On January 22, the Sierra Club announced that it would engage in civil disobedience for the first time in its 121-year history. It did this in an effort to stop the expanding extraction of fossil fuels that threatens our world with catastrophic climate change. On February 13, the group followed through on this promise when members of the group, including Sierra Club President Michael Brune, cuffed themselves to the gates of the White House in a protest demanding that President Obama reject the Keystone XL Pipeline.
As the group wrote in its press release for the action, “Climate change threatens the health and security of all Americans, and action proportional to the problem is required—now.”
For decades, the Sierra Club has represented the essence of moderate, establishment environmentalism. Traditionally, its tactics stopped at strictly legal methods of winning support for its causes, such as writing letters to elected representatives, petitioning, and holding permitted rallies. Suddenly, the urgency of climate change has led the group to tactics that approach those of more militant groups, such as Rising Tide or RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival). Its tactics remain entirely nonviolent, which is a strategic as well as moral decision for many groups, as nonviolent movements tend to gather more widespread involvement rather than scaring people away from participating.
While the Sierra Club’s single action doesn’t yet place it in the same league of activism as these groups, it does help to normalize breaking the law for justice, which has important implications for groups that have long counted civil disobedience among their tactics. Looking at how radical and moderate factions interact within movements will help to explain why.