The rising temperature of the planet poses a political challenge, but politics has its own kind of heat and, more and more, the promotion of climate action will call for good judgement both on the part of those who seek it and on the part of those responsible for meeting the double challenge of both protest and policy change.
One of the great tests of democracy is whether people can stand in the public place and shout abuse at the government. No government has the right to be alarmed by angry protest. Protesters, no matter how angry they may be or how frustrated, have no right to use violence. If violence breaks out, however, it is also a violation of rights for police to use indiscriminate force. A peaceful protest in which one group resort to violence, does not turn that protest into a fighting army.
Nor does unlawful but peaceful obstruction of a highway warrant the use of force. If people sit down to block the street they can be removed – forcibly if they resist forcibly. A recent video of French police spraying teargas on seated protesters is instructive. If they were using truncheons it would clearly be reprehensible and yet a spray from a teargas canister is intended to cause pain, not unlike the strike of a truncheon. Replace tear gas canisters with truncheons this becomes a brutal scene. It is an affront to liberty and unworthy of a democratic government.
On the other hand, a recent scene of an English protester kicking out at commuters trying to remove him from the roof of a train raises questions about what is and what is not peaceful protest. He was not just standing on the train. He was standing in judgement on the many people on the platform who wanted to use it. They were clearly enraged as, quite probably, was he. By his action he had placed himself in a position of defiance and he may not have asked himself what his defiance would achieve and whether kicking his fellow citizens is an effective form of protest.
Those who are enraged by the failure to move on climate change have the right to express their rage and treating them as breakers of the peace is to deny them that right. At the same time, the rage underlying climate change protest is a moral judgement on one’s fellow citizens. That judgement can be communicated in a manner which is either condemnatory or thought-provoking. There is a choice to be made and the climate action movement needs to stop and think about that choice.