The Worldwatch Institute reports that climate protests are escalating worldwide, as more and more people join movements to block the construction of coal-fired power plants and pressure their governments to mandate greenhouse-gas-emission caps.
Worldwatch writer Ben Block cites recent demonstrations throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States. He quotes a clean-energy youth movement spokeswoman who marvels at the recent increase in participants:
"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."
Mr. Block reports that, in the United States, a movement against coal power that began four years ago has successfully cut in half the number of new coal-fired power plants.
The movement achieved a major victory last week, when a lawsuit by the Sierra Club prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze construction of the roughly 100 new coal plants around the US. Coal power stations, the EPA ruled, must now take carbon dioxide emissions into account.
To curb the use of coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – activists often employ conventional channels, such as lobbying governments and filing lawsuits, but they are also increasingly engaging in civil disobedience.
In the Netherlands this past weekend, two Greenpeace ships blocked a dock at a port in Rotterdam used to unload coal, while elsewhere in the city, 90 Greenpeace activists were arrested after they chained themselves to machinery in an attempt to prevent the construction of a new coal power station.
On Nov. 1, some 25 activists in Sydney, Australia, were arrested after they chained themselves to a coal conveyor belt at one of Australia's largest power stations. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the activists, who were members of the climate-action group Rising Tide, brought the plant's energy production to a standstill.
In September, 15 activists from various environmental groups were arrested in Wise County, Va., after they formed a human barrier to block construction of a Dominion coal plant. Charged with trespassing, they eventually had to pay $400 in fines.
Activists who try to physically block coal-burning are still likely to face arrest and charges, but they have recently found some support in high places. In September, a British court cleared six Greenpeace activists of damaging the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant in Kingsnorth, England, in October 2007. The jury ruled that the activists' actions were justified given the environmental damage caused by the power station.
In September, former vice president and Nobel Laureate Al Gore openly advocated civil disobedience to block the construction of new coal power plants. His call was backed by leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who testified on behalf of the Kingsnorth activists and said that he would have done the same for the Wise County protesters.
As climate protests escalate, it's no surprise that law enforcement is escalating as well, even to the point of engaging in questionable tactics. Writing in Grist this week, Mike Tidwell, the head of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, describes how Maryland police placed him on a terrorist watch list and spied on him in 2005 and 2006. Mr. Tidwell, the author of two books on coastal ecology and rising sea levels, says his group did not engage in any civil disobedience, just ordinary protests with signs and placards, but nonetheless had a police file labeled "Crime: Terrorism, environmental extremists."
Maryland police now acknowledge that Tidwell, along with at least 52 other activists of various stripes, were wrongly placed on the now-defunct watch list, although they have not explained how they were listed in the first place.
Stepping it up
Despite fears of heavy-handed police tactics, we can expect to see more climate demonstrations in the near future. Many groups are planning on convening in Poznań, Poland, on Dec. 1 for the next round of international climate talks. Advocacy groups are calling for president-elect Barack Obama to attend. While this appears unlikely – in a message on climate change earlier this week, he said he would not go – he had promised earlier to at least send a representative to the talks.
On Dec. 6, a coalition of activists spearheaded by Greenpeace will gather at landmarks in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, and other cities for an "International Day of Action for Climate Solutions." Protesters will display a 30-foot by 50-foot "postcard," telling the world that Americans are ready to take action on global warming.