Climate change and the Arctic 30: our politicians are not doing enough

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Climate change and the Arctic 30: our politicians are not doing enough

By Ben Stewart

In October 2013, the Russian climate change activist Dima Litvinov (in cell 423 at Murmansk SIZO-1 isolation jail in the Arctic Circle) wrote a letter to his friends outside the prison.

The month before, he and 27 campaigners – and two journalists – were arrested. President Vladimir Putin’s commandos took control of their Greenpeace ship, after a protest at a Gazprom (Russia’s large state-owned energy company) oil platform. The group, now called the ‘Arctic 30’, were charged with piracy. Dima was sent to prison for 15 years.

‘If our action and being in prison will reduce control of the Arctic oil companies, and get people all around the world (especially in Russia), to understand how important it is to stop this crisis – it’s OK if I have to spend a few weeks or months or even years in prison. I am hoping that you, my friends and colleagues, will continue the campaign while the 30 of us have to stay here,’ he wrote.

Dima said he was often scared. Most of the 30 say they were scared too.

But even in prison, they were very committed to the reason why they came to the Arctic – they wanted to put their bodies in the way of the big fossil fuel companies. They can only drill in the Arctic now because the ice is melting because of rising temperatures. The Arctic 30 knew that climate change is the biggest story in the world, and people were not telling it.

The youngest of the 30 was Camila Speziale, 21, from Argentina. She was a climber on her first long trip to another country. In prison, alone, she could only communicate with her friends in prison by banging on a radiator pipe and shouting over the wall in their one hour of exercise.

Camila did not question her commitment to climate change activism. But she shouted: ‘Everybody, we did the right thing. And if we did the right thing, what can go wrong?’

We must think about that passion and commitment as we look at politics in Britain. We are now in the middle of a general election - but people are more interested in kitchens than the climate.

In the leaders’ debates on television, only the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett talked about the environment. And the Conservatives’ logo – which used to be a big oak tree – has now changed into a union jack flag – so UKIP voters will like it.

The tabloids (sensational newspapers) wrote about ‘The Green Party’s most mad ideas’, they talked about their idea to close the coal power stations. This is what scientists advise, but they talk about it as if it is a mix of homeopathy and astrology.

And now a Shell oil rig is crossing the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic. The second biggest oil company in the world plans to follow Gazprom and drill in the melting north. Shell first tried to get oil in the Arctic in 2012, but they had to leave after one of its rigs caught fire and another broke in heavy seas.

US President Obama supports Shell’s plan, even though Shell does not have a good record. Obama agreed to deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but there were lots of warnings that an explosion would be catastrophic.

Exactly five years ago, on 20 April, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded. 11 people died. 5 million barrels of oil leaked before it was repaired.

An accident like this in the Arctic could be almost impossible to clean up. The winter ice would come and the rescue team would have to leave. Oil would continue to spill under the ice and ocean currents would take the oil thousands of kilometres away.

And even if there are no oil spills (this is unlikely), Shell will be getting more oil from the melting ice – and it was oil that made the ice melt!

That is mad!

Dima was not the first of his family to be in prison in Russia for his political beliefs. His great-grandfather was put in prison by the Tsar, and his grandfather by Stalin.

His father is Pavel Litvinov, the dissident who tried to stop Russian tanks coming into Prague in 1968. He knew the Kremlin would be angry.

Days after the Prague Spring, Pavel and 7 of his friends sat down in the Red Square with protest banners: ‘Shame to the occupiers! For your freedom and for ours! Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia!’

In his book about the end of the Soviet Union, David Remnick (editor of New Yorker) says Pavel was one of the first people to protest against the regime. He was sent to Siberia. And Dima grew up there.

In 1968, it was difficult to imagine that the Soviet Empire would, in 20 years, end because of street protests. We have about the same period of time to fight against fossil fuels. And it is just as difficult to imagine.

By the 2030s, we must get most of our electricity with no release of carbon. Or we will not reach the target – to limit global temperature rises to two degrees. So we will need many millions of people to join the movement.

We can’t all show the commitment of Dima, Camila and the other Arctic 30 prisoners. But this movement must grow strong enough to fight against the silence on climate change in the election campaign and Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic. Only then will we keep the carbon in the ground.

Dima Litvinov was released from prison after protests around the world. I asked his father, Pavel Litvinov, to compare his fight against the Soviet government and Dima’s action against Arctic oil drilling and climate change.

‘The protests are different, of course,’ Pavel replied, ‘but also similar. We both wanted to fight for somebody who was attacked by a large controlling government. In my case we defended a small country, Czechoslovakia, suddenly attacked by its big neighbour.’

‘Dima was speaking for the Arctic. There was no-one to defend it. The defence of the Arctic is like the defence of humans and human rights. It is our life, because if the Arctic cannot survive, we can’t survive. We only have our voice: a voice to speak for something which cannot speak for itself.’

Ben Stewart worked in the campaign to free the Arctic 30 from prison. See his book: Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).