Environmental activists arrested in the US

The Tasmanian Upper House is considering legislation to fine environmental protesters or put them in jail. What are they so worried about?

While politicians agonise over what to do about climate change, we are seeing a rise in activist activity right around the world. Young, smart and organised, its leaders are articulate and highly technologically aware. And they’re the ones that are likely to shape the debate over the next decade.

Consider the march now being planned over the next fortnight. As The Guardian reports, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of New York, London, Melbourne and other cities worldwide in a fortnight to pressure world leaders to take action on global warming, in what organisers claim will be the biggest climate march in history. Organisers of the march including Ricken Patel, the executive director of Avaaz, David Babbs, the executive director of 38 Degrees, John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace-UK, Justin Forsyth CEO, Save the Children and David Nussbaum CEO, WWF-UK have written an open letter explaining the importance of what they’re doing.

Later this month world leaders will gather in New York for a historic summit on climate change. This is an opportunity to inspire key decision-makers to act in the face of a growing climate crisis that threatens almost every aspect of our lives. Politicians all over the world cite a lack of public support as a reason not to take bold action against climate change. So on 21 September we will meet this moment with unprecedented public mobilisations in cities around the world, including thousands of people on the streets of London. Our goal is simple – to demonstrate the groundswell demand that exists for ambitious climate action.

“From New York and London to Paris, Berlin, Delhi and Melbourne we’ll demonstrate demand for an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities. There is only one ingredient that is required: to change everything, we need everyone. History is our proof that the impossible is smaller than we think. The abolition of slavery. The end of apartheid. The spread of universal suffrage. All proof that the future is ours to shape. We just need to step out and claim it.”

In Australia, we have small groups springing up everywhere. There is the Hunter Valley Protection Alliance, a community group campaigning against coal seam gas drilling in the Hunter, Six Degrees, which is a Brisbane collective battling against the Queensland coal industry and the Caroona Coal Action Group a community group fighting to save the Liverpool Plains from BHP-Billiton. Add to that all the local climate action groups like for example the Parramatta Climate Action Network, Climate Action Monash, Climate Action Newcastle, Climate Action Network Australia, the Adelaide Hills Climate Action Group and the Climate Action Summit.

Or actions by the Mackay Conservation Group planning to take the Abbott government to court over its decision to allow dredging and spoil dumping in Great Barrier Reef waters for the expansion of coal export terminals. Or energyscience.org.au which has brought together concerned scientists, engineers and policy experts to present information to people on the issue of sustainable energy, the Mineral Policy Institute, which monitors the practices of the mining industry, 100% Renewable Energy and the Alternative Energy Association.

The list of grassroots activist groups here goes on.

Then there are the big campaigns run by groups like GetUp and Greenpeace. It’s a trend that should be putting politicians on notice. These groups are different because they are so well connected.

As Ben Eltham at New Matilda tells us, GetUp has the digital infrastructure that is increasingly critical to modern campaigning.

“With nearly half a million subscribers to its email list, the organisation has a far broader reach than any comparable progressive group in the country. GetUp also has foot soldiers. It has a reservoir of enthusiasm among its Gen Y activists, but it has a far more diverse demographic profile than the caricature of inner-city latte-sippers suggests.”

Some of GetUp’s mega-campaigns included the action to save Tasmania’s forests , the Great Barrier Reef and the Murray Darling Basin.

It’s a trend happening around the world. One of the strongest is is 350.org  which was founded with the goal of uniting climate activists into a movement, with a strategy of bottom-up organising around the world. It has activists in 189 countries. They have organised 350.org’s local climate-focused campaigns, projects and actions. In India, for example, organisers have mobilised people to resist the country’s dependence on coal for growth. In the US, the group has campaigned to divest public institutions — such as municipalities and universities — from the fossil fuel industry, and to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone XL is a proposed tar sands pipeline that would connect Alberta, Canada with Gulf Coast refineries. It would carry 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil across the United States to be refined, exported and burned. Think of the carbon footprint that would create, requiring more energy to produce than it delivers.

In the Keystone fight, 350.org has partnered with a number of local grass roots organisations in the path of the pipeline across North America, including Tar Sands Blockade, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Hip Hop Caucus, Bold Nebraska and Idle No More.

How did 350.org gets its name? It’s based on what climate scientists say is the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — 350 parts per million (ppm). We are now at 400 ppm, a level unseen for millions of years.

Then there is the Sierra Club which is the oldest and most powerful environmental organisations in the United States. With a war chest of over $79 million, the Sierra Club has crusaded to eliminate sources of 95 per cent of current energy use, worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in “sue and settle” lawsuits to generate more stringent environmental regulations, created a “scientific consensus” regarding man-made climate change and used the Endangered Species Act to thwart industry.

England has the Climate Coalition, which has a combined supporter base of more than 11 million people across the UK and brings together over 100 organisations, from environment and development charities to unions, faith and belief, community and women’s groups. Then there’s the London based Campaign Against Climate Change, which has groups operating in cities all across England.

Certainly governments are recognising the power these groups have. The FBI has identified environmentalists as “domestic terrorists”. The United Nations has urged the Tasmanian government to drop proposed anti-protest laws, calling them a breach of human rights. The Tasmanian legislation, which is being considered by the state’s upper house, would impose mandatory fines and prison terms on environmentalists who are deemed to interfere with the operations of a business. Protesters could face a three-month jail term for a second offence.

These movements are potentially important because they can create political change. The late American social activist Bill Moyer argued that they have a real power.

“Social movements are collective actions in which the populace is alerted, educated, and mobilised, over years and decades, to challenge the powerholders and the whole society to redress social problems or grievances and restore critical social values,’’ Moyer writes.

“By involving the populace directly in the political process, social movements also foster the concept of government of, by, and for the people. The power of movements is directly proportional to the forcefulness with which the grassroots exert their discontent and demand change. The central issue of social movements, therefore, is the struggle between the movement and the powerholders to win the hearts (sympathies), minds (public opinion), and active support of the great majority of the populace, which ultimately holds the power to either preserve the status quo or create change.

“Nonviolent social movements are a powerful means for preserving democracy and making societies address critical social problems. They enable citizens to challenge the prevailing centres of power and become active in society’s decision-making process, especially at times when the normal channels for their political participation are ineffective. Social movements mobilise citizens and public opinion to challenge powerholders and the whole society to adhere to universal values and sensibilities and redress social problems.

“At their best, they create an empowered citizenry, shifting the locus of social and political power from central elites and institutions to new grassroots networks and groups. In recent years, social movements have helped establish many civil rights for Blacks and women, end the Vietnam War, curb US military interventions, and topple dictators in Haiti and the Philippines.”

Environment is next.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Incrementally we are having our rights to freedom of speech and the capacity to express our opinions undermined. This is what Hitler did until he had complete power and all people living under the regime lived in fear.

  2. The proposed Tasmanian laws are the stuff that dictatorships implement: imprison and intimidate anyone who disagrees with you….. As an Australian I am struggling to understand how we can have descended to this level of abuse of democracy.