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The Potential Virtues of Civil Disobedience

Kate Byng-Hall explores protesting and its potential impact in light of Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nation's recent comments.

Photo by Markus Spiske

‘Civil disobedience’ can be defined as an “act by a group of people of refusing to obey laws or pay taxes, as a peaceful way of expressing their disapproval of those laws or taxes and in order to persuade the government to change them”.

Increasingly, climate change activists are calling on people to adopt this approach in order to make change come about more rapidly.

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the woman who led the negotiations for the Paris Agreement, is releasing a book called The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, in which she says “it’s time to participate in non-violent political movements wherever possible” when it comes to global warming.

“Civil disobedience is not only a moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics.” – Christiana Figueres

She and co-author Tom Rivett-Carnac state that electoral politics has not provided sufficiently strong support for climate change activism, and that people now need to rally together and form a movement similar to those led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Extinction Rebellion’s Example

Extinction Rebellion is a prime example of civil disobedience being used to further to cause of climate change activism. Since May 2018, the organisation has been orchestrating “peaceful civil disobedience” through protests such as climbing on tube trains, chaining themselves to the railings of Parliament, and blocking roads with sit-ins.

In April 2019, the group staged a fortnight of protests in London in which 1100 protestors were arrested for causing disruption to an estimated 500,000 Londoners by blocking areas such as Oxford Street and Westminster Bridge.

They have since staged similarly disruptive displays of opposition to climate change inaction. For example, in February 2020, four people were arrested after using fire extinguishers to douse the Barclays logo on their Northampton headquarters in fake oil in protest of their involvement in the fossil fuel industry. Their actions were recorded on Facebook Live and subsequently viewed 45,000 times.

But these protestors don’t just want to be a nuisance. Since their foundation, media exposure of the urgency of the climate crisis has increased exponentially, meaning that, even though their rebellious actions are criticised by some, a larger proportion of the population is now supporting their cause.

The Effectiveness of Civil Disobedience

While Extinction Rebellion members such as Farhana Yamin claim that “we need everyone to undertake mass civil disobedience to create a new political reality the whole world over”, this might not be feasible.

Prof. Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, London, has said that if significant social awareness of a political or environmental issue is to be brought about, “you need to make appeals to people who might be more moderate, or conservative even, to get more people onside”.

He makes the point that protests like Extinction Rebellion’s may not appeal to more conservative people in the country, especially those living in the Home Counties. Instead, he states that a “message of hope” needs to be incorporated into campaigning in order to gain the support of the large section of the population.

Perhaps a happy-medium needs to be reached. Extinction Rebellion may be right that “we can and must succeed in catalysing a peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction and capitalism”, but if this is to be embraced by the entire population, a form of “revolution” may need to be further established across even more segments of society.


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