The War on Climate Activism Is Reaching Dangerous New Heights

The War on Climate Activism Is Reaching Dangerous New Heights

The War on Climate Activism Is Reaching Dangerous New Heights

Governments around the world are increasingly deploying the language and methods of counterterrorism to repress climate movements.


This past January, environmental activist Manuel Páez Terán, also known as Tortuguita, was shot dead by Georgia state troopers while protesting the construction of the $90 million Atlanta police and firefighter training facility known as Cop City.

Autopsies would later show that police had left 57 bullet wounds in Tortuguita’s body and that the victim had their hands up when officers began shooting them. Their killing would be important to remember, regardless of what they were fighting for, but it had an added significance: According to multiple reports, Tortuguita was the first person in modern US history to have been shot and killed by police in connection with climate activism.

Tortuguita’s death cannot be viewed in isolation. Their killing occurred just over a month after five Stop Cop City protesters were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism. Both incidents are part of a growing trend of state-sanctioned violence and repression against climate activists in the United States and other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France.

Between 2012 and 2022, according to the nonprofit Global Witness, at least 1,733 people around the world were killed, as Tortuguita was, while trying to protect their land. That’s an average of one death every two days. This violence has come with a notable escalation in rhetoric. More and more, academics, journalists, and security officials are using the sort of language developed during the so-called War on Terror in connection with climate activism, carving out space for a justification of state-sanctioned violence in the name of fighting extremism. While the use of such tactics for cracking down on activists is nothing new, they are now taking place at a time when the American state’s powers of surveillance and lethality at every level of government are more pronounced than ever. In the years since 9/11, the state has gained monumental powers, established ostensibly in order to fight terrorism. In reality, however, this increased state power has frequently been used to surveil American citizens and clamp down on popular movements, like the movement to stop Cop City. By deeming a group of activists to be terrorists, the state is then able to mobilize the full force of its anti-terrorism resources against them.

As the severity of the climate crisis becomes ever more immediate, it is imperative that activists are able to keep their resistance going. But instead, we are seeing a political environment that is becoming more and more hostile to activists—one where the risks that they must overcome are increasingly severe.

Globally, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for climate activists, and killings have been steadily increasing since 2012, when Global Witness began documenting lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders (228 people were killed in 2020, up from 139 killings in 2012). Yet, despite this increase in violence against activists, academic discourse among political risk analysts and security specialists has often focused on the supposed increased risk of so-called “climate terrorism.” In 2017, Foreign Policy published an op-ed headlined “The Next Wave of Extremists Will Be Green,” in which journalist and academic Jamie Bartlett argued that an increasingly well-organized and angry environmental movement had the potential to become a security threat along the lines of the Irish Republican Army or even Al Qaeda.

Just this past year, the specter of an environmentalist guerrilla army haunted the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference. Maha Aziz, a political risk specialist and professor at New York University who spoke at the conference, told me, “Short of some dramatic intervention, we should expect more climate events, climate refugees, and possibly even climate-related disease this decade. This will likely lead to growing citizen frustration in many countries over governments’ failures to tackle the climate crisis, feeding into a recurrent crisis of political legitimacy. Over time, we may see citizen frustration and activism evolve into violence against both government and fossil fuel companies—perhaps a new and more violent wave of eco-terrorism as Earth becomes even less inhabitable.”

Equating climate activists with terrorists has become more common in the United States, among elected and law enforcement officials and in the media. In April, Fox News published a scathing article about the positive reception received by the documentary How to Blow Up a Pipeline, calling it an “eco-terrorist” film. Fox has also covered the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta with inflammatory headlines like “Domestic terror suspects in ‘Cop City’ attack have links to left-wing groups, protest movements.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article headlined “‘Forest defenders’ use extreme tactics in fight over training center,” which includes descriptions of protesters as “responsible for a growing list of aggressive, sometimes violent actions that have targeted anything and anyone with connections to the would-be training center” and references an Atlanta Police Foundation spokesman comparing the activists’ tactics to terrorism. (The Journal-Constitution is owned by Cox Enterprises, a self-identified funder of the police foundation.)

This media coverage corresponds with an escalation in the attempted repression of the climate movement by the state. Many Stop Cop City activists are not only being arrested but also being charged with domestic terrorism, a charge that carries a 35-year maximum prison sentence. To date, 42 activists from Stop Cop City have been charged with domestic terrorism, and their encounters with law enforcement generally have become more militarized. Where a typical charge for someone arrested during a protest would often be disorderly conduct, trespassing, or vandalism, protesters are now being treated less as activists and more as dangerous extremists.

Marlon Kautz, an organizer with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, is currently facing charges of alleged charity fraud along with two other organizers. The bail fund is dedicated to raising money for bail and legal support for protesters who have been arrested. In an interview, Kautz described the morning that he and his fellow organizers were arrested in an armed raid on their home. “We woke up in the early morning to our door being broken down by a battering ram, and found our house surrounded by dozens of SWAT officers who threatened to throw a flash-bang into our living room,” he said. “That is the kind of attack that you would perform against a terrorist.” Rachel Cox, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, noted in an interview that specifically targeting bail fund organizers for tax evasion is a tactic authoritarian governments often use to undermine environmental movements.

This dangerous trend in the coverage and treatment of activists is not unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, the media response to the Just Stop Oil protesters, who have been staging a series of dramatic protests demanding an end to all new oil and gas projects in the country, has been even more extreme than coverage in the US. The Daily Mail routinely refers to the group as eco-zealots and an eco-mob, and recently published an opinion column calling the group a “deranged criminal eco-terrorist cult.” The Telegraph published a column headlined “Will the environmental extremists of Just Stop Oil slowly morph into terrorists?”; just yesterday, the paper ran another piece comparing the group to both the January 6 rioters and the QAnon movement.

According to reporting by OpenDemocracy, UK police may also begin classifying these activists as terrorists for threatening businesses. If they do so, they would be picking up a baton from France. In June, the French government forcibly disbanded Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth Uprisings) following repeated protests by the group that ended in violent clashes with police. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who had referred to the climate activists who have been organizing in resistance to large-scale industrial projects as “eco-terrorists,” defended the decision by saying that the group had “a major role in planning, spreading and legitimizing violent methods of operation.” This move, made despite resistance from the mayor of Paris, the UN special rapporteur for environmental defenders, and other elected leaders and rights groups, is yet another instance of the state exercising its power to suppress the climate movement under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Cox says that what is happening in the United States and Europe—the militarized response from law enforcement and the legal, prosecutorial strategies to label protesters as terrorists—is squarely in line with the methods used against activists globally. “The use of specific legislation, anti-terror legislation, anti–money laundering legislation, state tax legislation, that is misused by often authoritarian governments to target defenders, creates an environment that makes it very difficult for [climate activists] to do their work,” she said. “These are tactics that are used to undermine the work that they do, and create an enabling environment for more serious and more violent action to take place against them.”

This trend in the US and Europe also has larger consequences globally, in countries including the Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico, where the dangers to land defenders are far greater. Cox said, “The criminalization of activists in the UK and US, whilst it might be along the lines of nonlethal attacks, it still has this effect of desensitizing people to the responsibility that I think we share in being aware and cognizant of the role that our societies play in harms that are occurring abroad, or more further afield.”

Journalists and academics must remain skeptical of a portrayal of climate activists that uses the same language that was used to perpetrate the war on terror. This rhetoric will only serve to shift attention away from the immediate and catastrophic effects of the climate crisis and lead to more violence. It is vital that people resist the narratives being pushed by law enforcement, elected officials, and companies with a vested interest in subduing the climate movement at a time when our very survival depends on its perseverance.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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