In 2025, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is hit by a killer heatwave. The astronomical temperatures resulting from solar radiation kill 20 million people.
In the wake of this climate disaster, a new movement arises in India: an eco-terrorist network called the Children of Kali. The Hindu deity Kali, “She Who Is Death,” is the goddess of doomsday, and her “children” seek, through extremist measures, to avenge the deaths of their countrymen and to halt the march of climate change.
Such is the premise of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate fiction novel that plays out how humanity will handle the climate crisis over the next decades. The scenario is far from science fiction, however. With the right ingredients — environmental disaster, government inaction and public support, combined with non-lethal and well-publicized tactics — eco-terrorism could prove a fiery cocktail.
Special Interest Extremism
Both premises, the killer heatwave and the eco-terrorist network, are based in reality. Last year’s Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change report predicted more intense heat waves of longer durations, occurring at a higher frequency globally. Within the next decades, mean temperatures could be at least 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels, leading to intense heat waves and driving higher mortality and poverty rates.
The second premise, the growth of eco-terrorism, sprung up in the late 1970s. At the turn of the century, the FBI identified the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) — radical environmentalists and animal rights activists, or what the bureau calls “special interest extremism” — as “the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States.”
ELF attacks included arson, sabotage and vandalism; other environmental extremists have been linked to what is known as tree-spiking to prevent deforestation and the sabotage of whaling and sealing vessels. The era of nuclear expansion was accompanied by attacks on nuclear installations: Between 1966 and 1977, 10 terrorist attacks took place across Europe, while between 1969 and 1975, US nuclear facilities faced 14 actual and attempted bombings and 240 bomb threats.
These acts of eco-sabotage certainly feel a far cry from today’s conception of terrorism as violence, often lethal, targeted at civilians. Yet it does qualify: In 2002, following 9/11, the FBI defined terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of … committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population … in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
It is difficult to be precise about the number of eco-terrorism incidents because so little research within the field of terrorism is conducted on this particular type. The 2020 Global Terrorism Index merely notes that it falls outside its main categorizations. However, it appears to be on the rise. Last year, The Hill reported that the FBI was investigating 41 incidences of eco-terrorism in Washington state alone, including the derailing of a train that resulted in 29,000 gallons of crude oil being spilled. In September 2021, 53 activists from Insulate Britain were arrested while attempting to block the London Orbital Motorway.
As deadly natural shocks become increasingly common worldwide, the specter of future eco-terrorism looms much more prominently now than it did two decades ago. In the wake of the UN Conference of the Parties climate summit (COP26) that took place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, it is more evident than ever.
The conclusion of COP26 has widely been received as more of a whimper than a bang. A sense of disappointment, if not failure, greeted the final agreement despite what many have called historic achievements. Thousands of youth activists on the streets of Glasgow channeled the sense of fury felt by the leaders of countries most vulnerable to climate change. Such frustration may have its own consequences.
According to a 2021 global survey on the impact of climate fears, despair is rising. The youth is scared and angered by governmental paralysis when it comes to the climate emergency. The division between the global south and the global north in the wake of COP26 is ever more acute, with rising resentment that the developed world is failing to fund the now urgently needed adaptation and mitigation measures. With escalating numbers of desperate people, extremist ideologies can find fertile ground.
As climate disasters worsen and public sentiments shift, radicalization may well follow. So, if eco-terrorism were to arise, what might it look like? A 2020 paper published in the Journal of Strategic Security explored exactly this thought experiment. Much like the now-inactive ELF, 21st century’s eco-terrorists would likely start with industrial sabotage, or “ecotage.” They might expand to fossil fuel plants, airports and container ships.
Targeting humans, not infrastructure, as happens in Robinson’s novel, seems comparatively unlikely. In general, climate activism is associated with high regard for the sanctity of life. Even ELF guidelines emphasized the need to protect life during group actions, and that the goal of attacks on property is to cause targeted economic harm to industries that degrade the environment.
Lethal action would be left to fringe elements, which is a possibility we can’t rule out. But the saboteurs of Robinson’s fiction, who carry out targeted assassinations of major investors in fossil fuels and take down planes to reduce air travel, are likely to remain the bogeymen of ecological activism.
How effective might such a non-lethal strategy of eco-terrorism be? A well-targeted campaign of attrition, wearing down governments and greenhouse gas-emitting corporations, would be costly and challenging to guard against. With maximum costs imposed on fossil fuel economies, they might simply choose to concede to the terrorists’ demands.
Already technologies abound that are environmentally friendlier and less costly. The International Renewable Energy Agency’s 2021 report found that 62% of renewable energies are cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. With viable alternatives in reach, governments and private companies might concede to a policy change as the least costly strategy. Although governments might not admit to it, research has suggested that they often do yield to terrorist demands. Between 1980 and 2003, half of all suicide terrorism campaigns were closely followed by substantial concessions from the target government.
Oxygen of Publicity
Terrorism survives on “the oxygen of publicity,” to quote former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Research on eco-terrorist tactics has emphasized how well-designed and well-publicized acts of ecotage might galvanize public support if the public endorses the group’s goals and isn’t repulsed by its tactics.
Public endorsement is certainly on the table. A majority of US voters now strongly believe in the need for climate action. An estimated 6 million people joined the climate protests around the world in September 2019, including peaceful occupations and roadblocks. According to a 2021 global survey on climate change conducted by the United Nations Development Program, one in three people said that climate change is an emergency and that the world should urgently do everything necessary in response.
Every action necessary to respond to the climate crisis has instead included government crackdowns on non-violent ecological activism. Research from 2013 emphasized that there has been no documented evidence of harm to humans resulting from actions by radical environmentalists nor of violence being deployed to cause injuries or death. Yet in 2004, a senior FBI official described animal-rights extremism and eco-terrorism as “our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.” As recently as 2020, the UK included organizations like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion in its police counterterrorism guide alongside violent right-wing extremists.
These tactics are misguided. Although eco-terrorism does meet the definition of terrorist strategies, the consequences are, as yet, largely non-lethal and governments should respond appropriately. For one, it is more challenging to negotiate with, and concede to, terrorist organizations. Labeling climate-action groups as eco-terrorists runs the risk of undermining their stated objectives, stifling legitimate political dissent and preventing progress toward much-needed climate goals.
Moreover, some groups have argued, the eco-terrorism designation has been used as an intentional tactic by corporations and governments to quash lawful campaigning. Research published by the Journal of Strategic Security suggests that this disproportionate response might fuel the radicalization of the groups and individuals most likely to turn to extremism.
Siberia is burning, Shanxi is sinking, Alabama is rocked by tornadoes. Climate disasters will continue. Governments might stand by and watch or, worse, employ counterterrorism tactics against climate activists. In turn, the outraged might answer the call to arms.