Tuesday 14 April 2009

Climate change: is 'direct action' justifiable?

The Nottinghamshire police yesterday arrested 114 - yes, that's 114 - people for 'conspiracy to commit criminal damage and aggravated trespass'. The arrests were intended to prevent a protest by environmental campaigners at the E.ON power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar. According to the report in The Guardian, 'demonstrators may have planned to chain themselves to the conveyor belts taking coal into the power plant in order to stop the generators when fuel ran out.' (For activists' account of the police's action, see here.)

Putting to one side, for the moment, the important question of whether the police action was proportionate - of which there must be doubt - is this kind of 'direct action' to protest climate change morally justifiable? The question goes further than this particular case. Is it morally justifiable, in general, to protest climate change in a way that involves breaking the law?

John Rawls on civil disobedience

A good place to start is with John Rawls's discussion of civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice (second edition, sections 55, 57, 59).

Rawls defines 'civil disobedience' in the following terms: 'a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.'

He adds: 'By acting in this way one addresses the sense of justice of the majority of the community and declares that in one's considered opinion the principles of social cooperation among free and equal men are not being respected.'

Civil disobedience, in Rawls's sense, is public in that it is done in public and addressed to the public. It is political in the sense that it addresses the citizen-body which ultimately holds law-making power, and because it appeals to fellow citizens on the basis of political principles, notably that of justice.

It is nonviolent because it is an effort to communicate to a wider public, and '[t]o engage in violent acts likely to injure and to hurt is incompatible with civil disobedience as a mode of address' (my italics). It is also nonviolent because, Rawls says, '[i]t expresses disobedience to law within the limits of fidelity to law....The law is broken, but fidelity to law is expressed by the public and nonviolent nature of the act, by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of one's action', though Rawls adds in a footnote that 'the definition allows that the charge may be contested in court, should this prove appropriate.'

If this is what civil disobedience is, in Rawls's definition, when is it morally justified?

Rawls argues that civil disobedience is appropriate only for 'instances of substantial and clear injustice', which he elaborates as cases where 'basic liberties' and 'equality of opportunity' are being violated. It is also only justified when 'the normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and...they have failed.' A third factor to consider is what would happen if everyone with a similarly important justice-based concern engaged in civil disobedience: would this put too much strain on the overall legal system? If so, then civil disobedience is unjustified.

If these conditions are met, however, then Rawls argues that civil disobedience is justifiable and that it can play a helpful role in promoting a just society.

Is civil disobedience to protest climate change justified in principle?

Putting to one side the specific direct actions which climate change protesters have recently engaged in, is civil disobedience to protest climate change justifiable in principle? Following Rawls's framework, I think the answer is clearly 'Yes'.

First, direct action/civil disobedience to protest climate change satisfies the key condition of being a response to a 'clear and substantial injustice'. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls's focus is primarily on justice within generations. But, as Rawls himself points out, there is also the matter of justice between generations. It is now glaringly obvious that we face a real risk of catastrophic and irreversible climate change. This represents a massive potential injustice to future generations.

Second, the usual democratic channels of action have thus far proved inadequate in addressing the issue. Another report in today's Guardian tells us that while a majority of scientists believe it is still technically possible to keep global warming down to the critical 2C level, many think this will not happen because governments simply aren't facing up to the action that is needed.

Third, the issue of climate change is one of particular importance - if not uniquely important, it is certainly well above the average in terms of its moral gravity. So I do not think that if everyone with an equally serious justice-based concern engaged in civil disobedience, there would be a breakdown in the effectiveness of the overall legal system - there just aren't that many issues with the same level of moral importance.

So how far are recent direct actions justifiable?

This question can't be answered without close attention to the details of each direct action event. However, I would judge the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate on April 1 to be one example of a justifiable act of civil disobedience. It was public, political in the right way, and nonviolent (certainly threatening no injury to anyone or damage to property). The protesters showed 'fidelity to the law' in that they liaised with the police to try to ensure the event went off peacefully.

Turning to the sort of action allegedly planned for the power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, my judgment is less sure. Chaining oneself to conveyor belts to disrupt energy production risks some damage to property, and so might be considered not entirely 'nonviolent'. So long as there is no threat of injury to anyone, however, I would apply a test of proportionality here: Is the likely gain in terms of getting the message across big enough to justify some risk of damage to property as a side-effect of the illegal activity?

Here it is worth noting how the jury at the recent trial of the climate change protesters at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station acquitted them of the charge of criminal damage. The legal argument the protesters made was that they were damaging property to prevent a greater damage to property from climate change. Whatever one makes of that specific argument, the jury clearly believed that a degree of damage to property can be justified when protesting this cause.

Still, I would argue that protesters need always to ask: Is this going to work as a way of addressing the public? Will it get attention, but in the wrong way? The point of civil disobedience, after all, is to address the public, to stimulate its conscience, and not to be a nuisance to companies like E.ON for its own sake.

Conclusion: respecting civil disobedience

Why does it matter that some forms of civilly disobedient direct action to protest climate change are justifiable?

If civil disobedience is justifiable, indeed plays an important role in a democratic society, then shouldn't it command a little respect? Of course, the police have a job to do in limiting and containing actions of civil disobedience. But that job needs to be done in a way that acknowledges the legitimacy of civil disobedience. In the same way that the civilly disobedient protester needs to show some 'fidelity to the law' even as she breaks a law, the police need to reciprocate with a respect for the civilly disobedient.

To put it mildly, our police do not seem to understand this.


Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I think it is a good and fair post.

I personally am inclined to think there is a distinction between the climate camp and this planned protest, both in principle and in terms of its pragmatic effectiveness.

The means of protest seem to me less justified on this occasion, yet at the same time I would agree that the police action would also seem inappropriately disproportionate.

I am not sure if a 'fidelity to the law; fidelity to democratic protest' call will rally too many people, but I think it is the right position!

Anonymous said...

Whilst I in large measure agree with this post, I think it is vulnerable to a criticism that can be levelled at Rawlsian approaches generally. It's an old Marxist point that I think can be fairly employed by non-Marxists (like me), namely:

That the composition of the state is such that the protection of capital - and most especially, the productive capital which constitutes a big chunk of "private property" - is a key aspect of the capitalist state's ongoing purpose and composition (which I think it's fair to say the UK state is).

One of the functions of the state police force is to protect and uphold the productive private property which is capital. I believe that to be simply a brute fact about the composition of capitalist societies (I may be wrong).

Thus the Rawlsian analysis leaves something out: the inherent inbalance between protestors who believe (and let's play in Rawls' paradigm here) that justice is only served by attacking capital, and the state which has as a core requirement of its being the commitment to defending capital as part of its purpose and composition.

So while I think your analysis is very tight and good, I think we miss-out a big chunk of the civil disobedience issue when analysing it in purely Rawlsian terms.

Interestingly, the issue I'm trying to get at is very well illustrated by the climate change case. Individuals wish to prevent global warming (better: Global Climate Catastrophe) and believe (perhaps correctly) that this is only possible by attacking capital. The state (is in part) established to protect capital. The reaction to civil disobedience by the state is in turn drastically distorted, hence the police take measures such as have been witnessed over the past few weeks and months.

Or to put a different spin on it but keep the sentiment, as Canadian punk rockers Propagandhi sing: "we may face a scorched and lifeless earth/But they're accountable to their share holders first".