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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Climate Change and Civil Disobedience

Ende Gelände, 2015. Photo by Paul Wagner.

"The state also protects, in responsibility for future generation, natural bases of life and animals […]", says article 20a of the German constitution (1). It can be read in the wider context of human-made climate change and the destruction of the ecosystem creating problems and conflicts that are tied to concepts of social and distributive justice but also to that of intergenerational justice both among the generations that are already born, as well as, as article 20a specifies, unborn future generations.

Recent years have seen the emergence and strengthening of climate justice movements that base their strategies on civil disobedience, such as Ende Gelände. Activists argue that climate policies do not go far enough and are not implemented fast enough. Ende Gelände, for instance, argue that Germany’s planned phasing out of coal energy until 2038 is too late a date to stop a climate catastrophe seeing as coal mining in North Rhine-Westphalia constitutes Europe’s biggest source of CO2 and coal in general is with 20% (in 2008) the biggest source of greenhouse gases contributing massively to global warming and thus harming people worldwide now and even more so in the future (2). As justification for breaking the law in protest they argue that civil disobedience is "illegal but legitimate" (3).

The issue at hand shows that climate change is not a national problem, no matter how much it is intertwined with domestic policies and economic structures (4). It raises the question whether, in light of governments – in this context the German government – failing to live up to their (self-declared) responsibility to protect the well-being of present and future generations, civil disobedience is morally justified.

Civil Disobedience and Green Theory

The definitions of civil disobedience by Matthew Hall, John Rawls and Hannah Arendt have in common that they describe civil disobedience as a non-violent political act which involves a public breaking of the law (5)(6). It is a form of protest to an end that goes beyond self-interest and includes the disobedients’ acceptance of punishment for their breach of the law.

To analyze, in how far civil disobedience can be morally justified, I draw on Green Theory. Theories such as Realism and Liberalism focus primarily on national interests (Realism) and adjusting existing structures (Liberalism) and thereby neglect the global character of climate change, the role of the system as such in the creation of climate change in the first place and future generations (7) – the first point also being a common critique of Rawls’ approach which takes nation states as predominant element of the political system for granted (8).

Green Theory is well suited for a cosmopolitan analysis of not only environmental issues in general but also the linkage between present and future generations as well as environmental activists’ justifications for civil disobedience including their criticism of the capitalist system, and demands for social and distributive justice not merely for the living generations on a national or occidental level but for present and future generations worldwide ("environmental justice").

The Social Contract

Within the framework of Green Theory, I discuss the question of the moral right to use civil disobedience to achieve intergenerational climate justice through the lens of social contract theory (8). I argue that Thomas Hobbes' conception of social contract and socio-political organization falls somewhat short in the context of climate change and climate justice. However, John Locke’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s approaches are – if expanded to include considerations for the historic perspective necessary to fully understand the complexity of climate change – able to include civil disobedience in their framework.

Hobbes argues that the state of nature is violent and chaotic and that therefore individuals need to surrender their freedom to a sovereign in exchange for protection and the guaranteeing of their natural rights. Hobbes’ approach does thus not leave much room for resistance against the sovereign. One might argue that the current climate policies and their consequences will most severely affect future generations. Thus, political leaders are not threatening the lives of the people making use of civil disobedience but are killing not-yet-born people through inaction. It would follow that whereas now living activists have no moral claim to the use of civil disobedience, current governments are in breach of the social contract with future generations giving them a potential moral foundation for rebellion against them.

Even taking into consideration that already living generations will be considerably affected by climate change, a Hobbesian debate will most likely lead to a stalemate. Rationality is a central theme in social contract theory, and on the grounds of rationality, a classical Hobbesian approach leads to two conflicting positions: Is it not more rational to maintain the stability of the existing social order to develop means of preventing or limiting the effects of climate change instead of threatening it through disobedience which might lead to chaos in which it is even more difficult to find solutions for environmental problems? Yet, when considering the temporal component that climate change necessarily introduces, one might argue that it is more rational to secure future generations’ well-being in order to secure social order in the long term. These two opposing lines of thought, however, lead away from the original question, and in fact social contract theory, and towards utilitarian weighing up of utility for present generations against that for unborn, potential future generations (9).

The approaches of Rousseau and Locke leave more room for an understanding of civil disobedience as a form of political action that functions in accordance with the social contract. Locke argues that authority is given conditionally and as such can be taken away if the person or institution holding said authority fails to live up to their obligations which are based on natural laws. Similarly, Rousseau argues that social contract is created through voluntary agreement, based on the general will (volonté générale) to the purpose of the preservation of the contractual parties, and only valid until it is broken (10). Under these conditions, civil disobedience becomes justifiable, in cases of the government breaking the social contract, that is when it no longer guarantees the continued existence of the other party, the people, and thus acts against the general will.

Where Rousseau and Locke differ is their stance on property. While for Locke property, next to life and liberty is a natural right of human beings, Rousseau sees in it the beginning of inequalities. Locke’s emphasis on property brings with it a risk similar to that found within Hobbesian social contract theory, that is, it can easily lead to a utilitarian debate on prioritizing the present generation (and their right to property) or the future generation (and their right to life).

A Case Study of Ende Gelände

Ende Gelände is a German climate justice network using civil disobedience as a strategy to protest against Germany’s coal industry. Both German and non-German activists participate in actions such as the one in the summer of 2019 during which about 6000 European climate activists blocked RWE’s infrastructure and Garzweiler coal mine – one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2.

Social contract theory – both Rousseau’s as well as Hobbes’ approach - assume the general will as the basis for the law which in itself can thus not be unjust (11). What is to note in the case of Ende Gelände, is that their protest is not staged against a particular law, such as article 20a of the German constitution but rather against the lack of enforcement of this law. Ende Geländes actions are targeted at companies (RWE in North Rhine-Westphalia, Vattenfall in Lusatia). Their protest actions, as well as their demand for a faster phasing out of coal mining, illustrate the linkage between political structures that are supposed to serve the common good and economic structures guided by personal interests. It highlights the conflict between the unchanging general will, that is the protection of all parties involved in the social contract, including future generations, and their right to life and liberty (and property), and the personal interests linked to the mining companies (12).

Article 20a can be interpreted as based on the general will. Yet, coal, as a considerable source of CO2, contributes extensively to global warming which threatens present (young) as well as future generations’ rights to live and be free. The government’s hesitance and inaction in regard to transitioning from coal to renewable energies thus constitutes a breach of the social contract.

It is in this context that Ende Gelände activists refuse to obey the sovereignty of the government and the law. Their protest is partly motivated by self-interests since many of the activists are young enough to be noticeably affected by climate change themselves. But it goes beyond this self-interest as they might be further motivated by the goal to protect their children’s future, leave an inhabitable world behind for future generations, and point out the responsibility of societies contributing most to climate change towards those being hit hardest elsewhere in the world. Especially due to the inability of non-Germans and future generations to be present during and participate in democratic decision making processes such as elections – a central element for Rousseau – civil disobedience can be seen as a means of adding their voices heard in the attempt to re-establish the social contract which was broken by the government.

Ende Gelände’s action consensus is based on de-escalation and non-violence (13) and as such respects democratic and peaceful structures of the social contract-based system. This respect for the system, that is the social contract, demonstrates a general will to live in a system ruled by laws, and to generally comply with the social contract. Ende Gelände’s civil disobedience can thus be seen as acting within the system to re-establish the broken social contract, rather than acting against it. Ende Gelände’s de-escalation strategies are not merely concerned with behaviour towards the states’ forces of order, but also including the financial compensation of farmers whose fields are damaged during the actions – which is primarily relevant when taking into account Locke’s emphasis on the right to property.

More critical, however, is the aspect of accepting the legal consequences for breaking the law. The activists use clothes, face paint and masks to make it more difficult to be identified. To prevent identification in the case of arrest, they cut their fingers or cover them with glue so that their fingerprints cannot be taken and carry no identification documents. The strategy serves to avoid having to sign an agreement with RWE to not participate in any further actions or otherwise face high fines. One might argue however that the strategy is not an objection to legal processes as such but rather a refusal to comply with RWE’s personal interests that are the object of the protest. As no active resistance against arrest is involved in the actions and the activists are willing to be taken into custody should they be caught by the police, there still exists a general respect for and compliance with legal procedures and a system based on laws and thus, the social contract.

In sum, it can be said that Ende Gelände’s actions of civil disobedience can arguably be morally justified by social contract theory as a means to re-establish the social contract rather than being a breach of it. This understanding of civil disobedience as climate action is subject to several conditions: 1) There exists a breach of the social contract by the state, and 2) the acceptance of the law and a system based on the social contract remains intact which includes the acceptance of legal consequences and the non-violent character of the actions. The case furthermore demonstrates that in the contemporary context of climate change, the effects of which appear with a temporal delay and constitute a threat to the social contract itself, social contract theory needs to be expanded to include said historical, or intergenerational, factor which is made possible by combining social contract theory with a Green Theory framework.

Written by Merle Emrich.


(1) BPB (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) (2015) Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Ditzingen: Canon Deutschland (Reclam).

(2) Evans, G. (2010) ‘A Rising Tide: Linking Local and Global Climate Justice’, Journal of Australian Political Economy (66), pp. 99-221.

(3) Vandepitte, E., F. Vandermoere, L. Hustinx (2019) ‘Civil Anarchizing for the Common Good: Culturally Patterned Politics of Legitimacy in the Climate Justice Movement’, Voluntas, 30(2), pp. 327-341.

(4) Vogler, J. (2017) ‘Environmental issues’ in Baylis, J., S. Smith and P. Owens. (ed.) The Globalization of World Politics. 7th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 385-401.

(5) Svanøe, L. R. (2018) ‘Civil Disobedience – Not a Crime but a Punishable Political Action’, Danish Yearbook of Philosophy, 51(1), pp. 24-46.

(6) Di Croce, M. (2018) ‘Hannah Arendt et Antigone : perspectives sur la désobéissance civile’, Recherches féministes, 31(2), pp. 125-140.

(7) Eckersley, R. (2016) ‘Green Theory’ in Dunne, T., M. Kurki and S. Smith (ed.) International Relations Theories Discipline and Diversity, 4th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 259-280.

(8) Lang, A. F. Jr. (2015) International Political Theory- An Introduction. London: Palgrave.

(9) Blackburn, S. (2001) Ethics- A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(10) Rousseau, J.-J. (1986) Gesellschaftsvertrag, Ditzingen: Reclam.

(11) Brooke, C. & J.-F. Spitz (2007) “Aux limites de la volonté générale : silence, exile, ruse et désobéissance dans la pensée politique de Rousseau”, Les Études philosophiques, (4), pp. 425-444.

(12) Relations (2018) “Désobéissance civile pour la justice climatique”, Relations, (794), pp. 7.

(13) Buckland, K. (2017) “Desobediencia en el Antropoceno”, Ecología Política, (53), pp. 94-98.


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