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Climate Disobedience Is on the Rise and It's Not Just for Radical Activists Anymore

An emerging movement is determined to use direct action to combat the depredations of climate change and they've got some big names on board.

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In fact, arrests are piling up quicker than journalists can coin name-and-number nicknames. The Coal Swarm website keeps track of an ever-lengthening list of protests. New headlines now appear weekly:


"Activists scale 20-story dragline at mountaintop removal site in Twilight, WV"
"14 Arrested at TVA headquarters in Knoxville, TN"
"10 activists board coal ship in Kent, England"
"Activists shut down Collie Power Station, Western Australia"

In August 2007, Al Gore, Nobel-prize-winning author of An Inconvenient Truth , told Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times , "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants." By the time Gore made that statement, some young people had already started blocking bulldozers, and many more, young and old, would soon follow.

Still, Gore can be excused for feeling that such measures were overdue. With global warming, perhaps more than any other issue, there is a disjuncture between a widespread acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation we face and a social willingness to respond in any proportionate way.

The landmark 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that a two degree Celsius rise in average temperature, likely by 2050, would create severe water shortages for as many as two billion people and place between 20% to 30% of all plant and animal species at risk of extinction. It gets worse from there. An April 2009 Guardian poll reported: "Almost nine out of 10 climate scientists do not believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2C will succeed." More probable, they believe, is "an average rise of 4-5C by the end of this century," a level that could create hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing areas afflicted by desertification, depleted food supplies, or coastal flooding.

That these consensus predictions may feel remote and improbable to much of the American public does not reflect a real scientific debate, but rather a common reluctance to face unpleasant facts -- and also the considerable success of the coal and oil lobbies in dampening the electorate's sense of urgency about the issue. Those two realities are precisely what direct action intends to confront.

An Inconvenient Politics

When Vice President Gore started endorsing civil disobedience, Abigail Singer, an activist with Rising Tide, a leading network of grassroots climate groups, noted, "It'd be more powerful if he put his body where his mouth is." She had a point.

As it happens, 68-year-old James Hansen, arguably the most famous climate scientist alive, has been less reticent about putting himself on the line. His involvement has furnished a great deal of mainstream respectability to those turning to more confrontational means of expressing dissent, and the trajectory of his political engagement catches an important trend.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hansen published many groundbreaking papers demonstrating the reality of a warming planet. Just as the work scientists had done in the early 1980s proving that human activity was creating a hole in the ozone layer had resulted in a 1987 treaty against chlorofluorocarbons, Hansen assumed that the work of those documenting climate change would result in swift legislative remedy.

"He's very patient," Hansen's wife Anniek told Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker . "And he just kept on working and publishing, thinking that someone would do something." This time around, however, industrial interests proved far more entrenched. In order to help move glacially slow climate negotiations forward, Hansen started speaking out and, more recently, has begun risking arrest at demonstrations.

Of course, there is never a shortage of people who will question the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action. "We're every bit as worried about climate change as the protestors," a spokesperson for the E.On corporation, the energy company that runs Kingsnorth, said upon the announcement of the famous verdict, "but there are ways and means to protest and we would suggest their demonstration was not the way to do it."

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