Step Out of Line Against Climate Change

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Written by Chris Schneidmiller

Acts of nonviolent civil disobedience can change a nation, the world, and history. The examples are numerous and consequential, from the Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi in India to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

With powerful institutional interests opposed to weaning nations off reliance on fossil fuels because of money-making motives, civil disobedience has become a tool for activists who are forcibly and peaceably demanding stronger measures to curb the climate crisis.

“Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) is a crucial strategy in the fight for climate and social justice because it disrupts business as usual, shifts the spectrum for what people believe is possible, and returns power to the people,” said Reilly Polka, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C., branch of the Extinction Rebellion movement. “Simply asking for those in power to prioritize people over profit doesn’t work, so we turn to tactics like NVDA. NVDA puts public pressure on our institutions. It’s a way to stop the extractive economy in its tracks.”

The Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace & Conflict (via ScienceDirect) defines civil disobedience as “a nonviolent action engaged in by an individual who refuses to obey the law for moral or philosophical reasons. The participants in civil disobedience willfully and openly refuse to comply with a law in order to dramatize the issue that they, or the group, find unjust.”

These actions have long been part of the environmental movement. Less than a decade ago, Native Americans from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation along the Dakotas led large-scale protests against the routing of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on nearby land that is considered sacred and provides drinking water for the region. The protests included establishing a temporary camp and, at times, individuals chaining themselves to construction equipment. (The American Bar Association has an in-depth explainer here.)

Actions by climate activists have taken many forms, as reported by Vox, from blocking entry to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York during the 2023 Climate Week to dyeing the water of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Perhaps most famously, activists have defaced and even glued themselves to famous art pieces, including Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Direct action has multiple effects, Polka said: claiming power for the people against powerful organizations, raising awareness for the climate crisis, disrupting “business as usual,” and re-centering the Overton Window – the model for policies that have sufficient public support that political will pursue them.

“Something we have also heard from people who end up getting involved in XR is they were looking for ways to take action that matched their levels of climate anxiety,” Polka said. “We have found that NVDA, as a more escalated protest strategy, can be a really supportive way of taking action for those feeling intense climate anxiety.”

Extinction Rebellion DC highlights a steady stream of actions, including multiple actions to disrupt the 2023 American Gas Forum in the nation’s capital in opposition to messaging about natural gas as a transition fuel for a clean energy future.

Polka pointed to the organization’s Electrify DC campaign as a program with the potential to generate lasting change. The campaign aims to stop the local utility, Washington Gas, from spending billions of dollars on new methane gas infrastructure. The organization scored a win in February when 11 District of Columbia Council members issued a letter calling on the DC Public Service Commission to deny approval for the project.

 “This was a victory that XR’s NVDA played a role in making happen,” Polka said. “We pushed the issue onto the Council’s radar many times, from dropping off our demands to disrupting Council meetings to chaining ourselves to the doors of the DC Council building. When they wouldn’t take action, we took matters into our own hands to protect DC residents and shut down a Project Pipes construction site ourselves.”

Activists who undertake civil disobedience can be clear-eyed about the importance of such actions and the potential consequences.

In a January 2023 commentary for The New York Times, earth scientist Rose Abramoff said she joined actions by the organization Science Rebellion after years as a “well-behaved scientist” researching issues of climate change. At a December 2022 meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Abramoff joined climate scientist and Earth Hero co-founder Peter Kalmus in briefly pre-empting one session by hoisting a banner with the message “Out of the lab & into the streets.” The two scientists were ejected from the meeting and their research for the event was pulled. Shortly afterward, Abramoff was fired from her position as an associate scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. 

Abramoff was not deterred. She said she participated in numerous protests in 2023 against fossil fuel financing and infrastructure, and was arrested four times – with charges later dropped or resulting in small fines or community service. She has continued her research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and the Ronin Institute, and she and Kalmus attended the AGU’S Fall 2023 meeting.

“After the accelerating climate impacts that we saw this past summer, I am more convinced than ever that collective action is the best use of my time, and is probably the best use of most people's time,” she said.

Interested in getting involved? Numerous organizations in the United States and abroad conduct nonviolent disobedience on climate issues, including Climate Defiance, Declare Emergency, Third Act, and others, Polka noted. Extinction Rebellion DC offers trainings and other opportunities for volunteers. Consider exploring the Earth Hero Climate Action Group Finder to discover a group that aligns with your interests and passion for environmental preservation.

Whatever approach is right for you, it is crucial to act. Earth Hero also offers a broad range of actions at the individual and group level that can help address climate change, including joining climate rallies or organizations and other acts of advocacy.

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