Two of the largest protests of this sort were sparked by the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants on March 11, 2011, after a massive tsunami struck northern Japan. In both of these actions—the first in Germany, the second in Japan—the future of nuclear power and the survival of governments were placed in doubt.
The biggest protests occurred in Germany. On March 26th, 15 days after the Fukushima explosions, an estimated 250,000 people participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations across the country—100,000 in Berlin, and up to 40,000 each in Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne. "Today's demonstrations are just the prelude to a new, strong, anti-nuclear movement," declared Jochen Stay, a protest leader. "We're not going to let up until the plants are finally mothballed."
At issue was the fate of Germany's remaining nuclear power plants. Although touted as an attractive alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear power is seen by most Germans as a dangerous and unwelcome energy option. Several months prior to Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that Germany would keep its 17 operating reactors until 2040, allowing a smooth transition from the country's historic reliance on coal to renewable energy for generating electricity. Immediately after Fukushima, she ordered a temporary shutdown of Germany's seven oldest reactors for safety inspections but refused to close the others, provoking an outpouring of protest.
Witnessing the scale of the demonstrations, and after suffering an electoral defeat in the key state of Baden-Württemberg, Merkel evidently came to the conclusion that clinging to her position would be the equivalent of political suicide. On May 30th, she announced that the seven reactors undergoing inspections would be closed permanently and the remaining 10 would be phased out by 2022, almost 20 years earlier than in her original plan.
By all accounts, the decision to phase out nuclear power almost two decades early will have significant repercussions for the German economy. Shutting down the reactors and replacing them with wind and solar energy will cost an estimated $735 billion and take several decades, producing soaring electricity bills and periodic energy shortages. However, such is the strength of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany that Merkel felt she had no choice but to close the reactors anyway.
The anti-nuclear protests in Japan occurred considerably later, but were no less momentous. On July 16, 2012, 16 months after the Fukushima disaster, an estimated 170,000 people assembled in Tokyo to protest a government plan to restart the country's nuclear reactors, idled after the disaster. This was not only Japan's largest antinuclear demonstration in many years, but the largest of any sort to occur in recent memory.
For the government, the July 16th action was particularly significant. Prior to Fukushima, most Japanese had embraced the country's growing reliance on nuclear power, putting their trust in the government to ensure its safety. After Fukushima and the disastrous attempts of the reactors' owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to deal with the situation, public support for nuclear power plummeted. As it became increasingly evident that the government had mishandled the crisis, people lost faith in its ability to exercise effective control over the nuclear industry. Repeated promises that nuclear reactors could be made safe lost all credibility when it became known that government officials had long collaborated with TEPCO executives in covering up safety concerns at Fukushima and, once the meltdowns occurred, in concealing information about the true scale of the disaster and its medical implications.
The July 16th protest and others like it should be seen as a public vote against the government's energy policy and oversight capabilities. "Japanese have not spoken out against the national government," said one protestor, a 29-year-old homemaker who brought her one-year-old son. "Now, we have to speak out, or the government will endanger us all."
Skepticism about the government, rare for twenty-first-century Japan, has proved a major obstacle to its desire to restart the country's 50 idled reactors. While most Japanese oppose nuclear power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains determined to get the rectors running again in order to reduce Japan's heavy reliance on imported energy and promote economic growth. "I think it is impossible to promise zero [nuclear power plants] at this stage," he declared this October. "From the government's standpoint, [nuclear plants] are extremely important for a stable energy supply and economic activities."
Despite such sentiments, Abe is finding it extremely difficult to garner support for his plans, and it is doubtful that significant numbers of those reactors will be coming online anytime soon.
The Explosions Ahead
What these episodes tell us is that people around the world are becoming ever more concerned about energy policy as it affects their lives and are prepared—often on short notice—to engage in mass protests. At the same time, governments globally, with rare exceptions, are deeply wedded to existing energy policies. These almost invariably turn them into targets, no matter what the original spark for mass opposition. As the results of climate change become ever more disruptive, government officials will find themselves repeatedly choosing between long-held energy plans and the possibility of losing their grip on power.
Because few governments are as yet prepared to launch the sorts of efforts that might even begin to effectively address the peril of climate change, they will increasingly be seen as obstacles to essential action and so as entities that need to be removed. In short, climate rebellion—spontaneous protests that may at any moment evolve into unquenchable mass movements—is on the horizon. Faced with such rebellions, recalcitrant governments will respond with some combination of accommodation to popular demands and harsh repression.
Many governments will be at risk from such developments, but the Chinese leadership appears to be especially vulnerable. The ruling party has staked its future viability on an endless carbon-fueled growth agenda that is steadily destroying the country's environment. It has already faced half-a-dozen environmental upheavals like the one in Ningbo, and has responded to them by agreeing to protestors' demands or by employing brute force. The question is: How long can this go on?
Environmental conditions are bound to worsen, especially as China continues to rely on coal for home heating and electrical power, and yet there is no indication that the ruling Communist Party is prepared to take the radical steps required to significantly reduce domestic coal consumption. This translates into the possibility of mass protests erupting at any time and on a potentially unprecedented scale. And these, in turn, could bring the Party's very survival into question—a scenario guaranteed to produce immense anxiety among the country's top leaders.
And what about the United States? At this point, it would be ludicrous to say that, as a result of popular disturbances, the nation's political leadership is at any risk of being swept away or even forced to take serious steps to scale back reliance on fossil fuels. There are, however, certainly signs of a growing nationwide campaign against aspects of fossil fuel reliance, including vigorous protests against hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
For environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben, all this adds up to an incipient mass movement against the continued consumption of fossil fuels. "In the last few years," he has written, this movement "has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas." It may not have achieved the success of the drive for gay marriage, he observed, but it "continues to grow quickly, and it's starting to claim some victories."
If it's still too early to gauge the future of this anti-carbon movement, it does seem, at least, to be gaining momentum. In the 2013 elections, for example, three cities in energy-rich Colorado—Boulder, Fort Collins, and Lafayette—voted to ban or place moratoriums on fracking within their boundaries, while protests against Keystone XL and similar projects are on the rise.
Nobody can say that a green energy revolution is a sure thing, but who can deny that energy-oriented environmental protests in the US and elsewhere have the potential to expand into something far greater? Like China, the United States will experience genuine damage from climate change and its unwavering commitment to fossil fuels in the years ahead. Americans are not, for the most part, passive people. Expect them, like the Chinese, to respond to these perils with increased ire and a determination to alter government policy.
So don't be surprised if that green energy revolution erupts in your neighborhood as part of humanity's response to the greatest danger we've ever faced. If governments won't take the lead on an imperiled planet, someone will.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones's They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars—The Untold Story. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.