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Civil disobedience for climate is both right and duty, says UvA PhD student

Sija van den Beukel,
25 januari 2024 - 15:49

Civil disobedience actions for the climate are becoming increasingly common on highways, universities, and airports. Climate activists are not only within their rights, argues climate ethicist and UvA PhD student Gerrit Schaafsma, but in some cases, it is even a democratic duty.

When philosophy PhD student Gerrit Schaafsma began his doctoral research, he had no idea that civil disobedience—deliberately breaking the law to achieve a political goal—would play such a prominent role in the climate debate. “I wanted to explore civil disobedience in climate change. Until then, the term was mostly known in relation to human rights, such as the protests of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.”
 
Soon Schaafsma discovered that there were numerous examples, from the farmer protests to all kinds of ecological disobedience, where people protest for animal rights or nature. “The most famous example is the protests in the Indian village of Chipko, where the word ‘tree hugger’ also comes from. There the villagers protested against the government's permit for logging a forest that was sacred in the eyes of the people.”

Gerrit Schaafsma

Civil disobedience in the case of climate change is not only a right, it is also sometimes a duty, you argue in the dissertation. How do you reach that conclusion?
“When all legal ways of combating climate change have failed and it is clear that we are heading for catastrophe, then, is the argument, it is absurd to continue as before. This situation calls for a change of tactics in the form of civil disobedience.”
 
“Does that duty apply to everyone? No, people who are vulnerable or need care have less political responsibility. But people in privileged positions should educate themselves about the seriousness of the climate crisis and—when all other systems have failed—move to civil disobedience.”
 
Isn't that a bit radical?
“Opinions differ on that, but within the academic literature, my thesis can hardly be called radical. Civil disobedience does not mean the end of democracy; there is absolutely no scientific evidence for that. It is primarily a symbolic action—for example, you voluntarily allow yourself to be arrested—with which you can raise awareness of a common problem. Not everyone will agree that civil disobedience can also be a duty, which is a more daring statement, but that also makes the thesis new and interesting.”

Privileged people should educate themselves about the seriousness of the climate crisis and—when all other systems have failed—move to civil disobedience

You marched in protests yourself and spoke out against cooperation between the UvA and the fossil fuel industry. How do you ensure that your own political beliefs don't interfere with your doctoral research?
“It's true that I don't just look at problems from the ivory tower of science; I am part of society myself. In my dissertation, I try to clarify philosophical concepts and political responsibility. My conclusion that civil disobedience in climate change is just and some people are even obligated to engage in it follows from an analysis of the history of civil disobedience and is consistent with the work of many other academics. I did not pre-plan that conclusion. Indeed, when I started my dissertation, Extinction Rebellion (XR) did not even exist.”
 
Will the A12 climate blockades join the ranks of Gandhi and Martin Luther King?
“That's hard to predict, but what I can say is that climate protests are different from the famous protest examples of history. Not only is climate change a global and intergenerational problem, it is also less easy to act against. In the case of Martin Luther King, there were laws that could be broken. Segregation along racial lines on public transportation was legal and those laws could be broken by people. In the case of climate, it’s different: there is no anti-climate law. And so there is no direct form of civil disobedience in climate but rather an indirect form, such as breaking traffic rules.”
 
“That makes it harder to raise awareness of climate change. If the act of civil disobedience does not clearly outline the problem, which is difficult in the case of climate change, then the chances of failure are high. Think of how the tomato soup thrown at Van Gogh's painting drew a lot of criticism, because what does art have to do with climate? The A12 blockade is a rare example where the connection with fossil fuel subsidies is made very directly because the A12 is adjacent to the ministries providing the subsidies. This put fossil fuel subsidies on the political agenda.”

If the act of civil disobedience does not clearly outline the problem…then the chances of failure are high

And then came the elections.
“Yes. On the one hand, those showed that successful cooperation on the climate is possible, in the form of the GroenLinks-PvdA. But the big winner, unfortunately, was the PVV. That success was partly driven precisely by climate change because climate refugees have a significant share of migration worldwide, and that will only increase. In addition, Wilders has already said that climate policy can go into the paper shredder. On the other hand, civil disobedience can play an important role in calling power to account.
 
The coalition parties have already let it be known that the police and judiciary must crack down harder on Extinction Rebellion. What does that mean for climate action?
“That’s what they have said; whether that will happen, I don't know. It may be that we will go the way of the United Kingdom, where draconian measures are taken against demonstrations. Simply walking slowly down the street can get you two years in prison. Given the Netherlands' long history as a tolerant country where the right to demonstrate is widely accepted, I am hopeful that things will not go that far.
 
Politics aside, a survey by RTL News shows that 80 percent of Dutch people do not support the A12 blockade. Is there enough support for civil disobedience for the climate in the Netherlands?
“It's hard to say, but it could be that XR's constituency is getting smaller but more dedicated. This is not to say they can't be successful. Martin Luther King was anything but popular in the 1960s. If you look at the newspapers, King actually worsened the lives of African-Americans by endangering the few rights they had. In 2011,[BA1]  he was considered one of the three most admired political figures in American history: 94 percent of Americans had a positive view of him. That makes me somewhat positive about the climate movement, even with the current political developments in Europe.
 
Gerrit Schaafsma will receive his doctorate on Thursday, January 25th, at 4:00 p.m. for his dissertation Contestation in the Anthropocene. Climate change and civil disobedience. The defense will take place in the Agnietenkapel and is free to attend.