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Justified Civil Disobedience

By Alli J. Welton

Over winter break, I was arrested with seven other students for staging a lock-in at the Westborough, Mass. office of the TransCanada Corporation in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. Bound together with chains, sitting beneath the corporation’s logo and the American flag, we made the point that TransCanada is locking our generation into irreversible climate disaster by pushing forward new fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.

Growing up, I never expected to be arrested for civil disobedience, but today I find myself and my generation in a desperate situation. We are living in a time of great crisis—the climate crisis. The World Bank recently published a report announcing that we are on track to warm the planet up by four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The report details predictions of intense heat waves, widespread water shortages, massive wildfires, and the disruption of livelihoods around the world. These alarming details, however, are overshadowed by the authors’ terrifying statement that “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world would be possible.”

We may not be able to adapt to global warming. The basis of our civilization could fall out from under our feet within our lifetimes. Everything we have ever worked for—all the cities, the families, the art, the science—could be lost.

Unfortunately, the unbendable rules of chemistry and physics have set a very narrow timeframe for action against the climate crisis. After humans have warmed the planet up a certain amount, we will cross a natural “tipping point,” such as the melting of the arctic tundra and the accompanying release of potent greenhouse gases locked under its surface. After these tipping points, the Earth will begin to warm itself, and any success we have in lowering our own greenhouse gas emissions will not stop the warming. No one knows exactly when the tipping points will arrive, but the International Energy Agency has projected that we will be “locked in” to irreversible climate change in four years because of our continued construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Rage boils up inside of me when I look at these numbers because the world did not need to let things go this close to the edge. Scientists have been calling for action for more years than I have been alive, yet our government has failed to act. The costs of inaction grow each day, as the timeframe left to transition to renewables shortens and the impacts of climate change, from last summer’s droughts in the Midwest to Superstorm Sandy, start to take their toll. Even today, our government has failed to act with enough resolve to really solve the problem. Its failure is inexcusable.

If our government will not stop these corporations on the basis of strong scientific and economic arguments, then we must produce the political will to stop them through our actions. The traditional methods of political mobilization—rallies, lobbying, even opinion polls that show 88 percent support for government action on climate change—have failed to overcome the stranglehold that fossil fuel corporations have on our government. Civil disobedience has thus become a logical and necessary next step for the increasingly powerful and desperate climate movement.

Our action in Westborough was not an anomaly but rather an addition to a growing nationwide narrative as more and more people turn to civil disobedience to stop the climate crisis. Over 1,200 activists were arrested for a sit-in against Keystone XL outside the White House, while dozens of Texan activists have taken courageous direct action to prevent and delay construction of the pipeline’s southern leg. Coal mines, natural gas fracking wells, and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects are becoming hotbeds for civil disobedience, as are the offices of the decision-makers who irresponsibly let the projects proceed. In a sign of the times, the Sierra Club recently made the first exception in 120 years to its policy against civil disobedience.

By putting our bodies on the line in acts of peaceful civil disobedience, we are making the ultimate moral statement. The message sent by our sacrifices will reverberate through society until the corporations give up or the government finally finds the political will to stop them.

The task of transitioning to renewable energy may look daunting, but as our acts of civil disobedience make clear, our commitment to survival is non-negotiable.

Alli J. Welton ’15 is a history and science concentrator in Dudley House. She co-coordinates Harvard’s chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future.

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