What Privilege Means in the Climate Crisis Fight

No longer insulated from the climate crisis, the Global North has the power to lead the charge against the pollution it has long enabled.,

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This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.

Turning Point: The United Nations called a report on climate change released in August “code red for humanity.”

The climate crisis has been building for decades, but only since the mid-2000s has it truly come to the attention of the richer countries that comprise the Global North. Wildfires from California to Greece and flash floods from New York City to Germany have opened people’s eyes to the fact that this global crisis is real — and it is in danger of spinning out of our control if something isn’t done to stop it.

This past summer, the world’s climate scientists published the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, highlighting, once again, the need to act now. But rather than finding conviction in the many public reactions to these dire warnings, I instead sense a feeling of helplessness. Many in the Global North seem unable — or unwilling — to connect our growth-based, consumption-driven economy with the intensifying natural disasters around us.

We live in countries that burned through their share of the world’s CO2 budget long ago — if we account for the historic emissions released since 1850. But the effects of that overspending have mostly ravaged the faraway countries that we don’t see, whose citizens face far greater risks to their personal safety when they speak out against this injustice.

I believe that those of us who can act have a responsibility to do so. Embracing activism to combat polluters — who hurt the whole world — is a way to begin to repay our debt. Indeed, that ability to organize and protest safely is, to me, one of the most powerful symptoms of our privilege. And in my experience, exercising that privilege is the most effective way to help move the entire world toward a safer, more just future for all life on this planet.

My first encounter with the frustration and helplessness many of us face came a decade ago. I had graduated from maritime college and received my commercial navigation license, and in August 2011, I brought the German research icebreaker RV Polarstern to the North Pole. Our scientists cheered and toasted the journey on the frozen deck. But within a few minutes, everyone was back to work, and I saw concerned faces. We couldn’t carry out the ice measurements we had come to take directly at the North Pole, because there was simply not enough old ice. In the end, we had to search for a sizable old ice floe using a helicopter. Frustration reigned among the older scientists, whose decades of reports and warnings about the climate crisis had mostly been ignored.

Today, most people call me an activist. I no longer work as a maritime professional, although people know me publicly as the captain of a refugee rescue vessel who was arrested (and immediately released) after docking in Italy without permission after a 17-day standoff. It was an act of civil disobedience, using my white middle-class privilege (my ability to study for free at university and my confidence in a lower likelihood of being prosecuted for smuggling, in contrast to many migrants in Greece or Italy) to support people violently pushed to the margins by European society.

In August 2021, I returned to Germany, to the remains of a village called Lutzerath, just 200 meters away from the vast open lignite mine called Garzweiler that powers the energy company RWE’s coal power station Neurath — one of the 10 biggest polluters in Europe. A single farm is all that’s left. The farmer doesn’t want to sell his land to RWE and may soon be evicted. I am among the nearly 300 people he invited to oppose the action by occupying the land with a permanent camp. In places like Lutzerath, I see another chance to protest and use direct action and land occupations to prevent further coal mining, which will ultimately contribute to rising fossil fuel emissions and, if left unchecked, a global climate catastrophe.

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Cars and a bus were stuck in flood waters in New York City in September 2021, after the remnants of Hurricane Ida barreled into the region, leading to at least 43 deaths, all but halting subway service and destroying homes.Credit…Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

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 Lutzerath 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 Lutzerath. 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.

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