Climate over Justice? Understanding Civil Disobedience Through the Lens of John Rawls

2. Mai 2020

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In October 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR), an international movement founded in 2018, employed non-violent civil disobedience to raise awareness on climate change. They declared a two week-long “International Rebellion” during which they occupied streets, train stations, and public spaces of cities across the world. In an exceptional show of civil disobedience, the climate activists caught the public’s eye by causing disruptions that shut down major cultural, economic, and political centres worldwide. XR justified its acts as means “to pursue governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency,”[i] an issue that already impacts us today and certainly will define our future way of life.

Worldwide, civil rights movements led by Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Susan B. Anthony and Nelson Mandela have employed civil disobedience to protest against discriminatory legislation and promote human rights. While these activists fought for the political rights of disenfranchised groups, XR is demanding policies that will affect the whole of society and define our entire way of life. Furthermore, demands along the lines of “Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025”[ii] seem improbable to be achieved by way of a socially just transition. Bearing these far-reaching demands in mind, the question arises whether civil disobedience should be used to demand resolute climate action. Examining XR’s reliance upon civil disobedience through the lens of Rawls’ theoretical framework, the article urges XR to push for the establishment of climate councils instead of engaging in civil disobedience in order to more comprehensively ensure climate justice.

John Rawls famously defined civil disobedience as: “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government”[iii]. He further presents three conditions under which civil disobedience can be justified within a democratic system vested with an accepted legal framework: Firstly, the injustice that one protests against violates the liberties of equal citizenship, or of equal opportunity. Secondly, the violation has largely been deliberate over an extended period of time. Thirdly, the question of fairness is taken into account, thus, leaving civil disobedience as a tool for the most disenfranchised in society.

Following Rawls’ three conditions, is XR’s use of civil disobedience justified? Climate change will directly or indirectly impact our access to natural resources and social services and thus affect our overall living conditions[iv]. Moreover, by asymmetrically affecting vulnerable populations, existing social inequalities will further increase[v]. Government’s inaction towards climate change therefore presents a violation of the liberties of equal citizenship as well as equality of opportunity under Rawls’ framework. Scientists and activists have continuously lobbied decision-makers since the “Study of Man’s Impact on Climate” conference issued its first warnings on the risks of climate change in 1971[vi]. This opposition notably increased in recent years as illustrated by the mass mobilisation of civil society at climate marches and strikes, making the violation intentional and long-term.

Rawls explicitly argues that civil disobedience in a democracy is a tool for minorities to resist oppression by the majority. At the same time society should leave the use of civil disobedience to the most disenfranchised group in order to prevent the tool from being overly used and, thus, levering out the democratic process[vii]. During the International Rebellion organized in October 2019, external observers identified the movement as largely driven by the educated, white, middle-class faction of society[viii][ix][x]. Tatiana Garavito, an advocate for Latin American migrants, and Nathan Thanki, a human ecologist, criticise XR for disregarding issues of white supremacy[xi]. As it neither addresses issues of social class, poverty, ethnic minority exclusion, neo-colonialism nor any other issue regarding social inequalities, Garavito and Thanki challenge the question of “whose truth” XR is propagating. Thus, looking back at Rawls’ third condition, XR’s use of non-violent civil disobedience does not meet the principle of fairness.

The majority of XR activists remain in a favourable position within the political system and do not seem to take into account the position of the disenfranchised. XR risks levering out the democratic process by making use of a tool reserved for them, thereby causing a new form of oppression. XR’s open call for participation as well as its decentralised system continues to generate barriers for those who cannot afford to miss work or be arrested by the police. Taking radical action to demand radical policy change without putting questions of social justice at its forefront also risks exacerbating further inequalities. Instead of engaging in civil disobedience, XR should therefore focus its efforts on implementing one of its own propositions. 

XR proposes the creation of a ‘’citizen’s assembly” which allows the people to formulate responses to climate change, as is already being done in Ireland for example. Different to its rhetoric on civil disobedience, XR in this case emphasises the need for balanced representation in establishing these assemblies. Nonetheless, the proposal does not bring forward ideas on how the work of assemblies can be applied to the existing political process. A similar policy recommendation has been proposed by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, namely “green youth councils”[xii]. Bringing both proposals together, XR could push for the establishment of climate councils at all levels of the decision-making plateau. These could be based on the Bali Principles of Climate Justice and made up of representatives from different age groups, genders, occupations, social classes, ethnicities, etc. to ensure inclusive outcomes. The councils’ tasks could be twofold. Firstly, they could ensure transparency, accountability, and effectiveness of local assemblies’ and national parliament’s climate policies. Moreover, they could formulate policy drafts that are to be debated by legislative bodies. Bringing together scientists, public, and private sector workers, such proposals would not only adopt a holistic approach to the problem, but would further encourage every part of society to take action. By creating opportunities for participation that are accessible to everyone, we can use the current momentum that has built up in our civil societies while ensuring that no one is left behind.

This article received the second prize of our writing competition “Protest Movements – A Vehicle for Change?


[i] Extinction Rebellion. 2020. “Our Demands – Extinction Rebellion”. Extinction Rebellion.

[ii] Extinction Rebellion. 2020. “Our Demands – Extinction Rebellion”. Extinction Rebellion.

[iii] Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory Of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[iv] United Nations Task Team on Social Dimensions of Climate Change. 2020. The Social Dimensions of Climate Change. Ebook. Accessed March 18.

[v] Nazrul Islam, S., and John Winkel. 2017. Climate Change And Social Inequality. Ebook. New York: Department of Economic & Social Affairs (UN DESA).

[vi] Spencer Weart & American Institute of Physics. 2020. “Global Warming Timeline”. History.Aip.Org.

[vii] Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory Of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[viii] Taylor, Josh, Naaman Zhou, and Ben Smee. 2019. “Extinction Rebellion: Who Are The Protesters, And Why Are They Doing It?”. The Guardian.

[ix] Fiennes, Natalie. 2019. “Opinion: How White Extinction Rebellion Members Are Confronting Their Privilege”. The Independent.

[x] Lewis, Aimee. 2019. “Too White, Too Middle Class And Lacking In Empathy, Extinction Rebellion Has A Race Problem, Critics Say”. CNN.

[xi] Garavito, Tatiana, and Nathan Thanki. 2019. “Stop Asking People Of Color To Get Arrested To Protest Climate Change”. Vice.

[xii] Billingham, C. 2019. United For Climate Justice – Policy Paper With Declaration And Guiding Proposals For Progressive Climate Action. Ebook. Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

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Having completed a Bachelor in Liberal Arts & Sciences at University College Maastricht, Mareike is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Security at Sciences Po Paris. Her research interest focuses on the role of civil society in international relations and, particularly, in conflict transformation processes.