What Privilege Means in the Climate Crisis Fight
Polluting industries won’t abandon their destructive business models without public confrontation. Unlike the people who live thousands of miles away — and whose lives have been disproportionately affected by climate change for far longer than those of us in the Global North — I and many others have been born, or now live, in places where some of the world’s biggest polluters, including Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron and Total, are headquartered. This privilege of location, combined with our responsibility for our historic carbon debt, means a variety of tactics, including acts of civil disobedience, can be used on the home turfs of corporations that pollute, to hold them accountable for their crimes. That privilege also provides direct access to the power structures of those corporations: their finances, their lobby power and their social license to operate.
This won’t be easy. After all, many people, past and present, have struggled for their rights and freedoms in far more difficult circumstances. Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a friend from Sudan, spent years in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. During that time, the detainees tirelessly organized and confronted the Australian government over its policy of holding asylum seekers there. Eventually, most of them were released. A friend from Kenya, Phyllis Omido, and her community in a slum of Mombasa took up the fight against lead poisoning by a local factory. She was attacked, arrested and even had to hide after her lawsuit against the government brought more threats against her. In the end, she and her community prevailed, and several toxic waste smelters were shut down.
Speaking out for one’s rights can be a death sentence in many countries. Traditionally democratic nations appear to be heading down a similar path by criminalizing items and activities associated with protesting and civil disobedience. Following the 2016 protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, many U.S. states passed laws to criminalize trespassing around oil and gas pipelines. In response to protests against coal mining, Australia passed a law in 2020 criminalizing the lock-on devices activists use to attach themselves to each other, rail tracks or other objects. And over the past summer, police officers in Germany arrested other activists in Lützerath under changes in 2018 to a security law known as “Lex Hambi” in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The law, which allows the police to detain people for up to seven days in order to verify their identity, was made in part as a response to climate activists who had obscured their fingerprints to avoid identification.
This may be the first time that some people are feeling such a lack of control over their personal, and our collective, future. Many, particularly those of us in the white middle class, are not used to fighting uphill battles against unequal power structures. Many of us have not been taught how to build community and collective power in a situation where the odds are stacked against us.
In other words, our privilege is being tested. Luckily, that privilege can also give us the means and determination to rise to that challenge.
I am not looking forward to confronting the police and RWE’s security in Lützerath. In truth, I would prefer to go back to my old life and sail around Antarctica in a science support role. But I know that my privilege gives me responsibilities not only to communities struggling for their survival, but also to the global community of all living beings. The fight for global climate safety is now at our doorstep. To succeed, it will need a culture of resistance and a clear vision of justice and solidarity.
Carola Rackete is an ecologist and social justice activist based in Europe. Her book “The Time to Act Is Now” was published in English in November 2021.