Over the last four decades innovators have come up with many low or zero-carbon energy sources that have made some renewable sources cheaper than coal, with the intention to help the international community transition away from fossil fuel. The need for such a systemic change comes because scientific evidence from such bodies as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 400 percent increase in extreme weather events highlight the need for critical action to address greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. And yet, the consistent reliance on fossil fuel has led to immense consternation, anger, and disillusionment particularly among the younger generation, who feel that the older generations do not appreciate their fear of an impending environmental apocalypse. These young climate-aware activists also feel patronised because often their fears are dismissed as youthful naivety or misguided idealism.
Climate activism is a complex movement, involving many different actors and tactics. At its most basic, it calls on states to address global warming, but climate action is a nonexcludable global public good, which means that state some can free-ride, putting responsibility for action on others. It also means that states and communities are affected differently, as is the ability to adapt and mitigate to the changing climate. The diversity of the movement means that some approach climate change as a single issue in that they may only focus on fossil fuel dependence whereas others look for systemic changes that go beyond policies aimed at addressing global warming, through such concepts as climate justice.
Climate justice has become a central feature in the contemporary climate activist movement. This newish theme in climate politics is premised on seeing the inequality in inter-state relations. Activists frame the discussion through a victimisation lens and inequality coupled with an inability to bring forth the changes because climate activists do not have political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental power. Greta Thunberg captured this reality when she declared in 2019:
“This movement [#FridaysForFuture] had to happen, we didn’t have a choice… We’ve seen years of negotiations, pathetic deals on climate change, fossil fuel companies being given free rein to carve open our lands, drill beneath our soils and burn away our futures for their profit… If those in power today don’t act, it will be our generation who will live through their failure… We have watched as politicians fumble, playing a political game rather than facing the facts that the solutions we need cannot be found within the current system. They don’t want to face the facts – we need to change the system if we are to try to act on the climate crisis.”
This exploratory paper looks at the prospect of climate-based political violence and why such a development could occur. It begins by defining political violence, underlying the role of ideology and the belief that violence is the only way to bring about drastic, dramatic, and meaningful change, either because of frustration with the status quo or because change is not occurring fast enough. It draws on the premise that terrorism is a form of politically or religiously inspired violence with those using violence to challenge existing norms of governing society.
To date there has been no substantive environmental, or ecological form of terrorism beyond some limited action in the 1980s and 1990s, but by offering a typology of climate activism and the emergence of the climate justice movement, the paper draws out the evolutionary change of climate activism, raising the possibility that violence remains a possibility, especially if one accepts the premise of a climate apartheid. In exploring the evolution, a clear line is drawn between the climate activists of the 1980s and 1990s in that the focus was either very much on animals or the testing of products on animals as seen with the Animal Liberation Front. The Earth Liberation Front and Earth First in that they sought a total systemic reengagement with the planet, whereas the contemporary climate action movement began by looking to policymakers to bring about change, and when that failed, activists sought to shame institutions into action. When that proved ineffective, activists engage in peaceful civil disobedience such as the closing of roads to bring about change. A rise in lack of public trust in the political system and politicians, concern over new legislation prohibiting or curtailing climate action could push climate activists to explore new tactics that could lead to violence. Works by activists such as Andreas Malm who has defended the destruction of fossil fuel property, equating it to removing a bomb from one’s house to hunger strikes to forest occupation to blocking trains carrying oil. The paper concludes with some general observations about the likelihood of climate action embracing terrorism.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.