Essay: Violent Protests for Climate Action
Disclaimer. This is an adaptation of a piece written for the master’s-level class “Advocacy in Global Challenges and Climate Change”. In order to fulfil the grading criteria, a challenging perspective was chosen, which does not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the author, nor the Green Office. Neither the author nor the Green Office condone the use of violence under any circumstances.
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues our society and planet are facing at the moment. Many are the debates and forums of discussion surrounding what is the best way to tackle it and ways to adapt to and mitigate its effects. Nevertheless, the harsh reality is that global governance is lagging behind, without upholding its promises. As such, inaction on climate issues has been defined as one of the biggest risks that humanity is facing.
Various interest groups, such as activist organisations, NGOs, and civil society groups, have taken this issue to heart. What these groups often use as a strategy for change is non-violent direct action. This essay, however, asks whether more violent forms of protesting could be more effective for catalysing decisions to reduce emissions and generating attention for climate action? The question posed is relevant because, when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, the global response has not yet been sufficient, despite the concerns expressed by the scientific community and activists. Furthermore, it is necessary, in this day and age, to reflect on how change should occur. The political discourse often remains stuck on whether a change of status quo should occur at all; this essay argues that more violent forms of protests are required if governance goals are to make a real impact. My analytic framing lies in Critical International Relations theory, and Marxist influence.
THE ROLE OF INTEREST GROUPS
One thing is clear: climate change needs to be tackled through the diffusion of power. Governments are not the only actors that can coordinate and act for change. Although global governance is still determined by hierarchy and power, which translates into one group’s governance, beliefs, and interests prevailing over others, this power can be contested by non-state actors through means of politicisation. I argue for further adapting the system in such a way that prevents powerful states from abusing it and allows for more and better participation of other actors.
For context: the most important forums of discussion for the global governance of climate change are the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Lately, COPs have become, in theory, the place that allows for a facilitated dialogue between states and interest groups about climate action. This has been identified as “hybrid multilateralism” and institutionalised in the Paris Agreement. These interest groups comprise NGOs, CSOs, but also the private sector. As a result, each actor plays a different role in terms of their (perceived) authority, influence, power, but also the interests that they advocate for. Despite this attempt to incorporate non-state actors in the diplomatic dialogue on climate action, the extent of their impact remains unclear. Conflicting interests and the inability to concretely affect the end results of COPs leave interest groups on the margins.
It is understood that this multilateral participation, for many advocates of climate action, is not enough. This is especially because, in the past, COPs forums have allowed for the participation of actors whose environmental strategies are based on greenwashing, making other actors question the legitimacy of the institutional setup. For this reason, many NGOs and climate activist organisations have turned to the power of social movements. Depending on the type of organisation, the mobilisation of groups often takes place in the form of protests. Social movements may appear as disorganised action, nevertheless many resources and implementable mechanisms are necessary for effective mobilisation.
ON FRAMING AND SECURITISATION
Borrowing Entman’s definition, this paper regards framing as “selecting elect some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. In the context of climate change and climate action more specifically, NGOs and activist networks frame the issue in a different manner than states or profit-driven companies. Where some see acting to tackle climate change as an opportunity (e.g., the EU), others understand that acting is the only way to prevent an existential threat from having a worse impact than it already has. Framing influences thinking, and frames are often not explicit. Viewing an issue from different frames, is to define different problems.
The framing and extreme politicisation of an issue, can result in such an issue being securitised. Securitisation in (anti-traditional and European) International Relations is often defined following the Copenhagen School. Securitisation in these terms deals with the ways in which issues can be perceived as a threat and how they can ultimately be turned into conflict. For this to take place, there needs to be an actor (usually a state) claiming that something (or someone) is existentially threatened by something considered harmful. An audience needs to be convinced that it is wise and a matter of security to take countermeasures to deal with such a threat.
In this essay, I advance two points of criticism to this view, based on the critical approaches of the Aberystwyth School. First, securitisation should not be state centred. Second, securitisation should be understood as human emancipation. The state is not to be understood as the provider of security but rather as an actor fostering insecurity. By not acting on the imminent threat of the consequences of climate change in a swift manner, states and the international system as a whole are the perpetrators of insecurity to populations. Although deniers may claim that climate change is not a security matter, it is. However, states often securitise the environment in a harmful way: when the beneficiaries of the security actions are not the people but the state itself. But securitisation can be used in a productive way and for good ends, if done by the people.
THERE ARE PROTESTS AND PROTESTS: WHAT IS VIOLENCE AFTER ALL?
In 2019, the German group Ende Gelände engaged in “civil disobedience” by storming the Gaezweiller coal mine. This action was defined as violent. One year later, Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists were defined by Priti Patel as “criminals” who pose “attack[s] on our way of life, our economy, and the livelihoods of the hard-working majority”. Contradictorily, both groups (and many others) affirm that what makes them strong is their use of a non-violence strategy.
But what is violence? Similarly as to what was argued before, how political violence is understood and framed moulds the perception of it being or not being effective, necessary, and justifiable. Despite previous work on non-violence (see: Sharp and Chenoweth), the question of what does or does not constitute violence remains alive. There is no public agreement on the contested concept. Moreover, studies arguing for the success of non-violence strategies are often focused on civil resistance addressing precise and case specific issues. However, climate change is a global existential threat that needs active involvement.
Historically, civil disobedience has been strongly associated with non-violence. This is, however, not necessarily true. Assuming that civil disobedience involves breaking the law, acting intentionally with the aim to change a specific policy, and being willing to be held accountable for the violation of the law, Lang argues that there can be a distinction between civil disobedience and non-violence. When adding destruction as a feature of disobedience, there is no incompatibility between civil disobedience and violence if the aims are fulfilled.
Additionally, it is the viewpoint of this essay that violence has permeated and is present in every aspect of society. Slavoj Zizek defines two categories of violence: “subjective” and “objective”. The former refers to a “violent perturbation of the normal state of things” whilst the latter is systemic, less visible and contained in everyday life. Becoming aware of the objective violence that comes from state inaction on climate change is crucial to understanding how to act.
EMBRACING "ETHICAL" VIOLENCE
What is there to do, then? COPs have failed and states are not going to be the catalysers for change. Becoming carbon neutral by 2050 is unrealistic. Here my answer: social movements and organisations should frame climate inaction as a security risk. Most importantly, these movements should engage in disruption. Such disruption should be pursued in a justifiable manner and only limited to property and not towards persons. It is necessary to highlight that the destruction and sabotage should be not of just any kind of property, but of property that is instrumental to the perpetration of CO2 emissions and environmental disaster.
Maintaining a strategy of non-violence is not enough in a context that requires more. Even if violence alone will not achieve change, it is destabilising enough to be more effective in pressuring states into taking action. Moreover, given the fuzzy lines between violence and non-violence, most of the time, the actions undertaken are already framed and perceived as being violent. In the United Kingdom for instance, XR’s disobedience has led to a more stringent approach by the Home Office to protests in general, limiting other civil issues. By pursuing an active violent sabotage of CO2 emitting facilities, however, there would be no new laws created, but stronger signals sent.
The fact that a mass wave of property destruction has not yet occurred can stand for the strength of the non-violence ideals, while at the same time it can be seen as “a failure to attain social depth, articulate the antagonisms that run through this crisis and, not the least, acquire a tactical asset” . Why such actions have not taken place have been named by Malm as the “Lanchester’s paradox” (Lanchester being the one first posing the question), highlighting the inaction that stems from those most advocating for direct action. Although other studies suggest that violent action and high-risk activism may occur at the final stages of a social movement and when this has lost most support, the case of climate change activism may differ given the nature of the threat: existential and with actors to blame for its risk.
More direct action and involvement are needed if a revolution is to occur. As history shows (from the French Revolution to the Stonewall riots), if the goal is to make an impact, policy papers and campaigns are not enough. At least not for our liberation from the already oppressing violence of a system that is ignoring its environmental faults. Change often comes because of violence used, and non-violence often ignores this. It is from securitising climate change that the potential for emancipation and revolution comes from. This does not assume violence to be the only means to achieve the needed change, but sees in its careful “ethical” execution potential for the initiation of more effective actions to counter climate change.
To note: it is of outmost importance to recognise the potential of pitfalls that carrying out violence may lead to and this essay does not serve to advocate for potential acts of harmful terrorism in any way.
THE VALUE OF "ETHICAL" VIOLENCE
To give a direct answer to the question that has guided this essay, more violent protests can be argued to be more effective. Different framings of both climate change and violence lead to different perceptions of the issues and actions. Nevertheless, it is not possible to state the effects a wave of property disruption might have given that similar large-scale sabotage has not taken place yet. At the same time, current tactics employed by organisations and movements have not been having the required impact and effect for change. To this reason, recommendations for social movements and organisations on how to act and impact global governance are as follows:
- Abandon the narratives of non-violence and embrace civil disobedience as separate from it.
- Engage in large scale disruptive and destabilising protests.
- Embrace violence against property as a cornerstone of environmental movements.
- NOTE: such violence should be limited to property that engages or represents an engagement with environmental destruction.
- Approach securitisation of climate action in a critical way.
- In other words, not as state centred and/or as emancipation of the people.
- Demand an adaptation of the forums of global governance for climate change.
- To achieve more active and impactful involvement at COPs decisions/negotiations.
REMINDER. This is an adaptation of a piece written for the master’s-level class “Advocacy in Global Challenges and Climate Change”. In order to fulfil the grading criteria, a challenging perspective was chosen, which does not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the author, nor the Green Office. Neither the author nor the Green Office condone the use of violence under any circumstances.