How can civil disobedience best help the climate?

© Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Last month, after the Sierra Club announced they were encouraging civl disobedience for the first time in its 120 year history, 48 individuals, including Sierra Club director Michael Brune, NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben were arrested outside the White House.

Following those actions and the climate rally in Washington D.C., I wrote a post making the case for civil disobedience for climate change. Looking back at my post, I see I am talking about why people feel compelled to engage in civil disobedience, but not the effectiveness of those actions.

With the decision over the pipeline looming and speculation that Obama will approve the construction growing, it is a good time to think about the role civil disobedience can play in the climate movement and where it can go from here.

Fred Clark at Patheos' Slacktivist blog recently had a thoughtful post about when civil disobedience does and doesn't make sense as a method of protest:

Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool for challenging unjust laws. It can be, and sometimes has been, the moral obligation of citizens committed to justice for all.

But not every injustice lends itself to being addressed by civil disobedience.

While Clark's post wasn't directly about environmental protests, his thoughts got me thinking of the ongoing campaign of civil disobedience being waged to stop the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Clark notes civil disobedience works best when it is intentionally breaking an unjust law:

Think of Rosa Parks, one of the great heroes of civil disobedience. The law said that black people had to give up their seats for white people. That was an unjust law, so Rosa Parks broke it. She broke the law and was arrested for breaking the law, forcing the nation to consider whether or not this law was just or right or acceptable. That is what civil disobedience looks like. You break an unjust law and submit to the unjust consequences of arrest and potential conviction and imprisonment for doing so.

Henry Thoreau's refusal to pay taxes to as a protest of the Mexican-American War is an example of when it is a less effective tactic:

Thoreau’s tax resistance was far less direct — and therefore far less effective — than Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. The declaration of war against Mexico did not directly compel Thoreau to act or directly prevent him from acting, and thus it was an unjust law he was incapable of disobeying. He thus chose, instead, to break a different law as an indirect form of protest. That doesn’t work nearly as well and I would argue that it’s not really quite the same as civil disobedience, which I would want to confine to disobedience of the unjust law itself. (This is why much of what is called “civil disobedience” these days is ineffective, since it’s mostly people getting arrested for trespassing when laws against trespassing are not either inherently unjust or the direct subject of the protesters’ complaint.)

[Emphasis mine.]

While I support the actions protesting the Keystone XL project, I think it is fair to say that this is the case with much of the Tar Sands Action and Keystone XL blockades, for example. Many courageous activists over the course of months physically put themselves in the path of the construction, chaining their bodies to pipes and equipment, to delay construction of the southern section of the pipeline. Legally speaking, this was most often trespassing, but it also did play a role in slowing construction, even if it did not completely stop the momentum.

So from Clark's point of view, this is not necessarily the most effective form of civil disobedience because the law being intentionally broken - trespassing - is not clearly unjust. However, from a pragmatic point of view, it was effective in slowing construction, so it accomplished that goal, even if it didn't rally the public as much as a Rosa Park's-style example of civil disobedience may have.

Since the desires of the climate movement are to limit the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere in order to ensure a safe environment in which we can live long into the future, protest actions taken by the movement are not necessarily seen as moral objections to unjust laws in the same way sitting at a lunch counter or taking a seat at the front of a bus obviously are.

All of this is not to say that more civil disobedience is not needed. I think it is. This is also not to say that climate issues are not moral issues. They very much are.

While he was in jail, climate activist, Tim DeChristopher wrote about his case and why more civil disobedience was needed to protect the environment:

By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference.

So what would be the most effective means of civil disobedience for the climate movement?

Back in 2011, David Roberts wrote about what made Tim DeChristopher's case such an effective method of protest:

The problem with so much of what passes for environmental direct action is that it’s become rote and predictable. The kids chaining themselves together and getting arrested. The activists scaling something tall and unfurling a big banner. The protestors sitting in trees to stop loggers. All those things are brave and well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong, but they are not surprising. At this point, everyone’s seen it before and everyone knows exactly how to process it.

I agree with David, but also think the "kids chaining themselves together and getting arrested" can work in certain situations. Back in August of 2011, we covered the well-orchestrated protests at the White House in which 1,252 protesters were arrested over the course of two weeks. This action most certainly played a role in pressuring the White House to delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. It was a huge win. Likewise, I think the Sierra Club's endorsement of civil disobedience was an important move because it broke a long precedent, which tells people this problem - climate change - really is different. However, once the director has been arrested once, the effectiveness of subsequent arrests would seem to diminish.

In a recent thread about the Iraq War, Andrew Sullivan asks, "What is the best way to protest a war?" and quotes Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative who is critical of silly protest tactics, like puppets:

When I make this argument to left-wingers, I’m typically met with one of the following responses. 1.) “We have to do something!”—as if doing something that’s ineffective or counterproductive earns brownie points. 2.) “That’s a smear!”—you bet it’s a smear, but what are you doing to establish a more sympathetic image in the public’s mind instead? 3.) “Well, what do you suggest?”—what I suggest is not something any “activist” wants to hear: don’t take any action until you understand public opinion in some detail and can relate every individual tactic you propose to a specific, demonstrated mechanism that gives it a chance to be effective.
[Emphasis mine]

On this point, the Sierra Club, Bill McKibben, 350.org, Tar Sands Action and other Keystone XL protest groups clearly have the right idea. They understand the issue: if we release too much carbon into the atmosphere, it is game over for slowing climate change. And they know public opinion is on their side: people think the government should do more to address climate change. And the tactics are tied to a demand: don't build the pipeline.

But is getting arrested enough to stop the pipeline or create a tipping point for federal action on climate solutions? Roberts pinpoints what made DeChristopher's action so effective:

It’s not just that he was well-intentioned and courageous. Plenty of people do well-intentioned, courageous things that are nonetheless boring and nobody cares. What DeChristopher did also involved the crucial elements of surprise and delight. I mean, he just walked into a government oil-and-gas lease auction and started bidding sh*t up. That’s … absurd! And hilarious. And badass.

Tom Friedman wrote a recent op-ed at The New York Times about the importance of the Keystone XL debate and what the climate movement should do if it is approved:

I HOPE the president turns down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Who wants the U.S. to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada’s far north?) But I don’t think he will. So I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350.org coalition go crazy. I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change.

Friedman is right to be encourage a serious, massive reaction if the pipeline is approved, but he writes as if more than a thousand people have not already been arrested at The White House over KXL.

McKibben had a good response to this point:


But if arrests are still the go-to approach, far more numbers will be needed. Credo Action, a progressive cause group - has had more than 52,000 people pledge to engage in civil disobedience if President Obama does approve the pipeline. Even if just 10% of these people participate, that would be a huge number and enough to make headlines.

However, absent large numbers, more creative strategies may be needed.

So what actions can the climate movement take to break through the media filter and bring more attention to the unjust elements of the climate change issue? A recent protest at a TransCanada office used the "surprise and delight" approach, staging a "funeral for the future."

This is still, legally speaking, trespassing, but it is certainly a creative change from the standard arrests. I really hope the Keystone XL pipeline is not approved, but as Friedman says, with the right kind of grassroots reaction, perhaps enough political pressure can be placed on the President and members of Congress to actually get some significant legislation passed to slow climate change. Whatever form it takes, I hope more creative ways than more arrests can be used to highlight the unjust nature of continuing to ruin the environment for future generations.

How do you think civil disobedience can best be used to bring attention to the climate crisis? Post your ideas in the comments.

IMAGE: WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: Julian Bond, Michael Brune, Bill McKibbin and Lennox Yearwood protest against Keystone XL Pipeline at Lafayette Park on February 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Tags: Activism | Barack Obama | Bill McKibben | Global Warming Solutions