Anyone who has been following the news lately will be aware of the ‘Arctic 30’ – the group of Greenpeace activists who have been detained by Russian authorities after boarding a Russian ship in order to protest oil drilling. They started out being charged with piracy, but after a wave of international protest the charge has been changed to hooliganism.
The hooliganism label has generated a lot of protest too. Supporters of the detainees argue that their case is a clear example of non-violent action in order to defend the rights of innocent people and nature.
However it’s interesting to note just how closely the hooliganism label fits when the case is looked at from another angle.
According to Russian law, hooliganism is “a gross violation of the public order which expresses patent contempt for society, attended by violence against private persons or by the threat of its use, and likewise by the destruction or damage of other people’s property.” 
And in fact it does seem that there’s patent contempt for society being expressed in this situation. Indeed, some of those involved are violating the public order to such an extent that they refuse to take the issue of climate change – a major social destabilizer  – seriously at all. Until recently they had “no official forum to tackle [climate change]”  and their leader, who holds considerable power and authority, even felt it appropriate to make jokes about it . The latest attempt to come to a working agreement for dealing with the challenge was undermined in part by their jockeying for privileges .
They have also shown no compunction about using violence; a piece of property – the atmosphere – has been violated and physical force has been used to ward off and subsequently detain those who sought to defend it.  And tragically, there’s no doubt that the property in question was damaged, and indeed is still being damaged, so badly that it may be beyond repair.
So yes, it does seem that we’re being faced with hooliganism here – at least in the sense that the Russian government uses the term.
You’ll probably agree that there are a few problems with the court process as it stands though.
Firstly, the plaintiffs and defendants need to swap places. Indeed, if the case were widened so as to include the governments of all the industrialised nations and all of the fossil fuel companies as defendants, and all the rest of us as plaintiffs – with those most affected by climate change given a prominent voice – then it would be clearer still. After all, as things stand the Russian government and Gazprom can use the ‘everyone else is doing it’ argument to try and justify their highly selective choice as to which property needs protection.
This leads us to a second problem with the court case, which is that it focuses on the wrong property. Oil rigs belong to someone, obviously. But the atmosphere belongs to someone too. It belongs to all of us in fact – it’s a natural commons – and we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions more than we need oil rigs.
Some may argue that it is unrealistic to expect governments to ever seriously enforce emissions cuts and thus thwart the plans of fossil fuel companies. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that we have a choice of realisms along the lines described by Laurence Matthews in his outline of Cap and Share in Fleeing Vesuvius.  He writes:
“Consider [..] the following story. Passengers are queuing at check-in at the airport; they are attending a coin-collecting convention and each wants to bring his coin collection along. Unfortunately there is a weight limit, and the passengers are unhappy about being refused their requests. The check-in supervisor nervously watches anger mounting, and worries that this might explode unless the weight limit is relaxed. Yet now we can clearly see the problem with giving in to this pressure: the plane crashes on takeoff. In hindsight it would have been better to face up to the metaphorical explosion — of anger, of tantrums at not getting one’s way — in order to avoid the literal explosion (at the end of the runway).”
We can also now see yet another problem with the Arctic 30 case, which is that hooliganism isn’t really a strong enough label for what’s going on here. In fact the earlier charge of piracy may actually turn out to be more appropriate after all. Or perhaps still stronger charges should be brought.
Let’s take another look at Russian law. It defines piracy as “an assault on a sea-going ship or a river boat with the aim of capturing other people’s property, committed with the use of violence or with the threat of its use.” 
As it happens there was indeed a boat captured by force, and as already mentioned above, some fairly sizable and important property is being violently seized – and moreover, abused – without the permission of its owners.
And it’s not just property that is at risk. Lives are at risk too, because of our collective dependency on a stable climate. The Lancet has described climate change as potentially the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” .
So, given that the current legal battle in Russia seems a bit wrongheaded, to put it mildly, how could the issue of climate change actually be dealt with legally?
Feasta’s climate group held a meeting in the UK in July to examine ways that litigation could be used to force fossil fuels companies and governments to lower their greenhouse gas emissions . Attendees included several lawyers, among them one from Greenpeace, along with representatives of other NGOs who are exploring this route for action on climate change. The plan is to hold a mock trial in Portsmouth in the next few months as an initial step towards actual court actions in the UK and elsewhere.
You can read in more depth about the implications of identifying the atmosphere as a natural commons in the Feasta climate group’s book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society.
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Caroline Whyte has been involved with Feasta since 2002. She studied ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She contributed to Feasta’s books Fleeing Vesuvius and Sharing for Survival. Along with four other Feasta climate group members she helped to launch the CapGlobalCarbon initative at the COP-21 summit in Paris in December 2015. She is also an active member of Feasta’s currency group . She is a Director of the Irish Environmental Network, is Feasta’s alternate representative on the Environmental Pillar, and is one of three Pillar members of the Irish National Economic and Social Council (NESC). She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.