By Gillian Murphy 

Armed with bikes, chains, and posters, climate activists jumped the fence of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and swarmed the tarmac. Twitter was abuzz on 5 November as videos of protesters on bicycles being chased by police went viral. Other demonstrators gathered around the wheels of private jets at the airport, some physically locking themselves to the planes.

Taking place a day before the start of another failed intergovernmental climate conference, COP27, the protest is an example of the civil disobedience that is taking root in the climate movement, in the face of a crisis that remains long ignored by those with the power to prevent it.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a damning report in November 2022 stating that “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation [of climate change] will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” Though this was not news to most involved in the climate movement, who have witnessed the increasing denial of clear scientific facts since the 1980s, the report’s distressing message garnered substantial attention.

This Schiphol demonstration was meant to draw attention to the astounding amount of emissions from private flights in the Netherlands, as well as the unacceptable inaction from the government enabling such detrimental behavior by the elite, through a lack of clear regulations or guidelines. As people strive to reduce their carbon footprints, the mega-rich are given the green light to live out their capitalistic dreams, at the cost of the planet.

The Dutch protest came on the heels of many headline acts of climate disobedience, which have become the new normal for sparking global conversation as governments, corporations, and international organizations continue to fail their constituents and consumers. 

Dutch Disobedience Takes Flight

The demonstration occurred at a moment when the world was witnessing a whirlwind of climate disobedience. It united multiple activist groups, notably Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion. The shared purpose was protesting Schiphol, the third-largest airport in Europe, and the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the Netherlands.

The movement was organized via Telegram, with activists discretely adding others they knew to the group until it grew to a thousand members. An inner group of organizers kept plans under wraps to avoid authorities catching on, and indeed, “police had no clue what was happening,” said youth environmental activist Winnie Oussoren, with Milieudefensie (a Dutch partner of Greenpeace).

Protestors occupied the tarmac for seven hours, delaying flights for individuals such as the F1 driver Max Verstappen, who was destined for Monaco. About 400 individuals were arrested, many subject to aggressive treatment by the police. Oussoren said she and other protestors were kept on a bus for six hours, but without space to hold them or personnel to process the paperwork, they were released.

Protests at Schiphol Airport are not a new occurrence and are part of a larger anti-airport phenomenon. In May 2022, led by Extinction Rebellion, individuals dressed in eerie red costumes inside the airport’s main hall, carrying signs with the plea to restrict flights and offer more trains, chanting as travelers wove around them. 

Globally, 1% of the world’s population accounts for nearly 50% of flight emissions, and the Netherlands boasts similarly appalling statistics. This growth has been recent and rapid, despite the Netherlands proudly hosting the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021. Compared to 2019, private flights from Amsterdam increased 73% by the summer of 2022. The wealthy clientele increasingly engaging in polluting activity do not pay an equitable share of taxes, and without a system to account for this glaring injustice, activists put their bodies on the tarmac to demand change.

Rise of Civil Disobedience in the Climate Movement

From London to Vienna to Paris, activists have been targeting famous works of art to launch discussions on pressing climate issues by throwing food on paintings and gluing themselves to museum walls. The tactics have newfound defenders of art crawling out of the woodwork, but they are missing the urgency.

Civil disobedience in the environmental movement has emerged as a necessary response to inaction at the highest levels. Governments and frameworks meant to pursue climate justice and protect people are failing, and if they cannot provide solutions, the onus falls on individuals to create a public reckoning to reshape our approach to the environmental crisis.

The “climate justice” rhetoric has been an essential framing for pursuing accountability for environmental crises, and it draws precedent from the civil disobedience of past successful social movements, such as the Civil Rights or anti-Vietnam War efforts. In the United States, the environmental justice movement was spearheaded by communities of color simultaneously fighting for racial justice. Strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of disobedience became increasingly commonplace in the 1980s.

Extinction Rebellion exemplifies a modern campaign that leverages such tactics – it self-describes as a movement that uses “non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.” Such action comprises blockading bridges, spraying offices of companies linked to the fossil fuel industry with fake oil, and interrupting concerts.

Governmental Crash Landings

Though some criticize climate disobedience as alienating hearts and minds, we are running out of time and legal tactics. Activists have tried to engage within legal structures via lawsuits or wielding constitutional provisions to convince governments and organizations to take action. The most recent example is a lawsuit filed against the Swedish government by citizens, including Greta Thunberg. Yet attempts to bend to half-hearted politically-hobbled forums have achieved no success.

As the demonstration at Schiphol Airport unfolded, COP27 was beginning in Egypt, but it marked just another year of unfulfilled and empty promises. World leaders heralded the creation of a loss and damage fund to right the devastation that climate change has wrought on developing nations, yet plans for implementation and funding remain nonexistent.

COP remains the ultimate opportunity for greenwashing and “active inaction,” as youth climate activist Alejandro Quecedo put it. Environmental groups are invited to partake in the spectacle, yet pushed to the side as decisions are taken in back rooms without media presence and with overrepresentation from the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, protestors outside the COP are subject to police harassment. Quecedo says it is “hard not to think that the COP has arrived at a dead end.”

The international media coverage at Schiphol was greater than the protestors expected and demonstrated the success of their approaches. Oussoren aptly referred to the protest as “disruptive action,” and said civil disobedience is necessary for calling attention to the environmental crisis. Though publicity is not always positive when activists break the rules, the adage “all publicity is good publicity” rings true when it comes to the climate catastrophe.

Such controversial incidents can draw the focus towards the form of protest rather than the climate itself. However, the biggest challenge activists face is simply starting a conversation, and with each act of disobedience, environmental issues inch their way onto agendas. 

New Flight Plans

Nonviolent civil disobedience has become the guiding force of the current wave of environmentalism. And as negligence continues, justification emerges for more radical uncivil, or violent, disobedience. The degradation of our globe does not have the patience for COP optics or capitalist ambitions.

The time is past for politics of respectability. We should not have to convince governments that we are deserving of having clean water to drink, unpolluted air to breathe, forests without fire, and fields without floods. If they have ignored the reports and turned a blind eye to the pleas of scientists and victims of climate change, inconvenience in the form of blocked streets, delayed flights, and property damage is the least they deserve. 

Civil disobedience certainly remains one tool out of many in the fight against the environmental crisis, but when other methods fail, disruptive action is often the only way to give voice to climate injustice. The protests at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport may not have shifted policy in a day, but the activists succeeded in igniting an essential conversation. Provoking real progress in the climate movement requires both individual responsibility and systemic change, as well as working within and outside of legal frameworks.

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