Is Climate Activism a Crime?

Governments and corporations are increasingly trying to criminalize lawful protest

End Fossil Fuels protest in New York

End Fossil Fuels protesters gather in New York City to pressure world leaders, and especially US president Joe Biden, to end the use of fossil fuels. (Photo by Erik McGregor via Getty Images)

As environmental abuses continue around the world, some governments and corporations are going to extraordinary lengths to criminalize lawful, public protest. UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, Michel Forst, last month issued a memo that called “increasingly severe crackdowns on environmental defenders” in the UK “extremely worrying.” Authorities in Uganda, Spain, and Germany have also imposed remarkably severe punishments on peaceful protest. And in the US, Greenpeace is the latest target of corporate polluters filing transparently meritless lawsuits in an effort to silence, if not bankrupt, critics.

This is a story we journalists should be covering, and not only because of its inherent newsworthiness. Independent journalism, like peaceful dissent, is an essential pillar of civil society — and the same forces that target one often target the other. Former US president Donald Trump, for example, praised a Republican congressman who physically assaulted a reporter, enthusing, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!”

The UN special rapporteur, noted Guardian columnist George Monbiot, warned that “draconian anti-protest laws, massive sentences and court rulings forbidding protesters from explaining their motives to juries are crushing ‘fundamental freedoms.’ He pointed out that until recently it was very rare ‘for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK.’ Now you can get six months merely for marching.”

In Uganda, police assaulted and jailed activists during a peaceful protest in December against the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline. Eleven university students were arrested; some allegedly were beaten and contracted typhoid or malaria while detained in an unsanitary  maximum-security prison.

In Spain, prosecutors have asked for nearly two years of prison time for protesters who threw beet-dyed water on a congressional building. In Germany, right-wing politicians smeared Letzte Generation (Last Generation) climate activists as “terrorists,” a framing duly echoed by some major news outlets.

In the US, SLAPP lawsuits — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — have been polluters’ weapon of choice. Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation whose oil pipeline sparked the Standing Rock protests in 2016, sued Greenpeace for $900 million, alleging that the group had orchestrated the protests. That suit failed, partly because TV coverage showed Indigenous activists leading the protests. Nevertheless, Energy Transfer Partners then sued Greenpeace again, demanding $300 million in damages. “The aim of this suit is to put us out of business and scare others into silence,” Ebony Twilley Martin, Greenpeace’s executive director, told Covering Climate Now. The case is scheduled for trial in July.

None of this implies that journalism should take the side of activists or turn a blind eye toward their behavior no matter what they do. As journalists, our job is to hold power accountable, treat all parts of society equally, and cover matters of public concern without fear or favor. When powerful forces try to squelch freedom of speech and lawful protest, that is news that deserves our, and the world’s, attention.

From Us

Green economy. See our latest edition of Climate on the Ballot, “The Green Economy: Changing Jobs and Election Discourse.” Sign up to receive it each week.

Talking Shop. Watch “Beyond the Stump Speech,” our recent webinar about integrating climate into elections coverage with Margaret Sullivan, Guardian columnist and Executive Director of Columbia’s Newmark Center, and Ben Tracy, CBS’s Senior National and Environmental Correspondent.

Apply Now to 2024 CCNow Awards! Submissions are open for the fourth annual Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards, honoring exceptional work published in 2023. Apply by March 1. Please share the application with your networks!

Noteworthy Stories

Indonesian elections. Early Indonesian presidential election results point to a win for the controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto. How he manages the country’s rich stock of natural resources could significantly impact global climate efforts and his human rights record worries environmentalists who fear restricted activism under his leadership. By Somini Sengupta at The New York Times…

Amazon tipping point. Large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, vital for storing carbon and biodiversity, are at risk of transitioning away from a rainforest by 2050 due to climate change, deforestation, and wildfires, according to a new study in the journal Nature. The rainforest’s water cycle could collapse, causing devastating consequences for both the climate and local communities. By Evan Bush at NBC News…

Methane leaks. Over 1,000 landfills have been emitting significant methane emissions since 2019 — primarily in south Asia, according to satellite data. These leaks are undermining climate targets but could quickly be mitigated to reduce global heating. “Big landfills make a great deal of methane but it doesn’t cost much to bulldoze soil over a stinking, burning landfill,” said Professor Euan Nisbet, of the Royal Holloway University of London. By Damian Carrington and Seán Clarke at the Guardian…

Erasing climate? Florida’s House speaker supports a bill that would remove most references to climate change from state law and introduce significant changes to energy policies. The bill would rollback some natural gas pipeline regulations, limit utilities from selling electricity to those who charge electrical vehicles at their home, and more. By Emily L. Mahoney at the Tampa Bay Times…

The Science Guy. Scientist Bill Nye talks about new research on accelerating ice melt on Greenland and the need for urgent action. “If you want to do something about [climate change], two things I tell everybody: Talk about it — if we were talking about climate change the way we talk about a bunch of other very important issues, we’d be doing something about it. And then the thing to do about it, really, is to vote.” Watch at CNN…

Via CCNow’s Slack 

In CCNow’s new #DisinfoDisrupter Slack channel, a disinfo expert is sharing examples of false climate narratives being peddled and highlighting stories that handle disinfo particularly well.

A recent story, “False rumors in the wind,” by The New Bedford Light, a Massachusetts-based local news outlet, provides a good example of how journalism can combat disinfo campaigns.

The moderator writes, “Structurally, this story does everything right by leading with the reality of the situation as opposed to taking a ‘both sides’ approach, contextualizing false claims as being part of a political campaign and not emerging passively online from unknown sources. The writer explains the misinformation in a way that helps readers understand how these and other false claims are constructed.”

Resources and Events

Water shortages. National Geographic’s new World Water Map shows water gap hotspots around the world and includes a tool to see gaps in the US. It explains “why water gaps arise, how climate change might aggravate them — and even how they might be managed.”

Local climate action. Climate Herald tracks local climate action in the US. You can sign up for updates about your community here.

MethaneSAT. Google and the Environmental Defense Fund have teamed up to track oil and gas methane emissions from space. MethaneSat will launch into space in March and data will be available later this year.

NDCs. World Resources Institute is holding a webinar “From Dubai to Belem: A High-Level Dialogue on Strengthening National Climate Commitments” on February 20. RSVP.

Loss & damage. The Florence School of Regulation will hold a webinar on the “Loss And Damage Fund And UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report.” February 21. RSVP.

Climate solutions. The Solutions Project is holding a webinar, “Advancing Black-led Climate Justice Solutions” during Black Climate Week to examine “how philanthropy, government, and the media, can be key partners in scaling up Black-led, frontline climate solutions.” February 22. RSVP.

Freelancers. The Institute for Independent Journalists is holding its online “2024 Freelance Journalism Conference” February 29 – March 1. RSVP.

Sustainability. Economist Impact is holding its 9th annual Sustainability Week, with a focus on “Sustaining planet and profit.” March 4 – 6. In person and online. Learn more and RSVP.

Industry News

Journalists’ safety. Reporters around the world who cover climate change and the environment are facing multiple threats by powerful interests, which is challenging their safety, press freedom, and efforts to tackle the climate crisis, according to a new International Press Institute report.

Rural voices. Over half of US counties have either just one local paper or none at all, with rural areas particularly affected, according to recent research. Almost 600 universities in or near news deserts could help address this issue, offering students hands-on learning while helping to revitalize local journalism, writes the The Daily Yonder.

Jobs, Etc. 

Jobs. Colorado Radio is hiring a climate & environment reporter. Gannett is recruiting a climate reporter (Austin, Texas). The Macon Telegraph is hiring an environment reporter (Macon, Ga.).

Fellowships. Submissions are open for The Pulitzer Center’s part-time StoryReach US fellowships.

Leadership training. The International Journalists’ Network is offering the Emerging Media Leaders program (focused on Latin America and the Caribbean) sponsored by the US Department of State.