Time for change: The climate activist movement

By Rebecca Reider

A climate protest held late last year in Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs
A climate protest held late last year in Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Last September, 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York City in a People's Climate March, in time with sister marches around the world. "Climate change is the civil rights issue of our time," indigenous Canadian activist Clayton Thomas-Muller proclaimed a month later to thousands of cheering supporters.

The scene was at the Bioneers conference in California, where I went to meet some of the activists whose calls for "climate justice" are unifying environmentalist and social justice movements in new and potent ways.

Divestment

Perhaps one thing the climate movement lacked for years was a common enemy. Is it all of our fault, if we drive too much? Is it America's fault? Is it China's?

A shared target for activism has emerged with the growing realisation that fossil fuel companies have enough oil, gas and coal in their reserves to cook the planet several times over - and that the industry is doing all it can, including buying off politicians, to stymie action on climate.

Bioneers Conference attendee and Harvard University student Chloe Maxmin, at age 22, is already a veteran activist. "I've been doing climate work since I was 12, and never really felt that I could say there was a really vibrant climate movement," she says.
"Yes, there was a movement - but there's been nothing like divestment in the climate movement, ever."

Adopting a successful tactic from the global antiapartheid movement, in 2012 activists in the world's wealthier countries began pressuring major institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The movement aims to unite societies against the fossil fuel industry, and in Maxmin's words, "bring a human face to climate change."

The divestment movement is galvanising young activists, many of whom fear for their own futures on a changing planet.

Three years ago, Maxmin and classmates started campaigning Harvard's administration to dump all fossil fuel investments from the university's staggering US$36 billion endowment fund.

Professors, students and alumni soon pledged overwhelming support for divestment. Now they're part of one of the biggest student activist movements in history. In three years, fossil fuel divestment campaigns have sprung up at over 400 American universities. Student campaigners network with each other cross-country, sharing information and tactics. Hundreds more divestment campaigns have arisen at other institutions, from churches to pension funds.

In November 2014, Victoria University became the first New Zealand university to divest from fossil fuels. New Zealand's Anglican Church and Presbyterian Church both voted to divest last year.

Native resistance

Indigenous peoples are another key rising force in the movement to keep fossil fuels underground. They often find themselves in the way of mining and drilling projects - but they sometimes find themselves well-positioned to fight back.

Canada is a prime example. Canada's tar sands, in remote northern Alberta, are a huge source of the world's dirtiest crude oil. Salivating over petro-dollars, Canadian lawmakers have gutted environmental legislation in order to get tar sands oil fl owing to global markets.

However, though it can rewrite laws, the Canadian government cannot rewrite its treaties with indigenous peoples.

"First Nations find themselves at the forefront, with the strongest legal strategy," says indigenous Cree activist Clayton Thomas-Muller.

"We have dozens of land defender struggles that are communicating with each other and now moving in solidarity with each other."

One of these is the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Oil companies mine 560,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily from the traditional territory of these 900 First Nations people, and the industry wants to triple that.

The Cree are taking the Canadian government to court, arguing that their 1876 treaty with Canada and their constitutional rights as First Nations are being violated.
A legal victory could halt a huge portion of tar sands developments, and set a major precedent. "The reality of it is we're ten years away from a price on carbon and any legal mechanisms to enforce compliance in the fossil fuel sector," Thomas-Muller says.
"But what we do have right now is a proven track record of indigenous people stopping bad people from doing bad things to the environment, and to communities."

Canadian activists celebrated this past September, when Norwegian oil giant Statoil decided to cancel a massive tar sands project due to a shortage of pipelines to get the oil out of Canada. That shortage is thanks to fierce human resistance.

Protests and legal challenges are currently stalling construction of multiple proposed pipelines. Canadian indigenous leaders are now in discussions with Maori facing the same oil company. Statoil is currently boring for oil in deep waters west off Northland. Local opposition is mounting.

Two of five local iwi have voted to oppose oil exploration, and the other iwi are considering it. Maori activists expect the issue to go to the Waitangi Tribunal. "There's currently a growing resistance," says Northland climate campaigner Mike Smith (Ngapuhi, Ngati Kahu).

"We're at a tipping point in the world's history in regard to global warming. The people who are conscious and responsible are standing up to meet the challenge."

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