We’re doing it ourselves: why Baggini has got it wrong
In his article for the Times today, 'Green guerrillas are following a noble tradition: Eco-protesters should be saluted. And then banged up', philosopher Julian Baggini asserts that this weekend's protest at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station was noble, but ultimately unjustified. He's wrong.
Baggini draws on the work of political philosopher John Rawls to suggest that three conditions should be met if civil disobedience is to be recognised as legitimate:
1) the cause must be a clear and manifest injustice
2) legal avenues must have been exhausted
3) the action must not be more harmful than allowing the injustice to continue.
"Whether or not these conditions are met in the case of Ratcliffe-on-Soar is more of a factual question than a moral one, and the facts tell against the protesters", Baggini asserts.
His argument is laid out as follows: "Despite their self-righteous certainty, the most effective thing to do about climate change at the national level is still a matter of debate. Burning fossil fuels is bad for global warming, but it doesn't follow that unilaterally shutting Britain's coal-powered power stations is an urgent moral imperative, especially when you think about the other harms such a disruptive measure would cause. It's also clear that lawful avenues of protest have not been exhausted."
As Baggini himself states, it's a factual question. So let's look at the facts.
Does climate change constitute 'a manifest injustice'?
Research by the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development shows that the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change together account for just over 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The US and EU, meanwhile, account for 48% between them. By emitting huge quantities of greenhouse gases without any restriction for more than 200 years, rich countries have secured a far cheaper path to industrialisation than will be afforded to developing nations in the future. Yet the most de
Despite the clear onus on rich countries to start repaying their climate debt, they continue to evade historic responsibilities. Indeed, even if they were to meet the widely called-for target of limiting global warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, it is a goal which lacks any grounding in equity. The IPCC 2007 report shows how richer countries may be relatively unscathed up to this threshold - crop production in temperate zones will actually increase - whilst crops in tropical regions are already at their limit of temperature sensitivity. Many small island states will not survive warming on this scale at all - the Maldives has already begun plans to move its three hundred thousand residents to a new home, with Sri Lanka, India and Australia mooted as possible locations.
It's not a coincidence that the issue of climate justice is typically ignored by rich nations - and their media. Because climate change is fundamentally, globally unjust.
Have we exhausted legal avenues?
Despite an almost complete scientific consensus about the reality, causation and seriousness of climate change, national governments, corporations and individuals continue to emit greenhouse gases at a potentially catastrophic rate: the UN Environment Programme revealed in a recent report that emissions since 2000 have risen faster than even the worst-case scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Baggini's demand that activists exhaust legal avenues before resorting to civil disobedience might be reasonable if the fight for climate justice were like any other social movement. It's not.
Unlike Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, climate activists do not have time on their side. The science is clear that if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at present rates, we risk triggering a series of devastating tipping points that will render activism in the future futile: climate change will be unstoppable.
All is not lost however. Whilst the planet is now committed to harmful and irreversible impacts as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, it might still be possible to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios. What is necessary is immediate, cohesive and decisive action to cut emissions and assist vulnerable countries to adapt. So how are we doing?
It's the national level that Baggini is concerned about, and when it comes to addressing climate change Britain is top of the class. We have the world's best climate policy having committed to reducing carbon emissions by 34% over the next 10 years, and by 80% by 2050. That's the good news. The bad news is that 'top of the class' simply doesn't reach the pass mark. Even should we meet our goals, they're woefully inadequate. If every other nation in the world follows the UK's example, we'll be heading for a devastating 4C of global warming.
The Copenhagen Climate Conference is less than 50 days away - it is widely seen to be humanity's 'last chance' to stop climate change before we pass the point of no return. It's shocking to learn then, that our political representatives are not even aiming for the significant emissions cuts that the science demands. But it gets worse. Whilst protesters were trying to breach the high security fences and police cordons surrounding Ratcliffe on Soar this weekend, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, revealed that "the prospects that states will actually agree to anything in Copenhagen are starting to look worse and worse".
Whilst policy-focused campaigns remain essential to try and secure as strong a consensus as possible (even if it is only to lay the foundations for more negotiations), there is no realistic possibility of the world's leaders committing to the kind of action at Copenhagen that is required. In consequence, technical and legal avenues alone offer little hope for bringing about significant emissions cuts in the limited time that we have. As Al Gore recognised more than a year ago, "we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants". There's little reason to argue that the same principle shouldn't apply when it comes to protesting against existing plants.
Did the direct action at Ratcliffe cause more harm than allowing the injustice (the power plant's operation) to continue?
It's not exactly clear what Baggini is referring to when he claims that shutting Ratcliffe would have caused harm. As e.on themselves have said, even had the action achieved its stated goal, the UK national grid would have ensured that the public didn't suffer the inconvenience of power cuts.
But regardless, this is a question that has been answered before. A group of six Greenpeace activists were cleared at court last year having also attempted to close down a coal-fired power station. Why were they cleared? Because the jury recognised that they were trying to prevent the power plant from causing far greater damage to property around the world, than the damage they caused in the process of their direct action. Put simply, if the house next door is burning, it is legitimate to kick down the door in order to put out the fire. If the power station up the road is emitting more carbon dioxide than some entire countries, making a tangible contribution to climate change in the process, it seems reasonable to argue that it is legitimate to pull down fences in order to shut it down. Had the action been successful, it would have made a significant and positive impact on the UK's annual carbon emissions.
Of course, ultimately, many of the climate protesters at Ratcliffe want to see far more significant steps taken than the closing of a single coal-fired power station for a single day. Had the protest been an attempt to permanently shut down all of the UK's fossil fuel-based energy supplies, it would be possible for Baggini to point towards more significant, structural harms that might result. For example, short term job losses, and even power cuts, might be considered two obvious potential side effects. As e.on themselves are keen to point out, job security and energy security are real concerns - but weighed against the threat to human security - the survival of millions of people, the prospect of tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of climate refugees - it seems reasonable to question whether we have our priorities right. But actually, framing the energy debate as 'a trade off' in this way isn't necessarily accurate. The alternative to dirty energy is not for the UK to be without power and without jobs. Environmental groups point towards several studies which suggest there is the potential for wind energy alone to 'keep the lights on', although of course we may also want exploit tidal power, wave power, solar power and the other supplies of renewable energy to which we are lucky enough to have access.
In making this move, we would benefit from a global boon in the green economy: the UN is predicting that tens of millions of jobs will be created over the coming years thanks to the development of alternative energies. This is a transition that will simply have to be made at some point - regardless of climate change - because fossil fuels are running out. Far from causing harm, by demanding that work begins immediately - whilst there is still some hope of avoiding the most catastrophic environmental and social effects of the climate crisis - the protesters at Ratcliffe were working in our common interest.
Baggini is right that we should be talking about the facts, but sadly he fails to confront any of the difficult realities that the protesters at Ratcliffe were engaging with. And there certainly is a debate to be had regarding the best way for the UK to meet its emissions targets – but it will require more serious and thoughtful contributions than Baggini has offered us in the Times. Perhaps he would like to try again?blog comments powered by Disqus