Climate Emergency: Global Insurgency


  • There is no choice but to escalate today’s campaigns against global fossil fuel infrastructure.

This post was written by author, historian, and activist Jeremy Brecher, and originally appeared at Common Dreams on October 14. The new, updated 2016 edition of Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, from which the following is drawn, can now be downloaded for free at the author’s website here.

The Lilliputian defenders of the earth’s climate have been winning some unlikely battles lately. The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by nearly two hundred Native American tribes and a lot of other people around the globe, have put a halt, at least for now, to completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that threatens their sacred burial sites and the water supply for 17 million people—not to mention the world’s climate. Before that a seven-year struggle terminated the Keystone XL pipeline. Other fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning facilities have been halted by actions around the world.

But as Bill McKibben has said, “Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail.” Is there a plausible strategy for escalating today’s campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to create an effective challenge to the escalating climate threat? How can we get the power we need to counter climate catastrophe? My book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (download) grapples with that question and proposes a possible strategy: a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Now that strategy is being tried – and may even be overcoming some of the obstacles that have foiled climate protection heretofore.

Why climate protection has failed

Climate change poses an existential threat to every one of us, to our species, and to all that any of us hold dear. Yet, for a quarter-century governmental efforts to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs) to a climate-safe level have failed. Notwithstanding international conferences, legislation, and government action, there are more GHGs in the atmosphere, more current emissions, and more plans to extract, transport, and burn even more fossil fuel. The predictable and predicted consequences are here: inundated coasts, desertification, heat waves, severe storms, famine, spread of diseases, mass migration, civil conflict, wars, and more.

Late in 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement acknowledging their individual and collective duty to protect the earth’s climate – and willfully refused to perform that duty. They unanimously agreed to the goal of keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and to pursue efforts “to limit the increase in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” But they did not agree to a single legally binding requirement about how, or how much, they would cut emissions. They signed, on our behalf, a suicide pact.

In response to the failures of the official climate protection charade, an independent climate protection movement has emerged. This movement is not controlled by any national or special interest. It has broken out of the constraints of lobbying and demonstrating within a legal framework set by governments by instead adopting civil disobedience as an important and legitimate part of its strategy. It has challenged the governments that permit climate destruction, the fossil fuel–producing and –consuming industries that conduct it, and the corporations and other institutions around the world that collude with it. The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline victories are tributes to its efforts. Yet in spite of its growth and commitment, this movement’s ability to sharply reduce GHG emissions and establish climate-safe levels of carbon in the atmosphere has so far proven minuscule.

To develop an effective strategy to overcome these failures we need to start from a realistic assessment of the forces that perpetuate climate destruction. The political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by fossil fuel interests that want to go on emitting GHGs. They are supported by institutions, corporations, and constituencies that fear the consequences of a transition to a fossil free world. Many national governments suffer a “democracy deficit” that often makes conventional electoral politics and lobbying appear fruitless for any but the rich and powerful. National governments fear global climate protection may interfere with their pursuit of wealth and power. The dynamics of capitalism make climate protection policies appear a threat to prosperity. The world’s dominant economic ideology, all-power-to-the-market neoliberalism, condemns anything that might interfere with the pursuit of private profit. And the institutions that supposedly represent the world’s people, most notably the United Nations, are in fact dominated by national governments and those who control them. In short, those who would challenge the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on public policy are systematically disempowered at every level from local to global.

A nonviolent insurgency

To develop the power to protect the climate, Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival proposes a global non-violent constitutional insurgency. An insurgency is a movement that rejects current rulers’ claim to legitimate authority. Armed insurgencies are a familiar staple of global politics.

A non-violent insurgency, like an armed insurgency, refuses to accept the limits on its action imposed by the powers that be. Unlike an armed insurgency, it eschews violence and instead expresses power by mobilizing people for mass nonviolent direct action.

Machiavelli wrote, “Armed prophets succeed, but unarmed prophets must fail.” It would be easy to believe the same of armed vs. unarmed insurgencies. The truth, however, is otherwise. After closely following the massive strikes, street battles, peasant revolts, and military mutinies of the Russian Revolution of 1905 that forced Czar Nicholas II to grant a constitution, Mohandas (not yet dubbed “Mahatma”) Gandhi concluded, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” Shortly thereafter he launched his first civil disobedience campaign, proclaiming, “We too can resort to the Russian remedy against tyranny.” The potential power of a nonviolent insurgency derives from the potential power of the people to withdraw their consent from their rulers and thereby render them powerless.

The powers that are responsible for climate change could not rule for a day without the acquiescence of those whose lives and future they are destroying. They are only able to continue their destructive course because others enable or acquiesce in it. It is the activity of people—going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property—that continually recreates the power of the powerful. A nonviolent climate insurgency can be powerful if it withdraws that cooperation from the powers that be. Fear of such withdrawal can motivate those in positions of power to change.

A constitutional insurgency

A constitutional insurgency declares a set of laws and policies themselves illegal but does so on the basis of existing constitutional principles. Such an insurgency, as described by legal historian James Gray Pope, “goes outside the formally recognized channels of representative politics to exercise direct popular power, for example through extralegal assemblies, mass protests, strikes, and boycotts.” It is not formally a revolutionary movement because it does not challenge the legitimacy of the fundamental law; rather, it asserts that current officials are in violation of the very laws that they themselves claim provide the justification for their authority. Although the established courts may condemn and punish them, constitutional insurgents view their “civil disobedience” as actually obedience to law, even a form of law enforcement. Gandhi’s great civil disobedience campaigns, the American civil rights movement, and Polish Solidarity’s claims to democratic rights were all based on legal principles that they maintained were grounded in their rulers’ own fundamental laws.

The climate protection movement is increasingly justifying its actions with such a fundamental constitutional principle: The earth’s shared resources belong to the people and governments have no authority to destroy them. It is a principle to goes back to the Justinian Code, issued by the Roman Emperor in 535 A,D. which defined the concept of res communes (common things): “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.”

This principle is recognized today in both common law and civil law systems in countries ranging from South Africa to the Philippines to India. In U.S. law this principle is defined by the public trust doctrine, under which the government serves as public trustee on behalf of present and future generations. As trustee, the state has a “fiduciary duty” to the owner—a legal duty to act solely in the owners’ interest with “the highest duty of care.”

The belief that climate protection is a fundamental constitutional right has been spreading through the climate movement. Initially articulated by legal theorist Mary Christina Woods, it became the basis for a series of cases brought by young people against governments in the U.S. and around the world. These cases maintain that the atmosphere is the common property of present and future generations. This constitutional principle is now also being used to assert that nonviolent direct action to halt climate destruction is legally justified disobedience to illegitimate authority.

Has a global climate insurgency begun?

When I wrote Climate Insurgency two years ago such a global insurgency was only a glimmer on the horizon. Today the climate movement is developing many of the characteristics of a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. It is global because the world order of climate destruction it seeks to change is global. It is nonviolent because it draws its power from the potential of the world’s people to deny our acquiescence and cooperation to those who are destroying our planet. It is constitutional because it is based on the fundamental constitutional principle that the earth’s vital shared resources belong to the people and that governments have no authority to destroy them. It is an insurgency because it denies that established government authority is legitimate and asserts that its own actions are.

The elements of this emerging insurgency can be seen in the globally coordinated civil disobedience actions called “Break Free From Fossil Fuels” in May, 2016. Near the close of the Paris climate talks, organizations from around the world announced escalated global actions in May 2016. Building on the burgeoning on-the-ground resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure, “Break Free From Fossil Fuels” would use direct action and civil disobedience to “accelerate a global energy transformation” away from fossil fuels. Such civil disobedience would show the fossil fuel industry that it will “no longer benefit from the consent of the people.”

The campaign spread to six continents. In Wales, protestors shut down the UK’s largest open-pit coal mine for over twelve hours with no arrests. In the Philippines, 10,000 people marched and rallied demanding the cancellation of a 600-Megawatt coal power plant project. In New Zealand, protestors blockaded and shut down Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington branches of the ANZ bank, which had $13.5 billion invested in fossil fuels. In Indonesia, banner drops brought a coal terminal to a standstill for hours. In Germany, 4,000 people shut down a large lignite coal mine for more than two days. In Australia, 2,000 people shut down the world’s largest coal port with a kayak flotilla and a railroad blockade. Similar protests occurred in Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa, Ecuador, Canada, Turkey, and other countries around the world. In the U.S. there were major actions near Seattle, Washington, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Albany, and Lakewood, Colorado. Organizers called Break Free “the largest ever global civil disobedience against fossil fuels.”

But it was not only its global reach that made Break Free a breakthrough toward a global climate insurgency. It also applied what organizers called a “new paradigm” to stake out the claim that the world’s people have a right and a duty to protect the climate – and that no government can legitimately stop them. The U.S. organizers of Break Free From Fossil Fuels issued this “Public Trust Proclamation”:

We Are Here to Defend the Climate, the Constitution, and the Public Trust

We are here to help our community, our country, and the world Break Free From Fossil Fuels.

While we may risk arrest, we commit no crime.

Today the fossil fuel industry and the governments that do its bidding are laying waste to the earth’s atmosphere, the common property of humanity.

We are upholding fundamental principles embodied in the laws and constitutions of countries around the world.

We are upholding the unalienable rights to life and liberty.

We are implementing the public trust doctrine, which requires that vital natural resources on which human well-being depend must be cared for by our governments for the benefit of all present and future generations.

Governments have no right to authorize the destruction of the public trust.

Governments have no right to wreck the rights to life and liberty for future generations.

We are here to enforce the law on governments and corporations that are committing the greatest crime in human history.

Those who take nonviolent direct action—blockade coal-fired power plants or sit down at the White House to protest fossil fuel pipelines—are exercising their fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty and their responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons they own along with all of present and future humankind.

We proclaim: The people of the world have a right, indeed a duty, to protect the public trust we own in common — the earth’s climate.

When we take nonviolent direct action we are law-enforcers carrying out our duty to protect the earth’s climate from illegal, dangerous crimes.

The call to Break Free From Fossil Fuels envisioned “tens of thousands of people around the world rising up” to take back control of their own destiny; “sitting down” to “block the business of government and industry that threaten our future”; conducting “peaceful defense of our right to clean energy.” That’s just what happened.

Such a “rising up” amounts to a global nonviolent insurgency—a withdrawal of consent from those who claim the right to rule—manifested in a selective refusal to accept and obey their authority. Break Free From Fossil Fuels represented a quantum leap in the emergence of a global nonviolent climate insurgency—its nonviolent “shot heard around the world.” It was globally coordinated, with common principles, strategy, planning, and messaging. It utilized nonviolent direct action not only as an individual moral witness, but also to express and mobilize the power of the people on which all government ultimately depends. It presented climate protection not only as a moral but as a legal right and duty, necessary to protect the Constitution and the earth’s essential resources on which we and our posterity depend. It represented an insurgency because it denied the right of the existing powers and principalities—be they corporate or governmental—to use the authority of law to justify their destruction of the earth’s climate.

Surely there is no guarantee that a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency—or any other strategy—will halt our race toward doom. Even actions like Break Free From Fossil Fuels will not reverse GHG emissions—unless and until they become a continuous uprising joined not just by thousands but by millions of people around the world. But such a strategy offers at least the possibility of overcoming the forces that are currently ensuring our climate doom.

climate-insurgency-181x300Click here for a free download of Jeremy Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival.

Photograph courtesy Break Free/Ende Gelände.