Spiral staircase leading to treehouse built by activists protecting Hambach Forest

How can the climate movement escalate to shift power?

Payal Parekh & Carola Rackete

We remember the moment that it dawned upon us that doing or supporting research on the science of climate change was not enough, but that the solution to the climate crisis would only come through movement building to enable collective political action. For Payal it was being stuck in a torrential downpour in Mumbai — while it didn’t make the international news like the flooding in Germany did this summer, there was close to 1000 mm of rain within 24 hours between 26–27 July 2005, resulting in over 1000 lives lost and bringing the city to a completely shutdown. She knew the climate crisis had arrived (at least in the global South) and that the impact of climate change would supercharge the inequality that already existed within India and globally, i.e. the poor would bear the brunt of the crisis, despite being least responsible. For Carola that moment came when she spoke to oceanographers, sea ice physicists and meteorologists on their way to the north pole as a crew member of the Polarstern, an ice breaker vessel. She heard the desperation and frustration in their voices because governments had disregarded their warnings about the what the rapid rate of melting in the Arctic meant.

The frontlines of climate change are not only in poor countries in Asia or Africa or at the poles anymore, but at our doorstep in western Europe. This has opened the eyes of many new people to the severity of the climate crisis. Many, whether seasoned climate activists or the newly sensitised, are fearful and anxious because of the harrowing catastrophes and the strongly worded warnings of the recent IPCC report. Yet the report also indicates we can keep warming under 1.5/2 C, if transformational changes happening swiftly, which means we are far from doomed. Even if we miss this this target, we must’nt give up, because every 0.1 C of warming that is prevented will mean less suffering.

Those of us in western Europe can have a major impact on keeping fossil fuels in the ground and ensuring that the transformation is just and fair. After all many fossil fuel companies, banks and financiers have their headquarters here and the European continent is responsible for one-third of cumulative global emissions. Industrialised countries got us into this mess and they need to step up and take responsibility by cleaning up the mess. If we are willing to reflect on what the movement has accomplished thus far and what’s needed moving forward, we can turn the tide on climate action.

A Reckoning

Even though global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, this does not mean that mass movements haven’t had successes along the way. There were over 2900 climate rallies in 162 countries in 2014 with close to 400 000 participants alone in NYC on the eve of the special UN Climate Summit in New York, followed by 1000 activists in Germany in August 2015 using civil disobedience to occupy a coal mine as a part of Ende Gelände. Greta Thunberg’s speech at the climate negotiations in Bonn in 2018 inspired young people across the world to strike from school on Fridays, while Extinction Rebellion successfully blocked central London in April of 2019.

Furthermore, we have been able to stop some infrastructure projects and save beautiful places; a few examples follow, lest we forget that we do win sometimes. Direct action has been key tactic in the dogged community and communal resistance by the Zone à défendre de Notre-Dame-des-Landes in Brittany, which resulted in the cancellation of the construction of an international airport. The Keystone XL project was cancelled in the United States, with the resistance relying on mass and smaller actions along the route of the pipeline. The inspiring occupiers of the Hambach forest in western Germany galvanised environmental activists across the country to support their campaign, which after eight years, successfully saved it from coal extraction.

A review of some movement actors

Ende Gelände is a network which was planned strategically. It focuses on climate justice and direct action by blocking fossil fuel production sites. In its early years it created a crisis for coal mine and plant operators, as well as the regional governments propping them up — they were successful in forcing coal extraction to be interrupted. The images of the first actions were particularly powerful — more than the occupation, the moon-like desolate images of a raped landscape and ghost towns that appeared on German national television showed the true cost of coal. But Ende Gelände has become a brand that has stuck to the same tactic and until this year, solely focused on coal. Companies, local governments and the police know what to expect and are aware that after a couple of days, things can go back to normal. This year, Ende Gelände decided it is time to innovate and therefore opposed the construction of an LNG import terminal and demonstrated support of initiatives in the global South against fracking. For the first time, the mass civil disobedience action also included a small group planning to conduct sabotage. However, this action remained largely symbolical and didn’t receive much media attention. Ende Gelände also supports many other direct action groups across Germany, in particular the permanent occupation of Lützerath village, which is slated to be destroyed in order to extend the open lignite coal pit Garzweiler II.

Greta Thunberg’s electrifying speech at the UN climate summit in 2018 unexpectedly resulted in tens of thousands of youth becoming active by replicating her civil disobedience tactic of ‘’striking’’ or skipping school every Friday. The focus of this wing of the movement has been to ask/demand that power holders make good decisions to save the climate for children and future generations. What are the consequences if the power holders don’t decide in favour of the climate strikers? There aren’t any, because the youth haven’t created a crisis for those in power. Thus they are even tolerated and invited to meet with world leaders or to address them at major meetings. The youth are co-opted into making world leaders look good without having to actually make any real and lasting change. The climate activists’ continued attendance at international summits becomes part of the theatre of normative climate action. The climate strikers have also strongly relied on a single tactic of school walkouts which has been nearly impossible to pursue during Covid when mass protests where banned and many schools closed. Three years into their protests, their power is withering.

Extinction Rebellion, similar to Ende Gelände, has also made civil disobedience en vogue by focusing on actions in cities, making actions accessible and visible to a larger number of participants. Their aim was to involve people outside of typical left-leaning circles, include the biodiversity crisis and establish citizen assemblies as a democratic forum to debate environmental protection measures in a participatory manner. Their original blockade of London was colourful and creative. The group has also set up structures to support a decentralised network to transfer their movement’s DNA while spreading across the globe. The UK group’s inability or unwillingness to openly connect environmental issues to other social and economic issues, particularly in support of marginalised communities, has meant that many opportunities have been lost to build a broad based multi-race movement. Furthermore the focus on mass arrest and incarceration to clog up the legal system disregards how those with less privilege in society, in particular minorities, the working class, those with disabilities or those undocumented, are treated by the legal system and the state. Despite efforts to improve Extinction Rebellion struggles to recover trust and support in some chapters such as in the UK and Germany, while it remains one of very few environmental direct action groups in countries like Australia or Norway.

How do we win?

We are still in the danger zone. No government has put policies on the table that could limit global warming to under 1.5/2.0 C. Our opponents are formidable and will not go down without a fight. The climate crisis is an expected consequence of current political power structures, rooted in an economic system that pursues infinite growth while increasing inequality by accumulating wealth and therefore political power and influence into the hands of the few. Unless activists address the escalating environmental crises at their social and political roots there is no chance to slow down environmental breakdown. That is why it is imperative that we are not afraid to say that capitalism is unacceptable and go after it in order to end climate breakdown. Just as important, we must be willing to part ways with tactics and strategies that don’t work anymore and instead experiment and innovate with new ones. We believe the following is needed in order to increase our chance of success — we cannot afford to lose.

Widening the Movement

Switzerland was not able to get a new CO2 law passed at the ballot box, which would have defined how Switzerland would bring its CO2 emissions to half that of 1990 levels by 2030 (too little, but that is the subject of another article). The rural population and those without a university degree were largely ignored by the political parties and groups pushing citizens to vote in favour of the referendum. We cannot afford to focus only on the urban population — our secret super power is increasing the breadth of the movement.Therefore those already in the movement must commit to reaching out to potential allies and to using a frame that meets people where they are at and tries to engage and move them from their neutral or apolitical position. We are unlikely to reach new people with dry facts and figures — yes, they play a role, but they don’t move people — stories that speak to our values and spark our ability to imagine a different future filled with possibilities of hope is what gets people excited and engaged, not scientific charts (and one of us has a Ph.D. in climate science!).

Structure and trainings to bring in new people and onboard them are necessary. We have to make it clear to newcomers how they can become involved in the movement and enable them to do it one step at a time. It will mean providing low bar entry points that support people to become active in a way that appeals to them, while simultaneously pushing them slightly out of their comfort zone. Through regular trainings we can provide them with tools and concepts about how to shift the political power structure. This will require deeper and slower forms of organising than the mobilising tactics currently employed, which primarily reach those already engaged (see How Organizations Develop Activists from Hahrie Han to understand transformational organising). It goes without saying that we have to make it clear that our engagement must go far beyond attending weekly demonstrations on Fridays or buying organic produce. At the same time we should do our best to design actions that don’t require specific climbing skills or how to lock-on, as well as make clear that every task is equally important, from participating in the frontlines of an action to cooking at a camp to caring for those who return exhausted and emotional from an action. It takes a village to make social change happen.

We have to engage in self-reflection: Is there a willingness to change some of our practices to be more inclusive? Are we willing to take an intersectional approach and unites environmental and social movements behind a broader vision of social justice in order to expand our reach and be more diverse? If we can tell this story in a way in which it mirrors what many people are experiencing we can break out of our bubble. Attracting new people to the movement who are more diverse also brings fresh perspectives and ideas for tactics and strategies.

Let’s listen to people’s fears and hopes and provide avenues of participation that would work for them. We cannot expect that a working class father in rural Germany would be willing to participate in a forest occupation, but he might shift from his neutral position and perhaps he is going to speak to his friends over Friday beers about the climate, sign a petition that he would not have before or will have sympathy for direct action activists, even if he would not be willing to employ tactics of blockades and occupations. Likewise a second generation PoC European is unlikely to feel comfortable if space is not created for those with a disability, who are not white, straight or university educated, but if she feels welcomed, she may have the next big idea for an impactful action.

Let’s be nimble, flexible and creative

Winning movements are alive and breathing — this means that they are able to react and adapt to a changing landscape. Are we willing to shed tactics that aren’t delivering and do we have the courage to experiment and innovate with new ones? Can we embrace an ecosystem approach to social change, in which various actors (community activists to academics to politicians) carry out essential tactics (civil disobedience to research to lobbying) with a focus on identifying synergies? Effective lobbyists in traditional NGOs are our allies and the work each of us does supports that of the other. The Shell verdict earlier this year is a prime example of how a wide number of strategies from legal tactics to direct action had an impact on the court ruling, forcing the oil company to drastic reduce its CO2 emissions.

Let’s learn how to react to changing conditions. It doesn’t make sense to stick to a tactic when the world is dynamic and constantly changing around us. Nimbleness and agility are the priorities of the day. There are countless examples of people across the world taking creative action to put political power in a bind under the most difficult of circumstances. In Chile motorways and streets were clogged during Pinochet’s reign by people driving or walking extremely slowly. The tactic was borne out of necessity. Originally workers at a mine had planned to strike, but the Chilean military surrounded the mine; following through with the strike was likely to have resulted in bloodshed. Thus, the idea of the slow down was born, which demonstrated to those in power that they had little support, but also kept protestors safe from arrest and killings.

While the chances that we will be killed in a mass action are small (although Carlo Giuliani, a 23 year old protestor was shot and killed by Caribinieri during the G8 protests in July 2001 in Genoa), people in most countries around the world do their best to organise mass actions in such a way as to pressure their target, win sympathy of a larger percentage of the population and stay out of jail. During the Milosevic regime, Otpor!, the resistance group founded by students, placed a barrel with an image of Milosevic in town centres across the country. If people paid one Dinar, they could hit the image of Milosevic with a bat. Using humour they played on a government initiative to raise funds for agriculture (that would be embezzled anyways) and the regime’s love of beatings. The regime looked ridiculous when they finally removed the barrel, yet gave many Serbians, even those not overtly political, the chance to express their frustration at the regime, essentially weakening a key pillar of support for the government.

Many mass actions of the past thirty years from the US anti-nuclear movement to 1999 Seattle WTO shutdown and more recently Ende Gelände have been designed such that participants did similar types of tactics in order to reduce the risk of some being singled out for harsher treatment, which can be used to make an example and try to intimidate others from joining the actions. These mass actions have been often coupled with continuing the action into jail and the courts to protect each other.

Escalation at scale

The climate crisis is getting worse by the minute and there is no question that we need to escalate, but what does it look like in practice? What metrics do we use to decide whether we have escalated and whether it was successful? We argue that currently our biggest task isn’t to radicalise those already engaged and taking part in civil disobedience, but to include the politically inactive, who believe climate change is a problem, but don’t believe they have agency orndon’t know how to affect change. Therefore our key indicator should be ‘’horizontal escalation’’ as David Solnit calls it, the arts organiser and direct action activist, who was one of the designers of the WTO blockade in Seattle back in 1999. If our actions grow in size, moving from dozens to hundred to thousands of participants from more communities, then we have escalated horizontally. while actions that cause activists to retreat or create barriers for new people to join thus making for smaller actions, could be viewed as de-escalation. Once people have made the jump to be a part of the movement, it is our responsibility to move as many people as possible up the ladder of engagement.

In recent months “peaceful” sabotage has gained greater attention in Europe the past months. Academic Andreas Malm argues in his book , How to blow up a Pipeline, that movements nearly always have had a radical flank that used sabotage. In order to assess whether “peaceful’’ sabotage can contribute to escalation, let us define how we use the term. First and foremost we mean property destruction — this could be anything from individuals anonymously and unbeknownst to anyone, puncturing tyres of lorries transporting coal to thousands of people en masse damaging a pipeline. It is considered peaceful because no lives are at risk. It could be planned or spontaneous. Often the term “sabotage’’ feels very patriarchal and virile (even if women also do it) — for us it conjures the image of a war-like situation (yes, we know one could compare the climate crisis to a war) in which an individual or small group saves the day by carrying out an act that feels violent and extreme. Thus, we find the term “dismantling with dignity’’ from the revolutionary artist and activist, Jay Jordan much more inspiring and accurate, because it expands all that sabotage could entail if we care to imagine how to make change radically.

From a campaigning perspective the question is not so much whether sabotage is legitimate (which we think it is, as long as it doesn’t endanger people), but, we must consider whether sabotage is appropriate for the context we are currently in. Will it help us to build power and win greater support within society? If so, what should the look and feel of sabotage be? Is it the moment of people busting pipelines or does something more subtle, such as thousands stenciling a clear message onto the exterior walls of the branches of banks which are funding the climate crisis across the continent? Other examples of creative sabotage include activists planting Amaranthus, which is resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide or using raspberry ants to destroy the computer equipment of banks funding fossil fuels! What if we carried out sabotage in a way as to minimise the risk of getting caught in order to make it hard for the state to use repression and simultaneously maximise impact? Given the current size and power of the movement, peaceful sabotage of “dismantling with dignity’’ should be a part of our tool box, but the context, as well as the look and feel of the action must be carefully considered. We don’t think that is the only tactic and the only way to escalate.

The situation matters! During the occupation of Dannenröder forest in central Germany last year activists marked 150 SUVs with paint in a neighbouring town, warning drivers that the cars would be set on fire should the forest be felled. This created considerable backlash locally against all forest protectors, whether or not they were involved in the action and punished those not responsible for the destruction of the forest. In contrast, when activists damaged cherry pickers and other machinery used for the eviction of the Hambach forest in 2018, this didn’t create a backlash by the public due to widespread support for the forest occupation — the movement had built up strong support in the surrounding community and across the country, as evidenced by a support demo of 50,000 people.

If one does get caught carrying out sabotage, there are real consequences. Recently two US American Plowsharers were found guilty of damaging the Dakota Access pipeline with Jessica Reznicek recently being sentenced to eight years in prison and Ruby Montoya is awaiting sentencing. Considerable resources and energy are spent on the legal strategy and anti-repression work, with a high psychological toll for the individual. We will never know the answer, but is worth having a dedicated activist in jail for eight years, rather than supporting actions and mobilisation on the outside? What about the immediate responsibilities to family, friends and our community that cannot be fulfilled anymore?

When the state acts heavy handed, it also has a chilling effect on experienced activists and makes joining the movement less desirable to potential new activists, thus making it more difficult to bring in new constituencies into the movement. It could lead to retaliation of the state by passing repressive laws criminalising even more people. As it is, there are already considerable risks for individuals, not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. Ella, a young activist, was arrested during the eviction of the Dannenröder forest in 2020 and sentenced to two years in jail for allegedly attacking a police officer during her arrest because the law had been changed in Germany in recent years to provide police officers with extensive protections. The UK, Switzerland, France and Germany have passed stricter laws recently, making protest riskier.

Nevertheless we know that peaceful sabotage can be effective if applied at the right moment. An action this June in France organised by Soulèvements de la terre (Lifting up the earth) and Extinction Rebellion effectively shutdown a La Farge-Holcim cement plant and monkey wrenched equipment with about 200 participants over the course of one weekend and managed to keep people out of jail! In Chile, after multiple uprisings over the course of many years due to increasing inequality and the rising cost of living, the moment when students called for #EvasionMasiva, the jumping of turnstiles to evade fares, the protests hit a chord and — being met with state violence and repression — evolved into unorchestrated peaceful sabotage of burning down metro stations and destroying infrastructure. These actions did not cause a backlash among supporters and were also an outgrowth of widescale protests; essentially the state’s hand was already weakened due to the widescale mass civil disobedience, meaning the conditions were favourable for peaceful sabotage — the consequences associated with such actions were decreased and effectiveness increased.

We believe that a mass movement is strongest, when it has strength in numbers and a cadre who have been trained to use their agency to engage strategically to build collective power. This means moving people up the ladder of engagement, willing to do ever more in the struggle for justice. If we accomplish this, it give us the ability to carry out mass non-cooperation, stage four of the five stages of the strategy for a living revolution that George Lakey, the US American peace activist developed. Naturally peaceful sabotage should and could be a part of the mix, in particular if we do our best to minimise arrests or heavy sentences and avoid toxic security culture, which often sows the seeds of distrust. Even when one makes it clear what will be done, the state doesn’t know when or how!

If we apply our minds, there is no limit as to what escalation looks like — peaceful sabotage is not the only option, so let’s expand our escalation toolbox, so that we choose the ones that has the best chances for success within the context we are in at every point in time.

Conclusion

The climate crisis is scary because we have already gotten a taste of its destructive force. The stakes are high and the changes we are fighting for are essential to our survival, it impacts everything and everyone we care about. Change isn’t happening fast enough, despite the efforts that many of us have dedicated to affecting change. Nevertheless we have made progress: the fossil fuel industry is back footed and starting to scramble. The question is not whether fossil fuel extraction will be history, but if we will achieve this before reaching irreversible climate tipping points. This is why we have to sharpen our strategies and be deeply imaginative about the tactics we employ. If we are successful, we can transforming society to be more just, equitable and fair. Let’s pick the tactics that fit our dreams and make fossil capitalism history!

Acknowledgment: We would like to thank everyone who discussed with us strategies for winning. A big shout out also goes to those who actually read drafts of the manuscript and provided essential comments for improving it.