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Climate resistance moves to the next level

Monday, 18 April 2016 12:39 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Civil disobedience is what’s needed now to bring fast-enough action on climate change

When it becomes necessary to break the law, serious explanation is required: at least in democratic countries laws should normally be respected, since they’re the rules we’ve agreed on.

So here goes. In the middle of next month, at locations around the planet, activists organized by, among others, 350.org, a group I helped found, will commit widespread civil disobedience.

We will stand on the train tracks in Albany, New York, and along the coast of Washington, where oil-laden trains normally roll. We will occupy the sites of coalmines in Germany, and blockade coal ports in Australia.

We’ll be at the site of the first oil well in Nigeria and the proposed fracking fields of southern Brazil; in New Zealand and Turkey and Indonesia; at the site of a giant proposed power planet in the Philippines and the biggest coal mine in the UK; and along the tar sands pipelines of Canada – all over the world, under the banner of breakfree2016.org

Not every action will break the law – there are places where that’s simply too dangerous for environmentalists, many of whom have been killed in recent years. But everywhere we’ll push the envelope, standing up against the fossil fuel industry and its government enablers, and in many places we will indeed end up in jail.

It will be by far the largest-scale moment of civil disobedience the climate movement has yet seen. And here’s why: Because so far action comes far too slowly.

The world’s governments agreed in Paris in December to try and hold global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius – but the pledges they made will let the mercury rise more than twice that much.

And in any event, February’s blistering heat took the planet right to the edge of that target already. The Paris agreement –which will be signed by a range of countries this week – is already dangerously close to archaic.

That’s because all around the world this month the world’s coral reefs are turning bone white, bleached by record ocean temperatures. Researchers report crying in their scuba masks as they dive, unable to cope with the death of entire ecosystems.

And it’s because the fossil fuel industry, according to every scientific account, already has five times as much carbon in its reserves of coal and oil and gas as we can safely burn – and yet, zombie-like, they keep looking for more.

It’s because it is unfair that the people of Fiji have to deal with the aftermath of February’s cyclone, which boasted the highest wind speeds ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, and which did economic damage equivalent to ten simultaneous hurricane Katrinas.

And because 2.5 million kids in Delhi – half the kids who live there – may have irreversible lung damage from breathing the air.

And because new data from the Antarctic shows that the ice sheets will destabilize even faster than we feared, putting our major coastal cities at risk this century.

None of this has to happen. We know how to use renewable energy to power our lives – and its cost has fallen 80 percent in the last decade.

If the Danes can provide 49 percent of their power last year from the wind, it’s either because Denmark’s somehow stolen all the planet’s breeze, or because they possess the political will the rest of the earth needs now to summon.

Civil disobedience alone will not cause the change we need. In fact, in a rational world it would be absurd. Scientists have given us ample warning, engineers have provided ample solutions, economists have provided obvious incentives, like a price on carbon to reflect the damage it does in the atmosphere. Why should anyone have to be jailed for common sense?

But for a quarter-century the political power of the fossil fuel industry has prevented obvious action. That’s starting to shift: global efforts like the fossil fuel divestment campaign have begun to shift financiers away from coal and oil and gas. Given the science, though, we have to speed up the pace.

And so – as at a few other moments in recent human history, from the anti-colonial struggles touched off by Gandhi or the civil rights moment triggered by Rosa Parks – it’s time to underline the moral seriousness of the challenge by putting our bodies on the line.

We have reason to think it will help: when we organized the civil disobedience actions at the start of the Keystone Pipeline fight, almost no one had even heard of the project. But 1,253 arrests later it had become an environmental watchword, and a catalyst for resisting hundreds of other fossil fuel projects.

Why break the law? Because every day that we pour more carbon into the air we’re overloading our small envelope of atmosphere with ever more dangerous heat.

Climate change is the biggest thing human beings have ever done, and in this hottest of all years we’re moving to the very edge of catastrophe. Our political and economic systems aren’t working fast enough. They need a non-violent jolt.

Climate change is a test. The biologists speak of our species as the one that evolved the ‘big brain.’ We know now that that brain can get us into serious trouble. The question is whether it’s big enough – or connected to a big enough heart – to get us out of that fix.

Bill McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College