The Hot Topic: A Growing Climate Change Movement Emerges - By Bryan Farrell, NY Indypendent

The Hot Topic: A Growing Climate Change Movement Emerges - By Bryan Farrell, NY Indypendent
Ratcliff-on-Soar power station - photo by John Darch; wikipedia commons

“Climate change should always be looked at as a justice issue,” said RAN’s Joshua Kahn Russell.


Originally posted in the November 2009 issue of the NY Indypendent

Hundreds of climate activists swarmed down a hill toward Britain’s largest coal-burning power plant Oct. 17 with the intention of shutting it down. Within minutes, dozens had broken through the perimeter fence, erected specifically for this protest, and entered the site, known as Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station. But 650 police officers rapidly secured the breach and over the next six hours battled about 300 activists determined to topple other sections of the fence.

While a few broke through again to block the main gates and occupy railway tracks, many were injured by police batons or dog bites. By the next day, 57 arrests had been made without a single service interruption at the plant.

Nonetheless, organizers of the event — dubbed the Great Climate Swoop — considered their effort a “massive success.” In a press statement, Natasha Blair, from Camp for Climate Action, said, “We’ve achieved what we came here to do: to show that coal has no future and there is a growing movement which is prepared to take action on climate change.”

British climate activists have been stressing this message for a few years now. In fact, the storming of Ratcliffe came on the heels of a recent announcement by German energy corporation E.ON that it was shelving plans to build Britain’s first new coal-fired power station in 30 years. Although the company blamed the recession, climate activists believe their work was a deciding factor.

Groups like the anarchist-influenced Camp for Climate Action, known for its weeklong gatherings of mostly young people that end in direct action, and the suffragette- inspired Climate Rush have worked with international fixtures like Greenpeace since 2007 to wage a campaign against E.ON. They’ve shut down a coal conveyer belt, blockaded company headquarters in Nottingham, occupied the roof of the PR firm it employs and won a major criminal trial using climate change as a legal defense.

Due to such widespread and effective activism, many see Britain as a climate movement leader. British weekly political magazine The New Statesman recently said, “Climate change activism is more developed in this country than anywhere else in the world.”

Some argue, however, that this perception might be different if developing countries had the same media access as the industrialized world. International groups like Rising Tide and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) continually stress climate organizing by indigenous communities and people of color.

The Great Climate Swoop got more coverage than an even larger action in Thailand last month, which saw 4,000 people in the streets outside the U.N. Climate Talks in Bangkok. Many had come from as far away as Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

“Climate change should always be looked at as a justice issue,” said RAN’s Joshua Kahn Russell. Since its founding in 1985, RAN has lent its expertise in finance campaigning — going after banks that invest in projects like rainforest destruction — to native communities fighting on the frontlines.

“We have no illusion that we’re a mostly white NGO from the States,” he said. “We consider ourselves justice-minded climate activists, as opposed to climate justice activists.”

The difference, according to Kahn Russell, is that climate justice groups are led by people affected by issues of class and race. Their work and perspectives have generally been overlooked in the West, perhaps at the peril of building a more cohesive climate movement.

“Even though the issue is beginning to get that kind of force behind it,” said Abigail Singer, an organizer with the Bay Area’s Rising Tide North America, “it needs to be framed more for regular people and folks who tend to be more marginalized.”

Instead, the number of Americans concerned by global warming is dropping. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 57 percent “believe there is strong scientific evidence the Earth has gotten hotter over the past few decades.”


There is one rich nation, however, that is being forced to accept this reality. Australia is in the midst of an epic drought that could cause its fifth largest city, Adelaide, to run out of drinking water next year. It has also suffered dust storms, fires, cyclones and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef — all of which scientists have linked to global warming.

Australia has become a hotbed of climate activism, mainly against the coal industry, which is responsible for nearly 50 percent of Australia’s energy and has made it the world’s leading exporter. According to, which tracks nonviolent direct actions against the coal industry, Australians have waged at least a dozen actions in the last year alone, far outpacing the U.K.

Greenpeace has been at the forefront, temporarily shutting down Hazelwood Power Station, one of the world’s worst polluting coal plants, several times. Last month Australia’s first Climate Camp drew 500 people to the country’s oldest coal mine in an effort to block expansion.

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