The French public has recently been preoccupied with the clash between the French government and radical environmental activists over the government’s decision to establish an agricultural water storage project in western France. The project made it to national headlines after clashes— described as violent— between law enforcement forces and activists, prompting French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin to declare that “the activists’ methods amount to environmental terrorism”.
Debates rose on the radical tendencies within the environmental rights movement in France. This is part of an escalating global movement to defend environmental rights with direct tools for change, sometimes including violent practices violating laws, posing questions about trends of this violence and how to contain it. This comes in light of the world’s interest in climate change and its repercussions, but it seems that every issue, no matter how important and noble its goals, may fall into the hands of radical groups refusing peaceful means to bring about the desired change.
The association of the concept of defending the environment with terrorism and extremism is surprising due to its apparent contradiction. Environmental defenders are always associated with peaceful protests, reconciliation, and the use of pressure tools that do not contradict national laws. Although the extremists’ groups are still relatively limited, they are likely to escalate in the event of deep clashes between governments and activists, which could damage the issue that is now the center of the world’s attention.
Is it Time for Concern?
Debate on radical environmentalism is not new. In 2001, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) described the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) —a militant and violent environmental group— as one of the greatest domestic terrorist threats. Academics tell us that Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights (REAR) groups are spread across at least 25 countries and was responsible for more than 1,000 criminal acts between 1970 and 2007 in the United States alone, most of which were sabotage and attacks on animal testing facilities. During the past thirty years, fear over new waves of “environmental terrorism” were renewed. However, they have not recently been spread widely due to the growing recognition of the climate change crisis and its repercussions at the decision-makers levels.
Most of the major political parties in Western democracies (with few exceptions) have now accepted and taken action on the realities of climate change. The environment has become part of the broader anti-capitalist movement, which is often characterized by a commitment to nonviolence and bottom-up change. As a result, the shift in climate activism from peaceful protests, such as street marches, to violent acts is still currently at relatively small rates. However, there are several indicators suggesting that the use of violence in defense of environmental issues is not unlikely, and may escalate significantly in the near future with the escalation of climate variability, leading to several natural disasters. This, in turn, have allowed room to the emergence of several radical currents aiming to endorse drastic measures to force states and regimes to preserve the environment.
Although environmentalists’ actions have not caused deaths so far, there are a number of extremist organizations that show a more violent agenda. The reaction of some regimes and states against environment conservation initiatives has raised some concerns about the suppression of civil liberties, which may fuel the anger of extremists to take violent action, and may represent a growing security threat that could worsen in the future.
For example, at 10 ten environmental activists were deported or denied entry to Poland, on the occasion of the 2018 UN Climate Conference in Katowice (COP25), where they were considered a threat to national security. In 2019, 46 environmental activists were killed in the Philippines due to their designation as terrorists in light of the anti-terrorism bill. This followed President Duterte’s decision in 2018 to designate 600 indigenous rights and environmentalists – including a UN Special Representative – as terrorists.
In line with these trends, the UK have recently included Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion organizations, along with several far-right groups, in the Police Counter-Terrorism Handbook used in counter-extremism campaigns across the country. Australia has engaged in a similar trend as the 2015 Counter-Terrorism Handbook included examples of environmental activism as leading to radicalization.
Environmental Terrorism: The Concept and Controversy
First coined by environmental activist Ron Arnold in 1983, “environmental terrorism” was defined as “a crime committed to save nature”. He noted that it simply refers to the destruction or threat of destruction of the environment by states, groups or individuals in order to intimidate or coerce governments or civilians. The term has also been applied to a variety of crimes committed against companies or government agencies aimed at preventing or interfering with activities allegedly harmful to the environment. This type of terrorism, also known as bioterrorism, includes for example threats to contaminate water supplies or destroy or disrupt energy facilities, as well as practices such as spreading anthrax or other biological hazards.
There are several violent activities by some environmental activist groups that are described as environmental terrorism, including: trespassing on the property of companies that engage in environmentally harmful activities, such as logging, and obstructing their operations, sometimes by sabotaging the company’s equipment or modifying environmentally harmless natural resources in order to make them unsuitable for commercial use. Examples include the practice known as “monkey wrenching”, to block factory waste outlets and push nails into trees so that they cannot be logged and grinded. Other activities described as environmental terrorism are protests by animal rights groups which include the destruction of property in shops selling fur products, and the bombing of factories carrying out experiments on animal.
Researchers distinguish between two different types of terrorism: (1) eco-terrorism, in which individuals use violence against property and civil rights to defend the environment or coerce changes in environmental policies; and (2) environmental terrorism, where the destruction of the environment either by war or terrorist acts, is used to terrorize populations to achieve organizational goals.
The term “environmental terrorism” is therefore used to refer to the use or threat of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by a subnational environmentally oriented group for environmental and political reasons, targeting an audience that exceeds the target, and is often symbolic in nature. The Institute for Economics and Politics (IEP) issuing the Global Terrorism Index recognizes only three wide ranges of terrorism: political, nationalist separatist and religious. IEP notes that environmental terrorists are more likely to join to a particular terrorist group, and that their activity overlaps with the main types of terrorism. They are also unlikely to target loss of life as a primary target.
In a study entitled “Environmental Terrorism: Analyzing the Concept”, Daniel M. Schwartz (1998) proposed a classification that allows an individual to systematically distinguish the types of environmental destruction that can be described as “terrorism”, where environmental destruction or the threat of environmental destruction can be classified as “terrorism” when:
(1) Violates or threatens to violate national and/or international laws governing disruption of the environment during times of peace or war;
(2) The act or threat manifests the basic characteristics of terrorism (i.e. the act or threat of violence has specific objectives and is aimed at a symbolic objective).
The extremist environmental movement includes a wide range of organizations from the well-funded Sea Shepherds to individual environmental activists (known as Elves) who are not affiliated with specific groups. Environmental terrorists have fought against a range of issues. All extremist groups share these elements: they argue that due to environmental necessity, an uncompromising attitude is needed; and they spend their time and money working directly to achieve this goal, rather than pressuring government and industry.
The increase in violent movements of extremist groups has several risks, the most important of which is harming the most important goal. This is caused by the repercussions involved in the use of violence that may cause a decline in interest in environmental issues and climate change and the formation of trends against them as a reaction to extremist practices and the damage that may result from them. On the other hand, several activists and scientists criticize the use of the term terrorism in association with the environment, claiming that instead of labeling the nonviolent movements seeking environmental sustainability, states and companies harming ecosystems and animals should be classified as practicing environmental terrorism. Several specialists argue that while the activities of these groups fall under illegal behaviors such as sabotage, arson, or trespassing, their intentions differ significantly from those of terrorism.10 However, they have been considered terrorists because of the uncritical acceptance of the term environmental terrorism, and its application to these types of illegal activities.
In fact, this argument does not make sense. All terrorists endorse issues that may seem acceptable on the surface. If intentions are given free rein when dealing with disruptive behaviors, the world will enter a dark tunnel of violence and counter-violence. This argument might also give legitimacy to several acts of violence and sabotage which claim have higher goals.
 The Next Wave of Extremists Will Be Green, Foreign Policy, 1 September 2017, available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/01/the-green-radicals-are-coming-environmental-extremism/
 Spadaro, Paola Andrea. “Climate Change, Environmental Terrorism, Eco-Terrorism and Emerging Threats”, Journal of Strategic Security, vol. 13, no. 4, 2020, pp. 58–80. Jstor, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26965518. Accessed 12 November 2022.
 “How Terrorists Leverage Climate Change”, New Security Beat, 9 September 2019, available at: https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2019/09/terrorists-leverage-climate-change/
 The term is used to describe the non-violent insurrection and vandalism by environmental activists against those whom they consider are harming the environment. The term came into use after the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey in 1975. The novel described the activities of a group of “environmental warriors” in Utah and Arizona. Since the early twenty-first century, the term was occasionally used to refer to other forms of global anti-capitalist activism. It differs from activities known as environmental terrorism, as it includes violent practices, but ensuring the preservation of life. It is usually limited to two forms: nonviolent disobedience or sabotage that does not directly endanger others.
 Elliott, Lorraine; previously mentioned.
 Schwartz, Daniel M. “Environmental terrorism: analyzing the concept”, Journal of Peace Research 35.4 (1998): 483-496.
 Eagan, Sean P. “From spikes to bombs: The rise of eco‐terrorism.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 19.1 (1996): 1-18.
 Spadaro, Paola Andrea; previously mentioned.