Opinion: Hambach Forest a battlefield for the planet's future

Hambach Forest is sacred ground. It must be left standing as a monument to our folly — and our ability to shift course and do the right thing, says author and environmental activist Bill McKibben.

Nearly a half-century ago, a young American army officer named John Kerry returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam to testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. After detailing the atrocities, the injustice and the pointlessness of the war, he said: "We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

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The activists who have been occupying the remaining hectares of Germany's Hambach Forest, it seems to me, are asking a similar question that should shake consciences in our time. What will be the last pieces of European nature destroyed in pursuit of what we now recognize to be a monumental error — in this case not a colonial war, but the pursuit of cheap energy even at the cost of destroying the planet's climate?

It's a question that can be asked around the world — many of us have engaged in civil disobedience trying to ask it in connection with Canada's tar sands and America's coalfields. Pacific Islanders have used traditional canoes to blockade Australia's coalfields, which are the largest in the world.

Nature and Environment | 09.10.2018
Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is an author and environmental activist

But in Europe, where large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels got their start centuries ago, it's the brave tree-sitters of Hambach who are asking this question in its most poignant form.

Their adversary, RWE, a utility company, is the continent's largest carbon emitter. North Rhine-Westphalia, where the forest sits, spews more greenhouse gases than any other part of Germany. It is, for Germans, the heart of the fossil fuel beast.

Seeing the future

And 2018 is very near the end of this particular war — or, at least, we're at the point where its hideousness is clearly visible.

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The carbon stuck in the ground beneath that swath of forest will just add to the toll of carnage, making it that much harder for those who come after us.

Taking down this patch of trees won't just mean that no lilies of the valley will carpet the forest floor ever again; it will increase the strain on every forest on earth, because that carbon means more heat, which means more pests, more droughts, more giant fires.

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It's always difficult to shut down a way of doing business, even when we've begun to realize the stakes. You get used to doing something and you don't want to stop, because this is the way you know.

RWE has machinery in the neighborhood — they've already mined beneath most of this 12,000-year-old forest. To them it must seem as if all they want is one more small chunk — how much harm could it do?

It's the same logic that keeps Canada's progressive prime minister busy digging up the tar sands of Alberta. But activists have managed to block his new pipeline, and activists in Germany have won a court victory that has put any further clearance on hold. They are giving Germany a chance to take a stand on this piece of forest. And in so doing, they're offering corporate executives and government leaders a chance to salvage some of their reputation.

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Addicted to coal

The future looks bright for Germany’s biggest surface coal mine. Even as the country introduces climate protection measures and switches to renewable energy sources, its dependence on coal-fueled power plants is unabated. Continued reliance on coal means Germany is unlikely to meet its 2020 emission goals. That's not good for the environment, but the view from the Hambach mine remains impressive.

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Stripping the earth

The Hambach surface mine stretches seemingly endless into the horizon. Located west of Cologne, it is Germany’s largest surface mine at 4,300 hectares - and expanding. Despite efforts to use more renewable energy sources, Germany’s industry still relies on the cheap brown coal to supply 40% of its energy needs.

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Disappearing villages

It won’t be long before the village of Manheim disappears. The nearby Hambach mine is expanding and will soon engulf the houses. Already many of the residents in the 1,000 year-old village have abandoned their homes. Since 1989 four similar villages have been razed to make room for the brown surface mine.

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No alternative

By 2020 the diggers will have reached the village. Until then, workers will tear down the remaining houses and the residents will relocate. Kurt Rüttgers, one about 500 remaining residents and owner of the local pub, has watched the town fade and disappear: “Since my childhood I have known Manheim would disappear one day. It’s sad, but there seems to be no alternative to coal mining right now.”

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Investing in renewable energy

Elsewhere in Germany, companies have made the switch to renewable energy sources. Soaring 109 meters above the surrounding fields, these wind turbines located about an hour from Berlin’s city center, provide emissions-free energy for the capital.

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Harvesting the wind

Some 27,000 wind turbines have sprouted up across the country in the last decade. Although animal rights activists argue the giant propellers cause harm to birds and some people complain the towers are an eyesore in the landscape, the turbines are Germany’s biggest source of renewable energy. Until recently, the government heavily subsidized wind parks.

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Could housing save the climate?

For some Germans saving the climate starts at home. Years ago artist Priska Wollein decided to build her atelier near Berlin as a passive energy house to reduce her carbon footprint. Built mostly out of wood, it’s heated by geothermal energy and the ventilation is specifically modified to keep warmth inside.

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The home of the future

What if a house didn’t just reduce its energy consumption, but rather generates more of it? That’s one of the proposals the German housing industry has come up with in response to new building regulations on energy efficiency. Referred to as the energy plus house, the new model of home is designed to produce its own energy primarily through solar power.

Monuments to our folly

John Kerry — who, it should be noted, would one day rise to become US secretary of state and help to negotiate the Paris climate accords — ended his Vietnam speech with these words by excoriating the leaders who couldn't bring themselves to put an end to the war: "These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude. They've left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun."

That sun has grown hotter in the last decades, thanks to all the coal and gas and oil we've burned. It's not too much to ask that the carnage stop here and now — to understand that the small strip of Hambach Forest still standing should be left as a monument to our folly — but also to our ability to shift course and do the right thing.

In this most important war for the planet's future, it's clearly sacred ground.

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Primal forest

At the heart of Europe, in western Germany, near the border to France and Belgium, a scrap of ancient forest holds thousand-year-old trees along with abundant wildlife. But there's another species living there in the forest as well — our own.

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Life among the treetops

About 150 people currently live in what's left of Hambach forest, many in makeshift tree houses. Although living in a tree house may appear idyllic, many of the environmental activists have uprooted their lives for the better part of six years — living without electricity and running water — to protect the forest, and take a stance against the power of the fossil fuel industry.

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Evictions begin

Several hundred police officers accompanied RWE workers for protection as they visited the forest on Wednesday, September 5, to expel the protesters in preparation for clearing. Although the operation was mostly peaceful, one activist was arrested after resisting police.

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Nonviolent resistance

Activists joke about their "dangerous weapons," such as an empty fire extinguisher. Just days before the police action on September 5, Herbert Reul, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, warned that police and RWE staff in the Hambach forest were dealing with "extremely violent left-wing extremists." Members of the protest group have denied Reul's description.

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Not the first forest confrontation

Over the years, police have clashed with protesters in the Hambach forest. In 2017, police employed pepper spray to disperse protesters in advance of planned logging. The looming eviction is likely to result in the largest confrontation there yet.

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Trees for coal

Here is the result of a recent RWE clearing campaign, which ran from October 2016 to March 2017. In the background, the smokestacks of the Niederaussem power station can be seen. With a CO2 output of more than 29 million tons yearly, this is Europe's third-dirtiest power plant. Due to massive toxic emissions such as mercury and sulfur, it is also considered Germany's second-most-toxic power plant.

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'Critical turning point' for climate policy

"Clumsy" has lived among the treetops in the Hambach forest since the resistance against the RWE coalmine project began in 2012. He believes the battle over the forest is a critical turning point for German climate policy, and the government's decision is one between "giving in to the lignite hardliners, [or] protecting our life support basis on this planet."

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Small forest with big stakes

Only about 10 percent of the once sprawling Hambach forest has survived the mine's onslaught. What's left appears miniscule in comparison to the vast expanse of the mine, which already covers about 85 square kilometers (33 square miles). But environmentalists say the forest holds enormous ecological value, and is home to abundant and biodiverse ecology, including endangered animal species.

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Ever-hungry coal industry

The Hambach mine, located between Aachen and Cologne, is Germany's largest open-cast mine. Here, RWE uses enormous excavators to extract brown coal, also known as lignite, from the earth. Lignite is among the fossil fuels that emit the most carbon dioxide when burned. What remains of Hambach forest is the last bastion in a long battle against the expansion of the mine.

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Save the forest, save the world

Environmental activists have undertaken nonviolent resistance against the RWE coal mine expansion for more than six years. Through their actions, they claim to not only want to save the Hambach forest from destruction, but also send a message to the world about the dangerous consequences of prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over important ecological sites.

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Global support

Activists from all over the world have supported the action by staying for days or weeks at a time. Over the past six years, activists have literally built up an alternative community within the forest. Although it is still unclear what exactly will happen in the struggle between the protesters and the fossil fuel giant, potential eviction is an ever-present possibility for the forest dwellers.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, co-founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, and author of the forthcoming book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

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