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Will Natural Disasters Fuel an Environmental Movement?

As extreme weather conditions become the norm, so too will public outrage.

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 6:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

A week after the most powerful "super typhoon" ever recorded pummeled the Philippines, killing thousands in a single province, and three weeks after the northern Chinese city of Harbin suffered a devastating "airpocalypse," suffocating the city with coal-plant pollution, government leaders beware! Although individual events like these cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to increased fossil fuel use and climate change, they are the type of disasters that, scientists tell us, will become a pervasive part of life on a planet being transformed by the massive consumption of carbon-based fuels. If, as is now the case, governments across the planet back an extension of the carbon age and ever increasing reliance on "unconventional" fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas, we should all expect trouble. In fact, we should expect mass upheavals leading to a green energy revolution.

None of us can predict the future, but when it comes to a mass rebellion against the perpetrators of global destruction, we can see a glimmer of the coming upheaval in events of the present moment. Take a look and you will see that the assorted environmental protests that have long bedeviled politicians are gaining in strength and support. With an awareness of climate change growing and as intensifying floods, fires, droughts, and storms become an inescapable feature of daily life across the planet, more people are joining environmental groups and engaging in increasingly bold protest actions. Sooner or later, government leaders are likely to face multiple eruptions of mass public anger and may, in the end, be forced to make radical adjustments in energy policy or risk being swept aside.

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In fact, it is possible to imagine such a green energy revolution erupting in one part of the world and spreading like wildfire to others. Because climate change is going to inflict increasingly severe harm on human populations, the impulse to rebel is only likely to gain in strength across the planet. While circumstances may vary, the ultimate goal of these uprisings will be to terminate the reign of fossil fuels while emphasizing investment in and reliance upon renewable forms of energy. And a success in any one location is bound to invite imitation in others.

A wave of serial eruptions of this sort would not be without precedent. In the early years of twentieth-first century, for example, one government after another in disparate parts of the former Soviet Union was swept away in what were called the "color revolutions"—populist upheavals against old-style authoritarian regimes. These included the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia (2003), the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine (2004), and the "Pink" or "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan (2005). In 2011, a similar wave of protests erupted in North Africa, culminating in what we call the Arab Spring.

Like these earlier upheavals, a "green revolution" is unlikely to arise from a highly structured political campaign with clearly identified leaders. In all likelihood, it will erupt spontaneously, after a cascade of climate-change induced disasters provokes an outpouring of public fury. Once ignited, however, it will undoubtedly ratchet up the pressure for governments to seek broad-ranging, systemic transformations of their energy and climate policies. In this sense, any such upheaval—whatever form it takes—will prove "revolutionary" by seeking policy shifts of such magnitude as to challenge the survival of incumbent governments or force them to enact measures with transformative implications.

Foreshadowings of such a process can already be found around the globe. Take the mass environmental protests that erupted in Turkey this June. Though sparked by a far smaller concern than planetary devastation via climate change, for a time they actually posed a significant threat to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing party. Although his forces eventually succeeded in crushing the protests—leaving four dead, 8,000 injured, and 11 blinded by tear-gas canisters—his reputation as a moderate Islamist was badly damaged by the episode.

Like so many surprising upheavals on this planet, the Turkish uprising had the most modest of beginnings: on May 27th, a handful of environmental activists blocked bulldozers sent by the government to level Gezi Park, a tiny oasis of greenery in the heart of Istanbul, and prepare the way for the construction of an upscale mall. The government responded to this small-scale, non-violent action by sending in riot police and clearing the area, a move that enraged many Turks and prompted tens of thousands of them to occupy nearby Taksim Square. This move, in turn, led to an even more brutal police crackdown and then to huge demonstrations in Istanbul and around the country. In the end, mass protests erupted in 70 cities, the largest display of anti-government sentiment since Erdogan's Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002.

This was, in the most literal sense possible, a "green" revolution, ignited by the government's assault on the last piece of greenery in central Istanbul. But once the police intervened in full strength, it became a wide-ranging rebuke to Erdogan's authoritarian impulses and his drive to remake the city as a neo-Ottoman showplace—replete with fancy malls and high-priced condominiums—while eliminating poor neighborhoods and freewheeling public spaces like Taksim Square. "It's all about superiority, and ruling over the people like sultans," declared one protestor. It's not just about the trees in Gezi Park, said another: "We are here to stand up against those who are trying to make a profit from our land."

The Ningbo Rebellion

The same trajectory of events—a small-scale environmental protest evolving into a full-scale challenge to governmental authority—can be seen in other mass protests of recent years.

Take a Chinese example: in October 2012, students and middle class people joined with poor farmers to protest the construction of an $8.8 billion petrochemical facility in Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people south of Shanghai. In a country where environmental pollution has reached nearly unprecedented levels, these protests were touched off by fears that the plant, to be built by the state-owned energy company Sinopec with local government support, would produce paraxylene, a toxic substance used in plastics, paints, and cleaning solvents.

Here, too, the initial spark that led to the protests was small-scale. On October 22nd, some 200 farmers obstructed a road near the district government's office in an attempt to block the plant's construction. After the police were called in to clear the blockade, students from nearby Ningbo University joined the protests. Using social media, the protestors quickly enlisted support from middle-class residents of the city who converged in their thousands on downtown Ningbo. When riot police moved in to break up the crowds, the protestors fought back, attacking police cars and throwing bricks and water bottles. While the police eventually gained the upper hand after several days of pitched battles, the Chinese government concluded that mass action of this sort, occurring in the heart of a major city and featuring an alliance of students, farmers, and young professionals, was too great a threat. After five days of fighting, the government gave in, announcing the cancellation of the petrochemical project.

The Ningbo demonstrations were hardly the first such upheavals to erupt in China. They did, however, highlight a growing governmental vulnerability to mass environmental protest. For decades, the reigning Chinese Communist Party has justified its monopolistic hold on power by citing its success in generating rapid economic growth. But that growth means the use of ever more fossil fuels and petrochemicals, which, in turn, means increased carbon emissions and disastrous atmospheric pollution, including one "airpocalypse" after another.

Until recently, most Chinese seemed to accept such conditions as the inevitable consequences of growth, but it seems that tolerance of environmental degradation is rapidly diminishing. As a result, the party finds itself in a terrible bind: it can slow development as a step toward cleaning up the environment, incurring a risk of growing economic discontent, or it can continue its growth-at-all-costs policy, and find itself embroiled in a firestorm of Ningbo-style environmental protests.

This dilemma—the environment versus the economy—has proven to be at the heart of similar mass eruptions elsewhere on the planet.

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