Saturday , May 25th , 2024  

The Climate Alarm Is Ringing – It’s Time to Stop Silencing It

Credit: Last Generation Germany

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Apr 12 2024 – The heat records keep tumbling – 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history. Extreme weather events keep mounting up. And yet the voices most strongly calling for action to prevent climate catastrophe are increasingly being silenced.

It’s a sad fact that climate campaigners in the global south – in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America – have long faced repression. People have been subjected to incarceration and violence all the way up to murder for resisting climate-harming extractive projects and environmental destruction. In comparison, climate activists in global north countries – including Europe and North America – for a long time enjoyed relative freedom, which they used to protest against their governments and the corporations headquartered in their countries that bear most of the responsibility for causing global warming.

But they no longer enjoy the full freedom to do so. As the latest State of Civil Society Report from global civil society alliance CIVICUS shows, several global north governments are increasingly making it harder for people to take part in climate protests. They’re using anti-protest laws, raids, arrests, jail sentences and violence to try to subdue voices calling for urgent action.

When it comes to the climate, delay is denial, because if action isn’t taken fast, it may be too late. This means the repression of activists demanding immediate action must be seen as a form of climate denial.

Examples are piling up. In Germany last year, authorities used laws intended to combat organised crime to raid the homes of young activists from the Last Generation climate movement, seize their laptops and freeze their bank accounts. The German police also used violence against activists trying to block a coalmine expansion. The imposition of restrictions on climate activism is one the key reasons the CIVICUS Monitor recently downgraded Germany’s civic space rating.

In Italy too, the government has served climate campaigners with criminal conspiracy indictments historically used against the mafia, and it has also introduced a law to criminalise non-violent action at key sites. The Dutch authorities have responded with mass arrests to roadblock protests demanding it fulfil its promise to end fossil fuel subsidies, which amount to around US$39.9 billion a year. Thousands have been detained and the police have used water cannon against protesters.

The UK government has passed a package of laws that criminalise disruptive and noisy protests, clearly targeted at the non-violent direct action used by climate campaigners. In January, the UN Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, condemned these new laws. Numerous climate activists have been jailed for peaceful protest actions that until recently would never have received a prison sentence. Meanwhile the UK government plans to grant over 100 new oil and gas licences. Several Australian states have also passed anti-protest laws that have been used to jail climate activists.

Global north states, apparently eager to do the bidding of the fossil fuel giants, can be expected to intensify this repression as the gap between the action needed and the lack of effort being taken becomes increasingly clear. They silence civil society because activists expose the hypocrisy behind the greenwash. As right-wing populists and nationalists who oppose climate action – and often spread climate disinformation – gain influence across the global north, climate activists can expect an even greater wave of vilification.

The impacts of repression are personal. They increase the costs and dangers of activism in an attempt to deter people from getting involved and sap collective energies. However, in response, campaigners are showing resilience. In Germany, frozen funds were quickly replaced with crowdsourced donations. In the Netherlands, attempts to repress roadblocks motivated more people to turn up to protest.

But the opportunity cost is steep. Energy that should be invested in advancing creative climate solutions is instead being spent in fending off restrictions. In the long-term, there’s a danger of attrition, depleting the ranks of climate activists. And without civil society, who will push to keep the climate crisis high on the political agenda?

Civil society has shown it can make a difference. While there was much to be unhappy about with the last global climate summit, COP28, the fact that for the first time states acknowledged the need to transition away from fossil fuel use came as a direct result of civil society’s decades-long advocacy. More institutions are committing to divest from fossil fuel investments due to campaigning pressure: 72 per cent of UK universities have now done so, because student activists demanded it.

And the growing field of climate litigation keeps paying off. A group of Swiss women just won a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights, which found that their government has violated their human rights by not doing enough to tackle climate change, a verdict that sets a strong precedent. Last year, courts in Belgium and Germany insisted on stronger actions to cut emissions following lawsuits brought by campaigners. More are sure to follow.

Civil society will strive to keep working on every front possible, through protest, advocacy and litigation, because the scale of the climate crisis demands a full spectrum of responses. States should stop trying to hold back the tide and put themselves on the right side of history. They must respect the right of everyone to protest and stop the denial they practise through repression.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

 


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