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Film and Feature - Issue #12

The Power of Protest

Extreme weather patterns have seen millions suffering from severe food and water insecurity, especially among populations in the global south - in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. Despite the fact that all of us are affected by increased heat waves, droughts, wildfires or floods - indirectly or directly - not all of us make a noise about it. We rely on a minority to protest and take to the streets to force those in power to take meaningful action. What prompts people to start and join protest movements - to say they will not allow governments and big corporations to be harmful to them and the environment?

Climate activism has been going on for decades and has been gaining momentum since the 70s. And while there is limited data available on campaigns and activism, there have been quite a few well-known climate crisis protests since 2018. Extinction Rebellion (XR), a UK-based non-violent civil disobedience movement that started in 2018 and since 2020,, has been present in at least 75 countries. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg also started her campaign in August 2018. Then 15, she would spend her Fridays outside the Swedish parliament urging for meaningful action on the climate crisis, with a sign saying ‘School strike for climate’. Other students soon started similar protests and organised the global climate strike movement Fridays for Future. Yet world leaders did little to address and understand the urgency of this global challenge.

The most recent failure being COP26 in Glasgow - the United Nations Climate Change conference that has been held every year since its inaugural session in 1995 in Berlin. It is no surprise that climate change activists and environmentalists felt a collective sense of “disappointment and frustration” at its outcome. “The fact that they couldn't bring themselves to agree to end coal production and coal use, that was just the icing on the cake. Denial and delay is being funded by the big fossil fuel companies,” laments UK-based Mary* of Just Stop Oil a coalition of groups working together to ensure the Government commits to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production, as she highlights the reason that prompted the group to take their first action in April 2022.

On the first day of action, they closed down 10 oil depots across the country and blockaded more over the coming months. The closure of five major oil depots caused two significant countrywide shortages of petrol in April, just ahead of Easter.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Fridays for Future march that took place on 5 November 2021.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Fridays for Future march that took place on 5 November 2021.

‘We now have to address climate change or we lose everything, all our rights and freedoms. This is the fight of our lives.’

— Mary, Just Stop Oil

But Mary recognises that most people have no means to act and are left feeling helpless and terrified by the impact of the climate crisis, so what can they practically do?

“The idea that I'm doing my bit - I do my recycling, I'm involved in sustainability at work, I donate to an environmental NGO, I'm doing the right thing - none of these are going to stop the juggernaut of climate change. So, it is worth pointing out to people [that] their soft denial is not going to protect them or their children.”

We have the example of people in Pakistan who have had to face devastating floods since June 2022, “where three million people have been displaced by a monsoon on steroids,” she says. “We now have to address climate change or we lose everything, all our rights and freedoms. This is the fight of our lives,” warns Mary. She says there has to be a way to empower people to force change. It is important to resist harmful governments and the corporations they are working with.

Protests have the power to bring radical change. The 2020-2021 farmers’ protest in India led to the government meeting the farmers’ demands. They had been protesting against the introduction of three laws that relaxed rules around sale, pricing and storage of produce - rules which have protected them from the free market for decades. The parliament officially passed a bill to cancel the reforms, a step that was seen as a victory for farmers as well as a strong example of how mass protests can still successfully shift government policy.

“Sometimes people don't know how a policy or government decision would affect them. Coming out on the street feels overwhelming and they wonder, ‘what is the end goal?’ or ‘what has ever changed that it will now?’” explains Rosemary Marandi, a Goa-based Indian journalist who reports on Indigenous rights.

‘One of the most straightforward ways to influence policy is by voting the right parties into parliament but it can be a slow process to impact state policy or public opinion. Therefore, protests are a swift way to influence that in between elections…’

— Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, sociologist

Protesters in Glasgow at the Cop26 Coalition march that took place on 6 November 2021.

“Climate change is a heterogeneous movement with a lot of different networks and activists with different goals and tactics,” explains Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, Professor of Social Change and Conflict, Sociology, VU University Amsterdam. “One of the most straightforward ways to influence policy is by voting the right parties into parliament but it can be a slow process to impact state policy or public opinion. “Therefore, protests are a swift way to influence that in between elections,” she adds. “Protest is minority behaviour.”

But protest movements have become global in recent years. For instance, the protests against police brutality that followed George Floyd’s murder spread across the world within a matter of days. “Social media has made it cheaper, easier and faster to communicate to a large group of people in a swift time … and thus to mobilise faster. And therefore, nowadays protests are organised not only by the old-fashioned social movement organisations and labour unions but also by the guy next door,” says Stekelenburg.

She says research has shown that protest movements have “a kind of ebb and flow.” At the start of a movement, it tends to be inexperienced in organising protests and the protesters do not have a clear script to follow. So, “as the movement grows and becomes more effective, the protests start evolving into moderate demonstrations,” explains Stekelenburg.

At this point, protest movements start to lose their moderate members because they either believe they have accomplished their goal, or think they will never achieve their objectives, so “what remains is a group of really involved, committed activists who feel that after losing the power of numbers, they need more extreme tactics to accomplish their goals. And at that moment in a movement, there may be extremism, aimed at causing sabotage in some instances,” says the sociologist.

In trying to understand how protest movements start and the challenges that the organisers and the participants have to navigate, it becomes clear that it tends to be a slow, organic process. From writing to members of parliament to proposing reforms to local government bodies, and from picking up litter in the parks and planting bee-friendly gardens to peaceful marches - the campaigners start with taking individual responsibility, trying to bring about change using acceptable, conventional means of pressuring the government - before setting up an organised movement.

“We had the 2008 Climate Change Act, but it didn't go far enough. So that's what's led to people in the environmental movement looking at how people have acted historically. Looking to Gandhi, looking to the civil rights movement, looking to the suffragettes,” says Mary.

Those movements brought about significant social change, from ending colonial rule in subcontinent India to achieving votes for women, using small numbers of people.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Cop26 Coalition march that took place on 6 November 2021.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Fridays for Future march that took place on 5 November 2021.

‘We no longer call it the Conference of Parties, we call it the Conference of polluters’

— Ubrei-Joe Maimoni Mariere, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Africa

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling. According to NASA, the global temperature is rising, the oceans are getting warmer, the ice sheets are shrinking, glaciers are retreating, snow cover is decreasing, Arctic sea ice is declining, extreme events are increasing in frequency and ocean acidification is increasing. It is one of the key issues that will be discussed at COP27, to be held in November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Campaigners called for a climate crisis global day of action on 12 November, right in the middle of the conference. “It has been 27 wasted years in talking about real commitments to addressing the climate crisis across the globe, 27 years of false climate solutions, polluted with deceit and driven by the vested interests of corporations who think of making profits from every given opportunity,” says Benin City -based Ubrei-Joe Maimoni Mariere, a Program Manager with ERA/FoEN and the climate justice and energy project coordinator at Friends of the Earth Africa. “We no longer call it the Conference of Parties, we call it the Conference of polluters,” he adds.

‘According to the IPCC report, we only have three years left to do something serious about this’

— Will Goldring, activist

According to the US-based NOAA climate.gov, Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.08 degree Celsius per decade since 1880, but the rate of warming since 1981 is more than twice that at 0.18 degree Celsius per decade. So, resistance and protest movements need to continue, the collective power of people cannot be underestimated.

“If all 60 or 70 million people in the UK went out and blocked the fuel depots and smashed the petrol stations and said, ‘no, we are not having this anymore’, with their bodies and their collective power, the government would respond. They’d immediately cease fossil fuel production,” believes Will Goldring, 25, a former scientist who quit his PhD late last year to become a climate change activist.

He was utterly devastated when he started to read about the climate emergency. He says he never felt such a profound sense of despair and horror. It felt to him like the opposite of falling in love, a feeling of loss greater than anything else he felt about what is happening in the world now to so many people and what is going to happen in the future.

“It’s a very real sense that this planet may become uninhabitable for human beings,” says Goldring. “We have such a small amount of time. According to the IPCC report, we only have three years left to do something serious about this.” He believes systemic change is needed but acknowledges that it is difficult to achieve because “the political forces in power are backed by the most profitable industry in history, the fossil fuel industry.”

However, the protest movements have, to some extent, caused a shift in the climate change narrative. Rosemary Marandi, an Indian journalist reporting on Indigenous rights, says many factors can lead to a policy shift. For instance, the intensity of the protest, the political ramifications of the issue, and the extent of media coverage given to the issue or protest.

After all, the environmental group Extinction Rebellion got the UK government to declare a climate emergency in May 2019, while Insulate Britain has pushed the government to devote £1 billion to insulate social housing. “Changing the narrative on insulating homes in the UK is probably one of the most effective ways of reducing fossil fuel emissions,” argues Goldring.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Fridays for Future march that took place on 5 November 2021.

Protesters in Glasgow at the Fridays for Future march that took place on 5 November 2021.

‘The environmental struggle is also a political and an economic struggle’

— Ubrei-Joe, Maimoni , activist

In 2019, UK and Ireland became the first two countries to declare a climate emergency in Europe, but 19-year-old Amy Rose Friel O Donnell, who has been an activist for three years, sees no real shift in policy. She believes that step has been “a front for the powers that be to continue doing what they've been doing.”

The UK government’s Public Attitudes Tracker survey has measured public concern about climate change since 2012. It has recorded a gradual increase in concern since 2015, with a more rapid rise from 2018. The 2017 numbers show 23% of those surveyed to be “very concerned”, however, this number jumped to 35% in 2019. Moreover, there is a clear pattern that the youth across the globe sees the climate crisis as a much more pressing issue than the older population. A 2019 Amnesty International survey of 10,000 18-25-year-olds from 22 countries found 41 % recognised the climate emergency as one of the most important global challenges.

The protest movements have also evolved over the decades - from highlighting small single issues like using plastic straws or single species becoming endangered to the wider impact of the climate crisis across the world. And the general public now have an increased awareness of the emergency, they are able to understand how it affects all of us. This certainly helps mobilise people to participate in direct action and civil disobedience, because many human beings are much more concerned about their own species.

“When you tell someone that by the year 2100 billions of human beings will become displaced, they are devastated by that and the fact it’s already happening around the world with hundreds of millions of people becoming refugees,” highlights Goldring. “Some people just can’t abide by the fact that they could be part of the larger set of people who don’t do anything in times of great civil unrest.”

Benin City -based activist Ubrei-Joe, Maimoni has found it can be harder to mobilise people for climate justice protests, as opposed to protests for economic or political issues, because those issues affect everyone. He says it is important to understand that “the environmental struggle is also a political and an economic struggle.”

And in his experience of organising protest movements in Africa, in general, and in Nigeria, in particular, he has found logistics can be the main hurdle because, for any form of action, resources are required to transport people between protest locations. But it has not stopped campaigners from mobilising people in the continent. “We protest because we are concerned about people in the Niger Delta, whose resources are being grabbed, whose land is being destroyed. We are concerned about the coastal communities who are losing their houses due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion,” says Ubrei-Joe, Maimoni Mariere.

The Niger Delta region of Nigeria is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its extensive coastline which is affected by sea level rise and coastal erosion, crude oil drilling and refining activities, and impacting negatively on the high number of people who depend on agriculture for a living.

‘There is no time left to be complicit in the extinction of our species.’

— Amy Rose Friel O Donnell, activist

The power of protest, to a large extent, also relies on people’s emotional connection to the issue. And the decision to join a movement requires people to have some level of trust in the organisers and the cause.

“I had known about the climate crisis on an intellectual level. I was told in school that the icecaps are melting and the polar bears are dying but it wasn't until my cousin was born that I really connected with it on an emotional level,” says 19-year-old Amy Rose Friel O Donnell, who has been an activist for three years.

The young campaigner paused her decision to go to university to fully devote herself to climate change activism. “I understood what was at risk here, my cousin’s rights of growing old and having a family were going to be taken away from her.” She believes it is time for radical action because there is no “time left to be complicit in the extinction of our species.”

But not everyone thinks extreme steps help the cause. In the instances, where environmental protest movements escalate from street marches to causing property damage and sabotage, the term “eco-terrorism” is often banded about. “The label ecoterrorism is to discredit defenders of the Earth,” says Marandi. “I do see increased protests and action by individuals, social groups, etc, but extremism is not something I think will happen. Authorities, however, can still label anything they want as extremism or terrorism,”

Indigenous communities across the world have been protesting peacefully to defend their land, their way of life and their rights, for centuries. In recent years, however, their fight has evolved to encompass the more recent effects of the climate crisis. “Education, awareness, and social media exposure has given a new dimension to their fight,” says Marandi.

A report by the Wire Science states that India has about 340 reported cases of environment-related conflicts, 57% of which have been mobilised by Adivasi (Indigenous) people. In her work with them, Marandi has seen that the younger generation recognises the ethos of their elders, carrying on the baton - be it through social media or mainstream media, or activism on the ground, the youth have been making their voices heard.

There have been so many instances of Indigenous groups being displaced for the sake of building infrastructure or "development" of industries. But peaceful protests have long been a way of life for these people.

“In Africa, when a protest gets violent, your campaign is targeted by security agencies and governments,” explains Ubrei-Joe, Maimoni Mariere. “It is the opportunity that the Nigerian military or African military would be looking for, to start shooting the people”.

“We respect the laws of the land. We do not promote violent protests. We don't need to destroy any property for our voices to be heard.”

It is a sentiment shared by protest movements from Africa to Europe. Most recently, two young activists from Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup over Vincent Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London, in a bid to get the UK government to end fossil fuel production. They maintain they caused “no damage” to the artwork and they would “never ever have considered doing it” if they did not know it was behind the glass.

Such acts of civil disobedience may be disruptive and provocative but those in the movement believe radical action is required to force policy change to tackle the climate emergency.

*name changed to protect her identity

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