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The people have the power


Protesters surrounded by police in the RWE coal mine. © Tim Wagner/350.org

This weekend marked one of the single biggest acts of climate-focused civil disobedience in history: Ende Gelände. Around 1,500 people forced to a standstill the gigantic RWE baggers that are responsible for digging lignite coal out of Germany’s Rhineland region – Europe’s biggest source of CO2 emissions.

Governments’ attitudes to fighting climate change is a topic playing much on the global consciousness in the lead-up to the UN climate conference (COP21) in Paris this December. This will be the 21st yearly session of talks since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Given that I turn 23 this year, this means that governments have been negotiating on responding to the threat of climate change for my entire life. I don’t think that I am alone in feeling frustrated at their failure to turn talks and commitments into meaningful action.

We know now that to keep global warming to a maximum of a 2°C rise, 80% of the world’s declared fossil-fuel reserves cannot be burnt. And yet governments like Australia’s – my own – and Germany’s – where I’m writing from today – keep bending to the whims of companies like RWE and Adani in their quest to continue excavating and exploiting our world’s finite resources.

As Paris approaches, I am filled with an increasing dread whenever I hear about the importance of governmental co-operation at these meetings. Because unless a lot changes very quickly, it seems that we can no longer rely on our political leaders to create economic and environmental change on the scale needed for our society to survive the crisis that is climate change.

This weekend proved to me that we still have alternatives.

When we pull off the Autobahn and arrive at KlimaCamp (the sustainability camp and degrowth summer school that has been set up next to the mine) I am overwhelmed by the number of people painting banners, running training sessions, preparing food and generally moving purposefully around the camp.

Most of them are like me: young, sceptical and new to climate activism. I meet people like Fanny, a university student from Sweden who has never taken part in an act of civil disobedience before, but feels she needs to contribute to the end of coal, which we cannot continue to burn if we hope to transform our society into one that can withstand the risks of climate change.

Many of the Ende Gelände participants, like Fanny, are taking action for the very first time. They have been watching and waiting for our political leaders to do what is necessary and have been disappointed.

This weekend, we gathered in our thousands to send a message: if our leaders don’t step up to this challenge, we will.

The action was no gentle introduction for first-time activists. In order to attract the scale of people needed to make a statement of this kind, it was highly publicized and the police responded in similarly high numbers. While over 1,000 people managed to make it into the mine, many of them were beaten and pepper-sprayed on their way in. We were quickly reminded that in the fight to end coal, the state is not only not on our side, but sometimes actively and violently against us.

The groups behind Ende Gelände have a strong commitment to nonviolence and the activists did not waiver from this, while still managing to stop several of the diggers and halting work at the mine for the entire day. The day was a victory because we showed that people power can bring a planet-destroying industry to a complete halt.

However, the real success of the action wasn’t clear until late in the night, when the 150 people arrested by the police, mostly first-time activists, were returned back to camp. They climbed off the buses, their skin stinging with pepper extract, bodies covered in dirt and huge grins on their faces.

Swapping stories of the day, it quickly emerged that, despite the fear and trepidation they had felt going in to the mine, the overwhelming feeling as they came out was pride.

A young Swedish man told me that for the first time in his life, he felt truly powerful, which filled me with hope. These young people have done something that their governments couldn’t do, putting their bodies on the line for future generations. And they are willing to do it again.

Ende Gelände roughly translates as ‘here, but no further’. This weekend, we drew a line and we drew it together. No matter what happens in Paris, the movement to build a new society is bigger than polluters and politicians. It is built on people, and this weekend the people showed they have real power.

Catherine Nadel is a student from Melbourne, Australia, currently studying in Europe.

Look out for the November 2015 issue of
New Internationalist. In a pre-COP21 special themed issue, Jess Worth and Danny Chivers will focus on ‘Destination climate justice: the road through Paris’.

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