Civil disobedience as a tool for environmental action

One could say it started with Greta Thunberg. Sitting on the parliament square in Stockholm, with her homemade sign. The girl with the braids and the serious facial expressions began her weekly school strikes when she was set to return to school after summer, which had been one of the hottest ever. After a few weeks she started getting attention, both from the media and from her peers. You probably know the rest of the story. Now, hundreds of thousands of youth have participated in school strikes all across the world.

Or maybe it started with the group of 1500 people that had shown up for a protest organized by the newly formed Extinction Rebellion in late October. They were outside the parliament to draw attention to the ‘unfolding climate emergency’, and decided to sit down, lock themselves to each other and put a standstill to the traffic for two hours. 15 people were arrested. Further protests, such as the collective blocking of five major bridges, burying a casket as a part of a “funeral for our future”, gluing themselves to the doors of a petroleum conference ensued, and the movement has now spread throughout the world. 

Regardless of which exact event was the first, it is quite clear that there is a new wave of civil disobedience focused on environmental issues that has started washing over our society, and it is rooted in a dissatisfaction in the authorities’ handling of the climate change problem. In this blogpost I will consider the concept of civil disobedience and discuss the potential impacts it could have in a climate change context. 

Firstly: what exactly is civil disobedience? states that it is “a ritual symbolic rejection of the law”, based on some extra-legal principle or obligation to break some specific law. Important to note is that the protester has already found the legitimate routes of change blocked or non-existent – civil disobedience is therefore seen to be sort of a ‘last resort’. This a common argument for people in the climate movement – that our governments have failed us in the decades they had to negotiate and cut emissions. 

There are some downsides to this type of action. Firstly, it leads to some undesired effects on the public, such as economic losses through for example being blocked from going to work. Second, it might also not work for it intended purposes, being a waste of resources for all parties involved. It could also be a way for the majority to force their view on the majority, as it is a bypassing of democracy.

In this case, though, people are protesting for a cause they see as essential to the survival of our species and the world as we know it, something that they believe outweighs all of these cons. Therefore, Extinction Rebellion has an entire section in their lectures that are meant to invite and motivate people to join the rebellion, about the movements and people they draw inspirations from. This includes Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement, as well as Gandhi and the Indian movement for independence, and the suffragette movement seeking equal rights for women. Undeniably, these are people who through civil disobedience inspired real change in society, both cultural and legal. Additionally, they base themselves on a remarkable study which finds that only 3.5% of the population needs to mobilize in a peaceful movement for it to be able to change public opinion and ultimately have an impact. This is also the reason they often have the goal to be arrested, so as to get attention from the public and spread their message.

This is by no means the first time people have come together and decided to break the law for the environmental reasons. For example, the reader can probably recall the controversies around the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and the US in 2014. Here, hundreds of people in Washington DC got arrested protests and sit-ins in front of the White House. Personally, I remember learning about the conflict in Northern Norway in the early 80s, regarding a dam that was set to be built there – this was met by protest in the form of hunger strikes, as well as camping on the construction grounds. The battle culminated in 800 activists being arrested by police, which had to cut the chains used to hold them together. In the end it was determined by the court that the building was legal, and the dam ended up being made. Regardless of this ‘loss’, these events became part of history, and made an impression on the environmental movement in the decades to come. 

However, these are cases of protests on very local grounds – the fear was surrounding damage on specific land by very specific actors. This new wave is a protest against climate change is targeted on the societal structure, and mainly targets the somewhat abstract concept of ‘the government’. This is an important difference, and one can wonder what effect such a wide-spread movement could have – as we all know climate change is not something that can be solved in easily, no matter how much we want to. On the other side, it is clear that the people engaging in this are losing hope in their authorities, after decades of being aware of the problem, as well as negotiating who is responsible for cleaning it up. In other words, they are doing this as a last resort. Clearly, there are many people who agree to this sentiment, like for example the Guardian columnist George Monbiot who published an opinion today, stating that mass civil disobedience is “essential to force a political response”, and that only rebellion can save us at this point. 

It is still impossible to predict the efficiency of civil disobedience on climate change action, but there are exciting times ahead, regardless of whether you agree with this type of action or not. Today marks the start of two international rebellion weeks organised by the various Extinction Rebellion groups in many countries, also in the Netherlands. There are also many more school strikes planned in the next months.

Only time will tell if this will be the start of significant change, or if it will just be another wave of protests, while business continues as usual. 

Today’s action in the Hague, NL:

4 thoughts on “Civil disobedience as a tool for environmental action

  1. Hi emilieauc, thanks for your blogpost! With regards to climate protests, we live in exciting times. It is amazing to see that so many people care and want their voices heard in an attempt to get governments to finally take the necessary action. Considering the growing size of the movement, I can’t help but think about the effectiveness of protests in actually bringing about change. A few weeks after you published your blog post Lawson et al. (2019) published an article in which they researched the effect of children opinion and belief on their parents. They found that parents of children with high concern for the climate expressed higher levels of climate change concern than parents in the control group. This suggests that intergenerational learning could contribute to building climate change concern. In that sense, the school strikes might have a ‘double’ positive effect on awareness building, and the more people are concerned about climate change the greater the chance of action being taken to address the issue. But then again, is a greater concern amongst a larger group of constituents enough to steer governments in the right direction. The environment is generally not high up on the political agenda, and I wonder if activism and protests are enough to catapult it higher on the agenda. What do you think about this? Would activism and greater concern amongst the public be an effective or sufficient way to initiate action to improve the environment at the national or international level?


  2. Hi Julia, thanks for your comment! I think you definitely have a good point with intergenerational learning. But then again, we do not really have time for the new generation to grow up and do the better choices, considering we have 11 years.
    When you mention effectivity, we can see that in the UK, where the XR protests were the largest by far, it actually did work in the sense that one of their demands were followed up upon – the UK Parliament declared climate energy a few weeks ago ( Although we cannot know if this was a direct result of activism, it at least brought the issue up and got attention by the general public. Whether this will lead to a more environmentally sustainable policy, we still have to wait and see.

    Generally, the governments are there to serve the people. So, while activism might not do a lot to change policy directly in the short-term, it can serve to inform the people and influence their voting habits, as well as allowing for more direct action by the government. This is the goal of these activists – not to make individuals on their own make a few better choices, but pushing for system change.

    Whether this will work – I don’t know. After these weeks passed, there has not been much more attention on the issue. But, personally I believe sustainable change does not happen overnight, and is rather based and a slow, steady process – especially in the interconnected world we are living in now. Definitely, civil disobedience is not the only tool to use, but as I wrote in my blogpost, this is seen as a ‘last resort’ of some sort, and could hopefully trigger changes in the rest of the world.


  3. Hey Emilie, really interesting blog post! I read it a few weeks after you published it, which indeed made me wonder about the effect these climate protests have had so far. Luckily for me, in your previous comment you mentioned that ‘there has not been much more attention on the issue’. Now I was also wondering whether these protests, especially some of the more drastic ones, might not have a negative effect on the climate discourse in some way. It has not been uncommon in the past that extremism leads to a more divergent society as I believe. Now I don’t think we should take it easy with the protests and let life go on just like that, but I wonder how effective this actually makes them, and whether there might be a backlash to them.


  4. Hi Amber,
    Thanks for chiming in! You do have a good point about the possibility of a diverging society, but perhaps, as we recently saw in the EU elections, we are already living in one?
    When it comes to these civil disobedience cases I talked about in my blogpost, I have the impression that they are really trying to aim the protests and the consequences at the people in power – not at the general public so much. This way, they can get attention from the government, while avoiding to get a very negative reputation in the public. Here, it of course helps to have a non-violent approach.
    But, it is definitely something that should be taken into consideration, as you can get nothing done without public support.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s