception might be different if developing countries had the same media access as the industrialized world. International groups like Rising Tide and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) continually stress climate organizing by indigenous communities and people of color.

The Great Climate Swoop got more coverage than an even larger action in Thailand last month, which saw 4,000 people in the streets outside the U.N. Climate Talks in Bangkok. Many had come from as far away as Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

“Climate change should always be looked at as a justice issue,” said RAN’s Joshua Kahn Russell. Since its founding in 1985, RAN has lent its expertise in finance campaigning — going after banks that invest in projects like rainforest destruction — to native communities fighting on the frontlines.

“We have no illusion that we’re a mostly white NGO from the States,” he said. “We consider ourselves justice-minded climate activists, as opposed to climate justice activists.”

The difference, according to Kahn Russell, is that climate justice groups are led by people affected by issues of class and race. Their work and perspectives have generally been overlooked in the West, perhaps at the peril of building a more cohesive climate movement.

“Even though the issue is beginning to get that kind of force behind it,” said Abigail Singer, an organizer with the Bay Area’s Rising Tide North America, “it needs to be framed more for regular people and folks who tend to be more marginalized.”

Instead, the number of Americans concerned by global warming is dropping. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 57 percent “believe there is strong scientific evidence the Earth has gotten hotter over the past few decades.”


There is one rich nation, however, that is being forced to accept this reality. Australia is in the midst of an epic drought that could cause its fifth largest city, Adelaide, to run out of drinking water next year. It has also suffered dust storms, fires, cyclones and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef — all of which scientists have linked to global warming.

Australia has become a hotbed of climate activism, mainly against the coal industry, which is responsible for nearly 50 percent of Australia’s energy and has made it the world’s leading exporter. According to, which tracks nonviolent direct actions against the coal industry, Australians have waged at least a dozen actions in the last year alone, far outpacing the U.K.

Greenpeace has been at the forefront, temporarily shutting down Hazelwood Power Station, one of the world’s worst polluting coal plants, several times. Last month Australia’s first Climate Camp drew 500 people to the country’s oldest coal mine in an effort to block expansion.


Such mass direct action has only recently surfaced in the United States, where climate activists have relied more on awareness campaigns and symbolic actions. Last March 2 in Washington, D.C., 2,500 people blocked the entrances to the Capitol Power Plant for more than four hours in what organizers called “the largest mass civil disobedience for the climate in U.S. history.”

Many viewed the action as a success because congressional leaders announced that the plant would switch from coal to natural gas, a marginally cleaner fuel. But other activists blamed the organizers for accepting a weak compromise and not taking stronger action while they had the numbers.

“Our intention was to reach out and engage people who did not consider themselves activists and create a positive experience,” said organizer Kahn Russell. “But maybe we shouldn’t have done as much hand-holding.”

Three weeks after the Capital Climate Action, some 200 Kansas residents rallied outside the statehouse in Topeka to protest two proposed new coal plants in the western part of the state. In April, 44 were arrested protesting Duke Energy’s plans to add coal-burning capabilities to its Cliffside plant in Charlotte, N.C.

A number of small groups in Appalachia are seeking to abolish mountaintop removal coal mining — a highly destructive practice that levels mountains and poisons the air, land and drinking water.

“It’s not about protesting the use of coal or about ending the use of coal,” said Mike Roselle, a longtime environmental activist, who helped found radical environmental groups like Earth First! and the Ruckus society and now heads Climate Ground Zero (CGZ). “Coal is really just a symbol of what we have to do with all the fossil fuels, and if we can’t win on mountaintop removal, then there’s very little hope that anything can be done.”

CGZ members say a bottom-up approach can effectively build public support.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that we’re a part of the broader climate movement,” said Mathew Louis-Rosenberg, an organizer with CGZ. “We believe this issue is the most powerful tool to use against coal. It’s not an invisible gas and a bunch of science that people don’t really understand. … People can look at a mountaintop removal site and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible.’”

Since February, CGZ, has led 16 nonviolent direct actions — with a small number of locals and former underground miners — in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, resulting in 116 arrests. According to, nearly a third of all nonviolent direct actions against coal have been waged by mountaintop removal activists.

One of the most dramatic involved the arrest of 29 people in late June, including NASA’s top climatologist Dr. James Hansen, the first scientist to warn Congress of the dangers of climate change 20 years ago.

Hansen has come to the aid of activists standing trial, like the ones in Britain who won their case, and has endorsed perhaps the most far-reaching climate campaign yet, known as

Started in 2007 by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, the first book on global warming for a general audience, attempts to bring the research of Hansen and his colleagues to the mainstream. Using thousands of years of reconstructed climate data and computer simulations, these scientists determined that the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). Right now it’s at 383 ppm, about 100 ppm greater than before the Industrial Revolution.

In order to get to 350 ppm by 2100, the world will have to completely decarbonize by 2050. To reach 350, we need to produce net negative emissions, which will require large-scale sequestration technologies that go far beyond reforestation.

Almost everyone, including scientists and activists, agrees that effecting such a transformation requires a global treaty with binding commitments to reduce emissions and policies that make renewable technology affordable and prioritize restructuring cities, transportation and agriculture. This is why sights are set on the climate treaty now being developed by the United Nations.

Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. The United States and European Union are looking to enact what critics call “false solutions,” essentially techno-fixes (such as biofuels) and market mechanisms (like cap and trade) that maintain the status quo.

Second, although the treaty was supposed to be ready by December at a conference in Copenhagen, world leaders, including President Barack Obama, have decided to delay legally binding elements to a second summit next year in Mexico City.

“We’ll need to have a way to explain why whatever mediocre agreement gets signed is at the very best [sic] a beginning — that’s why the number 350 is so useful,” McKibben said.

To get the ball rolling, put together the first-ever global day of climate action Oct. 24. Through its website, groups and individuals from 181 different countries were able to set up over 5,200 actions, ranging from rallies and marches to concerts and green markets. Since did not call for direct action, many more radical activists have criticized this education-oriented approach.

“Our not doing nonviolent direct action has less to do with our philosophical approach and more to do with organizing the most people and laying the groundwork that would make mass action possible,” said organizer Will Bates.

This explains a lot of the new and creative actions in the United States, organized mainly by young people who are just becoming politically aware. They want, as McKibben put it, “new forms of organizing that don’t look like what’s come before.” is the perfect example, he said, in that it’s “people around the world rallying around a scientific data point, with music and art and faith and passion. Who’d a thunk it?”


Roselle, on the other hand, doesn’t find this fun, all-inclusive protest style all that encouraging. He says that it is unlikely that tactics like flash mobs, where people use social media to assemble a large group for a seemingly spontaneous visual stunt, can pose a real challenge to corporate executives and politicians.

“These types of actions don’t have the element of sacrifice or risk that a powerful action might have,” Roselle said. “Dressing up like a zombie and standing in front of a bank on Halloween isn’t going to work when you’re dealing with a violent and powerful regime.”

While there appears to be a split between direct action-oriented groups and movementbuilding organizations like, some people are attempting to meld traditional tactics with the new creative approach. University of Utah economics student Tim De- Christopher last year walked into a federal auction of oil and gas leases and posed as a bidder. He outbid speculators for thousands of acres of land worth $1.7 million.

Fueled by frustration with what he called the climate movement’s “path of incrementalism,” DeChristopher was influenced by a group known as the Yes Men, two men who frequently pose as corporate executives at conferences or on major media outlets and either admit wrongdoing or satirize the company’s destructive ideology in an absurd way.

“Everybody’s talking about climate change,” said Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, “but what we really need to change is the lack of people taking to the streets.”

Along with several other leading organizers, the Yes Men launched a website called, which is attempting to gather 10,000 people willing “to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.” The primary day of action being organized by a mixture of climate groups, from RAN and Rising Tide to, has been set for Nov. 30, the 10th anniversary of the nonviolent protests that shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle.


As Naomi Klein recently noted in The Nation, “There is certainly a Seattle quality to the Copenhagen mobilization: the huge range of groups that will be there; the diverse tactics that will be on display; and the developing-country governments ready to bring activist demands into the summit. But Copenhagen is not merely a Seattle do-over. It feels, instead, as though the progressive tectonic plates are shifting, creating a movement that builds on the strengths of an earlier era but also learns from its mistakes.”

Klein says, unlike Seattle, which “had a laundry list of grievances and few concrete alternatives,” Copenhagen “is about a single issue — climate change — but it weaves a coherent narrative about its cause, and its cures, that incorporates virtually every issue on the planet.”

In that context, the varied approach to climate activism in the United States and around the world doesn’t seem like the liability activists often make it out to be.

“The climate movement is like a board of chess,” Kahn Russell said. “Different groups are better suited to taking on different opponents.”

Bryan Farrell writes regularly for the blog,

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