Is civil disobedience a legitimate tactic in the climate debate?

Clive Hamilton discusses the actions of Rising Tide:

As alarm among scientists about runaway global warming intensifies so do efforts by the coal industry and its backers in government to stifle citizen protests.

This week in Newcastle campaigners from the Rising Tide group face prosecution for a protest last September that shut down for a day the city’s two coal export terminals operated by Port Waratah Coal Services. PWCS is a company owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and Xstrata.

Those who engage in civil disobedience expect to face the legal consequences. But PWCS has upped the ante by asking the police to prosecute seven activists under victims-of-crime laws, demanding they hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In an Orwellian inversion of the meaning of words, corporate goliaths whose activities threaten the conditions of life on earth – whose daily business is already, according to the World Health Organisation, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths around the world each year – claim they are being victimised.

The coal industry’s action is designed to have a chilling effect on protests against burning and exporting coal. PWCS’s action has all the hallmarks of a SLAPP, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The purpose of a SLAPP is to frighten citizens with the loss of their houses and get them bogged down for years in court proceedings. Legal costs can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, chickenfeed for a big corporation but bankruptcy for ordinary citizens.

For me the question is:

“Are the tactics of Rising Tide constructive?”

Australia is a democracy – we all have the right of assembly and to express our political views (though not formally recognised in a “Bill of Rights”).

So I would never deny people the right to protest.

Heck if a group of deniers wanted to picket CSIRO, I’d call them mad but still acknowledge their right to protest.

“What do we want!”

“No climate change!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now… errr… never.. we mean, no change!”


Rising Tide’s campaign to “name and shame” ANZ’s support for “dirty coal” is designed to provoke and create media attention:

Coal was dumped and banner dropped at the doors of the Hamilton ANZ branch today. Citizens dressed in black came together to stand up against Australia’s four big banks, demanding they stop financing the dirty coal industry. ANZ is the highest invester, hurling $1.6 billion of its customer’s money at the climate crisis, and investing over six times more cash in coal power than renewable energy over the last five years.

Protesters chalked the pavement with the dirty facts concerning the big banks current involvement in the industry, causing many pedestrians to ask questions. One customer was shocked to find her bank was a major offender, insisting she would arrange a meeting with her local bank manager as soon as possible.

Again, I’m in two minds.

In some respects I feel for the branch staff.

I worked for a large bank, and I was just another drone. I had no control or say over the direction of the organisation. And I was working with parts of the executive!

Most of the front line troops are middle-to-lower class, kids or people who have been tellers all their life. These are not the decision makers.

But then, civil disobedience has a proud history.

When I reflect on the last 100 years, who are the people we regard as “the good guys”?


Who is our generations King I wonder?

While we lionize Gandhi and King today, in their day they were seen as dangerous to the status quo.

Said Winston Churchill, a historical figure I greatly admire, of Gandhi:

“…It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

And while we remember Churchill for his courage and leadership during WW2, above all else he wanted to preserve the Empire.

King and Gandhi didn’t just make the powerful uncomfortable.

They provoked everyone comfortable with the idea that civil rights could be denied to the “other”.

And remember the fate of both King and Gandhi: killed by assasians bullets.

Even those who advocate peaceful change, find themseleves the targets of hate.


9 thoughts on “Is civil disobedience a legitimate tactic in the climate debate?

  1. fredorth says:

    It is always helpful to get information, on this subject, out for us to review and appreciate.

  2. J Bowers says:

    Hey Mike, you know your climate activists are in the big time when they have undercover police infiltration and spying to the point where 3 out of 4 have state pseudo-approved sexual relations with them, even up to the point of marrying and having kids with them, and the only resulting charges are conspiracy to trespass…. after 8 years of surveillance…. and the judges express regret and call them decent upstanding citizens.

    Reality is, the bank staff are safe and sound. Of course, if the Kochs manage to get the Yes Men (Youth for Climate Truth) throw in the state penitentiary, it may get a bit more activistish than it is right now.

    • J Bowers says:

      Oops, almost forgot to mention the undercover operations being run by a private limited company (Apco – yes, running our British police) and selling the intelligence to energy companies.

  3. Incentive, rather than bullying and taxing is the only way to promote change and innovation. You can tell by much of the “debate” offered by deniers that they actively want a fight – such behaviour will only stagnate progress even further.

    It would be great to have a strong political leader or advocate to take charge on change and development, but this seems to be wishful thinking.

    What happened in 2008 with the GFC will happen again and again and the general public will become increasing frustrated. By setting example – demonstrating other ways to be productive and increase food. water and biodiversity security, this frustration itself will lead to discontented people to see such innovation as a better option to a failing neoliberal market place.

    Personally, I think falling to the level of the deniers – many (if not most) who already think it’s all a conspiracy – is a dangerous step. Providing the scientific evidence has proven to be just as futile (because they all think their trained climate scientists who know better).

    Use the failing neoliberal system to promote more sustainable development.

  4. Pete_Ridley says:

    The article need to be slightly modified i order to reflect the truth. Try “As alarmism among ecologists, environmentalists ant those of simialr bent about runaway global warming intensifies .. “.

    Genuine scientists debate the issue calmly, knowing full well that the sciience is very poorly understood. Try learning from the debates going on elsewhere, e.g. at Judith Curry’s blog. A good starting point is “Slaying a greenhouse dragon” ( where resoned debate is taking place rather than the mindless nonsense offered here.

    Best regard, Pete Ridley

  5. Pete_Ridley says:

    Mike, I’m a supreme optimist. I live in hope that even those like yourself who have been brainwashed by the CACC propagandists can be brought back to reality.

    Best regards, Pete Ridley

  6. J Bowers says:

    This article by campaign filmmaker Zoe Broughton should be of interest:

    It’s about undercover work, but from a different perspective. The embedded video, though, discusses non-violent protest with interesting observations on how the current trend for the state to use CCTV and surveillance on protesters is now a quid pro quo situation, where most citizens have a video camera in the form of their mobile phones.

    And this video, commisioned by the Quakers: Nonviolence for a Change

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