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With climate change accelerating and despair growing, how far are activists willing to take their protests?

Judith Black protested in Peabody Square with a group against the proposal to build an a new gas and oil-based power peaker plant in Peabody in November.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

They’ve blocked the path of oncoming trains and held hunger strikes. They’ve staged sit-ins at government offices, marched in protests, and stopped traffic on highways to beseech banks to quit financing the fossil fuel industry.

Their concerns have been echoed by scientists, politicians, and leaders of many global organizations, including United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who recently said the world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.” He was not being hyperbolic. Global carbon emissions last year rose to their highest levels in history, and they’re on track to rise another 16 percent over 2010 levels by the end of the decade, according to the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


With few nations responding to the gravity of the mounting crisis, activists in Boston and beyond are feeling a mix of resignation and desperation. What else, they ask, can they — or should they — do to call attention to the urgency of the warming planet? Their answers vary, ranging from a kind of inertial despair to a determination to take their protests to another level.

Alison Page, who has spent years helping to organize local protests on behalf of Extinction Rebellion and similar groups, has been apoplectic and feeling a growing sense of existential dread, which was compounded last month when temperatures in Antarctica surged to 70 degrees warmer than normal.

“I’m going to continue with activism, because I’m not sure what else to do, but I’m feeling extremely cynical,” said Page, 37, of Andover. “It’s very frustrating and confusing that governments aren’t doing more.”

She added: “It seems like climate activism doesn’t make any difference.”

At a recent talk in London, Guterres insisted that decades of efforts to persuade governments around the world to take action have made a difference.


Clean, renewable energy is now often more affordable to produce than fossil fuels. Nearly every country has signed the Paris climate accord and pledged to reduce their emissions. In the United States, a growing number of states, such as Massachusetts, have passed laws that oblige them to effectively eliminate their emissions in the coming decades.

Last fall, at the international climate summit in Glasgow, a host of nations made significant commitments to end deforestation and reduce methane emissions, among the most potent greenhouse gases. Leaders also signed agreements to increase transparency around their commitments to reduce emissions. And wealthy countries pledged to provide financial support to less developed, more vulnerable countries.

Still, with many past pledges unfulfilled, Guterres echoed the frustrations of climate activists, warning that the promises made in Glasgow risked creating a “certain naive optimism.”

“The main problem was not solved,” he said, noting that coal emissions — among the chief causes of global warming — continue to reach record highs. “It was not even properly addressed.”

Keeping global average temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times — a level beyond which scientists say grave consequences are invited — requires a reduction in global emissions of about 45 percent by 2030. Global average temperatures have already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees Celsius.

Guterres worried that the war in Ukraine, and the resulting spike in oil and gas prices, would lead nations to neglect or reverse their promises to take action to reduce emissions. He invoked the language of nuclear war to underscore the stakes.


“This is madness,” he said. “Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

In Massachusetts, that perceived madness — in the form of an effort to build a new $85 million oil and gas “peaker” plant in Peabody — recently led a group of activists there to reflect the urgency of their concerns by holding a hunger strike for more than a week.

One of the protesters, Judith Black, acknowledged the potential futility of their protest. Still, she said, she has no choice, even if it sometimes feels like she’s screaming into a void.

“I doubt we can turn this around,” she said. “But you still have to live with yourself. Thus, you continue to act.”

Members of Extinction Rebellion Boston, XR, rallied in front of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in November. They performed a skit in which those portraying fossil fuel billionaires poured oil on the earth.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Black, 70, a member of the group Breathe Clean North Shore, insisted that local climate activists have notched some victories over the years. She pointed to the closure five years ago of the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, the state’s last coal plant, as well as abandoned efforts to build pipelines through West Roxbury and Western Massachusetts.

“These were not the direct result of any single action, but certainly the climate movement and its multipronged activists were a large variable in moving the needle,” she said.

Others have been taking civil disobedience to another level, even contemplating more aggressive action to halt the flow of fossil fuels.

Marla Marcum, director of the Climate Disobedience Center, which was founded in Boston, has been arrested seven times for taking part in protests. She decided not to have children, in part, so that she could spend time in jail, if necessary.


“Sometimes we have to disrupt the existing systems, or business as usual, to be taken seriously in our demands for change,” she said.

Asked how far activists should take their protests if governments fail to reduce emissions soon, which scientists say poses an existential threat to millions of people around the world, she said she expected some would be willing to take “more dramatic action.”

“I’m not in favor of actions or tactics that cause direct physical harm to people or animals, but I’m not opposed to action that causes major disruptions,” she said.

In a controversial book published last year titled “How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire,” Swedish author Andreas Malm argued that sabotage was a logical and increasingly necessary kind of climate activism.

A couple danced while members of Extinction Rebellion Boston chained themselves to a 30-foot bright pink sailboat at the intersection of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue during the Extinction Rebellion Earth Week Parade in Boston on April 24, 2021. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“Here is what this movement of millions should do,” Malm wrote, “damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

But Marcum and others said they disagreed with his conclusions and worry that such action could tarnish the movement irreparably, especially if someone were to be injured. If that happened, climate activists might be considered terrorists, inviting government crackdowns, they said.


For Nathan Phillips, a professor of environmental sciences at Boston University, the goal remains nonviolent, peaceful, civil disobedience.

He was among a group of six people who observed a hunger strike for eight days to protest the proposed peaker plant. During the same time, he also spent several sleepless nights planning to join a group of others to block a coal train that they believed would be heading through Massachusetts to New England’s last remaining coal plant in Bow, N.H.

It’s something they’ve done in the past, and it appeared authorities were aware they might take similar action. After the freight train crossed into Massachusetts from New York, it stopped at a Worcester railyard and remained there. Several days passed without the train proceeding to New Hampshire, and Phillips and the others decided to give up — for the time being.

But they and others are looking for similar opportunities to sound the alarms and frustrate the distribution of fossil fuels — without resorting to violence.

“Blowing up pipelines replicates the violence of the fossil fuel industry,” Phillips said. “We believe there are other ways to stop them. That’s what I’m focusing on.”

David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.