Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Resistance against climate injustice beyond civil disobedience?

Last year Nikolas Mattheis argued on this blog that climate school strikes are acts of civil disobedience (rather than truancy), that pupils are entitled to this form of protest and that they should not be punished. I agree. Acts of civil disobedience by Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände and similar movements cause substantial public dispute. However, a more radical and troubling question emerge from recent writings in political philosophy: Given the great injustice involved in climate change, are uncivil acts of resistance morally justified? In the following I will argue that most of them are not.

John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas seminally claimed that a conscientious breach of law must be public, non-violent and perpetrators must accept legal punishment. Yet, Candice Delmas and Simon Caney argue that uncivil resistance to injustice falling short of these three conditions can be morally permissible, too. While Rawls and others assume a nearly just state when defending civil disobedience, Delmas and Caney highlight that grave injustices are inflicted upon people in global and national contexts. If necessary for the protection of people’s fundamental interests, covert, evasive, sometimes even violent action may be warranted. Possible activities include publication of classified information, stealing medicine, hiding illegal immigrants, armed defence against racist assaults and rioting.

Blockage of a lignite open pit near Bonn, Germany (photo by Christian Bock, https://www.flickr.com/photos/133937251@N05/26439720559/, license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But what does this mean for climate activism? Climate change is an outrageous injustice: It deprives many people of the ability to exercise core human rights. The lion’s share is caused by middle- and upper-class people but disproportionally affects the poor and disadvantaged. This is known at least since the 1990s but the response of decision-makers and citizens often consists of a mix of denial, delay and demagogy.

Apart from climate policy obstruction from notorious autocrats and pseudo-autocrats, 90 companies alone are responsible for 57% of the CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. In 2015, they caused 70% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, these companies often cooperated with regimes responsible for torture and murder (ExxonMobil being accused of direct involvement), disregarded basic environmental protection norms and contributed to the climate change disinformation and intimidation campaign.

The misconduct is blatant, the consequences for present and future human and non-human beings are severe. Peaceful demonstrations do not seem to move climate unfriendly governments and companies. Thus, has the time come to uncivilly attack the most frivolous of them, say by acts of sabotage as depicted in “Woman at War” or coercively invading parliaments? I do not think so.

Resistance here is a means to protect people’s rights from climate change. Radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades is a prerequisite for that. This in turn requires political majorities pro reduction. Climate activism aims at raising awareness for the need to decarbonize and at halting or slowing climate-damaging actions. It is not about protecting people from imminent threats. And emissions from the fossil fuels industry will not go down due to sabotage but due to regulation and divestment. True, limited violence may sometimes increase the communicative quality of an act by drawing greater attention to the activists’ cause. But I contend that, in the current societal situation with violence-prone right-wing populism and extremism on the rise, this will not strengthen support for emissions reductions. Rather, actions beyond public, non-violent blockades, guerrilla street art/theatre etc. will make it easier for opponents to stigmatize, redline and criminalize climate activists. It will most likely alienate many potential and actual supporters. Such activities will not contribute to advancing people’s rights, neither in the short nor in the long run. (Though I am less sure whether cyber-attacks will have similar detrimental effects if targeting e.g. agents of the disinformation campaign.)

In a nutshell, then, my argument is that most covert, violent actions are detrimental to the goal of decarbonization and should therefore not be pursued. The conclusion calls for careful considerations of likely consequences of activism in the short and long run, taking into account entitlements of all people affected including activists. Regarding the latter, legal punishment can be severe, resulting in long-standing debt and imprisonment. But what is the responsibility of people teaching climate justice in this repsect? Should we ignore the topic of resistance, warn of the dangers or let the students’ figure it out themselves? I believe that this issue adds to the difficulties of teaching climate ethics thoughtfully outlined by Megan Blomfield. The only answer I can offer now is that students, teachers, activists and citizens in general need to carefully deliberate about the grey area between necessary resistance to greenhouse gas intensive projects/structures/laws and reckless activism.

I am very thankful to Andrea Klonschinski and Jule Olbricht for valuable feedback on the text. Remaining errors are mine, of course.

Christian Baatz

With a background in environmental sciences, I mostly write on climate change and environmental issues more generally. My key topics are compensation, individual responsibility, climate engineering and, more recently, financing climate change adaptation. I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and also work on human rights and global justice. Since 2012 I am based at Kiel University in Northern Germany at the Department of Philosophy.


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  1. Nikolas Mattheis

    Thank you for this! I completely agree that careful deliberation about resilient activism is especially urgent for and with young people. However, as I understand them, defences of activism beyond narrowly civil disobedience (provided by Delmas and others) don’t hinge on the actions’ effects. Even if we granted your empirical assumptions about public uptake, can’t various forms of resistance be warranted responses to certain injustices (e.g. in face of structural violence and ecological destruction)? Thinking of protests by environmental defenders around the world, I guess I’m particularly worried about blanketly circumscribing what climate activism is really about and when it is ‘morally justified’.

    • Christian Baatz

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Nicolas. I think you are right that general claims about what (kind of) activism is justifiable can be problematic. Local contexts vary enormously and justification of specific actions need to take them into account. I would like to have offered a more fine-tuned argument. But space and format do not allow for that. In responding to your question I’ll try to briefly hint at some nuances. First, resistance can be very diverse. But such diversity is already possible if excluding certain types of actions (and this diversity could have been explored). Second, you are also right that my argument depends on assumptions regarding the consequences of actions. They should be scrutinized. Third, Caney distinguishes between resistance from victims and resistance on behalf of the victims and claims that consequences are less relevant in the former case. I agree and think that resistance on behalf of the victims is pretty much all about the consequences. The sole aim is to assist the victims and end or minimize an injustice. If I attack the perpetrators in a way that is unsuitable to reduce injustice (and I do or could have known that) my action is pointless. If it leads to harm to other victims or bystanders (via further repression, say), the action seems impermissible to me. (I assume that resistance beyond civil disob. usually results in some negative consequences beyond those directly inflicted on perpetrators.)
      Climate activism in the Global North, unlike many cases e.g. discussed by Delmas, is first and foremost about acting on behalf of others (present and future climate change victims). FFF, for example, claims to also defend their own interests. I am at least skeptical that middle- and upper-class Europeans (dominating FFF) will be climate change victims. But this also depends on how bad it will get. Anyway, likely being affected by climate change in 30 years is very different from, say, colonial oppression and exploitation that people were resisting over the last centuries (the case Caney uses to justify why victims are entitled to resist even if prospects of success are dim, provided that resulting burdens on others are small). If I resist current climate policies due to their likely effects on me and many others in 30 years, I should be very much concerned about the consequences of my action on these policies, for my own sake and the sake of others that I owe moral consideration. That is to say, climate activism by victims, whoever they are, may allow for more diversity beyond c. d. But even here the victims need to carefully consider the affects on the many many other climate change victims. (CC victim may not be a good term and something more emancipatory needed.)

  2. Nikolas Mattheis

    Thank you, Christian, for this very clarificatory response which I’m largely in agreement with. Especially, I think you’re absolutely right in pointing to the relevance of who the agents engaging in resistance are. Just two brief, connected points: Firstly, I think the weight of the empirical premise, as you acknowledge, must not be underestimated. The question of which climate activism is currently adequate (including in the Global North), strikes me as at least open (considering that the success of narrowly civil disobedience is limited). It seems not unlikely that diverse tactics are needed and indeed, some movements are already beginning to escalate their strategies. Generally, it seems difficult to precisely assess the (likely) consequences of various forms of activism given the complexity of global climate regimes. In parts, this is why I am, secondly, wary of imposing an excessive justificatory burden for movements opting for methods beyond narrowly civil disobedience, even within the Global North. While I agree that it is urgent to try to avoid creating public backlash which might impede climate justice, I fear that calls for strong cautions can also be co-opted to stymie resistance. Here, I think it is important to note that what is regarded as civil disobedience is highly contested and that many historical accounts of it tend to rely on ‘sanitised’ narratives, as e.g. Celikates argues.

    • Christian Baatz

      I think I agree with both points. Highlighting the diversity of and disagreement over civil disobedience is very important indeed. Interestingly, Delmas argues for a more narrow understanding of c. d. than Celikates or Brownlee. But that’s a debate for another post.

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