When Breaking the Law Is Justified
The recent bad news about climate change thundered through the scientific community like those twisters through the U.S.
First, the International Energy Association (IEA) announced global greenhouse gas emissions hit record highs in 2010, threatening to catapult Earth over the 2C rise in temperature that, scientists predict, will lead to cataclysmic changes.
We’re already up one degree, attributed to human causes. That’s enough to cause widespread drought, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather — and shrinkage of the polar ice caps.
Says Nobel Prize-winning meteorologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State: “Their eventual melting would lead to more than 20 feet (6 metres) of global sea level rise — by any assessment, a catastrophic outcome.”
The other climate bombshell came when the U.S. government’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory announced that this year world greenhouse gas emissions are climbing even higher than last year.
On a per-capita basis, Canada has much to answer for. Population and economic growth, oil and gas exports and our love of light trucks have been among the key drivers of our rising emissions.
Then there’s Alberta oilsands mining, which, according to Environment Canada, spews more greenhouse gases than all the cars on our roads combined.
Earlier this month, the government quietly tabled its annual report on how Canada is doing in meeting its targets under the Kyoto Protocol and other international obligations. It isn’t, not by a long shot, say critics.
“Unfortunately, far too many are in denial and political action is at a standstill,” observes Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“Once the problem is so obvious to everyone, it is far, far too late to do anything about it,” says Trenberth.
That sense of urgency is why a growing number of scientists are advocating non-violent civil disobedience to shake up governments, industry and media.
Although there is some political disagreement, the general scientific consensus is that in order to head off mass extinctions, huge migrations of climate refugees and, yes, global warring, carbon dioxide emissions should be cut back to 350 parts per million from the current 390 or so.
“We need to do (civil disobedience) on a mass scale,” says leading American environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. “And we need to do it in a way that makes one thing clear to all onlookers: in this fight, we are the conservatives. The radicals are the people who want to alter the composition of the atmosphere.”
The idea is spreading.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is justified when there is a history of long-standing harm or violation of people’s fundamental rights, when legal and policy means have failed to reduce the harms and violations, and when there is little time remaining to address the problems,” wrote University of New England professor John Lemons and Penn State’s Donald Brown in April in the online version of Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics.
“Simply put, people do not have the right to harm others who have not given their consent to be harmed, and this is exactly what the U.S.A. and other countries continue to do,” Lemons told the Star.
Environmental activists have long engaged in civil disobedience. Greenpeace, to name one group, has specialized in it.
In 2009, 20 activists were arrested after they scaled Parliament’s West Block and covered it with banners demanding government action on climate change. On June 2, two members were arrested and removed from an “Arctic survival pod” suspended from an oil rig off the coast of Greenland in which they had camped out for four days in an effort to stop a Scottish oil firm from drilling.
Noted Australian climate advocate Clive Hamilton (Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change) insists that the moral obligation to act now clearly trumps obedience to the law.
“Those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens — those who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process,” he emails from Britain, where he is a visiting professor at Oxford.
Civil disobedience has a proud tradition. It helped bring about civil rights in the U.S. and an end to the Vietnam War. It delayed mass logging in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound. African-Americans boycotted and defiantly drank out of “whites-only” water fountains, young men burned their draft cards, and thousands blockaded roads to keep pulp and paper companies out of old-growth forests.
The member-supported Council of Canadians has engaged in all sorts of civil disobedience, including sandbagging towns and provincial legislatures to point out how rising sea levels would affect them.
“It’s not an action to be taken lightly,” says Andrea Harden-Donahue, the Council’s energy and climate justice campaigner. “We do believe that all other democratic means should be pursued first and continue to be pursued, even with a civil disobedience strategy.
“But we feel that it is justified to address climate change, especially given that the Harper government has refused to take action, and because of the urgency.”
Most lawmakers — and even most people — don’t seem to think much of the tactic. Witness police actions against non-violent stunts such as teddy bear catapults at global summits, or citizen complaints of tied-up traffic during demonstrations.
How many Canadians say that last year’s peaceful protesters at the Toronto G20 Summit should have just stayed home if they didn’t want to be tackled, cuffed with plastic cables and tossed into cages without charges.
“People from across the political spectrum love to praise civil disobedience — as long as we’re talking about past social movements,” argues U.S. journalist Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement under Siege. “For instance, on the very same day that members of Congress were breaking ground for a new memorial honouring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his activism, a bill was passed labelling civil disobedience as ‘terrorism’ if it is done by animal rights and environmental activists.”
“Most people are divorced from the history of social change,” notes Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaigner, Mike Hudema, author of An Action a Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away. “From the eight-hour workday to women’s right to vote to the end of slavery — all of these involved good people willing to break the law.”
One much talked-about recent case of civil disobedience within the scientific community is that of NASA climatologist and Columbia University professor James Hansen, who along with others was charged with obstructing police and impeding traffic in West Virginia while protesting mountaintop coal mining.
Hansen, who calls climate change “the great moral challenge of this century,” has been helping other activists who get into legal trouble, including six Greenpeace members tried in Britain in 2008 for scaling and painting slogans on a coal power station’s smokestack.
With Hansen’s expert testimony, they convinced the court that, despite the expensive havoc they wreaked, even greater damage — climate change — was being prevented.
The acquittals shocked both government and industry. The activists were found not guilty by reason of “lawful excuse” — a judgment that opens the door for more climate justice civil disobedience.
In Canada, we have a similar “defence of necessity.” Conceivably, it could be used here.
More than 3,000 delegates from 183 countries are currently in the midst of the two-week session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn.
The reports from there have not been encouraging.
The world’s 21 developed nations have not fulfilled their promises or financial pledges to the parts of the world that will most suffer from climate change.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical that all efforts are mobilized toward living up to this commitment,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres. “We are getting into very risky territory.”
“I don’t think most people realize how little time we have left,” warns Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute and author of the just-published World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. “The cliff is not that far away.”
© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2011