These activists are not above the law. But where does the moral line lie in a global emergency, asks Environment Canterbury councillor Lan Pham. *
Be good citizens. Use your manners. Abide by the rules. They’re messages that are drilled into us from an early age, and form part of the social “contract” most of us law-abiding kiwis wouldn’t give a second thought. We also share an almost universal sentiment about leaving this world in a better state for our kids and grandkids. So what happens when this social contract is broken? When the shared sentiments are exposed to be little more than, well, sentiments? What then, is the appropriate response of “good citizens” in disrupting a political and societal system that has ultimately prioritised profits over the planet’s ability to provide a stable climate to younger and future generations?
On Tuesday this week we saw dramatic footage of two climate activists who tied themselves to an OMV drilling rig in the Marlborough Sounds. The company is now asking for action be taken against the pair.
On the face of it, it’s trespassing, plain as day. As a mere mortal with no particular expertise in this area of law it appears to me clear-cut, obviously illegal. Plenty of critics are now calling for the book to be thrown at these activists. It’s worth pointing out, in my experience, that most activists who undertake these sorts of actions expect nothing less. They don’t consider themselves above the law. Potential arrests and charges are well-considered and any resulting consequences are faced realistically as part of the risk and cost of acting for a cause.
That doesn’t mean charges must be accepted without challenge, and what I do know, from reading about cases such as that of the “Waihopai 3” (acquitted in 2010 of charges relating to their 2008 attack on the Waihopai spy base), is that the legalities of these sorts of actions are by no means always clear cut. The context of any action is relevant, and an act that might result in a conviction in one set of circumstances might not in another. The judgement in this case of course rests with our judicial system, should any charges be forthcoming. Still it leaves the question: are these people our modern day climate heroes or as Shane Jones has previously called them “eco-bible-bashing activists”? It’s a timely consideration.
With climate change, the science has been clear and agreed by an overwhelming majority for decades. The 2018 IPCC report clearly stated if we are to have a 67% chance of limiting global average temperature rises to 1.5deg we had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget as of January 2018. Alarm bells are increasing as we in 2020 race towards extinguishing that budget, but despite this, political responses are yet to prove adequate to keep our world within 1.5deg of warming and reduce the risk of an earth ecosystem collapse unprecedented in the time of human civilisation.
Last week, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres released a book calling for more civil disobedience as a way to force institutions to respond to the climate crisis.
“Civil disobedience is not only a moral choice, it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics,” she writes, citing scientific studies on the impact of civil disobedience.
“Historically, systemic political shifts have required civil disobedience on a significant scale. Few have occurred without it.”
Figueres endorses the likes of Extinction Rebellion (who are the group who carried out the Taranaki action) and the now famous Greta Thunberg. They mirror legendary activists who historically affected change on the scale that is required by the climate crisis, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Of course in New Zealand we have our own history of non-violent civil disobedience with the anti-apartheid movement and, the original non-violent resistance movement, at Parihaka.
Also, here in Aotearoa, despite a conversation about climate change dragging for over 20 years, our emissions continue to rise. We complacently allow fossil fuel companies like OMV to operate with full knowledge of the damaging impacts of burning fossil fuels.
OMV is the last major overseas oil company with permits to search for offshore oil and gas in our waters and one of only 100 companies who have profited from the creation of more than 70% of all carbon emissions since the 1980s.
In last year’s local body elections, young people were elected in unprecedented numbers, many on platforms of climate action. New Zealand is seeing more and more young people rising up, calling for change, working on the same urgent issues through different methods. And that is making some people uncomfortable. But no social change in history was ever achieved without people challenging the status quo. No matter how uncomfortable we may feel about these actions the reality is that the environmental debt that we are accumulating in our continued pursuit of fossil fuels is rapidly accruing, and it is a debt that must, eventually, be paid.
The actions of young people around the world and here in Aotearoa are clearly screaming they are unwilling to take on that debt in recognition of their fundamental right to a stable climate. This civil disobedience action saw key young people from the School Strike 4 Climate movement in support roles, rising up to demand a safe future. Who are we to deny them that basic request?
An appropriate response to runaway climate change would be everyone, everywhere, doing everything we possibly can to respond to the climate emergency we face. While such an all-encompassing level of action might not be possible or palatable for most of us, we can still prevent the worst of runaway climate change if we move fast to urgently reduce emissions, build resilient local communities and networks and take courageous political and collective action to achieve that.
For some of us that means getting out of our cars and walking, biking or busing more often to reduce transport emissions. For others, it might mean growing a vege garden at home to help build more resilient local food networks. There are countless other forms it can take. It just so happens, that these people have the bravery and capability to directly hold oil giants to account and draw all of our attention to our ongoing complacency in this global emergency. They are taking our purported shared sentiments and calling for action on them in a way that challenges our thinking and understanding about what is the “right” thing to do in this climate emergency. And for that, personally, I commend them as climate heroes.
* The views stated here are the councillor’s own and not the position of Environment Canterbury or LGNZ (YEM Committee)