What does Dr. Kush Naker, a 33-year-old doctor of infectious diseases from London, share in common with 61 protesters currently facing racketeering charges in Georgia for protesting a planned 85-acre police training facility through an Atlanta forest?
Both were upheld by climate activists as an example of "egregious" ways in which the law has come down especially hard on those protesting humanity's self-destructive over-reliance on fossil fuels. In May 2023, Naker was arrested at the coronation of King Charles III for simply wearing a shirt for Just Stop Oil, a British environmental activist group that wants the United Kingdom to eliminate new fossil fuel licensing and production.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a group known as "Stop Cop City" is being targeted by prosecutors who describe the activists as "militant anarchists." The protestors goal is to halt the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, nicknamed Cop City, which is a proposed police and firefighter training facility to be constructed in an Atlanta urban forest. Its opponents cite both social justice and environmental reasons for why this construction should be halted.
"Young people deserve leaders that treat clean air, drinkable water, and a livable future as non-negotiable."
These are not isolated examples. Whether it's climate activist Greta Thunberg being prosecuted in the United Kingdom for allegedly breaching the Public Order Act or opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline being sued by the company in ways seemingly geared toward silencing their protests, those who speak out against the fossil fuel status quo tend to face massive legal consequences.
Burning fossil fuels is the primary catalyst of climate change, a development that currently risks plunging the planet into a future of apocalyptic weather conditions. So it might seem unreasonable to punish the people aiming to bring attention to problem as existential as nuclear war or a deadly pandemic. Yet as some activists explained to Salon, this is not a bug in our current legal system — it's a feature.
"If any of us are to survive the climate crisis, things need to change," Alex De Koning, a 25-year-old Just Stop Oil spokesperson and climate scientist told Salon in an email. "However, fossil fuel companies and those in power who thrived out of the broken system that has got us into this mess refuse to [change.] They are fighting to keep themselves on top and using their considerable wealth and influence to repress any who take them on."
De Koning cited recent reports that a think tank funded by ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest fossil fuel companies, helped write laws that made it more difficult to protest climate change in the United Kingdom. "Why would the government and the fossil fuel industry go to such lengths if they did not fear the power of ordinary people finally fighting back?"
Folabi Olagbaju, the democracy campaign director at Greenpeace USA, pointed out that special interest groups who want to discredit climate science are working in a politically friendly environment. "Climate activism is a threat to the fossil fuel status quo, so it makes sense that corporate polluters and their allies in government are striking back hard," he said.
Ever since the 2000s, it has become increasingly mainstream for Republican politicians and their conservative followers to manufacture doubt about the scientific consensus on global heating. During the most recent Republican administration, President Trump slashed environmental regulations, and right-wing media outlets regularly parrot fossil fuel industry talking points as ideological articles of faith.
"Casting protesters as terrorists — and entire movements as criminal organizations — is both inaccurate and ruinous to our democracy," Olagbaju observed, adding that governments and corporations have been able to do these things with impunity "for a very long time. Now, with the global trend toward right-wing authoritarianism, it can even score them political points."
It is in this context that the gas and oil lobbies have pushed for anti-protest laws and aggressive policing all over the world. "All of these factors create the conditions to criminalize protest, a trend that will continue until we the people collectively stop it," Olagbaju said. "Protest and free speech are two of the best tools we have to fight for climate action – we need to protect these rights if we’re going to successfully champion a green and just future."
While Olagbaju noted that Greenpeace USA has avoided some of the more harrowing experiences endured by frontline protesters, they have faced a different kind of silencing tactic — "baseless" litigation.
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"Casting protesters as terrorists — and entire movements as criminal organizations — is both inaccurate and ruinous to our democracy."
"Energy Transfer – the company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock – is suing us for $300 million for allegedly orchestrating the entire Indigenous resistance movement at Standing Rock," Olagbaju said. "They are trying to destroy a 50-year old environmental organization and to scare the entire movement into sitting down and shutting up. But we will not be silenced — we will continue to fight for everyone’s right to speak truth to power."
Michael Greenberg, founder of the environmental protest group Climate Defiance, argued that the climate change reform movement is "facing steep charges because the industry sees that fossil fuels are losing. The industry is pulling out progressively more desperate measures to try to stop the movement."
Other climate change activists elaborated on exactly what "the movement" means to them. One of them was Stevie O'Hanlon, communications director of a climate change activist group called Sunrise Movement that recently made headlines for protesting a Republican presidential campaign rally for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Although O'Hanlon praised President Biden for his recent policy to delay decision on approving a controversial liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal, the Sunrise Movement leader also argued that this is not enough — that, indeed, young people have a right to demand more from their political leaders.
"Young people deserve leaders that treat clean air, drinkable water, and a livable future as non-negotiable," O'Hanlon said. "Young people need to continue pressuring candidates to deliver for all of us. Biden isn’t doing enough. Delaying LNG build out is the right move, but it alone won’t win him the election. He must declare a climate emergency, end the fossil fuel era, and stop funding genocide."
As for Just Stop Oil's De Koning, the activist asserted that the only way to end their movement "is if there is no new oil and gas in the U.K. Even the main opposition party — Labour — will not commit to revoking the oil and gas licenses that our Prime Minister is shamelessly trying to push through while he is still in power. The time for playing politics is over. Almost every major radical policy shift throughout history has instead come from mass civil resistance, so why would we wait for an election?"
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Olagbaju brought up the upcoming 2024 American presidential election, which experts predict will pit Biden — who, for all of his perceived shortcomings among environmentalists, is at least not a climate change denier — against Trump, who actively denies climate change science.
"This election may be the most critical in history for our ability to avoid climate catastrophe," Olagbaju argued to Salon. "Climate justice activists are letting candidates know that the people who protest are also an organized voting block united with progressive pro-democracy movements. It’s not just climate justice activists, according to the Yale Climate Maps 2023, 66% of adults in the US think that 'developing a clean energy plan should be a priority for the president and Congress.'"
Olagbaju added, "It is critical in this election to call out Big Oil for attacking the fundamentals of our Democracy, and to engage our grassroots allies across issues to recognize how they are fueling fascism."
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