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World Environment Day: Civil disobedience and the climate activist movement
Author: Oliver C. Ruppel
Published: 05/06/2023
​​​World Environment Day is observed annually on 5 June. In an opinion piece for News24, Prof Oilver Ruppel from the Department of Mercantile Law writes that in the absence of global and concerted efforts to address the climate crisis, civil disobedience and the climate activist movement seem to be a last resort for some people.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​​Oliver C. Ruppel*

Climate change, at least indirectly, exacerbates conflict. And with the climate crisis set to intensify in the coming years, more and more people will be forced to leave their homes because of everything from desertification to rising sea levels.

On World Environment Day (5 June), it is fair to say that we are already in the midst of an unprecedented environmental crisis and facing a climate emergency. The general inaction of the state, or grossly inadequate state action on climate change and its corporate drivers exacerbates the desperation of our times. This has led climate activists, especially in Europe and the USA, to resort to more drastic measures, namely the deliberate violation of laws for a vital social purpose.

According to a recent World Meteorological Organization report, there is a high chance that the annual global average temperature will hit 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures at some time in the next five years. This is frightening to say the least while it also fuels the engine of the climate movement.

The climate movement is a global social movement focused on pressuring governments and industry to take action (also called climate action) and addressing the causes and impacts of climate change. Such a movement can play a game-changing role towards climate justice by putting pressure on governments (and society at large) to elevate their climate commitments and laws and move away from fossil fuels or stop deforestation.

Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future launched a student climate movement in 2018, the same year Extinction Rebellion (XR) was formed. Like the Last Generation, XR follows the goal of using civil disobedience to push climate action.

Civil disobedience is a term used to describe a form of deliberate, but often non-violent, transgression of laws. Much has been said and written about the role civil disobedience has played in social justice movements around the world, and there is no doubt that many such movements have been inspired to use it tactically.

Although I do not assume that everyone who participates in civil disobedience shares exactly the same philosophy about its use, it is generally assumed that civil disobedience means deliberately breaking a law in order to draw attention to a perceived injustice  ̶  for example in the legal system. This means that civil disobedience is usually illegal because it involves breaking the law for an ideological or political purpose. It also means that people who engage in civil disobedience usually have to accept the legal consequences of their actions, while they may believe that legal punishment by an unjust regime is part of the process of raising public awareness and arousing public sympathy for their cause. 

I need to make it clear that I am neither encouraging civil disobedience nor downplaying its potential legal consequences. On the contrary, I want to point out that climate protest activities can lead to arrests, criminal or civil proceedings, and it is important to distinguish between protected protest activities and activities that can put the protester in legal jeopardy (i.e. the risk of being arrested, detained, prosecuted, charged or sued).

With the intensification of the climate crisis, responsibility for climate change and the resulting climate damage is increasingly becoming the focus of (world) public attention. At the same time, it has raised the question of what role (criminal) prohibition and sanctions can play in the context of an efficient climate policy. In this context, not only the possibility of punishing behaviour that is harmful to the climate should be looked at more closely, but perhaps also the (possible judicial) exemption from punishment of actions that are in principle punishable in the name of climate protection.

While the right to freedom of expression and the right to assemble peacefully are constitutional rights, they can obviously be limited by reasonable limits prescribed by law and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Of course, we must recognise climate change as an existential threat, but what about taking drastic action against it through civil disobedience that can cause chaos and unrest?

Activists are not infrequently willing to trade their freedom for a perceived good because desperate times call for desperate measures. Throughout history, the failure of the state to address and remedy pressing social problems has led to political acts of civil disobedience. Although activists usually claim that their illegal actions are justified either legally or morally because they are necessary to protect a greater good, such pleas of necessity have usually been notoriously unsuccessful in court. Litigation has long been an important tool for social movements, and this is no less true in the climate context. For normative change to occur, it will be important that a normative framework is taken up by policymakers.

Recently, a British court handed down a sentence where two environmental activists from Just Stop Oil were jailed for three years and two years and seven months respectively. In his reasoning, the judge argued that the two should be punished for the chaos they caused. In addition, other activists should be discouraged from imitating them.

Protest is allowed, but in a functioning society there can be no blank cheques for chaos. While we cannot deny that many young people are really afraid of the future, it is politically wrong how climate protest actions are being carried out. Dialogue is part of the essence of democracy. And to achieve the climate goals under the Paris Agreement, social consensus seems more important than social division. Thus, my concluding question: Should such a consensus be worked out democratically or is violence an appropriate means?

The ultimate goal of keeping the global average temperature well below 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels, with a preferred limit of 1.5 ºC as per Article 2(1)(a) of the Paris Agreement, can only be achieved when a global and concerted effort is made. In the absence of such, civil disobedience and the climate activist movement seem to be a last resort – at least for some.

*Oliver C. Ruppel is Professor of Law and Director of the Development and Rule of Law Programme (DROP) in the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University. He also serves as Director of the Research Centre for Climate Law (Clim:Law Graz) at the University of Graz in Austria. He specialises in International Environmental Law, World Trade Law, Sustainable Development Law and Climate Law.​