Disruptive Climate Protests Spur Police Raids in Germany and the US

A series of police raids in Germany and the United States this week are resparking the debate over what is and isn’t an acceptable form of protest, as climate activists frustrated by the slow progress of their governments to curb rising carbon emissions continue to block traffic, target art installations and generally disrupt day-to-day public life.

On Wednesday, German police raided 15 properties linked to a climate activist group, making no arrests but seizing bank accounts and other assets as part of a larger criminal investigation that includes allegations of members trying to sabotage an oil pipeline. That same day, U.S. police arrested three environmental justice activists in Atlanta and charged them with money laundering and charity fraud. Those arrests were made in relation to ongoing protests over the controversial plan to build a large law enforcement training facility—nicknamed “Cop City” by activists—in some of Atlanta’s old-growth forest, which environmentalists want to protect.

And last week, a federal grand jury indicted two climate activists after they smeared paint on the protective case of a famous Edgar Degas sculpture in the National Gallery of Art back in April. Both of those activists face two counts related to conspiracy and damaging property, with each charge carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

The news—especially the large-scale raid in Germany—prompted harsh criticism from the climate activist community, many of whom accused their political leaders of attempting to criminalize peaceful protest while propping up the fossil fuel industry. Some countries and a number of conservative states in the U.S. have adopted a slew of laws in recent years that level harsh penalties on protesters.

“We’ve seen similar crackdowns here in the U.S., from terrorism charges and the murder of Tortuguita in Atlanta to recent conspiracy charges against climate protestors right here in D.C.,” Jade Olson, a spokesperson for the D.C. chapter of the climate group Extinction Rebellion, said in a statement to Inside Climate News. “This backlash isn’t surprising because we pose a threat to the fossil fuel corporations currently running our politics and economy.”

Increasingly disruptive protests have also opened a rift within the climate movement. While many history scholars have pointed to the significance of civil disobedience in Western society and the broader fight for human rights, recent research also suggests that the aggressive tactics used by some climate groups have been counterproductive.

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, said in an interview that he can’t speak to the specifics of what happened in Germany this week, but that the incident highlights how aggressive climate protests can hurt the movement’s aims. “This is another example of folks engaging in the sorts of disruptive actions that our own research suggests are counterproductive from the standpoint of garnering public support for climate action,” said Mann, who is also director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media.

A study that Mann conducted last year with University of Pennsylvania political scientist Shawn Patterson Jr. found that nearly half of the American public said they became less sympathetic to the aims of climate protesters after witnessing demonstrations involving famous artwork. Other recent research, including a study in Germany, have drawn similar conclusions.

In fact, Extinction Rebellion’s founding branch in the United Kingdom vowed in December to temporarily halt disruptive demonstrations in 2023, acknowledging that their tactics had caused significant public backlash.

The announcement garnered praise from some in the climate movement, including Mann, who told me that the organization’s “move away from such actions was a definite step in the right direction.”

But many in the climate movement see civil disobedience as their last chance to keep runaway climate change at bay as global carbon emissions continue to climb to record highs despite scientists sounding the alarm over the consequences of burning fossil fuels for three decades.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was arrested last year when he chained himself to the entrance of a Chase Bank in Los Angeles. He and hundreds of other climate scientists around the world have largely lost faith that their research will spur politicians to take the kind of aggressive action needed to uphold the Paris Agreement. They have called on their fellow researchers to join them in protest and even face arrest.

In December, Kalmus and Rose Abramoff, who worked at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, interrupted an American Geophysical Union conference by taking the stage unexpectedly and unfurling a banner that read: “OUT OF THE LAB & INTO THE STREETS.” 

The stunt led to serious repercussions for the two—Abramoff was fired for the protest. But Kalmus believes such activism is worth the trouble if it means keeping the climate crisis from spiraling out of control.

“Climate activists are on the right side of history, and those standing against them are on the wrong side of history,” he told me. “The increasingly punitive measures against climate protest reveal how governments stand on the side of fossil fuel corporations, and are consistent with how politicians are accelerating irreversible climate catastrophe, to the great detriment of us all.”

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Today’s Indicator

4,500

That’s how many gigawatts of renewable energy the world is expected to have by the end of the year, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. It’s a big jump, with each gigawatt representing as much energy as the annual output of a large nuclear power plant.

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