Climate summits share two important characteristics with non-violent civil disobedience: both are as indispensable as they are insufficient. They are also uncomfortable, but in that respect, disobedience wins by far.
What is a notable difference between the two is the case they make for science: climate summits work on the scientific evidence of climate change and its impacts, however making little progress on scientific recommendations. On the contrary, those participating in acts of civil disobedience seem really to be taking the warnings of scientists around the world seriously.
Governments continue to subsidise fossil fuels.
The modest ambition of the climate agreements that are reached year after year at climate summits reveals the complexity of reaching global agreements and, especially, that the representatives of each country have other priorities when negotiating their commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Not only are emissions rising, when they should be falling, but governments are continuing to subsidise all fossil fuels, including the dirtiest, coal, which in 2022 has staged a terrible renaissance.
Therefore, global concern about government climate inaction is growing and manifesting itself.
The activists have achieved their goal: to disrupt.
After the forced halt of covid-19, and in the face of the lack of political attention to the climate crisis, citizen demonstrations have increased, bringing together numerous groups, some of them coordinated at a global level. Ahead of the 27th climate summit (Conference of the Parties or COP27), numerous citizens, including activists, scientists and theologians, have participated in disobedience acts that have achieved one of their objectives: to make people uncomfortable.
There is more doubt and much controversy, however, as to whether they have achieved another of their objectives: to raise awareness of the climate emergency and the outright non-compliance with the Paris agreement.
Many of these actions have attracted international attention without doing any harm. These include throwing tomato soup at the glass protecting a famous painting by Van Gogh or Goya, throwing a cake at a wax figure of Charles III or hitting sports cars. We have heard angry voices and many complaints. It is even argued that these actions could have the opposite effect to the one they are intended to have. Before we go on, a few questions.
Who is complaining about these actions?
Are the citizens of Sierra Leone complaining, or the last remaining inhabitants of the Tuvalu Islands and so many others islands engulfed by rising sea levels? Are there, among those writing angry columns or making angry speeches, any climate migrants or those who have lost their homes in a sixth-generation fire? Have the relatives of those Spaniards who lost their lives as a result of the heatwaves of summer 2022 taken issue with any of these actions?
These voices come mainly from fortunate members of a sleepy society who feel bad to be woken from their siesta.
Climate inaction generates new activism
Voices annoyed by uncomfortable disobedience fail to notice that those who resort to non-violent civil disobedience are not just young anti-establishment rebels. These headline-grabbing acts are planned in great detail so as not to cause irreparable damage to the works, and are advised by volunteer lawyers and jurists so that the action deviates as little as possible from the legal frameworks of each country. Scientists and a wide range of other segments of society are also involved in these events.
Scientists and theologians together in climate disobedience
Scientists from more than 40 countries, grouped in movements such as Scientist Rebellion, have decided not to leave alone the millions of activists around the world who rely on science to force a profound change in our socio-economic system, a change that will tackle climate change. Theologians and representatives of Christian groups are also using non-violent civil disobedience to stop global warming.
Many Christians are speaking out for the climate, inspired by the Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, a document based on scientific evidence and calling for the protection of the planet we live on.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic growth in social movements expressing dissent through public mobilisations and acts of civil disobedience, from Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future to the mass protests of Indian farmers.
The number of protest movements tripled between 2006 and 2020.
The data reveals that these new activists are highly efficient. Extinction Rebellion's (XR) work in the UK avoided 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every pound it spent on advocacy; for every dollar spent by the Sunrise Movement, approximately five tonnes of carbon dioxide were avoided.
Even underfunded protest movements have had a catalytic impact in bringing about large-scale positive change. Thus, supporting young and emerging protest movements may be one of the most impactful things philanthropists - and many of us - can be involved in. Indeed, the heirs and beneficiaries of two major US oil fortunes support groups fighting to block fossil fuel projects. They feel a moral obligation.
Equation Campaign, founded in 2020, provides financial support and legal advocacy for people living near pipelines and refineries who are trying to stop the rise of fossil fuels through methods including civil disobedience.
These goals are shared with the Climate Emergency Fund, founded in 2019 in California. Both are financially backed by descendants of Getty Oil and the Rockefeller family that founded Standard Oil in 1870. Save Old Growth and Just Stop Oil are other very effective climate groups with financial backing from fortunes made from the oil business.
The anguished need for disobedience
It is worth remembering that Mary Richardson and her companions made British society uncomfortable a century ago, and then suffrage became truly universal. Until then only half a population had the right to vote. If you were a woman, you did not vote. Mary stabbed the painting of the Venus at the Mirror, risked her physical integrity and her freedom and succeeded together with the rest of her suffragists in changing things.
Disobedience is not about making friends. Climate change is a serious problem that affects us all and brings with it a terrible injustice: those countries and those parts of society that suffer the most are precisely those who have had the least influence on global warming.
The cruel paradox of the countries that emit the least
Pakistan, which has contributed less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions, has a third of its country under water after historic glacial meltdowns, creating a tremendous cascade of impacts that demonstrate a dramatic climate injustice.
We are all making efforts to reduce emissions, while 1% of those travelling in private jets are responsible for 50% of the aviation sector's emissions. To address the climate crisis, large, costly and highly paradoxical climate summits are held annually, where political leaders and big business travel in private jets.
The 21st summit, held in Paris in 2015, however, was particularly important because it established that we should not exceed a temperature rise of more than 1.5° C above the pre-industrial era in what is known as the Paris Agreement.
The problem with the COP21Paris Agreement is that the only thing we have really agreed on is to renege on it. Emissions that were supposed to be going down keep going up, increasing what is known as the emissions gap, the painful and dangerous distance between where we should be and where we are in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Because of this accumulation of circumstances and results, the climate summits are clearly insufficient. For all these reasons, civil disobedience is also desperately necessary, although insufficient too. Sorry for the inconvenience.