Three weeks after the official signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement in the U.N. headquarters in New York, 177 countries have signed the document agreed upon during COP 21 in Paris last year. As I explained in more detail in a previous post, the agreement will only take force when 55 of the countries effectively adopt it in their national parliament. Currently we’re stuck at 16 — covering a dreadful 0.04% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Time to raise the pressure on policy makers. Under the banner of Break Free, climate activists around the world have opened the war on fossil fuels. During 12 days in May, civil disobedience actions target some of the world’s most polluting and dangerous fossil fuel projects.

Civil disobedience: noun; a symbolic, non-violent violation of the law, done deliberately in protest againstsome form of perceived injustice — Legal Dictionarry

If politicians are serious about the promised 1.5°C global warming, our economies have to make a 180° turn. The current INDC’s — Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, that is: what the individual countries promise within Paris Agreement framework — add up to 3 to 4°C rise in global temperatures.

Climate activist Bill McKibben made a simple but powerful calculations. If we want to have a fair chance to limit global temperature rise to 2°C by 2100, 80% of all our fossil fuel reserves have to stay where they ar now: in the ground. During the Break Free campaign, people worldwide are rising up to call upon their leaders to make sure this will happen.

Activists stoped operations in one of the largest lignite coal mines in Europe (photo: Tim Wagner)

Activists stoped operations in one of the largest lignite coal mines in Europe (photo: Tim Wagner)

In peaceful acts of civil disobedience, locals and international activists gather at places that exactly portray the lack of ambition from governments to start the clean energy transition. By blocking entrance roads, chaining oneself to diggers in coal mines or making human chains they try to interrupt operations to bring attention to unjust practices of the fossil fuel industry.

Governments aren’t getting the job done. It’s up to civil society to do it — Payal Parekh,

Pardon me?, I hear you ask. Do you mean you want us, decent citizens, to break the law? Like, doing something illegal? My good. Yes, my friends, that is exactly what civil disobedience is all about.

The act of civil disobedience — a non-violent refusal to obey laws as a way of forcing the government to do or change something that is perceived to be unjust — is not new. Gandhi employed it during the Indian independent movement, Martin Luther King to defend the rights of black people in the U.S. and Nelson Mandela to break the Apartheid regime in South-Africa.


It now seems to be the new tool for climate activists. By blocking coal mines, new pipeline projects and occupying banks or institutions with high shares in fossil fuels projects, they draw the attention of the greater public to the dirtiest fossil fuel projects. Those projects are often not only bad for the environment on a global scale, but also for the local community which has to suffer from bad air quality, heavy traffic and noise and other nasty stuff that comes along this kind of big industrial operations.

In the U.S. activists are now targeting six key areas. From new tar sands pipelines near Chicago, over fracking outside of Denver, to protest in Washington D.C. against arctic drilling. Since Obama stopped the Keystone XL pipeline project after huge demonstrations around the country, the act of civil disobedience has become increasingly popular.

In Germany, a few thousand activists will gather in Lusatia where they will try to stop operations in one of the biggest open-pit lignite coal mines in Europe. The mine was put on sale by Swedish energy producer Vattenfall recently, and the protesters want to show potential buyers and the German government that they believe there is no future in the dirtiest of all fossils.

Protesters shut down digging in the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine in South Wales (photo: Kristian Buus, the Guardian)

Protesters shut down digging in the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine in South Wales (photo: Kristian Buus, the Guardian)

On the 2nd of May, the Ffos-y-fran opencast coal mine in South Wales faced a similar threat. Locals and activists from around Europe gathered to stop digging in UK’s largest opencast coal mine. They tried to put pressure on the local government who soon has to vote on a proposed moratorium on opencast mining. Indeed, Wales has so many alternatives for sustainable energy provision, like wind and ocean energy.

This mine is killing the local area — retired Ffos-y-fran miner

In principle I’m not against this kind of actions. Okay, I should be fair and say that I actually like it. Storming the monstrous digging machine in a coal mine a bringing it to a halt is quite heroic. I believe civil disobedience can be a great and powerful tool to stir up the public debate about what we as a society want to sacrifice for the energy that drives our daily life.

If we are to meet commitments made in Paris to keep temperature rise below 1.5C we need to end fossil fuel extraction now. The UK government is failing to act to cut our carbon emissions, its climate change and energy policies are in crisis –Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales

What I would like to see more, is that those activists would not stop with their actions of stopping the operations of some projects during a month of worldwide disobedience. Yes, it raises public awareness, yes it puts the fossil fuel companies in a bad light. But honestly, not much change is to be expected in the longer run. For that, the protesters should swap their banners for proposals and get around the table with policy makers. Although technically possible, their demands of 100% renewables by 2040 are going to cost tons of money. It is probably not the most cost-effective solution to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

There are many alternatives for fossil fuels, especially coal. Politicians are good in promising to limit global warming to 1.5°C in front of the cameras but at the same time handing out permissions for new mines is what I would call first class hypocrisy. It’s up to us to put and end to it: let’s do it!

Tip: two weeks ago a short documentary about civil disobedience in climate activism was released. You can watch it for free on their website.