Climate Protests Escalate Worldwide

Everglades blockadeLynne Purvis stood apart at a Ritz Carlton cocktail party Thursday night.

Surrounded by coal, oil, and natural gas executives at a Bank of America energy conference in Key Biscayne, Florida, Purvis and her six friends had not been invited.  Armed with banners and signs, they still made their presence known.

"Bank of America forgot to put alternative energy into the agenda," Purvis, a member of the activist group Everglades Earth First!, said into her megaphone. "So as the clean energy transition team, we were asked to speak to you all tonight."

The party guests were less than impressed with Purvis's sense-of-humor. One guest allegedly wrestled the activists' banner out of their hands. During the melee, Purvis said, two of her associates were doused with beer.

"We did commit trespassing," Purvis said. "But is trespassing truly a crime as opposed to putting the entire planet in turmoil?"

Climate activists worldwide are raising the stakes, with many turning to civil disobedience to make their voices heard. Actions in recent months have ranged from chaining themselves to coal conveyor belts in Sydney, to forming port blockades in the Netherlands, to scaling smokestacks in the United Kingdom.

The rise in activism reflects growing frustration against the continued, and expanding, use of coal as a source of energy. The fuel, while affordable, is directly linked to climate change and air pollution.

"What I see is - in the last year - it just exploded and went from being a sizable amount of people, several thousands of very active youth all around the country, to just hundreds of thousands of young people," said Brianna Cayo Cotter, communications director for Energy Action Coalition, a network of North American youth climate activists. "I feel like the floodgates are about to open. We have the numbers. We have the skills. We have the passion."

In Europe, where some 50 new coal plants are being planned, Greenpeace is leading a continent-wide campaign [PDF] to halt eight upcoming projects in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the United Kingdom, plans are under way to build the country's first coal plant in 34 years. Activists have escalated their opposition to the proposed construction this year.

In the United States, a nationwide fight against 150 proposed new coal-fired power plants that began four years ago has put a serious dent in the coal industry's plans. Through the courts, government lobbying, and acts of civil disobedience, activists have helped cut in half the number of new coal power stations.

The movement achieved a major victory last week. In response to a Sierra Club lawsuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that a proposed coal plant in Utah would need a plan for controlling its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before being granted a federal operating permit. The ruling essentially delays all such permits for the time being. "In the immediate future, no new coal plant will be moving forward," said Virginia Crame, a Sierra Club associate press secretary.

Meanwhile, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has staged campaigns targeting two of the largest funders of such coal projects: Bank of America and Citibank. Last weekend, RAN and Greenpeace organized more than 50 events across the country to protest the banks' financial support of the fossil fuel industry.

"A lot of people are jazzed up about it because global warming was such an important issue in the election on the state and federal level," said Mary Nicol, the Greenpeace student network coordinator. "The cleanest coal plant is the one that isn't built. The youth generation really understands that."

Environmental author Bill McKibben organized 1,400 simultaneous call-to-action events, known as Step It Up, in 2007. He has since founded 350, an organization that raises awareness of the 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent that many climate scientists consider the maximum level necessary for a stable climate.

Following a rally at the U.S. Capitol yesterday, McKibben said that plans for a fall 2008 global day of action would be announced at the climate conference in Poland next month. "Hopefully there will be rallies on every corner of the planet. We have organizers working on every continent except Antarctica," he said. "We need people to realize that coal is the dirtiest fuel on our planet."

McKibben also said he expects more acts of civil disobedience in the next year. "It'll happen. Keep your eyes open in D.C.," he said.

The Energy Action Coalition is expecting 10,000 participants at its second annual Powershift, a conference of climate workshops, lobbying, and protests in Washington in February. Similar "climate camps" have been held this past year in London, Hamburg,  and Newcastle (Australia).

The large-scale campaigns rekindle memories of effective grassroots campaigns from the 1960s and ‘70s. But a saturation of information has made it more difficult now for organizers to attract attention, said Paul Wapner, director of the Global Environmental Politics Program at American University.

"There is a changing landscape in which activism in general, not just environmental, finds its expression," Wapner said. "With the Internet and all sorts of media, it's hard to figure out how one makes a difference and not just have their message get lost in the virtual world."

Regardless of whether the world is watching, more activists are risking arrest for the cause, and more support is coming their way.

In the U.K., six Greenpeace activists faced criminal charges this past summer for damaging a coal-fired power station on the Kent coast. With the support of NASA climatologist James Hansen, an Inuit leader, and other environmentalists, the defendants argued that they were acting on behalf of the world - specifically the Pacific island state of Tuvalu, the Arctic ice cap, and China's Yellow River, they said.

The jury ruled that their actions were indeed protecting property in England and across the globe. The activists were cleared of all charges.

In the United States, 11 protestors who formed a human barrier to a power plant construction site in Virginia in September faced 10 criminal charges and a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, until a plea bargain was reached last month. Hansen again offered his support.

"If this case had gone to trial, I would have requested permission to testify on behalf of these young people, who, for the sake of nature and humanity, had the courage to stand up against powerful ‘authority,'" Hansen said in a prepared statement [PDF].

Next month, Lynne Purvis will appear in court as well. She faces charges of trespassing, unlawful assembly, and resisting arrest following a protest earlier this year against the construction of a natural gas-fired power plant in the Everglades. She, too, requested that Hansen testify on her behalf, but he has yet to respond.

Stories of climate activists who have avoided punishment did not, however, influence Purvis, she said. "I honestly don't pay too much attention to that kind of stuff. My personal motivation is that whatever the consequence, it's better than the massive consequence that will be felt by the entire community and the entire planet."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org.