Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash
May 1, 2023,01:18am EDT
Does slow climate progress justify violence against fossil fuel infrastructure? This subject was thrust into the limelight by a recent movie, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which is based on the book by Andreas Malm. In the film, eight activists seek to blow up a fossil fuel pipeline in Texas’ Permian Basin. Their argument is that given the severity of the climate crisis and the role of fossil fuel companies in enabling it, they have the moral authority to damage fossil fuel infrastructure.
In recent years, some climate groups have resorted to disruptive action to focus public attention on climate policy lethargy. Activists have thrown tomato soups on paintings in prominent museums, blocked trains and major highways, picketed oil terminals, and glued themselves to the floor of BMW showrooms. So, why not escalate disruption by attacking fossil fuel infrastructure?
The Logic of Disruptive Action
Some suggest that radical action increases support for mainstream groups and facilitates policy action: social movement scholars call it the “radical flank effect.” Scholars have studied this tactic in the context of the emergence of democratic institutions, the women’s movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and the civil rights movement.
Yet, when it comes to the climate question, some surveys suggest that the public does not support disruptive action. Indeed, Extinction Rebellion (XR), a prominent UK-based climate group, recently announced that that it will temporarily suspend mass disruptive action. This motivated a group of scholars to write an open letter in support of nonviolent direct action. They underlined the idea that radical action does not equal violence.
Why is violence problematic? Apart from the moral and legal issues, violent activism undermines the climate cause and diminishes positive sentiments about climate advocacy in policy conversations. Moreover, the theory of change motivating violent action is weak. Most in the world recognize the climate challenge. Climate inaction does not reflect media neglecting climate change which can be corrected by newsworthy action. It reveals deeper distributional conflicts rooted in pushback from the fossil fuel industry and unions, fossil-fuel-dependent communities, rural residents opposing renewable energy projects, and the working class opposing higher energy prices. Thus, slow climate progress is not a simple story of the ruling capitalist class impeding policy change over the objections of the majority.
This means that the movement should resolve these complex issues through political mechanisms. Moreover, violence-based activism allows climate opponents to brand climate movement as eco-terrorism. At least 17 U.S. states have enacted “critical infrastructure” laws criminalizing protests against fossil fuel pipelines. Violent actions to damage fossil fuel infrastructure will justify their actions and even motivate a wider crackdown.
Moral and Legal Implications of Property Violence
In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, eight activists view property violence as an advocacy tactic because they feel this is the only way forward and their lived experiences have convinced them about the moral justification for their actions. The problem with this position is that individuals prioritize different issues. Many also feel disenfranchised. Should these aggrieved individuals resort to violence? Who decides which issues are worthy of violent advocacy and which are not?
Democracies have a process for policy change. Sometimes, the policy we favor gets enacted, and sometimes it does not. If we feel that policy inaction causes an existential crisis, we are frustrated. But we can voice our frustration in elections, in the media, and through non-violent advocacy. This is how citizens negotiate their differences. A commitment to ballots not bullets is crucial because both liberals and conservatives have grievances. We must ensure that grievances do not spin out of control into violence—especially important in this era of sharp polarization and angry rhetoric.
Some might argue that violence against property is different from violence against people, and property violence against corporations is different from say burning down the home of an individual. We disagree. The modern corporation’s functional logic is to pool resources from shareholders (both individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds) and use them to run a business. Eventually, violence against corporations is an attack on the livelihood and financial security of people whose assets the corporation manages.
This does not mean that activists should avoid subjecting corporations to economic pressure; they should do so through legal means. Shareholders can assess how their wealth might suffer because the firm faces problems on regulatory issues or social legitimacy grounds. The risk-return trade-off is a part of the bargain shareholders strike with corporations. And if shareholders consider corporate actions or inaction to be harmful, they can use economic and legal mechanisms such as shareholders’ vote or even divest.
What if property violence against corporations hurts the livelihood of impoverished communities? There is widespread poverty in many fossil fuel communities. They often view climate change as an elite issue favored by a predominantly urban climate movement. Might these communities view violence against fossil fuel infrastructure as an attack on their livelihood—on their very existence?
Even lesser actions such as transportation disruption can invite a backlash from affected parties. Consider the incident in London in 2019: “as XR began a second two-week mass mobilization in London, one local branch staged an action in Canning Town, a predominantly Black and Asian working-class neighborhood, in which several XR members clambered onto a subway car, preventing the train from leaving. Commuters dragged the protesters down onto the platform and beat them.”
About 24% of U.S. counties have enacted local ordinances to restrict solar and wind facilities. They view such facilities as spoiling rural landscapes. In some cases, environmental groups and native nations have joined protests against new renewable energy sites. There is also a backlash against new mining projects that will provide critical minerals for energy transition. The lesson is that some actors and communities oppose climate policies, not because they question climate science, but because they view climate action as imposing unfair burdens on them. To mitigate the opposition, underlying climate justice issues need to be addressed and violence is clearly the wrong way to accomplish this task.
What is the Way Forward?
Climate efforts are impeded by, among other things, rising energy prices. As the Ukraine crisis has reminded us, energy politics has economic and national security dimensions. Energy inflation provokes domestic backlash. This is why the Biden administration, which has shown a remarkable commitment to climate issues, sold oil from Strategic Petroleum Reserve and allowed the Willow project. Instead of dismantling pipelines, it is permitting new LNG infrastructure for exporting natural gas to Europe. The lesson is that supply disruptions by destroying fossil fuel pipelines will not serve the climate cause. They will probably do the opposite—by raising energy prices, they could motivate new drilling and investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.
Biden has enacted at least two major laws to fund climate transition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the Inflation Reduction Act. It is undertaking administrative actions as well, as in vehicular tailpipe emissions. The reality is that in most countries, the climate movement is supported by the political establishment. Moreover, in the U.S., the movement now has the opportunity to take on the fossil fuel industry in the legal arena. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed local governments to sue the fossil fuel industry in state courts as opposed to federal courts which the industry wanted. It is possible that the industry might seek a settlement instead of risking jury trials, as happened with the tobacco industry, the opioid industry, and more recently Fox News. Thus, the movement should exploit these new legal opportunities to push the fossil fuel industry to take aggressive pro-climate actions.
Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor in Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs. Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the Director of the Center for Environmental Politics. Both are at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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