By late Friday afternoon, reports started to trickle into the Climate Camp from across Germany’s western Rhineland, home to Europe’s largest coal fields. “They’ve got 90 of us in police custody in the village of Hochneukirch! But we’re still on the tracks blocking transports to Neurath, nine hours now!” shouted Insa Vries of Ende Gelände, or Stop, No Further, the spearhead of Germany’s anti-coal movement. High fives and whoops went around the exhausted protesters, who, having returned from their sorties, were strewn across the hay-carpeted floor of the camp’s main circus tent not far from the Dutch border. “And today’s taz calls us the newest, most interesting social movement in all of Europe!” cried Vries into the microphone, waving Die Tageszeitung, Germany’s left-wing daily, in the air.
There’s something to taz’s proclamation. In terms of energy and argument, the young movement shows every sign of expanding beyond Germany and its base of 20-somethings. Currently, Germany is the epicenter of Europe’s anti-coal campaign, which is led by Ende Gelände and includes other groups, many of which have roots that reach back to the anti–nuclear energy movement (whose campaigns over four decades forced Germany to exit nuclear power). Their aim is to obstruct the infrastructure of Germany’s mighty coal industry, even if temporarily, through acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
They realize that stopping coal transports, occupying extraction machinery, blocking power plants, and entering coal mines won’t shut down the industry. But the symbolism is stark and moving. The vivid, otherworldly images of hundreds of figures clad in white hooded jumpsuits and sunglasses grab headlines and underscore climate change’s existential threat.
Any one of the roughly 3,500 protesters residing in the three tent camps—pitched at strategic sites between half a dozen power stations and their open-cast mines—can explain the consensus that binds and motivates them: In size, Germany’s brown-coal production and coal-fired power generation are second to none in Europe; the same goes for the industry’s enormous CO2 emissions. Low-quality brown coal causes a third more CO2 emissions than hard coal and is twice as dirty as natural gas. When located close to power plants, as is the case in the Rhineland, it is Europe’s cheapest fossil fuel, which is why German industry favors it.
Yet Germany refuses to set a date to shut down the brown-coal mines in the Rhineland and Lusatia, a region in easternmost Germany flanking Poland. Despite world-renowned renewable-energy policies, coal still covers 40 percent of the country’s electricity needs and means thousands of jobs. It’s subsidized, and farm lands as well as whole villages continue to be razed to make way for new open-cast coal pits. West of Cologne, militant protesters have occupied Hambach Forest, marked as a future mine site, for the last five years, refusing leave despite court orders and police raids.