When the climate crisis merits civil disobedience

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Civil disobedience is the response of ordinary people to injustices committed by powerful and entrenched special interests. The NAACP and the Sierra Club share a long history fighting for justice. Both of our organizations recognize that environmental pollution and recklessness causes enormous suffering in communities of color, where people still face a hugely disproportionate share of the burden. From "Cancer Alley" on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, to the brownfields of Camden, NJ, to the coal-ash–contaminated lands of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in Nevada, good people with little power suffer from the indefensible actions of rich and powerful corporations -- and no corporations wield their power to more corrosive effect than those in fossil fuel industries.  

Simply facing a powerful foe does not justify civil disobedience. Anyone familiar with the histories of the Sierra Club and the NAACP knows that both organizations have long and proud traditions of working within the system to effect change -- through the courts, public opinion, community organizing, and the ballot box. How, then, do we choose the moment that demands something more? In truth, it is the moment that chooses us.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1956, her action that day was the result of decades of frustration in the struggle against segregation. Although declared illegal, the Montgomery bus boycott that followed her arrest lasted 381 days and ended only after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on busses was illegal. From the beginning, Martin Luther King, Jr., made it clear that more was at stake than one policy: "We are in the midst of a great struggle, the consequences of which will be world-shaking; but our victory will not be for Montgomery's Negroes alone; it will be a victory for justice, a victory for fair play, and a victory for democracy."

That victory has reverberated for generations. And although we haven't yet eliminated all racial injustice, few could have guessed in 1956 that, 54 years after Rosa Parks refused to stand, an African American would take his seat in the Oval Office.

The lesson of the civil right struggles of the 20th century is that fighting injustice demands courage as well as political capital. More than a decade before President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Truman (who did use his executive authority to desegregate the Armed Forces and forbid racial discrimination in Federal employment) was forced to give up on passing civil rights legislation. What made it possible for Johnson to succeed where Truman failed? The courage of countless ordinary Americans and extraordinary leaders who peacefully and at great personal risk stood up for right versus wrong.

That courage is inspirational as we face a critical moment in human history. The threat to our planet's climate is both grave and urgent. Fittingly, President Obama, during his inaugural address, also recognized that taking action to meet this threat is fundamentally a moral challenge: "The failure to do so," he said, "would betray our children and future generations."

Yet the power, wealth, and enormous political influence of the fossil fuel industry have kept our government from acting. And although President Obama has declared his own determination to act, much that is within his power to accomplish remains undone. Worse, he could make decisions, such as allowing the construction of a pipeline to carry millions of barrels of the most-polluting oil on Earth from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. -- that would make it virtually impossible to stop climate disruption from spinning out of control and "betray[ing} … [his word] future generations."

This is the moment that has chosen us. We must seize it.

Though at times it tested his leadership to the utmost, Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully set the standard for effective civil disobedience:  peaceful, principled, dignified, determined, and strategic. To stand before one's fellow citizens and declare, "I am willing to go to jail to stop this wrong," remains the most powerful expression of free speech we have. The environmental crisis we face today demands nothing less.

Bond, a civil rights activist, is former chairman of the NAACP, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and helped create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.


Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.