Op-Ed: Climate politicking isn’t working. We need climate civil disobedience

A flag protesting against the exploration of Canadian tar sands oil on Feb. 13, 2010.
(Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images)

The small town of Bagley, Minn., looked set to be the scene for one of the nation’s most interesting airings of the climate controversy this week. Three people went on trial there on Monday for shutting down a pipeline from Canada’s tar sands in 2016 — one of them, after warning the company, turned the valve that shut the pipe, and then they sat and waited for the police to arrive. They were arrested and charged with felony destruction of public property.

The judge had originally signaled that they would be allowed to mount a full “necessity defense,” and argue that climate change presented such a severe threat that they had little choice but to break the law. On Friday, however, he decided not to allow the team of expert witnesses — including me — to testify about the main points at issue: the danger of global warming, the lack of alternatives to civil disobedience and the effectiveness of direct action. Then on Tuesday, after a jury had been selected, the judge dismissed the case, announcing that the activists’ actions didn’t meet the seriousness of the charges.

I’m glad the protesters in Minnesota aren’t facing 10 years in prison, but it’s almost too bad. The case for climate activism needs to be made. If I’d had the chance to testify, here are the points I would have tried to impress on the jury.


First, it is as bad as the scientists say, and you don’t need to know a thing about degrees Celsius or parts per million CO2 to understand why. As we’ve burned fossil fuel, we’ve raised the temperature, and now we’re feeling the results. Last year, Hurricane Harvey dropped more water than any storm in the history of the country — 60 inches in parts of Houston — because warm air holds more water vapor than cold. This year Hurricane Florence broke every rainfall record for the East Coast. This is not some future threat — it’s happening right now, and absolutely anyone can imagine what it would be like to have five feet of rain fall on your roof.

Politics as usual is not working to address the climate emergency, save for a few outliers like California or Norway. And a few outliers is not enough.

The victims of these changes are now numerous, and they are concentrated among those who have done the least to cause the problem: People forced to migrate because their islands are sinking beneath ocean waves or because their farms have withered in the face of devastating drought, for instance. Polar bears too, but by no means polar bears mostly.

Second, our political system is not working to address the challenge. Some of us have been trying for 30 years to make change in the obvious, rational ways. We’ve met with politicians, testified before Congress and legislatures, written letters to politicians and to newspapers, organized seminars. And gotten not much of anywhere — the U.S., famously, has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords.

This political problem is not confined to America, which produces more fossil fuels than any other country. Russia, which comes in second, poisons critics of its government, including its energy policies. Saudi Arabia, which is third, is now apparently dismembering critics of its oil-saturated regime. Around the world, carbon emissions continue to rise. Politics as usual seems not to be working to address the climate emergency, save for a few outliers like California or Norway. And a few outliers is not enough.

Lastly, much of what progress has been made toward mitigating climate change has largely come through protest. When demonstrators went to jail in record numbers against the Keystone XL pipeline, they not only stopped its construction but fired up people around the world to take similar steps against every new piece of fossil fuel infrastructure: Kayakers blocked Shell’s drilling rigs in the Seattle harbor, for example, which led to the company’s retreat from plans to open the Arctic to oil drilling. Pension funds and endowments worth $7 trillion have begun divesting their holdings in fossil fuel companies — Shell said in a recent report to shareholders that that movement had become a “material risk.”

In other words, protest has weakened the very industry that has made political progress on climate change all but impossible. It’s the long campaign of deceit and misinformation by the oil industry, above all else, that is responsible for our governments’ inaction.

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And like peaceful protest during the civil rights movement, civil disobedience has helped shift the zeitgeist away from the idea that coal, oil and gas are the natural and obvious sources of power for our societies. Protest helps overcome the inertia that is slowing our transition to cheaper solar and wind power. If normal politics ever does work on the issue of climate change, it will be in part because it’s been prodded by the unconventional kind.

These points are logical, I think. Necessity of the most desperate kind motivated the three activists who were on trial in Bagley, and they were right to turn the pipeline valve. In another sense, though, it’s clearly crazy that people have to risk going to jail to make these points. Science has been offering us an unambiguous warning for three decades. As a society, and as a planet, we decided to ignore it. And we prosecute the people who remind us of our failings.

The valve turner and her compatriots should have been judged not guilty in Minnesota. But the system under which we live is still on trial, and the verdict is all too clear.

Bill McKibben is co-founder of the climate campaign, a faculty member in environmental studies at Middlebury College, and the author of the forthcoming “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

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