Gore on coal and civil disobedience

Al Gore has called on young people to resist the construction of new coal-fired power plants through civil disobedience. Certainly, this is not a time where we should be viewing coal as an acceptable option for electrical generation, and there have been well justified civil disobedience efforts in response to far less pressing issues than climate change. Nonetheless, it would send a rather more powerful message if Gore was willing to personally get his hands dirty on the matter. He may be reasoning that actually participating in some kind of direct action would reduce his influence, by making him easier to label as an extremist. Nonetheless, there is more than a touch of hypocrisy on calling on young people to do something that you think is right, but are unwilling to do yourself.

In any case, actions that expose just how climatically destructive coal is – as well as the simple fact that states like Britain are still planning to build more such plants – would probably be a useful element in our overall response to the climate challenge.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Gore on coal and civil disobedience”

  1. “He may be reasoning that actually participating in some kind of direct action would reduce his influence, by making him easier to label as an extremist.”

    How is this not an argument against the commonly held notion that hypocrisy is immoral? How is it not worse that a very influential voice be marginalized than,

    “there is more than a touch of hypocrisy on calling on young people to do something that you think is right, but are unwilling to do yourself.”

    Hypocrisy is tolerated by the mainstream media (do I need an example to prove this?). However, extremism is not. Therefore, in this case, it seems moral that Gore choose hypocrisy over extremism. What is wrong with his moral calculation?

    In short: the fact hypocrisy is bad or wrong is not a simple, it needs to be argued for. In this case, it is not obvious at all why hypocricy is the wrong course of action.

  2. Rare MLK speech on civil disobedience

    “I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.
    You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.

    You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand.

    Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety.

    And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

    You died when you refused to stand up for right.

    You died when you refused to stand up for truth.

    You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”

    Direct link to MP3

  3. In short: the fact hypocrisy is bad or wrong is not a simple, it needs to be argued for. In this case, it is not obvious at all why hypocricy is the wrong course of action.

    I agree. That is why I am only very weakly critical in the post above.

    I think that if Gore genuinely believed participating in direct action would advance his cause, he would do it. As it stands, one of the biggest impediments to climate progress in the United States is the lingering notion that only extremist environmentalists should or do care about it.

  4. Good on him for saying it. However, I think it is very wise for him to hold off any direct action until at least after the Presidential election. T
    he current US administration has been treating environmental direct action as terrorism & prosecuting people accordingly. Applying this approach to a high profile Democrat and former Presidential candidate would be a huge boost to the Republicans, especially since they are already trying to portray Democrats (and specifically Obama) as a threat to national security.

  5. See you in jail: It’s not symbolism when you live in D.C.
    Why I’m joining 2,000 people for a global warming mass arrest on Monday
    Posted by Mike Tidwell

    On Monday, I’m going to get arrested just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. I’ll peacefully block the entrance to an energy plant that burns raw coal to partially power Congress. My motivation is global warming. My colleagues in civil disobedience will include the poet Wendell Berry, country western signer Kathy Mattea, and Yale University dean Gus Speth.

    Up to 2,000 other people from across the country will risk arrest, too. We’ll all be demanding strong federal action to phase out coal combustion and other fossil fuels nationwide that threaten our vulnerable climate.

  6. Renewable Power to the People
    Risking arrest with the global warming protesters.
    By Christopher Beam
    Posted Monday, March 2, 2009, at 10:28 PM ET

    “How many people here have been arrested?” asks Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace. Ten hands go up in the crowd of 40, gathered at the United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill. One guy has been to jail more than a dozen times for protesting a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Another has a friend who had been charged with conspiracy to aid terrorism. Wetterer proceeds to outline what to do if you’re lucky enough to get arrested during Monday’s protest at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington.

    The immediate goal of the protest, organized by a coalition of 40 or so environmental groups called Capitol Climate Action, is narrow: to block the four entrances to the coal plant that provides energy to the U.S. Capitol building. (It’s a coordinated attack: Today the coat-and-tie set is also lobbying members of Congress about climate issues.) The broader goal is to raise awareness about climate change and maybe even nudge it into the exclusive group of issues that merit large-scale organized protest—the Iraq/WTO/civil rights club.

  7. “Right now, word on the street is the police will arrest 75 people—the product of a bizarre and counterintuitive haggling process. The organizers had been pushing for 100 arrests, I’m told. The more arrests, the more attention they get. But the police didn’t want to go above 25. Eventually they settled on 75.”

  8. Al Gore: ‘Civil disobedience has a role to play’

    by Mike Smith
    Published November 08, 2009 @ 04:23PM PT

    Al Gore seems willing to try everything to highlight the threat of climate change, and to convince the public that firm action is essential. He likens the hardening tone of criticism by deniers to “the sunset phenomenon, where there’s a spectacle just before the subsiding.” But his critics are not the only ones hardening their stance. Gore understands that breaking the law in the name of fighting climate change has a role to play in getting legislation passed.

    In his new book he explains that “when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, then I think that civil disobedience is quite understandable.” Is it time to start breaking the law, or does law breaking distract the political process and lose us support? Having come so far, the movement could be easily tarnished by protesters managing to obstruct airports and getting headline news — anything that causes the movement to lose respect amongst those on the margins is problematic.

    Gore expects civil disobiedience to increase, and if his change in tone shows anything, it’s he’s far he has come, losing some faith in politics alone to solve this crisis. Some are already making their voices known — two activists interupted the final plenary at the climate change talks in Barcelona, unfurling banners that read “Markets are the problem not the solution,” and “Obama is finishing the job Bush started!” before being stopped by UN security guards, who physcially dragged them out.

  9. Jim Prentice Office Occupation (CBC TV)

    November 23, 2009 – Calgary, AB – A group of concerned citizens peacefully occupies the offices of Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice – for more than 7 hours!

    Their demand? Canada adopt a world class emissions reduction target comparable to those of the world’s leading nations (EU, Russia, Japan). Such a target should be 25% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.

  10. 968 detained at climate rally urging bold pact

    By JOHN HEILPRIN (AP) – 34 minutes ago

    COPENHAGEN — Tens of thousands of protesters have marched through the chilly Danish capital and nearly 1,000 were detained in a mass rally to demand an ambitious global climate pact, just as talks hit a snag over rich nations’ demands on China and other emerging economies.

    The mostly peaceful demonstrations in Copenhagen on Saturday provided the centerpiece of a day of global climate activism stretching from Europe to Asia. Police assigned extra officers to watch protesters marching toward the suburban conference center to demand that leaders act now to fight climate change.

    Police estimated their numbers at 40,000, while organizers said as many as 100,000 had joined the march from downtown Copenhagen. It ended with protesters holding aloft candles and torches as they swarmed by night outside the Bella Center where the 192-nation U.N. climate conference is being held.

    There have been a couple of minor protests over the past week, but Saturday’s was by far the largest.

    Police said they rounded up 968 people in a preventive action against a group of youth activists at the tail end of the demonstration. Officers in riot gear moved in when some of the activists, masking their faces, threw cobblestones through the windows of the former stock exchange and Foreign Ministry buildings.

  11. “Here’s where the story takes a turn you don’t expect from one of America’s most senior government scientists. [James Hansen] says the citizenry have to rise up, and if necessary, break the law. He has started to study the writings of Gandhi and reckons if any situation justifies civil disobedience, it’s this one, this time. The forces of environmentalism need to prove themselves more determined than the forces of environmental destruction. In Britain, there has been a mass movement of activists who are physically blocking coal trains and new airport runways to stop them from being built. It has succeeded: Politicians felt the heat, and the biggest new runway and all new coal power stations have been canceled. Hansen testified in the defense of these activists and got them acquitted by a jury, which ruled that they were justified because their actions would ultimately save lives.”

  12. “The epic fight to ward off global warming and transform the energy system that is at the core of our planet’s economy takes many forms: huge global days of action, giant international conferences like the one that just failed in Copenhagen, small gestures in the homes of countless people.

    But there are a few signal moments, and one comes next month, when the federal government puts Tim DeChristopher on trial in Salt Lake City. Tim — “Bidder 70” — pulled off one of the most creative protests against our runaway energy policy in years: he bid for the oil and gas leases on several parcels of federal land even though he had no money to pay for them, thus upending the auction. The government calls that “violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act” and thinks he should spend ten years in jail for the crime; we call it a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future.

    Tim’s action drew national attention to the fact that the Bush Administration spent its dying days in office handing out a last round of favors to the oil and gas industry. After investigating irregularities in the auction, the Obama Administration took many of the leases off the table, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar criticizing the process as “a headlong rush.” And yet that same Administration is choosing to prosecute the young man who blew the whistle on this corrupt process.

    We cannot let this stand. When Tim disrupted the auction, he did so in the fine tradition of non-violent civil disobedience that changed so many unjust laws in this country’s past. Tim’s upcoming trial is an occasion to raise the alarm once more about the peril our planet faces. The situation is still fluid — the trial date has just been set, and local supporters are making plans for how to mark the three-day proceedings. But they are asking people around the country to flood into Salt Lake City in mid-March. If you come, there will be ample opportunity for both legal protest and civil disobedience.”

  13. Yes, we broke the law as climate change activists. And this is why

    We’re not terrorists, we’re people who believe delivering our message on climate change is worth being charged and fined

    Dan Glass

    In June 2010, nine climate change activists who had broken into Aberdeen airport in protest against the soaring CO2 emissions caused by aviation were convicted of a breach of the peace. On 25 August, after taking our urgent message on climate change seriously, the judge and court imposed on us very modest fines, ranging from £300 to £700 each and adding up to a total of £4,000-£5,000. This was the first climate trial in Scotland’s history. Here’s why it’s unlikely to be the last.

    Like the Greenpeace protesters who occupied Kingsnorth power station three years ago, we argued that any crimes we committed paled in comparison to runaway climate change.

    Like them, we aren’t robbers, kidnappers or terrorists. We are secretaries, parents, cooks, community workers, architects and saxophonists. We are part of a growing movement of concerned citizens who are prepared to put our bodies in the way of dangerous high-carbon developments.

    We do so because we believe this is justified, proportionate and necessary in the face of catastrophic climate change, and that the negative consequences of our actions are more purposeful than the consequences of continued inaction. Sometimes, we believe, we have to break the law to disrupt lawful activities that are harming the prospects of future generations.

  14. Medieval philosophers took it for granted that people were justified in using force to escape tyranny. La Boétie, though, said force was not necessary – and, hence, not morally justified. Most people, he said, are responsible for their own subjugation and thus responsible for ending it. All governments, he said, survive by the consent, implicit or explicit, of the governed.

    “Why do so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power people gave him?” he asked. “Shall we call this cowardice? When a thousand, a million, men [in] a thousand cities fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth.

    “Obviously, there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant – for he is defeated when the country refuses to consent to its own enslavement. The people do not need to act. They do not need to shed blood. They conquer by willing to be free.”

    La Boétie continued: “I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”

    Enslavement, La Boétie argued, can happen under benign governments as well as malignant governments. This can occur because all governments use the same techniques to control people. They exploit ideology. They create dependence. They “stupefy” the people with gifts and games.

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