Radical Environmentalism

Warnings over climate change are becoming increasingly stark. The last nine years have been the warmest on record and according to the UN it is almost certain that at least one year between 2022 and 2026 will become the hottest ever recorded. The likelihood of temperatures exceeding the 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels set by the Paris Climate agreement is growing. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others provide undeniable evidence of human activity's impact on climate change. In response many governments and businesses have made significant pledges, such as net zero emissions targets, reducing methane emissions, and divesting from fossil fuels. However, they have all faced criticism for the lack of concrete strategies to realize these commitments and there is a growing sense of urgency at the perceived lack of progress. 

As environmental activism increases in the coming years so will the direct risk to companies and their executives. While most activities will consist of non-violent protests and civil disobedience campaigns, climate related activism is becoming more frequent, elaborate, and disruptive. In the event that climate pledges are not fulfilled, and global temperatures continue to rise, there is an increased risk of more radical environmentalist groups and individuals emerging.

Protests and Civil Unrest

Climate protests have been increasing in size and frequency in recent years. The climate strikes initiated by Greta Thunberg in 2019 attracted over six million participants worldwide, making it the largest mobilization against climate change in history. Similar protest campaigns are highly likely to gain momentum and the rise of global movements like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil has contributed to the escalation of civil disobedience campaigns. These groups frequently stage demonstrations in urban centres, obstructing roads and other transportation infrastructure. They also target organizations they hold responsible for climate change such as oil and gas companies and financial institutions that invest in them. Protests are held outside corporate offices and activists disrupt company meetings, and target high-profile sporting events.

While climate change protests are predominantly non-violent, there have been incidents of unrest. In March this year climate activists in France clashed with police during protests over "mega water basins" for farm irrigation. In December 2022, around 200 protesters stormed a Lafarge cement factory in France and caused damage to property. In Germany, protests against coal have also resulted in unrest and the group Ende Gelände has promised to go beyond civil disobedience campaigns if they do not achieve the desired results. 

As the impacts of climate change become more severe the potential for violent climate-related protests and more radical activism increases.

Radical Environmentalism

Two forms of radical environmentalism exist: Ecotage and Ecoterrorism. Ecotage, also known as ecological sabotage, are incidents involving vandalism, sabotage, and arson aimed at organizations believed to be responsible for environmental damage. The primary objective of Ecotage is to cause property damage rather than casualties. This form of attack constitutes the majority of actions carried out by radical environmental groups. Ecoterrorism refers to attacks that have the explicit intention of causing death or injury.

Ecotage

Between 1973 and 2010, radical environmentalist groups such as Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are believed to have carried out over 27,000 attacks. Over 98 percent of these resulted in property damage. In 2005, the FBI designated environmental and animal rights extremists as the "top domestic terrorist" threat in the United States, leading to a focus on these groups and multiple arrests. As a result, the ELF and others have become less active in recent years. However, ecotage continues to occur frequently, carried out by environmental activists and militant anarchists who sometimes claim attacks in solidarity with environmental groups, despite not having direct links with them.

Ecotage primarily targets businesses that are perceived to directly involved in environmental harm or financial organizations providing funding for environmentally detrimental projects. In the years to come, it is likely to remain the most prevalent form of violent direct action conducted by radical environmentalists. While the current pattern primarily involves vandalism and sabotage of physical property, there will be an increasing risk from insider threats and employee activism.

Companies are increasingly being held accountable for their actions on climate change by their employees, shareholders, and customers. For instance, Amazon employees successfully campaigned for the company to implement "greener" policies, and similar employee actions are likely to take place in order to compel businesses to make climate or other environmental commitments. However, if a company is perceived as failing to meet its pledges, or engaging in greenwashing, there is a high risk that a disgruntled employee may leak sensitive data.

Although this has not yet occurred in relation to environmental policies, data leaks have happened concerning other controversial policies. In 2021, a former Meta employee released data about the company's Facebook and other platforms showing that the company was aware of potentially negative impacts of social media but allegedly chose to do nothing about it. Furthermore, employees may refuse to work on projects deemed environmentally harmful, similar to Google employees refusing to work on projects involving the US military.

Lastly, radical environmentalists pose an increasing cyber-attack risk either by directly targeting companies or infrastructure linked to oil and gas. While no such attacks have taken place, the May 2021 ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the U.S. highlights the potential vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure. Activists could exploit this  to cause operational and financial disruptions.

Ecoterrorism

Instances of Ecoterrorism intended to cause injury or death are rare and mainly occur when environmental concerns form part of the motivation for the attack, but are not the primary reason. From 1973 to 2010, global attacks resulting in fatalities occurred only four times. It is worth noting that these attacks were carried out by individuals not affiliated with known groups such as the ELF or ALF. Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the "Unabomber," was responsible for three, the fourth attack took place in 2002 when Volkert van der Graaf, a prominent environmentalist and animal rights activist, assassinated Dutch politician Pim Portuyn. However, Ecoterrorism was not the primary motivation for either Graaf's or Kaczynski's attacks.

Since 2010, there have been several attacks by the group Individuals Tending Towards Savagery (ITS). In August 2011, ITS sent a parcel bomb to the Monterrey Institute of Technology, injuring two nanotechnology researchers. The package contained enough explosive material to cause structural damage to the building, but it failed to detonate correctly. Earlier that year, ITS sent two bombs to the nanotechnology facility at the Polytechnic University of the Valley of Mexico. One bomb was intercepted, but the second detonated, injuring a security guard. Although ITS has not been active in recent years its affiliates have claimed attacks in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Greece, and the UK indicating fairly widespread support for the group. Nonetheless, ITS' primary motivation is also not environmental. 

Militant anarchist groups also pose a risk of Ecoterrorism. In May 2012, a group calling itself the Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI) / International Revolutionary Front (IRF) claimed responsibility for the non-fatal shooting of a nuclear engineering executive in Genoa, Italy. The same group sent a letter bomb to a Swiss pro-nuclear lobby group in 2011, and in 2010, they attempted to bomb IBM's nanotechnology laboratory in Switzerland. The IRF is believed to have connections to ITS and to the FAI, a collective of militant anarchist groups in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

However, aside from acts of ecotage, militant anarchist attacks are not typically explicitly driven by environmental causes. Posts on anarchist blogs claiming responsibility for attacks often cite multiple motivations, including anti-capitalism, globalization, and the environment. Nevertheless, attacks are likely to continue, posing an increasing risk to organizations perceived by militant anarchists as symbols of capitalism, globalization, or those accused of causing environmental harm.

Environmental politics, which is traditionally associated with the leftist political discourse, is now forming part of the narrative across the political spectrum. Climate and environmental issues have become part of the rhetoric of extreme-right nationalist and anti-immigration ideologies, sometimes even being used to justify violence. Individuals such as Anders Breivik, who carried out the 2011 attack in Norway, Brenton Tarrant, responsible for the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand in 2019, and Patrick Wood Crusius, who conducted the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, referred to themselves as eco-fascists in their manifestos. Eco-fascists typically advocate for the preservation of the natural environment through strict control over human population, racial or ethnic purity, and authoritarian governance. As climate change is expected to lead to increased migration, this narrative is likely to intensify, increasing the risk of further similar attacks.

Outlook

For over 40 years, radical environmentalists have engaged in direct action, but protests and ecotage have not evolved into a sustained campaign of violence against individuals. There is currently no indication that this will change in the short-term (probably the two year outlook). However, participation in climate related activism is increasing and rhetoric is becoming tougher. The current circumstances are also unique in the sense that the evidence for human impacts on climate change is now widely recognized as indisputable. Consequently, there is an increasing sense of urgency and a growing risk that radical environmentalists and their sympathizers may resort to more extreme forms of violence.

Recruitment to environmentalist causes and groups has witnessed rapid growth in recent years and influential climate and environmental activists are calling for more radical action. These statements typically stop short of advocating for direct violence, but there are indications that radical environmentalists disagree with organizations advocating non-violent approaches, as they feel peaceful activities have not yielded substantial enough change. The harsher rhetoric of influential climate activists bolsters the narrative that peaceful action is insufficient and that political will to combat climate change is lacking. 

The security services in several European countries and the U.S. are taking notice and have identified radicalization within the movement as an increasing concern. In some countries such as France, Germany, and the UK the authorities are trying to shut down some environmental activist groups or make it more difficult for them to protest. 

It is probable that this will lead to some currently non-violent environmental activists to become increasingly frustrated with what they see as inadequate action by governments and the private sector in addressing climate change and the repression of their activities. The more frustrated such individuals become the more desperate they will become, fearing that action is imperative and needed to "save the world". For some, more radical environmentalists, the only response will be increasing levels of violence. 

While sustained campaigns of violence or large-scale attacks by radical environmentalists are unlikely, there is an increasing risk of targeted attacks against individuals or organizations. Such attacks would likely be carried out by individuals or small splinter groups with no direct ties to mainstream environmental organizations. However, even a small number of individuals engaging in violent acts can have a destabilizing impact, potentially inciting further violence.

If radical environmentalist attacks were to occur, they would likely involve methods such as letter/parcel bombs, firearms, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Targets would primarily include individual businesses, executives, and political figures. Priority targets would be companies accused of greenwashing, heavy polluters such as oil and gas and mining industries, as well as financial institutions providing support to environmentally harmful projects. Europe (Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the UK), Central and South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico), Canada, and the United States are the regions most susceptible to such attacks.

Indicators of increased risk of ecoterrorism

  • Splits in mainstream groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR)
  • Change in rhetoric from prominent climate activists / spokespeople claiming that peaceful forms of protest have failed
  • Increasingly disruptive or violent activity from climate or environmental activist groups
  • Failure of countries and businesses to achieve climate-related goals or announcements that pledges on climate change are being delayed
  • Increasing mention of climate and the environment in extremist groups rhetoric

A further terrorism risk will come from attacks where climate change is cited as part of the motive but is not directly linked to radical environmentalists such as attacks by those from the extreme-right that refer to themselves as eco-fascists as well as other politically motivated groups where climate and the environment are not a core issue but do form part of their grievances.

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