Ten years ago today a group of activists from Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise climbed Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya drilling platform in a peaceful protest.

The platform, in the icy waters of the Pechora Sea, was the first commercial offshore oil development in the Russian Arctic sector. Campaigners traveled to this remote area of the world to highlight the dangers posed by expanding oil extraction into the Arctic.

Russian security services abseil from a helicopter onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise ship and seize the ship and crew at gunpoint (19 September, 2013)
Russian security services abseil from a helicopter onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise and seize the ship at gunpoint (19 September 2013)

In the hours that followed the activists had guns pointed in their faces, their boats slashed with knives, and automatic weapons fired into the water surrounding them. The Russian Coast Guard vessel blasted shots ahead of the Arctic Sunrise before the ship was boarded by masked commandos and all 30 people on board were put in custody. 

Charges of piracy were levelled against the group, who became known as the “Arctic 30”. Each night they went to sleep in their cells in Murmansk knowing that if they were convicted they would spend at least the next 10 years in a Russian jail.

The case of the Arctic 30 sent shockwaves around the world and after over two months of intense campaigning and global support, the activists were finally released. Drilling in the Arctic became a topic of global discussion.

I led the Greenpeace response team, I saw firsthand the impact and the stress these events had on the activists. I was inspired by their courage, fortitude, and conviction. Many continue to take part in actions, protest, and campaigns.

A Russian coast guard officer is seen pointing a gun at a Greenpeace International activist as five activists attempt to climb the 'Prirazlomnaya,' an oil platform operated by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom platform in Russia’s Pechora Sea.
A Russian coast guard officer is seen pointing a gun at a Greenpeace International activist as five activists attempt to climb the ‘Prirazlomnaya’ in Russia’s Pechora Sea.

As I remember this anniversary, I am preparing for the first day of high-level general debate at the 78th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. The theme for this debate is focused on global solidarity and the urgent need to accelerate action, particularly around sustainability and peace.

Looking back at the ten years since the Prirazlomnaya action many things have changed, but many have not. 

This March the world’s leading climate scientists released their assessment of the climate emergency and the message was unequivocal:

The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

They point to a “rapidly closing window” and are clear that while the climate crisis is bad now, it’s still getting worse

This is no secret.

People around the world are waking up to the impacts of the climate crisis, while others have been living and dying with it for years. They are seeing with their own eyes the immense price that is paid when private profit and power are placed above people and planet. 

More and more of them are choosing to take action. 

Yet, as I look back on the Arctic 30 and the sacrifices made by those who were willing to put their bodies on the line to prevent oil expansion into the fragile Arctic – I am concerned that the kind of harsh measures taken against them is becoming more widespread.

We have seen authorities in many nations show that they are willing to take previously unheard-of steps to punish, prevent, and persecute climate activists

Earlier this year, Greenpeace International was designated an “undesirable organisation” by Russian authorities, prompting Greenpeace Russia to close its operation and ending 30 years of environmental work in the country. 

But there is always the power of hope and action. Hope is a practice, a discipline not an act of blind faith. It compels us to take action in favour of a better future in the face of injustice, not because victory is guaranteed but because failure is certain if we do not.  

Peaceful protest remains vital if we are to see the global changes needed to address the climate crisis, and the power of the movement is growing. Around the world people, grassroots groups, and organisations are working together to demand, and cause change.

It is only when we stand together that we can hope to be powerful enough to push back on governments that seek to crack down on peaceful protest.

It is only when we dare to turn our hope for a better world into action that change happens, and that hope can be made real.

Mads Flarup Christensen is interim International Executive Director at Greenpeace International