Photography Ivan Ruberto

we’re getting closer to declaration of a climate emergency – what next?

Following Extinction Rebellion's climate action, and Greta Thunberg's London visit, where are we headed?

by Jake Hall
30 April 2019, 12:00pm

Photography Ivan Ruberto

In July last year, a sustainability academic published a climate change paper so distressing it came with a list of emotional support resources. By outlining evidence which points towards “starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war” in language more suited to a Hollywood apocalypse than an academic study, the author manages to hammer home the urgency of climate change. More importantly, he made what can seem like a complex subject accessible – as a result, it’s been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

Protest group Extinction Rebellion – often abbreviated to XR – adopts this same tactic. They’ve dominated headlines over the last few weeks, bringing parts of London to a standstill in order to challenge the UK government’s lack of action on climate change. They’ve been criticised (more on that later) for their controversial protest strategies, but this combination of direct action and apocalyptic language seems to be working; at the time of writing, the government is inching ever closer towards declaration of a national climate emergency.

This declaration is the first of three demands outlined by XR. The second is a reduction of carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 (which slashes the existing deadline of 2050 recently outlined by the Committee on Climate Change) and the third is the formation of a citizen’s assembly, a randomly-selected group of people responsible for listening to experts, debating crucial issues and drafting policy recommendations. But just how realistic are these demands?

“The honest answer is that we won’t know until we try, but it certainly won’t be possible if we don’t start trying now,” explains Andrew Simms, a coordinator of (XR-recommended think-tank) The Rapid Transition Alliance. He echoes the XR claim that fast, radical change is needed – which might sound extreme, but it’s been done before.

“Systems can’t change overnight, but the radical and rapid changing of infrastructure, behaviour and consumption has happened in response to past crises,” he continues, citing World War II and the 2007-2008 recession as key examples of past overhauls. “At the very least, we need to switch out energy-intensive private transport and meat-based food systems” for “clean, electric mass transit systems [and] more plant-based diets.” Plans are already in place to meet some of these demands, but the signs aren’t exactly promising – research shows that the government is off-track to meet its current targets.

"Scientists estimate that we have around 12 years to properly tackle climate change. 97% of scientists agree that humans are the leading cause of global warming over the last century, and that drastic action is needed to prevent full-scale climate emergency."

NGOs are working hard to rectify this. Greenpeace UK recently released an emergency manifesto listing 134 ways to effectively lower carbon emissions, which range from an increase in renewable energy sources to a crackdown on air travel. The proposals are ultimately straightforward and extremely convincing, backed by the argument that making sustainable change could actually be surprisingly cost-efficient. Crucially, an accompanying opinion poll also shows that 76% of respondents would change their vote to support politicians who prioritise saving the planet. In other words, fighting climate change isn’t just morally right; it’s politically smart.

The release of these proposals has been perfectly timed to build on the momentum created by XR’s mass civil disobedience, but the group is also making efforts to engage with politicians. Earlier this week, a representative met with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who came under fire for calling on the group to halt their protests and let London return to ‘business as usual’. Despite criticism of their tactics, he claimed to be an XR ally.

Not everyone has been so kind; over the last few weeks they’ve been called "deluded” by the Daily Mail (hardly a suprise) , and “incompetent, middle-class, self-indulgent people” by Sky News presenter Adam Boulton. These irritated, knee-jerk insults can be easily brushed off, but some other critiques do hold weight.

XR’s treatment of the police as friendly allies in particular has been criticised by Stansted 15 activist Ben Smoke, who knows firsthand that arrest can escalate quickly into a potential life sentence. The group’s relaxed approach also demonstrates an ignorance of the systemic racism that still plagues the UK police force, proven by research revealing that officers are more likely to use force against black victims. As if that weren’t enough, recent figures show that deaths in police custody have risen to a ten-year high. These facts all beg the question: who has the luxury of being arrested without fear?

To their credit, XR handles criticism well. In a recent VICE interview, co-founder Gail Bradbrook explains: “our diversity is not perfect, it’s not right”. She goes on to say that “it can and must be okay and safe for black people in Extinction Rebellion. White people here must get up and put their bodies in the way if the police are targeting people of colour.” The group has also explained its political approach as ‘experimental’ in its podcast, which should be commended; movements like these must adapt and respond to criticism if they stand a chance of survival.

Their success is important. Scientists estimate that we have around 12 years to properly tackle climate change. 97% of scientists agree that humans are the leading cause of global warming over the last century, and that drastic action is needed to prevent full-scale climate emergency. But despite the increase of record heat waves, a huge loss of biodiversity and a rise in natural disasters, climate change denial still exists; just last week, international trade secretary Liam Fox came under fire for seemingly legitimising it.

The situation is even more dire internationally; President Trump actually had to confirm that he no longer thinks that global warming is a “hoax created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

As long as these attitudes exist, we need groups like Extinction Rebellion. Their demands might seem extreme or unclear, but with the help of experienced scientists and policy-minded NGOs, they represent our greatest hope of actually getting through to politicians. Still, it’s important to remember that XR claims to be apolitical – an important sidenote, given that the likelihood of climate revolution under capitalism has been rightly questioned. In fact, just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015, and as long as they stand to make money from exploiting natural resources, it’s likely they’ll continue to do so.

This big picture narrative is often lacking from climate change conversations, which tend to hinge on the idea that we can all tackle the problem by using paper straws and eating less meat. We all can – and should – be making individual changes, but the reality is that only politicians hold the power to truly tackle the emergency we’re facing, and at the minute they’re distracted by the still-looming reality of Brexit. XR’s methods might not be perfect, but at least they’ve jolted politicians into acknowledging a climate emergency. All that remains to be seen is whether or not it’s too late to reverse the damage that’s already been done.

climate change
climate emergency
Extinction Rebellion