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The criminalization of environmental movements

The criminalization of environmental movements

The largest climate protest in history has spread across the globe. Others see what is a lived democracy for some as a threat to national security.

What has been happening on the streets of almost the whole world since the 1st global climate strike in 2019 was like a global earthquake. In an estimated 150 countries, between 6 and 7,6 million people demonstrated for global climate justice. And more demonstrations are being planned. It is the largest climate protest in history, if not the largest protest movement in history that is currently underway.

It is remarkable that the protests so far have been surprisingly peaceful. In Paris in September 2019, an estimated 150 partially masked black bloc protesters mingled with the 40.000 or so demonstrators and tried to stir up the climate protest. Smashed windows, burning e-scooters, looted shops and over a hundred arrests were the result.

October 2019 was a little more turbulent than the climate network Extinction rebellion occupied a shopping center in the 13th arrondissement in the south of Paris. 280 "rebels" were arrested at a demonstration in London after chaining themselves to cars to block traffic. Around 4.000 people demonstrated in Berlin and also blocked traffic. There the demonstrators were either carried away by the police or the traffic was simply diverted.

Careful, climate activists!

From these incidents, the conservative American television broadcaster FoxNews spun the report "A group of extreme climate activists paralyzed parts of London, France and Germany". They would "aggressively force politicians to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions". But it's not just Fox News, the FBI also knows how to defame and criminalize environmental activists. She has classified the latter as a terrorist threat for years. Recently, The Guardian exposed terrorism investigations by the FBI against peaceful US environmental activists. Coincidentally, these investigations mainly took place in the years 2013-2014 when they protested against the Canadian-American oil pipeline Keystone XL.

In Great Britain, for example, three environmental activists who protested against shale gas production there have been sentenced to draconian penalties. The young activists were sentenced to 16 to 18 months in prison for causing public nuisance after climbing onto Cuadrilla trucks. Coincidentally, the company had recently paid the state $ 253 million for a license to extract shale gas.

The US NGO Global Witness sounded the alarm against the criminalization of the environmental movement in the summer of 2019. It documented 164 killings of environmental activists worldwide in 2018, more than half of them in Latin America. There are also reports of countless other activists who have been silenced by arrests, death threats, lawsuits and smear campaigns. The NGO warns that the criminalization of land and environmental activists is by no means limited to the global south: "Worldwide there is evidence that governments and companies are using the courts and legal systems as instruments for repression against those who get in the way of their power structures and interests". In Hungary, a law has even curtailed the rights of NGOs.

Repression and criminalization pose a serious threat to the environmental movement. Even public defamation of environmental activists as "eco-anarchists", "environmental terrorists" or "climate hysteria beyond any realities" thwarted public support and legitimized reprisals.
The professor and conflict researcher Jacquelien van Stekelenburg from the University of Amsterdam cannot - apart from some damage to property - derive any potential for violence from the climate movement. From their point of view, it is crucial whether a country generally has an institutionalized protest culture and how professional the organizers themselves are: “In the Netherlands, the organizers report their protests to the police beforehand and then work out the process together. The risk that the protests get out of hand is relatively low. "

Humor, networking and courts

Humor seems to be a popular weapon among environmental activists. Think of the gigantic Greenpeace whales in front of the OMV headquarters. Or the Global 2000 campaign “We're angry”, which consists of spreading selfies with sour faces on social media. Extinction Rebellion cannot be denied the humor either. After all, they set up flower pots, sofas, tables, chairs and - last but not least - an ark made of wood in Berlin to block traffic.

In any case, the next escalation stage of the climate protest seems to be taking place at the legal level in this country. After the climate emergency was declared in Austria, brought Greenpeace Austria together with Fridays For Future the first climate suit before the Constitutional Court, with the aim of repealing climate-damaging laws - such as the Tempo 140 regulation or the tax exemption for kerosene. In Germany, too, Greenpeace is resorting to legal weapons and has recently achieved at least partial success. In France, a similar lawsuit was successful in 2021.

In any case, Global 2000 sees the next steps in mobilization, networking and jurisdiction: "We will do everything we can to insist on climate protection, including campaigns, petitions, media work and if none of that helps, we will also consider legal steps," he said Campaigner Johannes Wahlmüller.

Allianz's plans "System Change, not Climate Change", In which over 130 associations, organizations and initiatives of the Austrian environmental movement are grouped, again provide for the following:" We will continue to put a lot of pressure on with our actions and saw the pillars of climate-unfair Austrian politics such as the car lobby and aviation industry. " played a key role with the Europe-wide uprising for climate justice "By2020WeRiseUp".
Last but not least, the Fridays For Future see themselves as a decidedly non-violent movement, whose worldwide protests are based on the Jemez principles for democratic initiatives. These in turn are more reminiscent of Woodstock than of any kind of potential for radicalization.

In any case, there is no evidence of violence or willingness to use violence in the Austrian environmental movement. This is confirmed not least by a report for the protection of the constitution, in which there is no mention of a threat from environmental activists. Just as little as in Europol's terrorism report. Even Extinction Rebellion, whose alleged willingness to use violence repeatedly causes speculation, was cleared of any extremist predicates by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In a recent statement, it announced that there was no evidence that it would be an extremist organization.

All in all, in Europe - including Austria - isolated voices can be heard speculating about a possible radicalization of the environmental movement, but this bears no relation to the actual extent of the movement. And the potential for violence emanating from it is in no way related to that which results from a failure of this movement, i.e. climate change itself and its consequences.

The boiling point

In developing and emerging countries, it is now evident how explosive the combination of extreme weather events, water shortages, drought and food shortages on the one hand and fragile, corrupt political structures on the other hand can be. Similarly, an escalation in this country could only be expected if trust in democratic institutions were completely destroyed and a scarcity of resources spread.

Ultimately, in this country, the quality of democracy is more of a decisive factor for the success or failure of the climate movement. Ultimately, it decides whether protesters will be carried away by the police or arrested, whether major construction projects will be carried out with or without public participation and whether governments can be effectively voted out or not. Ideally, the environmental movement will help politicians to free themselves from the constraints of lobbies.

The five levels of criminalization of land and environmental movement

Smear campaigns and defamation tactics

Filth campaigns and defamation tactics on social media portray environmentalists as members of criminal gangs, guerrillas, or terrorists who are a threat to national security. These tactics are also often reinforced by racist and discriminatory hate speech.

Criminal charges
Environmentalists and their organizations are often charged with vague charges such as "disturbing public order", "trespassing", "conspiracy", "coercion" or "inciting". The declaration of a state of emergency is often used to suppress peaceful protests.

Arrest warrants
Arrest warrants are issued repeatedly despite weak or unconfirmed evidence. Sometimes people are not mentioned in it, which leads to an entire group or community being charged with a crime. Arrest warrants often remain pending, leaving the defendants at constant risk of arrest.

Illegal pre-trial detention
The prosecution provides for pre-trial detention that can last for several years. Land and environmental activists often cannot afford legal assistance or court interpreters. If they are acquitted, they are rarely compensated.

Mass criminalization
Environmental protection organizations had to endure illegal surveillance, raids or hacker attacks, which resulted in registration and financial controls for them and their members. Civil society organizations and their lawyers have been physically attacked, imprisoned and even murdered.

Note: Global Witness has been documenting cases worldwide in which rural and environmental organizations and indigenous peoples have been criminalized for 26 years. These cases show certain similarities, which are summarized in these five levels. Source:

Photo / Video: Shutterstock.

Written by Veronika Janyrova

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