Image credit: Cluster of Excellence

Red States Rush To Criminalize Climate Activism

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People in the so-called Republican party like to shout about freedom at the top of their lungs, but they are the first to tell others what they cannot say or do. This isn’t freedom; it’s fascism. The world is heading toward a full-on climate emergency, but those freedom loving patriots are pushing laws that criminalize climate activism.

The right wing crazies love to wrap themselves in the flag. It’s got something — they don’t know exactly what — to do with patriotism and national security. That’s Grade A horse puckey. It has everything to do with fossil fuel companies buying compliant politicians who will shut up and do what they are told — if they want the gravy train of lucrative campaign contributions to continue. “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Samuel Johnson wrote in 1775.

Recently, Manuel Esteban Paez Terán was shot to death by police outside of Atlanta while protesting the destruction of a forest to build a new police training facility. The Guardian says Terán is believed to be the first environmental defender killed in the US and calls his death the culmination of a dangerous escalation in the criminalization and repression of those who seek to protect natural resources in America, campaigners.

It was the sort of deadly act “people who have been paying attention to this issue assumed would happen soon, with no sense of joy,” according to Marla Marcum, founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. “The police and the state have a callousness towards the lives of those on the front line of environmental causes and I hope this is a wake-up call to those who didn’t know that,” she said. “I hope people take the time to notice what’s going on, because if this trajectory of criminalization continues, no one is going to be safe.”

Georgia’s response to the protests follows a pattern of environmental and land rights defenders in the US being threatened, arrested, and charged with increasingly drastic crimes — including terrorism — for opposing oil and gas pipelines or the destruction of forests and waterways, advocates claim. “This was meant as a chilling deterrent to show that the state can kill and jail environmental defenders with impunity. It reflects a trend towards escalation and violence to distract from the real issue of advancing corporate interests over lands,” said Nick Estes, author of “Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.

The criminalization of land and water protectors and Indigenous nations using critical infrastructure security laws can be traced back to the Patriot Act, which allowed the definition of terrorism to become more vague and more expansive. “It is intended to have a chilling effect on peaceful protesters,” Kai Bosworth, author of Pipeline Populism and assistant professor of geography at Virginia Commonwealth University told The Guardian.

 ALEC & Climate Activism

Since the Standing Rock protests in 2016, 20 states have enacted laws that impose harsh penalties for impeding “critical infrastructure.” They make trespassing a felony offense and target environmental activists with domestic terrorism laws that have “been successful in really tamping down dissent and sowing fear among people,” said Marcum. Much of this fear has been fueled by labeling protestors “terrorists” by senior elected figures such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, according to Elly Page, senior legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Protesters in Georgia have been charged with “domestic terrorism” felonies for such mundane acts as trespassing, constructing a campsite, and sitting in the trees.

“We see autocrats around the world use rhetoric like that to clamp down on dissent. The widespread demonization of protesters we’ve seen from politicians who call them terrorists or a mob is incredibly harmful. I think that creates an environment where violence against protestors is not unlikely and that more of these tragedies will take place,” Page told The Guardian.

Many of those state laws use language drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right wing group backed by fossil fuel companies. The laws passed in Republican controlled states are often written by ALEC and then circulated among sympathetic reactionary legislators who, being too lazy to actually do the hard work of legislating, run them through the copy machine and call it a day. Across 17 Republican controlled states, protesters face up to 10 years in prison and million dollar fines for their offenses.

Steven Donziger, the attorney who has been in an epic legal battle with Chevron on behalf of Indigenous people in Ecuador, told The Guardian there is a “dangerous trend” of fossil fuel influence over the functions of government and the law. “As we get closer to tipping point of no return on climate change, the effort to silence advocacy to have clean energy transition is intensifying. To attack young people who are trying to preserve a forest with a military style assault is totally inappropriate but is unfortunately a sad reflection of where the country has gone. For weeks these people were called terrorists, which is a complete misuse of the word. The police have been conditioned to believe these people are terrorists and what do you do with terrorists? In the US you kill them. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.”

The Importance Of Environmental Activism

The Cluster of Excellence at the University of Hamburg works closely with eleven partner institutes, including the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, the Helmholtz Center Hereon, and the German Climate Computing Center. Each year, it publishes the “Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook” report, which analyzes physical and social dynamics and examines which climate futures are not only possible but also plausible. 63 scientists from different disciplines of the natural and social sciences as well as economics and law are involved as authors of the report, which is then reviewed by 20 national and international experts.

In this year’s Climate Futures Outlook, the group finds that meeting the goal of limiting global heating to just 1.5º C is not plausible. “A lot is actually happening when it comes to climate protection. However, if you look at the development of social processes in detail, it is still not plausible that global warming can be kept below 1.5 degrees,” says Dr. Anita Engels, lead author of this year’s report. The 2023 report says consumer behavior, and the behavior of companies in particular, are slowing urgently needed climate protection worldwide. UN climate policy, legislation, climate protests, or a withdrawal of investments from the fossil fuel economy support the climate goals but are not sufficient to meet the 1.5 degree goal. “The necessary comprehensive decarbonization is simply taking place too slowly,” Engels says.

The greatest chance for a positive climate future lies in the agency of society, the report claims. It suggests the activities of non-state actors committed to climate protection — activities that include civilian protesters — are needed to keep the pressure on politicians. “The question of what is not only theoretically possible, but also plausible, provides new starting points,” Engels says. “If we miss the climate targets, it becomes all the more important to adapt to the consequences. To be ready for a warmer world, we need to anticipate change, involve stakeholders, and leverage local knowledge. Instead of just reacting, it is now important to actively transform.”

The Consequences Of Legislative Terrorism

Have you ever been arrested? Most of us have not. We may think it’s sort of a right of passage experience — part of growing up, an experience to be proud of. We see celebrities like Jane Fonda being led away in handcuffs and think, “I should have the courage to do something like that.” No you shouldn’t. Once you are in the clutches of the legal system, your life will be forever changed and not for the better.

You may not be granted bail, particularly if you traveled from outside the local area to lend your voice to the protest. You will be considered a flight risk and detained in jail until your trial, which could be months or even years away. You will lose your job. With no income, you may lose your home and all your possessions. If you have a car loan, your car may be repossessed. You may go bankrupt, and that’s before you pay an attorney to represent you. Do you know how much attorneys charge for criminal defense work? Suffice to say, your foray into climate activism may strip you of all your life savings and leave you deeply in debt.

If you are convicted, you face the prospect of spending years in a cell. Once you are in “the system,” your life is no longer within your control. Prison authorities can do whatever they want with you. They can decide you should be in solitary confinement where you will pass those years in splendid isolation, separated from all human contact 23 hours out of every day. If they like you, they will leave the lights on. No cell phone, no TV, no newspapers, no computer, no dates, no family interactions. Just you and your thoughts all day every day for years. You will be alive, but only at the most minimal level imaginable. That is what the fossil fuel companies and their stooges like ALEC think you deserve if you dare interfere with their business  model — pillaging the Earth for profit. Are you prepared for all that?

Don’t expect any compassion from the courts. Many of the judges, including six members of the Supreme Court, are products of the Federalist Society, an organization partially supported by money from fossil fuel companies. Think they are going to save you? Think again.

The Takeaway

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Who said that? Was it Upton Sinclair? Sinclair Lewis? Alfred E. Neuman? Does it matter? The words are important, not who wrote them. Fascism is already happening in America, where a small group of ultra wealthy people are doing everything in their power to tell you what to think, what to read, and who to associate with. If you defy them, you risk the most draconian sanctions imaginable.

The sweeping hypocrisy of these people is breathtaking. Under the guise of promoting “freedom,” they want to control every uterus in America. A woman’s body is now the property of the religious fascists who cannot accept that anyone might worship any god but theirs. Freedom of speech permits businesses to openly discriminate against anyone they don’t like, but doesn’t include your right to stand up for the Earth.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What the so-called Republicans seek is nothing less than absolute power, and if the Earth gets destroyed in the process, so be it. To them, it’s worth destroying the only planet we will ever know as long as they get to be in control in the end. In the final analysis, it’s not about love or money. Power is the be all and end all of human existence and it will destroy us unless we learn to collaborate and work together.

Why is that so hard? Because the power mad crazies use an old tactic called “divide and conquer,” something social media makes easier than ever before. The antidote is simple to say but hard to do. Maybe we should try it anyway?


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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