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In the Netherlands, Workers Are Taking on Fossil Fuel Giants Like Shell

Today, protests in forty towns and cities across the Netherlands are highlighting the role of Dutch-based firms like Shell in fueling climate crisis. Workers are at the forefront of the struggle — offering hope for a mass environmental movement that goes beyond the middle class.

A police officer speaks to chained activists of University Rebellion outside the Association of Universities during a protest against climate change on March 12, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands. (Pierre Crom / Getty Images)

Today, people across the Netherlands are taking part in the Climate Alarm, a nationwide set of demonstrations demanding action on the climate crisis. Over the last few months, activists, students, teachers, families, and workers have been forming community coalitions, mobilizing people for local protests planned in over forty towns and cities.

The Climate Alarm is taking place just days before the Dutch general election on March 17 — and it will highlight the need to elect a government that takes this crisis seriously. It will send a clear message to future political leaders that, as our planet burns, we can’t go on with business as usual.

So far, the Dutch government, led by the right-wing VVD party, has chosen to prioritize the very big businesses that are most complicit in the climate crisis. In recent times, it has spent billions of taxpayers’ money on bailing out such companies through subsidies, tax breaks, and loans. “In the current situation our tax money is making the climate crisis worse. This needs to change,” explained the Climate Crisis Coalition, which is leading the Alarm protests.

A Dutch Election With a Global Reach

It’s important that this action is taking place in the Netherlands — a country with a disproportionate role in accelerating climate change. It is home to Europe’s largest oil and coal harbors — Rotterdam and Amsterdam, respectively — while the gas field based in the northern city of Groningen is also the biggest on the continent. The Netherlands is also the birthplace of oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, which has been responsible for 1.8 percent of all the CO2 ever produced by human civilization. Today, it produces 1 percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide annually.

In fact, the fossil giant’s role in greenhouse emissions has long been at the center of climate justice campaigns. A few years ago, for example, the Shell Must Fall campaign was launched, echoing the decolonizing Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa. As campaigners pointed out, the parallel was especially fitting, given Shell’s history as a union of British and Dutch colonial interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Shell’s global reach, as well as its international political influence, makes the result of the upcoming election important to everyone — even those who are not based in the Netherlands. In 1995, in Ogoniland, Nigeria, this multinational company’s violence was brought home in a particularly gruesome way when nine men were hanged as a consequence of their resistance against the company. As part of the ensuing crackdown, Nigeria’s then-military regime burned down entire villages.

Uniting the Resistance

Given the wide-ranging and international activities of Dutch capital and the state, it is particularly fitting that the coalition raising the climate alarm is diverse and wide-ranging, from environmentalist groups to organized labor.

The national coordination brings together a variety of organizations and groups, including Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greenpeace, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV, the largest union in the country), Fridays for Future (FFF), and Grandparents for the Climate. This is particularly impressive given the nationwide lockdown and COVID-19-related restrictions that have been in place since December 2020.

The coalition has responded to the current lockdown by ensuring that people can take part in the activities on the day via online streaming access. Yet this hasn’t stopped countless grassroots groups across the country from pushing forward with local in-person actions, which will also be socially distanced.

The involvement of the FNV, and in particular those organizing within the Union’s Voor14 campaign to raise the minimum wage to €14 an hour, has also mobilized working-class communities and migrant workers in these efforts.

For example, in Leiden, supermarket union activists have taken a leading role in the local coalition. Despite considerable logistical limitations, organizers have formed an alliance of various local political groups and community members. This has provided an opportunity to form links not only between climate justice activists involved in XR and FFF, but also those fighting for an increase of the minimum wage (the Voor14 campaign), those fighting racism in the area — including the long-standing tradition of blackface — as well as LGBT and feminist campaigners.

Teaching staff and students from the University of Leiden have joined. They are currently taking their managers to task over the university’s fossil fuel investments with the Never Mind Warm Sweaters campaign — a name mocking the university’s former dean, Carel Stolker, who encouraged staff and students to turn down the heating and wear a warm sweater instead in order to fight climate change. Stolker, however, remained silent on his institution’s investments, and on the fact that when students staged a die-in against Shell on his campus, the police were called in.

Klara Beetz from FFF Leiden — one of the organizers of the Climate Alarm — pointed out that while there had been a lot of disconnected political activity in the city, the coalition “brought those forces together, making it a stronger movement” enriched by the “different experiences, knowledge, and backgrounds” of the individuals and groups involved.

Fighting Back in Times of COVID

The pandemic has brought together not only the many social justice efforts that existed in Leiden, but also the concrete links between the different issues being fought over. The same economic system that exploits workers, at home and abroad, is also destroying this earth. It is the same governments and companies that perpetuate disastrous policies for the climate, which institutionalize oppression and repress those fighting back.

States’ failure to respond effectively to the spread of the coronavirus is a damning indictment of an economic system that prioritizes profit over people. We see the effects of this in the outsize impact on the most vulnerable, the hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, economic crisis, mass job losses, and soaring poverty, and in the lack of adequate health care and welfare provision. The crisis has a more fundamental basis in this same profit logic, as the intensifying and expanding industrialization of agriculture makes SARS outbreaks more regular and more deadly. Measures to mitigate the current COVID-19 crisis will prove short-lived if they do not strike at the root of the problem.

Even apart from the pandemic, the destructive impacts of the climate crisis are already being felt by the poorest around the world, especially in the Global South — that is, people in the same countries pillaged and repressed by companies like Shell and states like the Netherlands. It is worth remembering, for example, that the Netherlands still rules over entire islands in the Caribbean, which are directly threatened by rising sea levels.

For the Climate Crisis Coalition in Leiden, not only has this been a central focus of discussion, it has also defined its organizing methods ahead of the March 14 day of action. In the words of Cornelia Hefting, one of the Leiden-based organizers: “Climate change is impacting and destroying lives and areas across the world. We have to take responsibility for the damage we — as humans, but certainly as Western societies — have caused and must take long-overdue action.”

The collective, made up of individuals from different communities, countries, and political traditions, was all too aware that climate justice movements in the West have long been seen as the preserve of collectives that are mostly middle-class — and overwhelmingly white.

This problem particularly came into focus when Extinction Rebellion first made its appearance. Many activists took the organization to task over its dismissal of racism and imperialism, and its overlooking of the ways that people in the Global South are resisting profit-driven climate change. The response by British-based Wretched of the Earth — a collective of grassroots indigenous, black, and brown groups fighting for climate justice — highlighted perfectly how, despite the publicity behind XR, it was failing the people most impacted by the crisis.

Liberation at the Heart of Climate Justice

Largely inspired by Wretched of the Earth, activists in Leiden wanted to reverse this cycle of whitewashed climate justice work. They decided to write a manifesto for the movement that spoke to the global nature of the climate crisis and the diversity of communities in the Netherlands. Poor and working-class neighborhoods, especially those made up of migrant families and people of color, are the ones hit hardest by the repercussions of climate change. These areas are more susceptible to rising sea levels and flooding — and more vulnerable to extreme weather such as intense heat waves and deadly cold spells.

Campaigners hoped to strengthen the broad network that was growing in support of the climate protests by pointing to the many ways in which our economic system is linked to global and international experiences of oppression. It showed that the coalition’s efforts must be as much about mounting a strong anti-racist, anti-homophobic, feminist, pro-migrant base of defense as it is about putting climate justice at the front and center of the government’s agenda.

Today, this point will be underlined by Chihiro Geuzebroek, organizer and songwriter of Shell Must Fall, cofounder of pan-decolonial foundation Aralez and the Climate Liberation Bloc collective, who shares this vision of an internationalist, liberation-centered, climate-justice movement.

This isn’t a matter of a tokenistic, box-ticking approach. For the activists in Leiden, it is about concrete measures to build the kind of coalition — and the politics — sorely needed across the country. Sadly, this isn’t the kind of agenda likely to be reflected in the elections on March 17, which is widely predicted to be a right-wing landslide, continuing the forward march of reactionary politics in the Netherlands. In these circumstances, the question is not only how we make climate justice more visible, but also how we build a broad progressive front prepared to fight for a different and better society.

Winning such a vision is not always easy. In Leiden, some activists remained opposed to discussing questions of capitalism, racism, or imperialism — seeing it as divisive or irrelevant to the mobilization around green issues. Yet the outcome speaks for itself. The March 14 day of action is gearing up to be not just a one-off event, an alarm that vanishes as quickly as it was raised. Instead, it is turning out to be a rallying call for all those in the city and beyond, who believe it’s high time to change course — and the world.

As Naomi Buurman, one of the Leiden Climate Alarm organizers, asks: “What kind of future are our children likely to have, if we don’t change the course of climate change now?”