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« Gloom and doom | Main | Greenpeace labouring night and day to make you colder and poorer »

Greens and the rule of law

Yesterday, Ben Pile and I were having a somewhat fruitless exchange of views with Mark Johnston, who seems to be a Senior Advisor at the European Policy Centre, whatever that is. Johnston seemed to be of the view that the "No Dash for Gas" activists who had occupied EDF's West Burton gas plant were somehow justified because of global warming. He claimed that there is "a moral duty to act".

By coincidence, the US Ninth Circuit court has been considering just this argument in a case involving the Sea Shepherd, the ship that has taken it upon itself to harass and attack Japanese whaling vessels. Overturning the decision of a lower court, the judge ruled, in the following rather amusing terms, that the Sea Shepherd's actions constituted piracy:

You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.

Legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy examines the decision here, here and here, concluding that the judge's decision is "obviously correct" in law.

This is obviously an American case rather than a British one, but I imagine the precedents in these areas are not very different between the two countries, something the greens would do well to remember.

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Reader Comments (67)

You should have asked him about the moral duty of helping stop around 40,000 people a year who die between December and March due to the cold weather here in the UK every year?


Feb 28, 2013 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

The Americans also have a great saying - sadly not used much anymore: Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered Commenterjpfife

OT: Anyone checked Roy Spencer's blog today? Seems to be been knobled.

Music's not bad tho ;)

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:06 AM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

Let the activist's try occupying a fully operational powerstation, next winter, when demand is high (for a week) it won't be the power company they will be worrying about sueing them

It will be the government and the police, and the anti-terrorism squad.. ie messing with the UK's electricty supply, whatever the good intentions. Pleading letters from the parent saying Tarquin or Emma have good intentions, will cut zero ice..

and the public I think will not be with them either.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

When the science is against them and all the evidence is against them, then all they have left is desperation. And that's what all this "moral duty" is - a call of desperation as the "green" nonsense dies a natural death.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:16 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

They must have had the one sane judge in the Ninth Circuit. They'll ask for an en banc hearing which will reverse the lone Ninth Circuit judge's opinion. Don't be surprised if their ruling will allow use of Harpoon missiles where the logic will be if a ship can harpoon a whalte, then a whale protector, standing in place of the whale, can harpoon back. You just have to understand how the Ninth Circuit works.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:33 AM | Unregistered Commentercedarhill

The Alarmists are people of an ilk which believes that "moral" issues trump any considerations of law, as the self-justifying "apologies" of folks like Gleick and Monbiot demonstrate.

And since moral judgments are personal and subjective, this equates to saying: "If I disapprove of something, then any action I take in redressing the situation is justified, whether it be legal or not."

Not a great basis for running a modern society.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Try telling this to Monbiot on his Guardian blog. I had the temerity to do so last week and am now on the pre-moderation naughty step for future comments!

Their 'legitimate protest' could have reasonably been expected to provoke a response from both the owners and authorities - therefore they cannot be surpised when one comes along. They're also in a spot of turmoil at present, what with the temperature standstill throwing everyone on the AGW side into a state of unexpected flux.

That's the BIG one that they cannot either bluster or explain away, and it's annoying the bejesus out of 'em.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered Commentercheshirered

I am rather surprised to hear that the 9th Court made such a sane, reasoned argument. Most times they are all about trashing anything that makes sense, protects people, or does NO harm to anyone- such as an 80-year-old cross commemorating war dead.

Feb 28, 2013 at 11:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter
Feb 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

"And since moral judgments are personal and subjective, this equates to saying: "If I disapprove of something, then any action I take in redressing the situation is justified, whether it be legal or not.""

I would say that is the code we should all work under, accepting that society may have a different view and the law will deal with us appropriately. If you want to be a martyr, you can't dodge the bullet or the jail.

Feb 28, 2013 at 12:10 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda

There is a moral duty to oppose immoral acts, whether legal or not, and to oppose immoral laws and regulations.

In this particular case, though, the dash for gas would take place in a regulated context. Mark Johnston is wrong to target EDF, which complies with climate policy and all other rules and regulations. Mark Johnston should target those who decide on climate policy.

Even if there is a moral duty to act, there is also a moral duty to avoid damage to innocent bystanders.

Feb 28, 2013 at 12:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

Given your championing and cheerleading for the climategate hack, your righteous indignation over the idea that a "moral duty to act" can never trump the law is somewhat, shall we say, hypocritical?

Feb 28, 2013 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred

There is all sorts of nonsense spouted in defence of such actions including the absurd logic that because some then-illegal protests have been in pursuit of causes of which most people now would approve e.g. Votes for Women, anti-slavery, then this justifies closing down a power plant.

Curiously those using these kind of arguments are reticent on whether causes of which they don't approve should be granted the same indulgence.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterartwest

EDF's vengeful £5m No Dash for Gas lawsuit is corporate and PR suicide

Monbiot... well if it happens as he says, then he should be happy.

Morals are relative not absolute... even people who claim the moral right have to review their morals against some framework. Otherwise you just become a terrorist.

And a question. Does CAGW attract people because of its specific "morals" or are people looking for some morals for superiority purposes? it seems to attract people who wish to look down on others.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

I feel a moral duty to act and put sugar in Mr Johnston's car fuel tank to stop him emitting pollutants and harming the Planet.

I shall count on his understanding and won't expect him to report me to the police or expect compensation for repairs, with which I suggest he does not bother as I shall just do it again and again because I have a moral duty to act.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

It seems that the judgement depended solely on whether the action committed by the Sea Shepard was "private". Private is interpreted to mean other than government. This was not a government vessel. Therefore it was piracy. There was no moral dimension to the judgment as far as I can see.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Fowle

...climategate hack, your righteous indignation over the idea that a "moral duty to act" can never trump the law is somewhat, shall we say, hypocritical?
Feb 28, 2013 at 12:55 PM Fred

Fred, it's a bit late now, but if you had evidence that a law had been broken by whoever released the climategate files and emails did you communicate it to the investigating police?

If the person involved had an authorised admin logon to the UEA systems, it seem unlikely that any law was broken.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

@Richard Tol.

Richard, you talk about morals ("moral duty", "immoral acts") as if they were absolute and unchanging. But every society adjusts its particular morality according to utilitarian considerations. For example in western societies the advent of the contraceptive pill has caused widespread (but not universal) replacement of a stern proscription of extramarital sex into the current libertarian exhortation to "practise safe sex".

So when you say "There is a moral duty to oppose immoral acts" you refer inescapably to a personal subjective morality, which I need not necessarily share or indeed be aware of.

Cheers, simon

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM | Unregistered Commentersimon abingdon

John B - good point. I get the feeling Mr Johnston is not aware that mankind is only responsible for about 3% of total CO2 emissions. As termites produce more than humans I now feel I have a moral duty to eradicate this species from the biosphere. Likewise worms, as they also emit a lot of CO2. (I wonder if I would be permitted to use DDT?)

That would just leave the human population to decimate, surely a moral dilemma there?

But hold on, maybe I wouldn't need to cull the humans, as CO2 is only responsible for about 7-10% of the greenhouse effect, and water vapour is responsible for about 80%. So surely we have a moral duty to build enormous dehumidifiers which can suck the water vapour out of the atmosphere? We should drain all the lochs and oceans, or cover them with tin foil so that none of the dangerous H20 can evaporate and contribute to GW. And we should also chop down all the trees and plants so no water is lost to the atmosphere via transpiration?

Perhaps Mr Johnston could advise us where to stop in this crusade against this evil and polluting CO2 molecule.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:30 PM | Registered Commenterlapogus

Agreed. Morals vary between people and change over time. Some principles, however, are more or less generally agreed, including the duty to try and avoid harm to innocents.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Tol

Such incompetence - clearly not real sailors.

Had they equipped themselves with a complete set of Patrick O'brian, appropriate to every vessel greater than 12 meters, they would have encountered the concept "letter of marque." this is a note from a government allowing piratical activity as part of their politics by other means program - you know, the stuff that governments but nobody else can do.

It shouldn't have been difficult to find a government to issue one of these things - maybe one of the island states whose leadership is convinced that our automobiles will be responsible for them sinking beneath the waves.

The REAL pirates all had these things, so these guys really were tyros.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:31 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

jferguson, I have a complete set of O'Brian, and though you are correct as far as you go, any hostile action under a Letter of Marque could be considered an act of war by the issuing nation.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

surely you are familiar with "the Mouse that Roared" which details the beneficial consequences of initiating a war against the US, for example, so long as you plan to lose.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:50 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

That is, an act of war on behalf of the issuing nation

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

Yeah, but Grand Fenwick had Margaret Rutherford, and we do not.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered Commenterrhoda

Grand Fenwick also had the wonderful Peter Ustinov.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterChris B

"Had they equipped themselves with a complete set of Patrick O'Brian..."

Yeah, but then they would have to figure out what "Har'fast the gumber snippits" means and that's too hard.

What these Jack Wagons don't remember is that the whole point of civil disobedience is that they suffer the consequences of disobeying unjust laws to challenge the consciences of ordinary people. It's like the Civil Rights movement was a reality show and people were not killed, hurt, and jailed for their moral standards. Post Modern science and Post Modern ethics suit each other.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernal

Shame none of these activists have seen fit to 'occupy' (as in sit at the ends of the blades) a wind turbine...
I know - just wishful thinking...

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid

rhoda, "part of their program of politics by other means" Clausewitz is right next to O'brian on our shelf.

The movie "Private Benjamin" seems so instructive in understanding how modern "activists" think they can do it on the cheap. Goldie Hawn, as the good private, whines that she thought she was joining the army that had condominiums in Hawaii, no-one said anything about mud. Clearly she had not read her Clausewitz which IIRC devotes an entire chapter to mud.

Our world has turned upside down. So many of my most socialist acquaintances live in gated communities - and not those managed by the penal authorities, and yet see no discontinuity with their interest in sharing everything and not wanting to associate with the unwashed.

Bernal, it would be fun to get into the origins of the US second amendment "right to bear arms" and how much is owed by the US to the wonderfully inventive Stuart tyrants - I'm thinking of the Jameses.

The judicial theory here is that the ability to arm for insurrection was never intended since that would clearly involve treason - something our founders could never have contemplated. No kidding!

We're working our way into adding another la to "la la" as in la la land. too bad.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:26 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM | Martin A

Further, there is a law protecting whistleblowers.

If the climategate emails were leaked, then this could well be classified as whistleblowing and is therefore perfectly legitimate.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

"the whole point of civil disobedience is that they suffer the consequences of disobeying unjust laws to challenge the consciences of ordinary people"

This is the nub of the argument today's "green activists" think that their "moral cause" should insulate them from the consequences of their actions

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Dent

The twitter discussion with Mark Johnston was interesting - you might even say chilling, given that he is some kind of policy adviser for energy and climate.
He said "As many agencies all say world heading for climate disaster, one can't say we live in civilised society."
and "Indeed, there is a moral duty to act at least on the largest sources of pollution that threaten catastrophe"
in discussions with Andrew and Ben Pile. He refused to debate, with " I'm not debating climate matters here."
When challenged to name the agencies referred to he eventually came up with
"IEA, World Bank, UNEP, all during last quarter of 2012. See also heads of IMF, EU Commission, UNFCCC"
When I chipped in with "Ah yes, those top experts on climate science, the World Bank" he blocked me from access to his twitter account (which meant I had to log out to get these quotes).

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:46 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Perhaps Mr Johnston could advise us where to stop in this crusade against this evil and polluting CO2 molecule.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:30 PM | lapogus

Do not MPs exhale CO2 into the atmoshere? Should there be a moral crusade to 'terminate' all MPs so as to restrict CO2 emissions?

We can all find a moral crusade, but that never justifies the breaking of the rule of law. What a crazy purported justification for what are clearly illegal acts.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterrichard verney

Jeremy Grantham, namesake of the organization which pays Bob Ward, has a peculiar idea of morality and ethics, but illustrates the mindset:

"Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical."

So, if you are "saving the planet," lying is not only acceptable, but required. And why would anyone object to illegal acts such as piracy, if it is in the right cause?

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon B

When I chipped in with "Ah yes, those top experts on climate science, the World Bank" he blocked me from access to his twitter account
It's that behaviour that has always had me grinding my teeth and kicking the cat. The Grauniad does it as well.
It's prima facie evidence that the perpetrator knows full well he's on a sticky wicket, doesn't have the firepower to engage in decent debate, but plans to plough ahead regardless. It's a variation on sticking your fingers in your ears and singing.

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:56 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Feb 28, 2013 at 2:41 PM richard verney


My belief is that, if they had a legitimate admin logon, then no offence in law would have been committed. The Computer Misuse Act would not have been relevant.

Although not a crime and therefore not prosecutable, it could still have been regarded as a disciplinary matter by UEA, in which case as you say, the whistle blower law could well have protected them from dismissal or other sanctions.

One can speculate that the very last thing the UEA would have wanted was to have one of its own staff or postgrad students telling all in a law court, with their counsel reading out selected emails and the prospect of the ruling going against the UEA.

Feb 28, 2013 at 3:06 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A


40,000 per year in the UK, really? Is that documented somewhere? Or were you expressing sarcasm?

Feb 28, 2013 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeff Norman

Heh, Fred, FOIA is the law.

Feb 28, 2013 at 4:00 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

The best thing is to go the next step and sue Greenpeace and whoever else is financing the priates. And sue the TV networks that promote the pirates. If that is ineffective, then treat the enviro-pirates the same way we treat Somali pirates.

Feb 28, 2013 at 4:08 PM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

Hey jferguson, I think the crux of the issue for many Americans is that we believe that we are endowed by our Creator with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights are not granted to the citizenry by the state but accrue to the individual, given by God, and one must have the means to defend these rights.

This is an anachronistic notion and fallen on hard times, that rights are inalienable and owned by individuals and not granted us by our masters. But this is a widely held belief among american conservatives generally and especially by those of us living in the more backward provinces like the South.

No politician in the South will ever propose and end to gun rights. Although only a leftist would suggest or support such a proposition many who vote for leftist candidates own and even carry firearms. Several hundreds of thousands of people in my state carry firearms, me too. This cuts across racial lines. African Americans do vote only for democrats but they have had the experience of powerlessness against oppression and understand very well the need for self defense.

I have no doubt that it is the plan of leftists in the US to remove firearms from the hands of citizens. This has become the norm in blue state America. Blue state America doesn't give a rats ass about the Constitution. But red state America does generally see that if an individual is to have rights an individual must have power, ultimately the right to resist.

I think the Constitution is wise and events may overcome this red state blue state cultural divide. While we now have in the US an army of 150,000 federal law officers of one sort or another cities like Oakland California are so impoverished and the local police force so thinned that neighborhoods are needing to provide their own security. In Cali only movie stars and politicians can arm themselves, not ordinary citizens.

Feb 28, 2013 at 4:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterBernal

Also, this sword of moral compulsion has even more than two edges. Lovely and lethal.

Feb 28, 2013 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim


40,000 per year in the UK, really? Is that documented somewhere? Or were you expressing sarcasm?
Feb 28, 2013 at 3:20 PM Jeff Norman

He was exaggerating. It's only 24,000 .

Feb 28, 2013 at 5:11 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

I have wondered about Greenpeace's activities for some years. On the "public (government funded) television channel" in the US, there is a program that celebrates their anti-whaling exploits. What Greenpeace does is clearly morally wrong and would be illegal if done on US territory.

MLKJr developed a philosophy of acting in accordance with the higher moral law. However, he explained quite clearly that all such actions must be non-violent. I guess Greenpeace sees itself as being in the moral tradition of abolitionists in 1850 or so.

Feb 28, 2013 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

Does someone have a more complete and clear statement of Greenpeace's moral claim? I would like to focus on that rather than general questions of morality.

Feb 28, 2013 at 5:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

Apparently, I guessed correctly on the abolitionist meme. Here are some words from Joe Romm that tie in with a piece in the Guardian.

At his sentencing, standing before the federal judge, DeChristopher concludes a long, eloquent statement that spreads across the Internet and galvanizes a growing climate-justice movement:
“This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow. The choice you are making today is what side are you on.”

DeChristopher is truly brave. I’m just a blogger. Stephenson ends with the words of another truly brave man:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass said in 1857. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Feb 28, 2013 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

Sea Shepherd is not Greenpeace. The split was because they felt Greenpeace was insufficiently activist. They really are nuttier than peanut butter.

Greenpeace are a pain in the posterior, for sure, but don't do violence.

I might add that Sea Shepherd fly a version of the pirate flag. To then have the temerity to say they aren't pirates is pretty rude.

Feb 28, 2013 at 7:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

Would direct action against greens be morally and legally justified?

Feb 28, 2013 at 7:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

This the test,
The roiling up fest.
What will the best
Do with this mess?

Feb 28, 2013 at 7:09 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

I do hope that the US Department of Homeland Security has infiltrated these modern abolitionist movements and is ready to act against them if necessary. As we know from history, there is a strain of violence and lawlessness among some abolitionist movements that has required the state to use force against them. I think John Brown (1800 - 1859) was the most famous leader of such a movement.

Feb 28, 2013 at 7:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

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