Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion: Environmental Justice Past and Present Movements

Martinez-Alier et al. 2014

Max Weber points to the issue that politics is a “slow, powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of purpose” (Morgan 2011, Weber). The climate justice movement is one where its history is based upon employing the language of passion for instilling a sense of purpose to mobilise people acting in the name of justice. The central issue with fighting for justice claims is that there is always the question of “justice for whom.” There seems to be as many definitions of climate justice as there are environmental nongovernmental organisations (ENGOs) employing a sub-framework of justice master frameworks. Justice itself is a master framework which evokes a concept of right and wrong, correct or incorrect from preconceived moral beliefs and social norms. This is where the issue of justice for whom comes into the light, as so many different moral assumptions must lead to an equal number of justice frameworks.

Climate justice can represent justice claims based upon race, indigenous groups, women, children, poor/peasant groups, human/non-human, national, or global commons degradation. In the climate justice movement, two prominent groups are Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion (XR) with their different approaches to the justice movement exhibit the “slipperiness” of justice claims when determining “who’s” justice is being represented (Okereke and Charlesworth 2014, 2). They also represent the changing face and rhetoric of climate justice and how justice claims are utilised.

Greenpeace is the slow and steady progress from grassroots to a sleek hierarchical corporate, robust structure fighting for justice (Eden 2004, 604).  XR has been the butt of many recent jokes in the media due to the fragmented nature of their organisation and varied success of some actions (Busby 2019; Booth 2019, 257). The different approaches to achieving their stated goals begs one to wonder if they are achieving climate justice, and which justice is being realised. Due to the broad nature of climate justice claims, the success of these groups to achieve climate justice is best viewed through their ability to bring climate justice into mainstream discourse, more than their legislative and legal triumphs. This is because the overarching goal of the climate justice movement is to mobilise social capital in a manner that the issue can no longer be ignored. This sentiment was best articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter to a Birmingham Jail” on non-violent direct action, the tactic employed by XR today (King 2006; The focus on the importance on normative shifts is as old as the language of political power, as Machiavelli stated in “The Prince” that the powers which govern a population are always subject to the calculus of normative force; the precursor to social and political change (Morgan 2011, Machiavelli).

It is not within the scope of this paper to address all climate justice claims, and the broadest definitions will be used. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) website states that climate justice is the framing of the climate crisis as a human rights and moral issue ( The impacts of climate change will be felt the hardest by the world’s poor and disadvantaged groups, and that “we” can create a better future ( This definition is more or less in line with mainstream climate justice discourse, and those articulated by both Greenpeace and XR (; The term “climate justice” came into being—at least in its modern sense—during a 2000 conference at The Hague intended to be partnered with the 6th Conference of Parties in Copenhagen (Martinez-Alier et al. 2014, 29; Whitehead 2014).

Despite their differences, today’s XR resembles a young Greenpeace; both mobilising activists who are working to achieve environmental/climate justice through grassroots movements based on normative values/force. The history of Greenpeace is nearly as old as the environmental/climate justice struggle which began in 1982 In the United States attempting to achieve justice for a racial or indigenous group (; Martinez et al. 2014, 22). Many of the early environmental justice (the precursor to climate justice) campaigns began around issues such as addressing environmental degradation in ethnic minority communities in the United States (Martinez-Alier et al. 2014, 22). While these are considered to be amongst the beginnings of the environmental/climate justice movements, Greenpeace had been operating along these lines since 1969 (Eden 2004, 595). Greenpeace did not begin as a group focused on climate justice; they began in Canada as a group protesting nuclear weapons testing (Zelko 2017, 320). Among the founding members of Greenpeace was a journalist named Bob Hunter, who issued press releases and news articles that helped shape the future of the movement towards environmental/climate justice (Zelko 2017, 320).

Greenpeace began as the “Don’t Make Waves Committee” (DMWC) and nearly suffered a defeat that would have ended the organisation when the minister for Canadian fisheries Jack Davis refused to allow their first boat, Greenpeace, to operate with fishing boat insurance rates, which was government subsidised (Zelko 2017, 321). It was only because of news articles authored by Bob Hunter that pressure was placed on Davis to authorise the insurance scheme, allowing Greenpeace to afford the boat (Zelko 2017, 321). In this case, Davis was forced by Hunter’s articles to grant the fishing boat insurance scheme or face the wrath of the voting public. What appeared to be a relatively unimportant act at the time prevented Greenpeace from facing early financial extinction by using the media available at the time to bring an issue to the public’s attention, and the public made their voices heard. No movement attempting to enact a normative shift in any society begins with success, as every justice movement has had to face a series of hurdles such as those faced by the “radical abolitionist” Frederick Douglas or the “radical feminist” Emma Goldman in the United States (Dolbeare and Cummings 2010, 236 & 386). These are not environmental, only justice movements which took a long time to see their claims actualised, and constitutionalised. Greenpeace followed the same model of beginning as a radical group which eventually became one of the most powerful, and easily the most recognisable environmental action groups in the world.

In the 1970s, Greenpeace moved on from its original anti-nuclear campaign and began to focus on environmental issues beginning with anti-whaling campaigns, targeting the International Whaling Commission (Zelko 2017, 328). It is possibly the beginnings of the anti-whaling campaign that saw Greenpeace’s environmental message reach the world, as popular media began picking up this message and displaying it to the masses. The 1977 “Shannara” book series by Terry Brooks was based on a post-apocalyptic Earth where humanity’s environmental destruction had reduced humanity, and nature reclaimed the world (Moher 2019). The 1992 movie “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” starring Robin Williams brought the message that the rainforests were under attack to a generation of children, and “Free Willy” the message that killer whales do not belong in captivity ( In modern film culture “The Kingsman” was based on Malthusian principles that the world requires a cull to save the Earth from humanity’s destructive nature (Bunbury 2015). The final Avengers films were also based on Malthusianism in that untenable environmental practices, and overpopulation poses a universal, existential threat to all life, grossing nearly $4.5 billion worldwide (Greenspan 2019). The efforts of early environmental groups have managed to bring environmental/climate justice into mainstream media and popular culture, as these examples cover nearly a 40-year change in public perception of the crisis facing humanity. This has evolved from an abstract fantasy series, to whaling, to the threat of mass-extinction; even if the message is lost on the audience. The critical point here is that environmental discourse and awareness of justice is steadily fed to each subsequent generation. Just as Hunter used the newspaper, modern writers are using social norms and perceptions to show people that they all have a vested interest in a changing climate.

The original goals of Greenpeace were to bring in as many people and voices as possible to encourage the average citizen to get involved. This mission has been lost as Greenpeace has transformed into a hierarchical and corporate machine where the individual cannot feel the same sense of community and representation, casting aside its grassroots origins (Eden 2004, 604). Thomas Jefferson stated, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure” ( While many may interpret this in the context of casting aside tyrannical rule through violent conflict, it is best suited here to address the notion that the “slow drilling” of politics requires new generations of fresh participants to sustain the goals of any struggle for justice. The history of rights and justice movements testifies to the fact that these claims require sustained action.

The 12th report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that there were only 12 years left to work to prevent the Earth from warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels or face the worst-case scenarios of climate change, with a further increase of 0.5 Celsius could be devastating to all life (Isaksen 2019, 8). Several weeks after the IPCC report was released, a new group from the United Kingdom descended upon Parliament Square in London to make their frustrations be heard; they call themselves Extinction Rebellion ( Their message was clear; the IPCC report showed a dire future for all of the Earth’s inhabitants, both human and non-human. To the few people organised under the direction of environmental activists Roger Hallam, Gail Bradbrook, and Simon Bramwell the expectation was that only a few hundred people would accompany them in their first protest; instead, 1,500 people showed at Parliament Square to demand climate justice (Isaksen 2019, 8; The constant drilling of the message that climate change poses an existential threat and violates human rights was being expressed by frustrated individuals tired of waiting.

XR had learned from previous movements making justice and rights claims. They began employing the same language and tactics regarding non-violent direct action as the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements in the USA; the same tactics that made an early Greenpeace successful (Isaksen 2019, 9). The decision by XR to stage a spontaneous protest in Parliament Square was in the light of the origins of Greenpeace. Greenpeace can be traced back to a single protest in 1969 when protesters organised on the Canadian side of the US/Canada border to disrupt and prevent the flow both “people and goods” (Zelko 2017, 320). In April of 2019, XR fully adopted the tactics of previous non-violent protests and the same tactics of disrupting the flow of traffic and everyday life in London, while declaring XR to be an international movement (Booth 2019, 7).

The new generation of environmental/climate justice activists is not willing to wait for their message to pass through the slow drilling of politics. The IPCC report showed that it was not feasible to wait another 40+ years for progress, and they made demands for immediate action. XR won the day with the U.K. government proclaiming that there was indeed a climate emergence, trailing the Scottish and Welsh governments (Booth 2019, 257). Getting the government to make this declaration should be considered nothing short of a massive success by XR, as the first item on their “Three Demands Bill” is the declaration of a climate emergency ( Much like Greenpeace, XR is facing a legal battle. Following the success of the April 2019 protest XR held another London protest in October 2019, but this one ended with the police placing a ban on their protests in London (Isaksen 2019, 9). Again, in the light of Greenpeace, XR has their own journalist to promote the stories of their struggles and successes in regular Guardian columnist George Monbiot (Hill 2019; In his articles, Monbiot proudly proclaims that he was arrested, showing solidarity with XR’s non-violent direct action (Hill 2019). Greenpeace was one of the organisations that brought the issue of environment/climate justice into the forefront of modern society and helped create the master framework under which modern justice movements operate. The common phrase goes that current generations making progress (in any field) are, “standing on the shoulders of giants” and the same holds true, with XR.

One of the most potent devices currently available to Greenpeace in promoting the message of climate justice is their ability to have a professional camera crew filming their actions, but this is due to their massive financial funds (Eden 2004, 604). XR does not have these funds, partly because of the relative youth of the organisation, but also because of its intended, loose-knit structure. Like Greenpeace and the justice movements preceding; XR has learned that powerful images connected with those familiar to previous rights campaigns, and normative senses of what is just can be an incredibly powerful tool. XR uses this information through both online and in-person training on non-violent direct action ( XR instructs protesters on how to be arrested peacefully, by going limp and allowing the police to carry them to be arrested so that any camera crews will see a person peacefully allowing themselves to be arrested for justice ( The fragmented nature of XR has led to their activists enraging the public several times with one member glueing their hand to the top of an aeroplane, and another to an electric public bus (Marsh 2019). Their biggest embarrassment making the public rounds was when a fire truck full of fake blood malfunctioned as they attempted to cover a government building; accomplishing no more than amusing the public (Busby 2019).

Of all organisations making climate justice demands, those by XR might be the most ambitious. Noting above that their first demand of a climate emergency declaration was realised, they also wish the U.K. government to reduce to net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 and then create a “Citizen’s Assembly” of people selected via lottery to serve this role ( John Rawls makes several points on the nature of justice. Firstly, “justice is the first virtue social institutions… truth and justice are uncompromising”, and that practicality is not a part of the calculus of what is just (Rawls 1999, 3-4). Second: “each person participating in a practice, or participating in it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty” and “inequalities are arbitrary” (Rawls 1958, 165). While the demands of XR might seem completely impractical, this does not invalidate them. The history of justice claims is to make the impractical become a reality. There is no argument that those impacted by climate change do not have equal participation, with members of African nations calling the Paris Agreement targets a suicide pact, while the media and many activist groups in the global north saw it as a complete success (Chin-Yee 2016, 364; Frank 2016).

Due to the corporate nature of Greenpeace, it is difficult for one to feel as though they are participating in any practice which can bring about justice. XR removes these barriers and allows their members to seek a way to fight “their” justices and feel as though they are making the change that they wish to see by encouraging local groups to form resistance pockets which can choose a central environmental issue ( It would not be appropriate to assume that the deep or shallow ecologist share the same views on anthropogenic issues, so each is allowed to form a pocket and fight for “their” climate justice. The appeal for new groups like XR is probably driven by the raw, gritty message available in their publications, calling for everyone to become an advocate for climate justice; however, they define the term (

Another emerging group of the fresh blood of the climate justice movement is the Fridays for Future movement which started with Greta Thunberg, a single teenage girl sitting outside of Swedish parliament with the simple message “School Strike for Climate” ( Within a year of her deciding to skip school because there was no point in attending when the future of humanity was being mortgaged to maintain the current status quo, the world saw nearly 4 million protesters marching under the banner of climate justice (Woodward 2020). In this context, climate justice takes on the notion of intergenerational justice in that the unsustainable environmental practices of previous generations had stolen their future and placed the burden of fixing the climate on their shoulders (Woodward 2020). Intergenerational climate justice is based on the concept that the world is consuming available non-renewable and polluting resources in the name of economic progress leaving them—the world’s youth—with a world dominated by untenable practices (Stevenson 2017). Again, claims for justice are articulated through the same language that rights are being violated. The Student Strike for Climate is using a common rhetorical framework; the children of the Earth are denied participatory justice because they are too young to engage in the democratic process. The burden to fix this existential threat is theirs to bear. This campaign faces the same challenges that they must sustain the movement or succumb to the powers that seek to invalidate their claims, with US President Donald Trump and his voting base being among the harshest critics (O’Reilly 2019). The ability to maintain public protests in the name of climate justice has been placed on indefinite hold as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic that cancelled a planned XR protest in April 2020 and all Student Strike for Climate activities are also on hold (

Climate justice is a term that is subjective to the individual fighting for their conception of the term, but it has an objective goal of reducing or eliminating the harms of climate change. The definition of climate justice is one which is still evolving and revolving to discover the best possible way to achieve this overall goal of protecting the Earth and all of its living inhabitants. What climate justice is best at accomplishing is to direct public attention to the fact that those least responsible for the degradation of the planet are those being hit the hardest (Huntjens and Zhang 2018, 2). Future generations will face the hard calculus of utilitarianism in determining who receives what is left after global common resources have been consumed (Hardin 1968; Cripps 2015, 1). Greenpeace was considered to be a radical movement in the late ‘90s, much like the children of its roots (Bruno et al. 1999, 6). Even 30 years ago writing about the immediate threat of climate change was considered to be at the fringes of social and scientific discourse, but the actions of these ENGOs made these ideas a part of mainstream public and scientific discourse (McKibben 2019). There is little doubt that current attitudes towards climate change and what climate justice means is the product of a steady, drip-fed message which has transcended generations. The future of the climate has yet to be determined. However, the message of climate justice is new and gaining traction at a seemingly exponential rate, which should lend a great deal of hope to those who have dedicated their lives to this cause as they watch the new vanguard take the front lines of the fight for the future of life.


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