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 environmental protests that have long bedevilled
politicians are gaining in strength and support. With awareness of
climate change growing, and intensifying floods, fires, droughts , and
storms becoming 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.
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
A wave of serial eruptions of this sort would not be without precedent.
In the early years of the 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.
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.
Foreshadowing 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, the Turkish uprising had the most
modest of beginnings: on
May 27, 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 nonviolent action by sending in riot police and
clearing the area, a move that enraged many Turks and prompted tens of
thousands 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 antigovernment 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 neighbourhoods
and freewheeling public spaces like Taksim Square.
"It's all about superiority, and ruling over the people like sultans,"
one protestor declared. 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 in
October 22, 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
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 policy of growth at any cost, and
find itself embroiled in a firestorm of Ningbo-style environmental
This dilemma—the environment versus the economy—has been at the heart of
similar mass eruptions elsewhere on the planet.
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 26, 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
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, 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 30, 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, causing high electricity bills and periodic energy shortages.
However, such is the strength of antinuclear sentiment in Germany that
Merkel felt she had no choice but to close the reactors anyway.
The antinuclear protests in Japan occurred considerably later, but were
no less momentous. On July 16 of 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
For the government, the
July 16 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 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
July 16 protest and others like it
should be seen as a public vote against the government's energy policy
and oversight capabilities.
Scepticism about the government, rare in twenty-first-century Japan, has
proved a major obstacle to that government's 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
Despite such sentiments, Abe is finding it 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 to engage in mass protests, often on short notice. 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-fuelled 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 either 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 potentially on an 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
And what about the United States? At this point, it would be ludicrous
to say that the nation's political leadership is at risk of being forced
to take serious steps to scale back reliance on fossil fuels as a result
of popular disturbances. 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
Four Signs that Regular Folks Can Still Win (and One That Shows the
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"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 observes, 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 anticarbon 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 protests in the U.S. and elsewhere have
the potential to expand into something far greater? Like China, the
United States will experience genuine damage from 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
So don't be surprised if that green energy revolution erupts in your
neighbourhood as part of humanity's response to the greatest danger
we've ever faced. If governments won't take the lead on an imperilled
planet, someone else will.
[Author, Michael T. Klare, wrote this article for
TomDispatch.com, where it originally appeared. Michael
is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and
the author, most recently, of
The Race for What's Left.]