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Global Ideas

Do spectacular environmental protests work?

Whether it’s scaling nuclear power plants or stopping whale hunters in their tracks, or even chaining themselves to train tracks, environmental activists sometimes risk everything for their cause. But is it worth it?

Jörg Feddern’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing for weeks. He’s an oil expert at Greenpeace Germany, and he and his colleagues around the world currently have their work cut out.

Just about a month ago, 28 eight of their activists and two freelance journalists were detained aboard a Greenpeace ship while demonstrating against oil exploration in the Arctic. They’re now sitting behind bars in Russia, with some being held in very poor conditions, says Feddern. Greenpeace is working round the clock to secure their release.

Foto: The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise on the high seas with a rubber boat floating in the foreground

Activists on board the Greenpeace "Arctic Sunrise" were all arrested

It all began on September 18 when the activists on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise tried to board an oil platform to protest the first Russian drilling mission in Arctic waters. But the demonstration was short-lived: Russian military swooped in and stormed the ship, and all 30 were initially charged with piracy. Russia has since changed the charges to hooliganism, which carries a maximum penalty of 7 years.

"The accusations are completely fraudulent," Feddern told DW. He argued that Greenpeace only stages peaceful protests, and the activists in this case stuck to that philosophy.

Imprisonment and other serious consequences aren't uncommon among dedicated environmental activists. "We all act out of conviction," Feddern said. "We’re convinced that Greenepeace acts on the right principles. Besides, the Arctic affects us all."

Lots of hard work

Feddern says Arctic exploration is an especially complicated issue, and one that is difficult to communicate. Greenpeace has launched a series of spectacular initiatives to raise awareness and make clear that environmental exploitation - even in the Arctic - affects everyone. Feddern says these campaigns require a lot of effort, but past experiences have proven that it pays off.

Jochen Roose, a professor of sociology at Berlin’s Free University, confirmed that environmental protects do serve an important purpose.

"Climate change is far from being under control, and pollution is still rampant," Roose, who is researching the effectiveness of environmental protests, said. But he added it’s difficult to measure just how big an impact activism has had. "There are simply too many criteria that can contribute to success or failure," he said.

Jörg Feddern (Foto: Greenpeace)

Greenpeace expert Jörg Feddern believes in a broad array of protests

Joachim Radkau too said it’s difficult to trace environmental progress to individual players because there is always a variety of factors involved. Radkau is a professor of modern history at Bielefeld University in Germany and author of the book "The Age of Ecology."

"Environmental protests are often more successful than we realize," Radkau said.

A success story

One protest that’s widely considered a successful example of environmental activism is the Shell boycott in 1995. It began when Dutch oil conglomerate Shell announced plans to decommission one of its oil tankers, the Brent Spar, by "deep sea disposal" - in other words, sinking the platform deep in the North Atlantic’s waters.

Greenpeace activists launched a massive campaign to stop them, occupying the Brent Spar for three weeks and triggering a widespread backlash against Shell that even lead to a boycott of the company’s gas stations and products in parts of western Europe. Even leading politicians and associations spoke out against Shell’s practices, leading to a near 50 percent drop in the company’s revenues.

The public outcry and anger eventually forced Shell to abandon its deep sea plan. And three years later, European nations agreed on a total ban on the dumping of offshore steel oil rigs. The incident was considered a huge triumph for environmental activism.

Greenpeace banner in a stadium

Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner against Gazprom during a soccer game between Basel and Schalke

One country which has plenty of experience with a thriving environmental activist scene is Germany. Considered a global pioneer in climate protection, Germany was one of the first countries to set up an environment ministry. It’s home to a wide variety of grassroots environmental initiatives, and there’s a high level of awareness among the general public, too.

The German government has also attracted international attention for its ambitious plan to completely phase out nuclear power by 2020 and switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

"That’s thanks in part to environmental protests," Radkau said, adding that there were several other factors involved. "Protest movements are successful when they align with political and economic interests as well."

A mix of tactics

Joachim Roose said it’s important to develop a broad portfolio of tactics when it comes to environmental campaigning. In Germany, for example, Greenpeace and WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, are the two largest environmental organizations.

Freiburg footballer Oliver Baumann with the WWF logo on his jersey (Photo: dpa)

WWF had its logo printed on the Freiburg soccer club’s jerseys during a game against Frankfurt

But they have markedly different approaches. Roose said Greenpeace is famous for its spectacular shock campaigns, while WWF relies on its close relationships to key industry and government stakeholders to apply pressure through negotiation. "The more varied the efforts are, the stronger the movement," Roose said. "I’m convinced that you need both sides - the provocative Greenpeace campaigns as well as organizations that are more cooperative, like WWF," says Roose.

That view is echoed by Jörn Ehlers, a press spokesman for WWF. "You have to tread different paths to reach the same goal," Ehlers said. Even Jörg Feddern from Greenpeace agreed.

"Protests aren’t always the best approach - it’s one tactic among many," Feddern said. “ The important thing is that you have a variety of measures,“ he says.

Global protests harder to organize

But coordinating protests around the world remains a challenge. Greenpeace now sends its own delegation of experts to UN climate conferences around the world. "Organizing protests on an international level keeps getting more difficult," Joachim Roose said.

But experts agree that there’s a constant need to step up public pressure around environmental issues by getting the media involved and ensuring the problems stay in the public glare.

"If environmental organizations weren’t so aggressive in drawing attention to these issues, we wouldn’t have come nearly as far as we have in climate negotiations, though they’re often weak," Feddern said. "If we take our foot off the pedal, big industry - our main opponent - would be much more successful," he added.

Despite the partial successes reached so far, environmental organizations and experts agree they are still a long ways from realizing their true goal.