My friend Sini Saarela is in jail in Murmansk, along with many other Greenpeace International activists. They are some of the first people in the world to face long jail sentences because they followed their conviction and acted against climate change, because they peacefully demonstrated against Arctic oil drilling. Sini and the Arctic activists are doing something which millions of people would agree is very urgent: keeping fossil fuels away from our atmosphere.
Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King all claimed that there will be times when individual people have a moral duty to conduct civil disobedience. I believe, that with the climate crisis getting worse, we have now reached such a moment.
Let’s have a recap of the facts. Russian oil giant Gazprom, disregarding the climate crisis, is rushing ahead with Arctic oil drilling. It’s doing so in an area of ocean which is newly accessible because of climate change, and where an oil spill would do irreversible damage. Nevertheless, the operation of Gazprom is considered legal, while Sini is sitting in a jail in Murmansk. This picture is everything that is wrong with our planet.
Thoreau, who in 1849 led the debate on slavery in the United States, argued that individuals should not let states or current laws silence the voice of their conscience. Gandhi urged people to join a peaceful movement against injustice. Civil disobedience does not mean anarchy or lawlessness. On the contrary, the people doing it are facing up to the possible legal consequences of their actions. They are trying to change the sense of justice of people in our societies, and eventually change the laws.
Protests by individuals have often led to great changes. Without the courage of Rosa Parks who refused to follow the racial segregation laws of Alabama and give up her seat on a bus, Barack Obama would maybe not be a president of the United States. He might not even be allowed to vote.
After years of climate campaigning, we have reached a decisive moment. The threat of climate change is officially acknowledged by most governments, but this does not translate into action. The UN recently published a new report about climate change which gives a dark picture of the world we are sliding into, if the trends are not turned around. No parent would wish this future for their children and no young person can face it with optimism. We can still avoid this future but we need action now, not at some point later.
In a more rational universe it would not be Sini and her friends but the presidents of United States, EU, China, and out other political leaders, demanding that Russia think twice before drilling in the Arctic. The situation is starkly different. The Arctic oil rush reminds us the last days of Easter Island, a race to see who can erect the last statue, cut the last tree.
I have known Sini for years. She is genuinely one of the most moral persons I know. You know, a person who has difficulty idly accepting injustice, whereas I have become very good at soothing the pinpricks of my conscience because this is also how other people act. Sini is also one of the most brave persons I’ve ever met. She understood the risks of where she was going, even if nobody expected these absurd charges to materialise. I do not think I would have courage to face Gazprom for the second time, like Sini has done. This is true conviction. I am proud to say that I know such a person.
Many people are irritated by activism. It is a prickly wake up call for us, whose moral sense might be a bit dulled, whose inner voice has become weak. Many people do not want to accept this challenge. They want to deny the risk of climate change. In some countries like Finland, people hide behind the backs of the government or legality. But no politician is on the right track to save us – or our children. This role is left to Sini and those who will find their courage and their sense of justice in the face of the climate battle.
In Finland, a lot of our countrymen have judged Sini harshly, even wishing her time in a Russian prison. I can only imagine what kind of comments were heard when people first stood up to end slavery, or ban racial segregation, or demand for voting rights for women. Often the people who have tried to wake us up have not been well treated. We have not wished to hear the message. When I read the complacent or aggressive comments to news about Sini, I again feel that we have not really deserved these heroes. We have not deserved the personal risk that Sini has taken for climate cause. But even then Sini acts. Because it is the right thing to do.
Support Sini Saarela and the Arctic activists, sign the petition and please ask your friends and family to do the same.
Harri Lammi is a climate and energy campaigner working in Helsinki and Beijing.