For the planet to retain a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, all oil and gas production in rich countries — including the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Qatar — must be terminated within 12 years. Not only can there be no new fossil fuel installations; 40 percent of reserves already developed must be left in the ground.
And yet, even as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act in the United States promises to reduce overall emissions by incentivizing clean energy, on the one hand, it does with the other the very thing we cannot afford: offer new oil and gas leases to companies already awash in record profits. What do they do with all that money? They reinvest it, of course, in fresh oil and gas, a fount of profits these companies cannot bring themselves to abandon.
Little wonder people feel a degree of despair and, more to the point, rage. Young Europeans pulled into climate activism in 2018 and 2019, when Greta Thunberg set their generation in motion, now tend to be frustrated by the persistence of business as usual. And indeed, a logically unavoidable conclusion seems to be that the climate movement hasn’t yet done enough. It must try something more.
As for the ethics of property destruction, it is not, in this case, very complicated. Fossil fuels kill people. If you disrupt the flow of such fuels and damage the machinery they impel, you prevent deaths. You stop the perpetration of harm. You may destroy an inanimate object — and no one in the climate movement is suggesting anything other than targeting dead things — so as to protect living beings. Or, put differently, if you are locked in a house on fire, you have a right to break some windows to get out.
If the logic and ethics here seem straightforward, the tactical terrain is not. How do we make sure that no one is physically harmed in the process? Just what windows will be most effective to break? What openings will attract larger numbers of people to make the leap? We don’t know what, if anything, will work, which is why, perhaps, the movement needs both: flippant attention grabbing as well as surgical shutdowns, in a diversity of disruptions. We cannot afford to forgo creative methods that might further the cause.