02/14/2011 11:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Would Civil Disobedience Galvanize a Grassroots Climate Movement?

Climate Change touches on nearly every major issue that plagues our world -- scarcity of basic resources like water, food and fuel; war and famine; cataclysmic weather events; even job loss and economic security. Solving the climate problem should, for all intents and purposes, be our #1 cause. Instead, it finds itself relegated to a purgatory of pseudo-academic "debate."

One climate activist, Tim DeChristopher, is calling for an end to the over-intellectualization of what many now consider the single greatest threat to humankind. DeChristopher, otherwise known as Bidder70, may face up to 10 years in prison for disrupting an oil lease auction in a protected wilderness area in Utah.

Photo by Daphne Hougard

Here is what Tim has to say about the current state of the climate movement (Watch the video on SolveClimate News):

Everybody who can be really motivated by facts... are all fully committed to climate change. And it turns out that most people are much more motivated by the way that they feel than by the way that they think. [That's] where civil disobedience can play a more important role for saying it's so serious I'm going to put myself on the line for it. That I as a student, parent, teacher, whatever, am going to make a sacrifice.

When looking at the events of the past few weeks in Egypt, one thing is clear. This was a movement fueled by deep human emotion, not rational arguments or analysis. The people of Egypt were genuinely angry and when Wael Ghonim, a young Google exec and activist, was released after 11 days in prison, the tears he shed not for himself but for those who were killed in the protests, further ignited the gathering crowds and renewed their commitment to topple the Mubarak regime.

Is there a parallel for the climate movement? Is it possible to stir the hearts of the public deeply enough to galvanize such a critical mass of support for climate action?

In the early 1980s, I was arrested in Virginia for trying to stop a chemical company from polluting the James River. In order to circumvent a prohibition on discharging chemical waste directly into the river, the company was spraying it on a field so that it simply leached into the water system. Five of us were arrested for shutting down the sprinkler system, and put in five separate police cars to be hauled off to jail. Fearing the worst, I was surprised when my arresting officer applauded me. He recalled how the company previously had destroyed the health and livelihoods of many people in the community. One of the other activists, however, was treated more harshly and subjected to a tirade which pretty much boiled down to "people around here don't like people like you." We were all let off with a slap on the wrist, but those policemen taught me that what inspires some people, stirs hostility in others.

Does that matter? Plenty of people hated Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela simply because of the threat they posed to the vested order. They hated Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy enough to kill them. But one thing that all of those people had in common were messages about justice, love for their people, and dreams for the future of their children. These were messages of hope. Even though they were fighting against an inherently unjust system, Dr. King focused on the positive goal: "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."

2011-02-15-earthdayposter.jpgThese movements worked because they all had a clear and specific vision that supporters could rally around. This is something we in the climate movement lack. We do have specific goals directed at government and corporations but that's only part of the puzzle. The challenge is so massive and so complex it permeates virtually every facet of our daily lives. And in times of economic uncertainty no one wants to stick their neck out and call for tough choices like reducing consumption or ending oil subsidies. We have many adversaries, but perhaps none is greater than our own inaction. To use a phrase first coined on Earth Day 1970, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

So while many still hope for a focal hero like Dr. King to ignite the climate movement, to push the "go" button and unleash a wave of protest which will deliver real climate action, we have to realize something -- the movement has already begun, and we are its heroes.

Ordinary people are taking action in their daily lives -- to reduce their own emissions and to encourage others in their families, schools, churches and workplace to do the same. They're working to end the unfair taxpayer subsidies to the oil and coal industries that want to deny us access to clean, renewable sources of energy. They're calling out the professional climate denialists who work to keep the public misinformed about the magnitude of climate change. And, yes, they are standing trial for acts of civil disobedience in order to protect the greater good.

The ultimate goal is achieving critical mass form multiple courses of action. Positive change will be accelerated when the issue of climate change transcends politics as usual and is overwhelmingly perceived as a clear case of right versus wrong by people from all walks of life. It's already happening, just not yet on the scale that we need. Each of us can help build that scale.


At the end of the day, each of us must follow our own conscience about whether it's right to engage in civil disobedience as Tim DeChristopher did. Let's hope that those who are not comfortable with such tactics will nonetheless stand up and support those who put their life and liberty on the line. Let's tell Tim "we've got your back."

Tim will stand trial on February 28th. To lend your support visit Peaceful Uprising's global call to action. And add your thoughts below. Do you think civil disobedience could empower a true, grassroots climate movement?