Guest article by Jojo (Fightback correspondent based in Germany).
For upcoming magazine issue on the Climate Crisis.
When the Conference of Parties (COP15) took place in Copenhagen in 2009, the mobilisation of the climate movement focused mainly on appealing to the governments meeting there to stop climate change. Since these governments were obviously not questioning capitalism and economic growth and were all putting their own interests first, this strategy had to fail. And it will fail again in Paris this December, when some NGOs will try to lobby the participants of this COP to find a solution to climate change. However, the more radical majority of the climate movement changed its strategy after Copenhagen and decided to fight climate change directly at its roots; for example, in the lignite field in the Rhineland between Cologne and Aachen in Germany.
This area is the biggest producer of CO2 in Europe. It has three open cast mines, one of them the size of the city centre of Cologne, as well as its own railways and several power plants. Besides producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas, it also pollutes the region with dust that is partly radio-active due to uranium in the ground. The mines destroy fertile soil, whole villages whose inhabitants are forced to move away and unique ecosystems. The mines and power plants are operated by RWE, one of the monopolists that control the German energy market.
There has always been resistance by local initiatives, but the climate movement discovered it in 2010 when the first climate camp took place there. Ever since then there has been an annual camp in the region, combining discussion and workshops with direct actions. In 2011, activists bought a house and established the Workshop for Actions and Alternatives (WAA) as a permanent space. In 2012, the Hambach forest which is home to some endangered species was occupied. This forest was once 6000 hectares large; the remaining 500 hectares are supposed to be cut down in the next few years. The activists built treehouses and a three story house out of wood between the trees. Some months later, the squat was evicted; this took three days, as one activist locked himself in a tunnel under the ground. After the eviction, they set up a camp on a meadow on the edge of the forest that is owned by a supporter. This camp still exists today and, in addition, several places in the forest are squatted with tree houses.
In the meadow, activists live in tents, caravans and self-built clay huts. They have solar panels for energy supply and collect left-overs from vegetable farmers and bakeries for food. “With our struggle in the Hambach forest we are not only fighting an absurd kind of energy production but also this capitalist system”, says Yogur, one of the squatters.
The occupation is a method of passive resistance but also a platform to start further actions. The clear cutting works, which RWE can only do in autumn and winter because of bird conservation regislations, are being blockaded and the infrastructure is sabotaged. There have also been blockades of the railway that brings the coal from the mine to the power plant. This year, activists also started going into the mine to occupy (and thus stop) the giant coal diggers that are around 200m long and almost up to 100m high, and to blockade the conveyor belts. One digger was occupied during the G7 summit and, since many police including their climbing teams were in Bavaria to stop protesters there, the activists couldn’t be evicted and the occupation lasted for more than 50 hours.
As these actions are a danger for RWE which is already almost bankrupt, repression is rising. RWE employs private security companies whose workers have beaten up activists on more than a few ocasions. Police are working closely together with the security companies and with RWE. Since autumn last year, police have begun taking activists into custody for several weeks. Just some days ago at the time of writing, another activist has been imprisoned.
Nevertheless, the movement is getting bigger. AusgeCO2hlt, the group that organises the annual climate camps has formed an alliance with other organisations like the Interventionist Left and NGOs like 350.org to organise a mass action of civil disobedience called “Ende Gelände” (“Here and no further”) in August this year during the climate camp. 1500 demonstrators went to enter one of the mines and to stop its operations successfully. The media couldn’t ignore this and the vast majority of media coverage was positive – no wonder, as even journalists were attacked by securities and police during the action.
The question however is if co-operation with NGOs might also mark a deradicalisation of the movement that, until now, has had an anti-capitalist (and mostly anti-state) perpective. Some NGOs are distancing themselves from the more militant actions happening around the Hambach Forest. It is clear that it is important for the rather small movement to grow, but at the same time activists should still stress that climate change can’t be stopped within a growth-based capitalist system.
Another important question will be how to gain support or at least understanding of RWE’s workers. When the German government planned a very moderate climate fee that owners of power plants with huge pollution should pay, their union, the IG-BCE, started a huge campaign as they saw their jobs under threat – and successfully stopped the climate fee. It will be hard to fight for a coal exit against the resistance of the workers. So it will be important to fight for conversion into environmental friendly jobs and also for better working conditions in the renewable sector.
When the COP meet in Paris this December, the climate movement will also mobilise there. Most of it will protest on 12 December, at the end of the conference, not to say “please save us from climate change” but to say “we’re not satisfied with your decisions”. The motto is “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. Until then (and after it as well) we will have to continue fighting climate change at its roots. This year’s clear cutting season in the Hambach Forest has just started and at the time of writing, activists are gathering here for a camp to share skills for actions. On the 17 October, they plan to blockade the coal railway once more.
The Hambach forest and Ende Gelände both also have English-language websites: