What does privilege mean in the fight against the climate crisis?

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Polluting industries will not 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 much longer than ours in the North — I and many others were born, or live now, in places where some of the ‘ The world’s largest polluters, including Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron and Total, have their headquarters. This location privilege, combined with our responsibility for our historic carbon debt, means that a variety of tactics, including acts of civil disobedience, can be used at the home of companies that pollute, to hold them accountable for their crimes. That privilege also gives direct access to those companies’ power structures: their finances, their lobbying power, and their social license to operate.

This won’t be easy. After all, many people, past and present, have fought for their rights and freedoms in much more difficult circumstances. Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a friend from Sudan, spent years in Australian immigration detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. During that time, the detainees tirelessly organized and confronted the Australian government with its policy of detaining asylum seekers there. In the end, most of them were released. A friend from Kenya, Phyllis Omido, and her community in a Mombasa slum battled lead poisoning from a local factory. She was attacked, arrested and even had to go into hiding after her lawsuit against the government led to more threats against her. In the end, she and her community won and several toxic waste smelters were closed.

Standing up for your rights can be the death penalty in many countries. Traditionally democratic nations seem to be taking 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 US states have passed laws to criminalize violating oil and gas pipelines. In response to protests against 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 last summer, police officers in Germany arrested other activists in Lützerath under 2018 changes to a security law known as “Lex Hambi” in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The law, which allows police to detain people for up to seven days to verify their identities, was created in part in response to climate activists who hid their fingerprints to prevent identification.

This may be the first time some people feel such a lack of control over their personal and our collective future. Many, especially those of us in the white middle class, are not used to fighting tough battles against unequal power structures. Many of us have not learned 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. Fortunately, that privilege can also give us the resources and determination to meet that challenge.

I’m not looking forward to confronting the police and RWE security in Lützerath. Actually, I’d rather 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 for communities struggling to survive, but also for the global community of all living things. The battle for global climate security is now upon us. To succeed, it needs 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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