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How will climate change activism change in a post-pandemic USA?

In the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was talk that the pandemic was good for the environment. Pollution in large cities had dropped significantly, areas where water was once dark from pollution were now clear, and nature overall was said to be recovering. This was due to lockdown measures and border closures implemented by countries, which in turn decreased or stopped transportation systems and manufacturing hubs.

For some, this was a rallying cry for more action on climate change and environmental causes, while for others the short gains made during the lockdowns would fade as measures are eased and normal life resumes. It seems as if the latter was right.

In April, the daily global carbon emissions were down 17% compared to the same period in 2019, and by June they were only 5% lower than the same period in 2019, without full economic activity restarting for most countries. Transport, which makes up 23% of global carbon emissions, has not yet come back to pre-COVID levels, while factories in parts of the world like China pushed to make up for lost time, and are said to have surpassed levels of pollution from pre-COVID before dropping back down to those levels.

With governments not taking actions to make some of the gains made during the pandemic more permanent, it’s possible that as restrictions ease in the coming year, that protests regarding environmental causes resume.


New Reasons to Protest

The climate crisis was a significant cause of protests around the world in the last year, particularly in the United States and Europe. While COVID-19 dampened the ability for protesters to continue their marches and rallies, the movement continued online, with in-person protests likely to ramp up again with a better understanding on how to be able to protest and be safe continues to be part of the discussion.

More reasons to protest have appeared during the pandemic, as countries, like the United States, take measures to restart the economy that are not environmentally friendly, such as cash and regulatory rollbacks supporting fossil fuel, plastics, airlines and automobile manufacturers. Moves to roll back environmental regulations to ease the burden on these industries may not only lead to pre-COVID levels of pollution but could have the adverse effect of making such industries worse polluters than before. President Trump’s administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations during the pandemic has faced less scrutiny due to the focus of the country and the world being on COVID-19. However, these and other steps taken by the administration, such as opening up the Coastal Plain area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska for oil and gas leases have the potential to increase activity by environmental protesters in the near future.

US Climate Change Protest Locations in 2019 and 2020
US Climate Change Protest Locations since 2019 [Source: Intelligence Fusion]


The ability to monitor the trends or patterns of such protests is crucial for organisations with assets and operations that are likely to be disrupted by unrest. Understanding common tactics and targets amongst climate change demonstrators can provide practical insight into the measures required to protect your business. There are many ways in which you can prepare for protests, however one of the features within our threat intelligence platform is the ‘Themes’ tool. Our clients can quickly filter for incidents that have been grouped together as a wider theme, providing an overview of activity, areas of concentration as well as key parties (actors, those targeted and even those indirectly affected).

Software to monitor protests across the United States
Themes: How to monitor protests and unrest across the United States with threat intelligence software. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]


In regard to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the 17th August 2020, the Secretary of the Interior in the United States signed a Record of Decision, authorising oil and gas leasing on 1.56 million acres of the ANWR’s Coastal Plain, with the first lease sale of at least 400,000 acres to be held by the 22nd December 2021, but with talks that it could happen by the end of 2020.

The ANWR’s Coastal Plain is significant environmentally, as it is home to a number of mammal and bird species, as well as increasingly sees female polar bears build dens and give birth in the area due to a loss of sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. The idea of drilling in the area has been around since the 1970s, and the United States Geological Survey estimated that there were 4.3 to 11.8 billion barrels of oil recoverable in the area. However, that number is uncertain as no oil and gas exploration has taken place there since the 1980s. Any development in the area is certain to see pushback from environmental groups in the form of protests and court battles.


Pre-COVID Environmental Protests

Prior to lockdown measures impacting the way protests were conducted, environmental groups had been considerably active in 2019 and into the first three months of 2020. Groups like Fridays for Future held several climate strikes which involved thousands of strikes across the world and millions of participants, to demand action from the politicians in regard to the climate crisis and for the fossil fuel industry to transition to renewable energies.

Recurring protests also involved the Fire Drill Friday protests outside the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to demand a Green New Deal, no new fossil fuels, and the rapid phase out of existing fossil fuel projects and a transition to a renewable energy economy. Groups like Extinction Rebellion conducted their protests with more direct action, including blocking roads, occupying large spaces, gluing themselves to the doors and gates of government buildings and banks, and blocking airport and railroad operations.

Elsewhere in the world, climate activists in Switzerland dumped coal inside a branch of the UBS Group to protest the bank’s funding of fossil fuel projects, while in Canada, indigenous groups blocked railways and barricaded ports to protest a controversial gas pipeline passing in the territory of the Wet’suwet’en. The use of armed police, dogs, and helicopters to clear indigenous activists was taken, and was reminiscent of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the United States in 2016, or even the Bayou Bridge Pipeline protests in Louisiana in 2018.

Like many protests beforehand, and for various causes, these had significant impacts on transportation links as well as businesses due to road blockages in certain commercial districts and the blocking of banks and oil and gas companies’ headquarters. It’s important to remember that even if your business is not directly targeted by climate change campaigners, the disruption can have a wider impact on nearby property, travellers or supply chains.

To maintain business activities and minimise the risk, you need reliable alerts surrounding new and ongoing incidents. This will support you to make better, more informed decisions when it comes to protecting your assets. With our extensive filtering options, including the ability to geofence, select certain incident types and even drill down into incidents that include a particular party, our users can be notified of new protests days, weeks and often months in advance allowing them to better prepare for disruption and ultimately reduce the threat.

Incidents related to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline protests in Louisiana in 2018
Map highlighting incidents relating to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline protests in Louisiana in 2018. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]


Post-COVID-19 Protests

Since the 25th May 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, protests have gripped the United States from coast to coast, with the protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement. A number of social issues have been at the forefront of these protests from police violence and defunding the police to removing racism from every facet of life, from businesses to education. The protests have been peaceful for the most part, but instances of looting, vandalism, occupation of city blocks, and clashes with the police have been reported, with Portland and Seattle continuing to be some of the most active areas for protests.

Black Lives Matter activity across the USA since the death of George Floyd highlighted on a map.
Black Lives Matter activity across the USA since the death of George Floyd. [Source: Intelligence Fusion] 


During this time, some environmental groups have joined in to support the protests. On the 30th July, members of the Sunrise Movement protested outside Senator Mitch McConnell’s home in Washington, D.C. to demand action to defend black lives and provide proper COVID-19 relief. It is likely that future environmental protests will incorporate anti-racism messaging, promote leaders from minority groups to the forefront of the movements, and demand more to protect vulnerable communities, which are often from minority communities. This is in part due to the discussion surrounding race, which has been at the forefront since the death of George Floyd, and criticism of certain environmental groups that they are too white and too middle-class, lacking representation of minority groups.

We also saw action being taken in academia with thousands of STEM scientists and organisations going on strike on the 10th June to protest systemic racism in academia. The hashtags #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives trended during this and is important in regard to environmental movements, as many of the movements demand that politicians listen to scientists and academics who are warning about the dangers of climate change. The listening to experts will also impact environmental protest groups in the age of COVID-19, because experts warn against large groups of individuals and promote social distancing. If environmental protesters choose to go against this, it may offer their opposition an opportunity to attack their actions. While environmental protesters have often looked to impact the reputation of fossil fuel companies and businesses supporting them, they themselves will need to combat issues affecting their own reputations in order to appear to hold a moral high ground.

Another challenge to environmental activists holding protests in the tense environment currently being witnessed in the United States is the potential for a lack of patience and understanding from the police or local residents for any actions that cause serious disruption from protests or direct actions against the construction or operation of oil and gas pipelines.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, several states passed new laws to discourage or criminalise protests against oil and gas companies. Kentucky designated natural gas and petroleum pipelines as key infrastructure assets, and any damage or tempering with them causing operations to be harmful or dangerous, may lead to felony charges. In West Virginia, oil and gas pipelines and facilities received critical infrastructure designations, and the penalties for damage, destruction, vandalism, defacing or tampering with them were increased. South Dakota passed two more laws similar to the aforementioned, including defining a riot as “any intentional use of force or violence by three or more persons, acting together and without authority of law, to cause injury to any person or damage to property”.

Many of these laws have been criticised by activists, as they say they are there solely to protect the oil and gas industry. These laws join similar ones in other states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Indiana, among others, which began to be put in place after the 2016 Standing Rock protests. The police tactics seen during Black Lives Matter protests since May, and the laws being put in place in key states where oil and gas projects are, will likely have an effect on the number of protesters that show up to any direct action activities, as it’ll likely be a deterrent for allies to environmental movements, who are not as willing to be arrested for the cause.

Despite the tense atmosphere in the United States regarding race or political stance, and despite the implementation of laws appearing to target environmental protesters, the protests are likely to continue as additional reasons to protest have been given in recent months. However, tactics may change. Additionally, some of the points made above may become more or less important depending on the outcome of the presidential election in November 2020. For example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not likely to become the next Standing Rock, as supply lines and the ability to get protesters to Alaska will be more difficult than it was for South Dakota. Additionally, for the moment, there has been limited interests by oil and gas companies in the area, which could be because of the likely court battles that would be brought on by environmental groups towards these companies or due to low oil prices.

Additionally, Alaskan residents will vote on Alaska Ballot Measure 1 during the November 2020 elections, which is about increasing taxes on oil production fields that meet the following criteria: above 68 degree north latitude in Alaska, have a lifetime output of at least 400 million barrels of oil, and has an output of 40,000 barrels per day in the preceding calendar year.

Finally, an election where Joe Biden becomes president may see lease changes for the area. However, the decision to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling may still lead to protests in cities within the lower 48 states, with the interruption of oil and gas projects in these states or protests outside the headquarters of oil and gas companies as part of the strategy. It’s possible that climate-sceptic politicians or politicians voting for or with ties to companies involved in the project could also be targeted by protesters, such what was mentioned previously with the Sunrise Movement protesting outside Senator Mitch McConnell’s home in Washington, D.C.

What we saw in 2019, and what will possibly continue in the end of 2020 and into 2021, are protests against banks and law firms, that fund or defend the interests of the fossil fuel industry, as well as any companies deemed large polluters. Despite several banks refusing to fund projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they continue to fund other projects within the United States, which continues to make them targets for protests outside their branches or headquarters to demand they stop.

Climate Change Protesters targeting Banks in the US
Climate Change protests targeting banks and financial institutions in the US since 2019. [Source: Intelligence Fusion]


In addition to protesting or physically blocking oil and gas projects, activists are likely to push for legislative changes, especially if Joe Biden becomes president and appears to be more receptive to changes. This would likely include protests outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to demand action for the Green New Deal. Environmental activists may also push messaging linking environmentally friendly policies and industries, like the renewable sector, with a strong economic recovery. This type of messaging may help garner public support, particularly in the economic downturn being observed due to COVID-19. This in turn will require counter-lobbying by the fossil fuel industry.

Extinction Rebellion called for two weeks of protests in the United Kingdom in early September 2020, with talks of using similar tactics as pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong such as pop-up protests. It’s possible that this tactic is also used in the United States, which would put police under further strain to contain the protesters, especially during a time like now where police tactics and budgets are being scrutinised. Extinction Rebellion’s or other environmental groups’ tactics may further change compared to what was observed in 2019, due to mass disruption events not garnering the public support being sought. A change in tactics may involve more targeted protests towards offices rather than a mass disruption of transportation networks, particularly due to COVID-19. The impact to businesses by protesters is two-fold. There is a financial cost from lost time and revenue caused by protesters taking more direct action towards oil and gas projects, such as blocking access roads or chaining themselves to equipment. Secondly, protesters outside these companies’ headquarters, will not only impact activity, but also present a reputational challenge which will take time and money to counter.

The next few months will be of interest to see if the environmental movement is able to regain the momentum it had built in 2019 and early 2020 pre-COVID, and to see if the online advocacy it undertook during the pandemic, can translate into physical protests and to sustainable and permanent change. It will also highlight if environmental groups will change the way they are structured and operate from a race perspective, as the current political and racial climate in the United States dictates it. The inclusion and promotion of minority perspectives regarding climate change and other environmental problems will be important in order for these groups to continue to have widespread support across the world.

Threat intelligence is key to managing and maintaining business during these uncertain times. Reliable, fact-checked data can provide you with an advantage not only when responding to unrest, but in terms of spotting potential actions and identifying trends through indicators and warnings.

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