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Climate protesters are getting ready for a year to remember

Attempted crackdowns have united human rights and environmental campaigners — and now they feel stronger than ever.

By India Bourke

“This has to be the biggest year yet for climate protest,” a supporter of the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK told the New Statesman recently. “If it doesn’t happen now then we’ll all be heading to the hills and prepping [for the worst].”

So will it? Nearly 5 per cent of Americans also say they would willingly participate in civil disobedience to demand action on global warming, according to research published last week. That may sound like a small number but it is higher than the 3.5 per cent of a population that Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard political scientist, argues is needed if nonviolent protest is to achieve political change.

The finding is a further sign that concern about climate change has reached a tipping point. In the UK environmental issues topped a poll of public worries last November for the first time since 1989. Extinction Rebellion will probably take heart from that, and recent acquittals of climate activists in British courts, as it announces its latest strategy for mass mobilisation and nonviolent civil resistance in April.

It remains to be seen if 2022 really will be the year that enough people shout loudly enough to drive much-needed political action, however. Even as extreme weather induced by climate change has shattered records and destroyed lives in the past 12 months, emissions have continued to rise. Lofty promises made at November’s Cop26 climate summit have been followed by political stalemate and silence on policies, while a global energy crisis is putting further progress at risk.

In the UK, like elsewhere, pandemic restrictions have made it hard for activists to judge the extent of wider support. Smaller, targeted and often more controversial actions — such as the blocking of motorways by Insulate Britain — have replaced the large-scale acts of civil disobedience popularised by Extinction Rebellion before the pandemic.

Over this same period Boris Johnson has decried environmental activists as “crusties”, and the government’s proposed Policing Bill seems bent on deterring and criminalising acts of climate protest.

Yet somewhat ironically this very hostility from the government could be strengthening public support for the movement, with recent reactions from the House of Lords, juries and judges suggesting disapproval.

This month the House of Lords threw out all of the last-minute amendments to the Policing Bill. These included attempts to criminalise the standard tactic of protesters locking themselves on to something, used as far back as the Suffragettes, and additions that would have broadened police powers to stop and search.

The bill continues to pose a threat as it returns to the House of Commons, warns the human rights group Liberty, which has been calling for its damaging proposals to be scrapped in their entirety. Roma, gypsy and traveller people are particularly targeted, and it could still introduce harsh sentences for anyone unknowingly breaching police conditions imposed on peaceful protests.

In its wake, however, the legislation is also creating an increasingly diverse coalition of pro-environment and pro-rights opposition. “We are starting to see new relationships forming through this campaign, between racial, social and climate justice activists,” says Bhavini Patel, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Unify, which has been campaigning against the legislation. “It’s brilliant this bridge is emerging.”

“Fears of criminal conviction could have a chilling effect on attendance at protests,” suggests David Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth. “But if the Cop moment is anything to go by, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to turn up and demand transformative climate action.”

In addition, over the past year juries have acquitted climate activists such as Extinction Rebellion activists who stopped trains and those who caused damage to the London headquarters of the oil giant Shell.

These are not instances of “perverse” verdicts — which was how some Tory MPs described the recent acquittal of those who toppled a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol — but examples of juries properly applying the law as given to them by a judge, says Mike Schwarz, a protest lawyer at the firm Hodge Jones & Allen. The right to protest is enshrined within articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, now part of UK law by virtue of the Human Rights Act, he pointed out. And the principle of proportionality must be applied when considering whether a protest breaks the law.

“With the climate and ecological emergencies being so serious and potentially irretrievable, people will feel impelled to take action now for people abroad and for future generations,” says Schwarz. “A key test for our democracy is whether it can accommodate these protests, rather than penalise and discourage the messengers.”

James Brown, a visually impaired former paralympian who recently spent two and a half months in prison after glueing himself to a British Airways plane as part of a climate protest, has experienced this sense of divided official response more than most. He was initially given a harsh 12-month sentence by the crown court (where the judge accused him of “cynically” using his disability) but it was cut short in December after the Court of Appeal ruled that it was excessive.

“We’re seeing magistrates throwing cases out, juries refusing to convict, and the Court of Appeal overturning sentences for climate protesters, and that’s huge,” Brown says. “It feels like the state doesn’t know which way to turn on this and they’re torn.”

The UK climate struggle appears to be growing in momentum and strength as it becomes more closely entwined with resistance to threats to democratic rights and civil liberties, and a similar picture is emerging around the world.

As pandemic restrictions are eased activists in a host of countries are looking ahead to the Global Climate Strikes planned for March. Others are focused on the Stop EACOP campaign to halt the construction of a crude oil pipeline in East Africa. And some are concentrating on holding politicians to account in elections, from the US to France, Colombia and Brazil.

“In the past few months, we’ve definitely grown as an organisation,” says Jon Bonifacio of Youth Advocates for Climate Action in the Philippines, where the devastating Typhoon Rai struck in December and an election is planned for May. “We need to see a change of leadership into something more sustainable and just.”

“Our governments are sleepwalking us off the cliff into disaster,” says Tatiana Seryan, an Extinction Rebellion member based in the US. “The only question is, can we wake up in time?”

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