How to fight the clampdown on climate activism

Governments across the world are pushing back against climate activism with violence, anti-protest laws and prison sentences. But we can resist, writes Danny Chivers.

Large placard with '15 months in prision for a peaceful protest? "Seriously Australia?" #FreeVioletCoco ' written on it and a photo of Deanna Maree “Violet” Coco. Four people are in the background but you can only see the lower parts of their bodies.
Australian activist Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco was handed 15 months in prison for being part of a climate protest that blocked Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. An appeal against her sentence is due to be heard in March 2023. A group of Coco’s supporters gathered in front of Parliament House, Canberra, on 5 December 2022. LEO BILD/ALAMY

Protest works. In recent years governments have been toppled or forced into major policy shifts by protests in Armenia, India, Sudan, Chile, Bangladesh and Serbia, to name but a few.

But authoritarian regimes are pushing back brutally against dissent, including climate activism. New anti-protest laws are used to jail protesters, even in supposedly liberal countries like the UK and Australia.

According to a recent report by the human-rights monitor CIVICUS, this seems to be part of a wider global crackdown on protest rights linked to a rise in authoritarian far-right governments.

‘People are facing huge challenges like the cost of living and the climate crisis, as well as major threats to their rights by governments and other far-right forces,’ explains Aarti Narsee, one of the report’s authors. ‘Rather than responding to these crises in a way that would help, governments are cracking down on protest.

‘These restrictions tend to impact excluded groups the most. For example, in Poland and Hungary we’ve seen LGBTQI+ campaigners being particularly targeted, and Black protesters facing tougher police and legal crackdowns in countries like Belgium and the UK.’

In 2021, CIVICUS documented the use of protest bans, excessive legal charges, harassment and violence against environmental activists and land defenders around the world.

Climate activism is not new

So, why the increased clampdown on environmental direct action now? It’s nothing new, after all.

In the UK, for example, activists have been blocking roads, shutting down construction sites and occupying power stations for decades, as part of successful movements that stopped massive road expansions, new coal power stations and a third Heathrow runway in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s possible that the deepening of the climate crisis is leading to greater visibility of, and public support for, environmental defenders. The climate movement in the Global North is also strengthening links with Southern and Indigenous movements and becoming more outspoken about the need for systemic change.

All of this may be seen as a greater threat to governments and elites that benefit from the status quo.

What can be done to resist?

First and foremost, we must keep shining a light on, and making a noise about, excessive police powers and other abuses against protesters. States may have increasingly draconian powers, but whether or not they use them can be influenced by public opinion.

In 2009 the Camp for Climate Action, which took place that year in London, was policed much more lightly than previous years, following public outrage over aggressive policing at earlier demonstrations (including the police killing of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson).

Protesters have frequently found creative ways to skirt repressive laws and make their voices heard (as in Turkey’s Gezi Park in 2013), or to expose excessive or absurd restrictions by breaking them in large numbers. These kinds of tactics can reduce the use of heavy-handed state measures in the short term and build support for protest laws to be loosened in the future.

As the risk to protesters increases, support and solidarity become ever more important. Even if they can’t always be involved themselves, citizens can speak up in defence of the right to protest; support campaign groups like CIVICUS, Liberty, Amnesty or Human Rights Watch; offer solidarity to those being tried; and write letters to imprisoned activists.

The right to protest freely has always been hard-won, and is never guaranteed. But people around the world are continuing to defend that right in the most powerful way they can – by using it.