If governments break promises, is breaking the law the right thing to do?
The Right Thing
All politicians like to appear to be taking effective climate action. In recent years British politicians on all sides of every debate have developed a habit of concluding answers the same way. Whatever they’ve just said, they tag it with ‘It’s the right thing to do’.
You can see why spin doctors suggest the phrase. The Right Thing To Do is a one-size-fits-all peroration. Append it to any policy, and it might sound good to anyone not listening too carefully.
This verbal tic shows how detached politics has become from reality. Even real-life narcissists like Elon Musk, or fictional ones like The Office’s David Brent, might baulk from telling their staff ’You’re all fired. I believe it’s the right thing to do’.
If normal people utter the phrase at all, we’re most likely to append it to something nice:
- ‘I’m giving you all a Christmas bonus – I believe it’s the right thing to do’
- ‘I’ve decided to give 10% of my income to charity – I believe it’s the right thing to do‘
From the mouths of politicians, TRTTD invariably follows bad news and is deployed to soften the blow and elevate their moral standing.
TRTTD is the glitter on the turd, the bread in the shit sandwich, the kiss after the curse. Spin doctors and PR gurus like it because whatever policy cesspit the politicians may have been floundering in immediately before, claiming to be ‘doing the right thing’ raises the speaker atop the moral high ground. They’re left, in their own minds at least, gazing stoically into the middle distance, one hand on their hip, the other shading their eyes from their halo.
This form of words might be British peculiarity, but it reflects a far more pressing, urgent and universal dilemma.
Should climate change activists invoke morality?
Idiots v. Imbeciles
The sharp issue of when it’s morally aceptable to break the law is usually blunted by superficial spats about flight-shaming celebrity activists, motorists complaining about being inconvenienced by activists glueing themselves to motorways, or power-holders taking offence at Greta Thunberg’s latest zinger.
This ‘debate’, such as it is, is rapidly focused by the polarising filter of social media algorithms. The schoolyard version can be summarised by two questions, which each side assumes to be rhetorical:
- What gives these idiots the right to break the law?
- Don’t these imbeciles realise the world’s on fire?
These positions, repeated ad infinitum online in Twitter-spats, Facebook comments and other social-media pile-ons, are little more than ritualistic declarations of trivial affiliation.
Any light shone by nuanced debate is rapidly lost in the heat of self-righteous bickering and mutually-unintelligible virtue signalling. Anyone trying to implement effective climate action can only hunker down in the no man’s land separating the barrages, ignore the noise, dodge the crossfire, and try to get on with it.
In the See Through News taxonomy of climate action, this Idiot v Imbecile tit-for-tat is textbook Ineffective Activism.
Ineffective Activists (Category 2) are partly defined by the amount of time they waste engaging with Willing Inactivists (Category 4), the dwindling minority of outright deniers and denialists.
Category 2 v Category 4 ding-dongs are what you often see at protests. Two tribes at war, jabbing fingers towards each other’s chests, shouting in each other’s faces. When fact-bombardment falls on deaf ears, as it always does, they resort to abuse, sometimes even violence.
Both sides might have a great day out, even a good punch-up. In separate bars, over a post-protest beer, they can recount war stories and relive the highlights with their respective tribes.
But how much carbon was reduced as a result of all this hot air being released?
How To Blow Up A Pipeline
The more specific the breaking-the-law debate, the starker the issue of efficacy becomes.
In 2021, frustrated by the lack of impact law-abiding protest, an Associate Professor in Human Geography at Sweden’s Lund University, published How To Blow Up A Pipeline. The tone of Andreas Malm’s book was academic, its title explosive.
Few people read the book. Quite a few people were triggered, one way or the other, by its title.
Knowing a good title when it sees it, Hollywood rapidly released How To Blow Up A Pipeline (2022), a ‘fiercely watchable’, though not particularly commercially successful eco-thriller, ‘inspired by’ the book.
Hollywood being Hollywood, ‘inspired by’ meant cutting out all the boring ethical nuance, and fictionalising what the New York Times reviewer called a ‘propulsive heist thriller’ about two eco-terrorists/eco-activists actually blowing up a pipeline.
The title has proved to be as incendiary as the movie action, and catchy enough to continue to spread through mainstream media.
In September 2023, UK broadcaster Channel 4 aired a documentary presented by Chris Packham, widely considered to be Sir David Attenborough’s successor at TV’s premier nature documentary presenter.
It was called Is It Time To Break The Law?, but may as well have been called How To Blow Up A Pipeline.
Hot air case study: Good Morning Britain v Chris Packham
The day his documentary premiered, the British PM did Channel 4 a huge favour by reneging on a raft of climate commitments, in a bid to turn his party’s dire ratings around before the next General Election.
Rival broadcaster ITV booked Packham on its morning news programme, with unedifying results.
In a previous interview with Packham about his flagship BBC nature series Earth, the same ITV morning show hosts introduced him as seeking to ‘inspire fear about climate change’, suggested he was ‘scaremongering’ and ‘using apocalyptic language to frighten people, including our children’. Their source? ‘A lot of people’.
This time, the same presenting team duly reprised their ‘climate sceptic’ roles, as the broadcast-regulation-compliant face of the What gives these idiots the right to break the law? tribe.
Their first question was, preemptively, ‘Are you sure you’ve done the right thing? The interview went downhill from there.
They soon home in on one of Packham’s interviewees, Anders Malm. You may not be surprised to learn they used the title of his book to berate Packham for endangering lives by inciting viewers to blow up pipelines.
One interviewer even obliged by comparing Packham’s activism to Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombers. This is a UK variant on the popular who-mentions-the-Nazis first? warning light that public debate has left the rails of reason, and careered into grandstanding territory.
Online comments duly followed the Idiot v. Imbecile tribal divisions. Team Sceptic applauded the interviewers for holding an irresponsible eco-terrorist to account. Team Green rallied behind their champion Packham for not rising to the bait, keeping his cool, and raining righteous reason, great vengeance and furious anger upon his inquisitors.
Much heat, little light.
What difference did it make?
But That’s Not What I Said!
No matter how carefully Packham framed his documentary as a ‘personal journey exploring issues’, no matter how he repeatedly insisted he was merely asking questions of the public, experts and himself about the limits of abiding by morally bankrupt social contracts, it came down to ‘Do you, or do you not, think blowing up a pipeline is the Right Thing to Do’?
Predictably, this provocative phrase divided the online armies into their respective ranks. Predictably, each side let fly their righteous fury, defending their champions and deriding their enemies.
Human ‘SEO journalists’ and algorithmic content-generation robots cashed in with clickbait articles either supporting one side, or relishing the spectacle of the battle by reporting both sides’ outrage.
Nuance is an early victim of any such pile-on, but both sides were essentially playing the same game. Broadcast regulations obliged both Packham and his morning TV interviewers to use third-party fig leaves to cover up their own affiliations, but otherwise it was pretty clear what was going on, and who was on which side.
Back in the studio, the climate-sceptic interviewers ascribed their views to ‘some people’, ‘many people’, or ‘critics’. Packham kept politely spitting out the words they tried to put in his mouth, pointing out he was merely ‘on a journey’. Heaven forbid he was actually advocating, inciting or encouraging anyone to break the law.
This is, of course, sophistry. Lawsuit-dodging weasel words. Mealy-mouthed avoidance of what was plainly going on, a broadcast-friendly iteration of the usual Idiots v Imbecile ding-dong.
Substitute ‘lynching black people’ or ‘stringing up fox-hunt sabateurs’ for ‘imprisoning climate activists’ and you see the problem. Such ‘debates’ make for great clickbait, but but few minds will be changed.
Who gained from all this? How much carbon can anyone prove it reduced?
Ineffective Climate Action
As the ‘climate crisis’ reveals itself to be a current problem, not a future one, minds are being focused.
Watching multiple extreme weather disasters around the planet, including Greece simultaneously burning and drowning, has roused many people from denial or despair to want to take action.
There are many options for anyone wanting to ‘do something’ about the climate crisis to ‘take action’. You could:
- Pay a voluntary surcharge when you buy an air ticket for your next holiday
- Sign an online petition, calling on politicians or corporations to change
- Volunteer to litter pick in your free time in the evenings and weekends
- Email your political representative to educate them on the facts
Anyone pointing out that these actions don’t reduce a single molecule of atmospheric CO2 can appear like a party-pooper. That’s doesn’t make it less true, however.
Many inspiring organisations facilitate satisfying this kind of ineffective activism. Global Citizen is a good example. Their website:
- has a ticker recording the number of ‘actions taken’ (33.8 million at the time of writing)
- enumerates the ‘lives impacted to date’ (1.29 billion)
- Values what its festivals have raised to ‘distribute to fight poverty around the world’ ( ‘over $35Bn’)
These are impressive numbers, unless you’re cynical enough to try to find some source for them. The less cynical can dive in and take the ‘actions’ they’re totting up. These are principally:
- emailing politicians
- signing petitions
- taking an online quiz
Perform enough of these actions, and you earn points toward ‘rewards’, like:
- Free tickets to a concert by superstars like Lauren Hill and the Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Products like their ‘Exclusive Global Citizen Festival Merch Bundle’ (2 T-shirts and a long-sleeve)
- Subscriptions like a ’one-year premium subscription for Beeja Meditation app’
Feeling part of something bigger than you is important. It’s good for mental health – we’re social animals. But kidding ourselves that any of this measurably reduces carbon may do more harm than good.
It may feel a bit icky to point out, but:
- 80% of a typical music concert’s carbon footprint is generated by the audience travelling there and home
- One cotton T-shirt creates 1kg of carbon emissions, and uses up to 120 litres of water per wear)
- online activity contributes 4% of total global carbon emissions and rising, twice as much as aviation
We have no way of knowing whether all Global Citizens virtue-signalling ‘actions’ actually reduce any carbon. We’re 100% sure, however, that their rewards increase it.
Even more importantly, by diverting the limited resource of activist enthusiasm and energy down ineffective dead-ends, organisations like Global Citizens may be doing the climate activism equivalent of an oil well flaring off ‘excess’ gas.
Playing into Big Oil’s Hands
The uncomfortable truth for many Category 2 ’Ineffective Activists’ is that the net effect of all this online activity probably generated more carbon emissions than it reduced.
This is no coincidence. The world’s first ‘carbon footprint calculator’ was a cynical strategy by BP to divert responsibility for carbon emissions from the 100 oil and gas giants that produce 70% of the world’s carbon emissions.
Many well-meaning ‘activist’ organisations, like Global Citizen, are not being funded by Big Oil, but are still doing their work for them.
Performative, finger-pointing ‘debates’, like those triggered by How To Blow Up A Pipeline, in its various forms, or tweeting to earn points towards a pop concert, are just what Big Oil, and any vested interests who profit from burning fossil fuels, want.
Their climate activist opponents vent a bit, let off steam, and waste their activist energy. Their useful idiot mainstream media shills ventriloquise the talking points their PR agencies have been planting in the popular press for decades.
Result: nothing changes.
Defusing, diffusing and deflecting activist energy = climate inaction.
The Other Net Zero
Inaction means Big Oil continues to win, as it further delays the point at which, for one reason or another, they run out of road.
No Ineffective Activist likes to hear this, of course.
It’s unfair to tar all conventional environmental activists with the same brush, of course.
There are compelling arguments to be made about civil disobedience campaigns, motorway-glueing protests and releasing battery chickens subtly shifting the ‘Overton Window’ of public debate over time, incrementally inching previously beyond-the-pale debates into the mainstream.
The problem with such arguments is the metrics they use to demonstrate efficacy.
Shifting Overton windows is measured in column inches, semantic drift in headline vocabulary, interviewee balance and affiliations. There may have been a time when such interventions could be justified as a necessary first step, but now?
They are – possibly justifiably – assumed to be proxies for ‘effective climate action’, but should a more reasonable measure of climate action success or failure not be the amount of carbon you can demonstrate your actions have reduced?
‘Doing my bit’
This is where things get truly tricky. Dare to suggest to sincere climate activists that their passion-driven actions are ineffective, and you risk having their ire re-directed away from climate deniers, and pointed squarely at you.
Like Chris Packham, no matter how carefully you explain your position, words will be put in your mouth.
The simple way of avoiding having words put in your mouth is not to open your mouth at all, but shutting up guarantees you’ll be ineffective.
It’s perfectly understandable for anyone who believes something passionately, and spends their free time and waking hours protesting, campaigning, educating, raising awareness, and various other activities that serve as proxies for carbon reduction, rather than being subject to measurable carbon reduction, to get upset.
After all, you’re ‘doing your bit’: litter-picking, marching, signing petitions, picketing companies and government agencies, and emailing your political representatives to present them with The Facts.
It’s better than doing nothing, right? Possibly.
But not as good as doing something that directly, and measurably, reduces carbon.
Measurably Reduce Carbon
The climate crisis has become too acute to waste limited activist energy on ineffective tasks.
Instead of reflexively rejecting any suggestion that their actions are ineffective, futile, virtue-signalling or abetting Big Oil, climate activists need to ditch ineffective actions and join Category 1 Effective Activists.
There’s a simple diagnostic to distinguish Effective and Ineffective climate action: before you embark on it, is there an objective way of measuring whether it’s reduced carbon or not?
It’s easy to nitpick, and nitpicking is quick to discourage and induce the despair/inactivity that suits Big Oil’s purpose.
So what’s the alternative?
Here are three, in different states of development – all of which you’re most welcome to join.
All three projects are all 100% driven by volunteers, and untainted by money (none even has a bank account).
1 See Through News: up and running
See Through News applies this challenge to all its projects, diverse though they may appear. If there’s no mechanism for measuring its real-world carbon impact, we abandon it.
2 See Through Games: in development
See Through Games is a series of 3 interlinked games designed to draw in ordinary people with a fun activity, and gradually lead them along a self-directed path to effective climate action.
To act, we first need to learn. To learn, we first need to think. To think, we first need to play an apparnently innocuous, fun game.
Working backwards along this cognitive logic, experts in climate activism, game design, TV entertainment formats, AI and IT have collaborated to create The Think Game, The Learn Game and The Act Game.
3 See Through Carbon: pilot just launched
If you aspire to measurably reduce carbon, you first need to measure it. Because there’s not even a standard by which to measure carbon footprints – a prerequisite to claiming any reduction – an international team of volunteers has just launched one.
Unlike the dozens of competing expensive, inaccurate, opaque and proprietary carbon auditing standards, backed by investors seeking a profit, See Through Carbon is accurate, free, transparent and open-source.
Labelling any activism that lacks a mechanism to measureably reduce carbon as ‘ineffective’ is deliberately provocative. Maybe it’s making the same mistake as calling your book ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ when it’s not actually an instruction manual on how to blow up a pipeline.
But it’s also a call to action of its own. The time for ‘education’ or ‘raising awareness’ for its own sake is surely over. If education is a means to an end, thats fine.
If it can’t be measured in specific units of net CO2 equivalent removed from our atmosphere, or prevented from entering it, is it not just more hot air?