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An environmental activist opposed to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project has his hand tied to the White House fence with plastic handcuffs during a protest in Washington, February 13, 2013. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
An environmental activist opposed to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project has his hand tied to the White House fence with plastic handcuffs during a protest in Washington, February 13, 2013. (JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

Civil disobedience as protest tactic? That depends on public reaction Add to ...

I listened to a CBC radio interview a little while ago with John Bennett, the head of Canada’s Sierra Club. The topic was the decision by the U.S. Sierra Club to break with tradition and use civil disobedience to stop the construction of oil sands pipelines, and what can be expected in Canada.

The Canadian chapter has decided not to follow the lead of the U.S. organization, at least for now. There are good reasons for this prudence, even though many of the Club’s supporters appear not to see it that way.

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The Canadian chapter recently put an online poll on their website, to which about 1900 supporters responded. About nine in 10 felt “the climate crisis is so urgent that traditional legal campaigns are no longer sufficient.” These results are something of a double-edged sword for the Club’s leadership, which must now weigh the consequences of different courses of action on their ability to influence politics and public policy in Canada.

On the one hand (setting aside whether the poll is truly representative of the broad base of members) the results indicate a mandate to take more aggressive measures. At the same time, if doing so triggered to a public backlash, the longer-term effectiveness of the organization could be badly damaged.

Like any other actor on the political stage today, environmental groups need to build and nurture a sort of “social licence” for their activities. The conditions or terms of such licences are never explicit: they usually only become clear when they have been violated.

For the Sierra Club, understanding the public’s stance (not only their supporters’) is critical to understanding what actions will strengthen or ultimately weaken their advocacy. Here’s what I see.

Many Canadians are concerned about global warming, but opinion about what to do about it, at what pace and cost is less consistent. Certainly, most voters agree that it should be part of the political debate in this country and they expect politicians to bring solutions forward.

Most also feel that environmental groups have served the public interest well over the years. Environmental non-governmental organizations get credit from Canadians for putting issues on the agenda and helping reshape consumer, business and political markets.

There has been some tolerance for non-violent civil disobedience in Canada when it comes to environmental issues. The use of this tactic to spotlight clear-cutting in B.C. drew media and public attention and eventually contributed to shifts in forest practices. Today, Canada’s forest products sector is experiencing demand around the world for its sustainably produced products.

However, the forestry precedent may not be a good predictor of what will happen around energy pipelines.

Advocating a shift in logging practices is one thing, but an all-out effort to shut down massive economic development projects could trigger more combustible reactions.

The nature and impact of civil disobedience will have a lot to do with how the broader public reacts to it.

One reason is that these projects are worth many jobs and billions of dollars in economic benefits. While this may not matter to everyone, it will matter a lot to a pretty significant number of people.

Second, any projects that pass formal reviews and are approved by democratically elected legislatures put politicians of all stripes, and their supporters, on the spot. Governments will feel an acute obligation to defend the rule of law.

But even opposition politicians, including some who might agree with the aims of the Sierra Club, cannot easily endorse illegal efforts to stop pipeline construction.

Any elected office holder will feel some obligation to stand up for the principle that laws should be obeyed or changed democratically.

As much as we value freedom of thought and speech, Canadians believe in governing our behaviour with laws. Our founding document speaks of “peace, order and good government.” This reflects how we prefer to live together.

Canadians want environmental groups to continue to be an important voice in the future of the country. Mostly, they are looking for more collaboration among environmental groups, businesses and governments, with a focus on practical solutions.

For the Sierra Club in Canada, the stakes around this question of whether to embrace civil disobedience are high. Careful deliberation may seem timid to some supporters, but it is undoubtedly wise.

Finally, I would like readers to be aware that I work with companies in a range of industries, including oil, gas and pipelines. Whether this affects the validity of the points in this piece is for you to decide.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and Senior Adviser with NATIONAL Public Relations.

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