Using violence to stop climate change

by Milan on November 8, 2010

in Activism, Climate change, Climate science, Ethics, Security

I remember the Oxford philosopher and ethicist Henry Shue once suggesting in passing that the level of risk associated with allowing climate change to proceed unchecked could potentially justify the use of force against those who refuse to curb their emissions.

Of course, there is a massive gulf between something being potentially justified and it being a good idea. In particular, I think it is absolutely foolish for people to consider using violence to try and encourage climate change mitigation or political change. Doing so would further brand the environmental movement as a bunch of dangerous radicals – rather than the only group within society that is taking the right of future generations to live in a stable and hospitable climate seriously.

For those without power, non-violence resistance seems enormously more likely to succeed. By all means, consider chaining yourself to the railroad tracks that run to a coal-fired power plant, painting slogans on smoke stacks, or engaging in other acts of civil disobedience. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that things like kidnapping or arson can possibly help the cause. Don’t develop a ‘Che Guevara complex‘.

Eventually, I do think the threat or use of violence will be involved in climate change mitigation, but it will not be a case of the weak pressing the strong to change their behaviour. At some point, things will get bad enough that climate change denial will be obviously incorrect from the perspective of almost everyone. There will also be some point at which the world’s most powerful states recognize that their own prosperity – indeed their own survival – requires stopping catastrophic or runaway climate change. At that point, states like the United States and China will be saying: “Climate change is terrifying, so we have decarbonized our economies. Get on board, Qatar and Alberta, or we will bomb you to hell.”

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

emily November 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm

I have thought a lot about this. It is tempting to say that if you organized and blew up some coal mining facilities that the green movement would gain some seriousness in their message.

I think you’re right. Though beyond being a delegitimizing act, violence begs for more violence. As soon as you retaliate with violence, the companies with *real* political power, and with real cash at their disposal to spend on their interests have an excuse to throw their weight around in a way that they do not have any justification for doing now.

Peaceful protest seems the best route.

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 5:27 pm

There is a world of difference between “peacefully” standing with placards, and “peacefully” chaining yourself to railway tracks. For instance – Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran, lawyer, and friend of a former professor of mine was actually run down by a munitions train headed to central America from California on sept 1st, 1987. Both his legs were severed below the knee. As a result, he become listed as a terrorist. He continues to advocate non-violent resistance, not because violence is wrong or unjustified, but because non-violence is actually more threatening to the state and it’s ability to continue criminal activity than violence. Those who are serious about non-violence need to be ready for the same force to be used against them as is used against those who do use violence.

Moreover, there needs to be a distinction between violence against property and violence against persons. Personally, I’d rather someone blow up my house than harm a member of my family. And, if anyone were to confuse those two things, I would be deeply offended. And yet, we confuse those things all the time when we say it is “violent” to burn a police car. What is in fact “violent” is the imprisonment, brutalization, and sexual assault of random passers by on the basis of “someone somewhere lit a cop car on fire”.

Whether violence against persons can be justified is, unlike violence against property, a difficult moral question. Certainly there are and have been many cases where violence against persons has not de-legitimized movements, and has in fact been effective. The Official IRA’s turn away from violence in the late 60s actually de-legitimized them in the eyes of the Catholic communities which needed protection from Protestants in sectarian violence. And, you might not like Hamas (I certainly don’t), and you certainly might not like the assassination of Jewish Settlers – but in fact not only were they elected, the attacks they are carrying out to block the current peace process do enjoy popular support – even support from some factions of the PLO. Jesse Rosenfeld has written an article about this for YU Free Press, I found it online here: http://mondoweiss.net/2010/10/partners-in-occupation.html

The point is – in some cases, acts of violence in fact legitimate groups in the eyes of people with real grievances, who don’t see any hope in passive resistance. Certainly that is not the case concerning global warming. But in order to say it’s not the case, we actually need to know something about what conditions under which it would be the case that such resistance could enjoy popular support.

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm

These are some pretty simplistic, but I think correct, reflections on the use of violence for political means:

“NOAM CHOMSKY: My general feeling is that this kind of question can’t be answered in a meaningful way when it’s abstracted from the context of particular historical concrete circumstances. Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil. Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things. Either he’s saying that the resort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or he’s saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil. The second of these is a factual assumption and it’s almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil. As to the first, it’s a kind of irreducible moral judgment that one should not resort to violence even if it would eliminate a greater evil. And these judgments are very hard to argue. I can only say that to me it seems like an immoral judgment.

Now there is a tendency to assume that a stand based on an absolute moral judgment shows high principle in a way that’s not shown in a stand taken on what are disparagingly referred to as “tactical grounds.” I think this is a pretty dubious assumption. If tactics involves a calculation of the human cost of various actions, then tactical considerations are actually the only considerations that have a moral quality to them. So I can’t accept a general and absolute opposition to violence, only that resort to violence is illegitimate unless the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil.

With this formulation, however, one moves from the abstract discussion to the context of concrete historical circumstances where there are shades of gray and obscure complex relations between means and ends and uncalculable consequences of actions, and so on and so forth. Formulated in these terms, the advocates of a qualified commitment to nonviolence have a pretty strong case. I think they can claim with very much justice that in almost all real circumstances there is a better way than resort to violence. Let me mention a couple of concrete instances that may shed some light on this question. I read in the Times this morning an interview with Jeanette Rankin, who was the one member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on December 8, 1941, to the accompaniment of a chorus of boos and hisses. Looking back, though, we can see that the Japanese had very real grievances, and that the United States had quite a significant share of responsibility in those grievances back in 1941. In fact, Japan had rather a more valid case than is customary to admit.”

http://www.chomsky.info/debates/19671215.htm

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 5:37 pm

“Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that things like kidnapping or arson can possibly help the cause. Don’t develop a ‘Che Guevara complex‘.”

Given current circumstances, I completely agree. I think this same logic motivates the black bloc’s attempt to “rouse people from their slumber” by making “visible the violence of capital”. In fact, if you want to make this violence visible you need to do it by education, and maybe a few clever civil-disobedience measures (i.e. adbusting, illegally placed banners, etc…)

The Stewart rally not only confirmed this belief, but made it stronger in the sense that I think people really are ready to engage with activists who present their message in a non-alienating, non “anti-everything” manner.

Milan November 8, 2010 at 5:41 pm

There is a world of difference between “peacefully” standing with placards, and “peacefully” chaining yourself to railway tracks.

Agreed. That said, I don’t think using your body to block something like a rail line can be called ‘violence’.

There may be acts that are ambiguous. At some point, civil disobedience may extend into ‘sabotage’ or even ‘violence’.

He continues to advocate non-violent resistance, not because violence is wrong or unjustified, but because non-violence is actually more threatening to the state and it’s ability to continue criminal activity than violence.

I think the use of violence can be rejected completely simply on the basis of how unlikely it is to be helpful. Its use almost certainly strengthens those who are defending the status quo, while disempowering those who are trying to drive the adoption of ethical climate change policies that respect the needs of future generations.

Above and beyond that general argument against the use of violence, there are additional arguments that can be made against any particular violent act.

Milan November 8, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Do either of you think it is plausible that strong states that have taken action on climate change will ever threaten states that continue to burn fossil fuels in an unrestrained fashion? Or that the strong states would actually use force against the emitters?

One element of that possibility that I think is definitely plausible is that climate change won’t really alter who is influential and who is not. Places that have economies dependent on fossil fuel exports may be strongly affected, but I don’t think it’s likely to change the general global order. Partly, that is because the states that are already capable and powerful have the most ability to adapt to whatever level of climate change occurs.

One of the reasons why it is plausible that China might take strong action on climate change mitigation is the argument that reducing emissions is the best way to avoid social disruption and political change.

Yes, you need to pay more for energy. What you avoid is all the risk and uncertainty that accompanies a climate that is changing in rapid and unpredictable ways.

Milan November 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Any rational person would agree that violence is not legitimate unless the consequences of such action are to eliminate a still greater evil. Now there are people of course who go much further and say that one must oppose violence in general, quite apart from any possible consequences. I think that such a person is asserting one of two things. Either he’s saying that the resort to violence is illegitimate even if the consequences are to eliminate a greater evil; or he’s saying that under no conceivable circumstances will the consequences ever be such as to eliminate a greater evil. The second of these is a factual assumption and it’s almost certainly false. One can easily imagine and find circumstances in which violence does eliminate a greater evil.

I agree. This is a very utilitarian analysis.

emily November 8, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Do either of you think it is plausible that strong states that have taken action on climate change will ever threaten states that continue to burn fossil fuels in an unrestrained fashion?

I think that in a scenario where major international players accept the science and crack down seriously on their own carbon emitting, it would seem out of character for them to not enforce the same standards on other countries as well.

I can easily see the current feelings about imposing democracy at any cost transferred easily and maybe with more fervor to the imposition of green economies on countries that haven’t yet reformed.

Especially if they accept that emitting carbon could serve (or has served) to seriously politically destabilize the well-being of major world economies.

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 7:35 pm

“I think the use of violence can be rejected completely simply on the basis of how unlikely it is to be helpful.”

I think this can’t be merely asserted – actual societal analysis is required. And, as for predicting the future, this is an awfully hopeful version of how things will play out:

“Eventually, I do think the threat or use of violence will be involved in climate change mitigation, but it will not be a case of the weak pressing the strong to change their behaviour. At some point, things will get bad enough that climate change denial will be obviously incorrect from the perspective of almost everyone.”

I realize you have an unwavering faith in the status quo and the ability of the state and capitalist democracy to save humanity from the threat to extinction that it has produced, but that does not in itself justify this level of certainty in claims about the future of climate politics. Perhaps states will solve the problems, perhaps not – but if they do not, I think it’s quite reasonable to think we might see the conditions for popularly supported violent campaigns against climate criminals or against the state.

Certainly the cause is far more righteous than any cause the IRA ever pursued, and they enjoyed significant popular support for their campaigns through the 70s and 80s. And that popular support translated into political legitimacy, to the point where people who everyone knows were on the IRA army council now form government, in a coalition with those who supported the loyalist paramilitaries who murdered Republicans with the help of British intelligence. We have an extremely peaceful history in Canada – we are exceedingly lucky that during the FLQ crisis there was no equivalent of Bloody Sunday – if there had been, Canadian history could look altogether different. But that peaceful history should blind us from the roles violence can play, and actually does play in conflicts between states and popular dissident groups whose interests appear to that group not represented by the state.

In other words, just because we’re lucky enough to live in a peaceful country doesn’t give us the right to make such uncritical statements about violence in resistance movements.

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 7:43 pm

“Do either of you think it is plausible that strong states that have taken action on climate change will ever threaten states that continue to burn fossil fuels in an unrestrained fashion? ”

Strong states use threats of force against states which disobey orders all the time. It seems to me extremely unlikely that strong states will not, at some point, use climate change as a reason to threaten war and to go to war.

Milan November 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

I worry that the world could pass from hesitation and avoidance of the issue directly into conflict, accusation, and counter-productive action. Severe climatic impacts could drive states and individuals to focus on their own short term internal and external security, rather than making serious efforts to address the root of the problem

Tristan November 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Well, if we leave things up to the status quo, I think that’s exactly what is most likely to happen.

Milan November 9, 2010 at 4:09 pm

So we should to what we can to make things play out differently. On that note, I am looking for a job in Toronto where I will be able to make some sort of contribution to fighting climate change.

. November 24, 2010 at 9:34 am

Alleged eco-terrorist arrested over Canada pipeline bombings
(AFP) – Jan 8, 2010
VANCOUVER, Canada —

Canadian police made an arrest Friday in the case of a series of mysterious bombings with suspected links to eco-terrorism along a gas pipeline in western Canada.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they were also searching an Alberta farm reportedly owned by a man previously convicted of similar attacks.
“Criminal charges have not been laid, and investigators have a significant amount of work ahead of them,” police said in a statement.
The arrest is the first major development since 2008, when the first of six explosions occurred along a pipeline owned by EnCana in the far north of the westernmost province of British Columbia.
The recurring explosions damaged property but no injuries were reported.
The farm being searched is owned by Alberta resident Wiebo Ludwig, reported the daily Globe and Mail, which described him as a “notorious eco-warrior.”
Other local media identified Ludwig as the man arrested.
Ludwig, who was convicted in 2001 and temporarily jailed on five charges related to tampering with natural gas facilities in Alberta, including one bombing, had earlier publicly offered to help in the police investigation of the British Columbia bombings.
The six explosions occurred near British Columbia’s border with Alberta.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gNM7MSTTvG0g8LyLBlVCse6L4yHw

. November 24, 2010 at 9:36 am

More sabotage feared after 2nd pipeline bombed in northern B.C.

Last Updated: Thursday, October 16, 2008 | 7:41 PM PT
CBC News

“Canada’s pipeline industry was on high alert Thursday after two acts of sabotage in less than a week targeted EnCana sour-gas pipelines about 50 kilometres southeast of Dawson Creek, B.C., near the Alberta border.

The latest case, discovered by pipeline workers around 9 a.m. MT Thursday morning, appeared linked to an explosion on the weekend and a threatening letter sent to local media last week, RCMP said.

In both incidents, explosives were used. No one was injured in either blast, but they raised fears that more could be coming.”

“Not acts of terrorism: RCMP

Investigators are treating the explosions as acts of vandalism, not terrorism, Shields said.

“Under the Criminal Code, it would be characterized as mischief, which is an intentional vandalism. We don’t want to characterize this as terrorism. They were very isolated locations and there would seem there was no intent to hurt people,” he said.

But David Harris, a security consultant and former strategist with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told CBC News the second explosion shows it’s time to start looking at a political motive and to do more to protect Canada’s critical infrastructure.”

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2008/10/16/bc-second-pipeline-explosion-dawson-creek.html#ixzz16D8XLx2o

. March 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm

When I was in Wisconsin covering the protests of a budget bill that would slash union rights and powers, I stopped by a free “Non-Violence Training Session” that had been advertised on posters at the Capitol. The sessions had been going on for days, and were put on, for the most part, by activists from the Grassroots Leadership College in Madison.
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The lesson was brief. I was actually the only person to show up on time, at 8 p.m. So I got my own rundown of the tips hundreds had received before me and hundreds have since. They started with a couple of questions.

“Why would you protest nonviolently?” asked my trainer.

I speculated that you might care for your fellow man. Or you might figure that protesting violently would tar your comrades by associations.

“That’s right,” she said.
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On Friday, the three-week protest in Madison moved into a new phase, with activists peacefully leaving the Capitol, where they’d been sleeping, and planning more daily and weekend rallies. They got loud, and they shouted down legislators and Fox News, and they were photographed with signs comparing Scott Walker to Hitler. But they didn’t get violent.

There was a lot riding on that. The Wisconsin showdown has, mostly, avoided becoming another skirmish in a tedious culture war—the battle between liberals and conservatives, both armed with cameras, to prove that the other side is hopelessly crude, violent, vile, Nazi-obsessed, and responsible for America losing its way.

. July 25, 2013 at 7:01 pm

TERRY: And how did you come to know that?

TIM: I think the reality of the climate crisis—and all the other crises facing us as humanity today—justify the strongest possible tactics in response. Demand the strongest possible tactics. And I think that requires nonviolent resistance.

TERRY: Is violence ever justified?

TIM: Well, it’s justified. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, if you’re talking moral justification, yeah—to prevent the collapse of our civilization, and the deaths and suffering of billions of people, it’s morally justified. But violence is the game that the United States government is the best in the world at. That’s their territory.

http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6598

. October 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm

But history suggests that, for most protest movements, violence is counterproductive: those that turn the other cheek, opting for civil disobedience, sit-ins and strikes rather than armed retaliation, tend to do best. Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver and Maria Stephan of America’s State Department analysed protests designed to remove governments, expel occupiers or win secession between 1900 and 2006. From 1960 onwards, they found, “non-violent resistance has become more frequent and more successful, whereas violent campaigns are becoming less frequent and increasingly less successful.” Overall, they conclude, peaceful uprisings are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones (even if the current protests in Bulgaria have yet to achieve much).

That rule has an important condition: unity. A split protest movement, divided between pacifists and petrol-bombers, is ideal for tyrants. Keeping every cheek turned takes discipline and firm leadership, exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But when demonstrators manage that, they can ensure that all the opprobrium is focused on the state and, despite the risks to life and limb, recruit more supporters.

This objective—winning the moral battle, rather than the street fight—has become more crucial in the internet and satellite-TV age. Even in places such as Egypt, where much of the domestic media is state-friendly, images of corpses seep out. Even without direct foreign intervention, officials begin to worry about the security of their assets and ability to travel abroad. Defections become more likely.

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