‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’— Robert Swan
Extinction Rebellion and a Dilemma of Existential Importance
As a Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner who has dedicated most of my working life to safeguarding the health, safety and welfare of the public, could I countenance breaking the law in the pursuit of these goals, could I risk arrest?
It’s the 7th October 2019. I stand aside my wife and seven year old child, alongside other activists who have travelled to the nation’s capital, individuals from varied backgrounds and professions, young and old, the working and the retired. Together we wait for a signal to move into position, to set up one of a series of blockades around the city of Westminster, the centre of Government power. We are here as part of the international Autumn Uprising, taking place across more than 60 cities worldwide in the name of Extinction Rebellion (XR). The purpose of this act of civil disobedience being to cause a degree of disruption. To interrupt the notion of business as usual. To draw public attention to the existential crisis facing us. To pressure the Government and institutions to communicate the threat, to take action proportionate to the seriousness and urgency of the situation and to find democratic solutions to the crisis that are not hampered by adversarial politics or the undue interests of powerful vested interests.
I look around at the slightly anxious faces around me, many of whom I have come to know these past months. Most, like myself, unacquainted with past activism, but who now find themselves driven to act in response to the threat with which we are faced. As we glance furtively at one another we exchange affectionate smiles, knowing that we’re doing the right thing, united in a common purpose, a moral purpose.
As my heart races in anticipation I pause for a moment’s reflection as to what has led me to this place, to this moment in time. Just six months before my world felt very different – civilised, orderly, secure, and as part of a modern democratic society I was reasonably confident that our societal checks and balances would help ensure the interests of citizens were suitably safeguarded. That was until spring 2019 when a number of actions taken by XR appeared in the press and across social media.
Awaking to the emergency
Curious about these actions I sought to understand what this movement was about and why so many people had suddenly, or so it seemed, taken to the streets to protest against an alleged lack of action in response to climate change and ecological breakdown. After all, hadn’t we known for a long time that the planet was subject to a degree of global warming. I vaguely recalled covering this as part of my degree syllabus some thirty years ago. But wasn’t this predicted to impact centuries later? So much later that the risks felt somehow remote, intangible, irrelevant. I had also read that various glaciers were retreating, but weren’t others expanding too? And with respect to climate change being man-made, wasn’t it always the case of the science not being clear. Admittedly, there were some who argued that man was responsible for the adverse impacts on our planet, but I’d also encountered opinions to the contrary, from scientists who refuted or interpreted the evidence differently, who argued that the effects that we were witnessing were part of the natural fluctuations in the world’s climate that might be expected over time, with man’s contribution being questioned. So, the science wasn’t irrefutable, was it? And there were always a few scientists guilty of predicting catastrophes, after all this makes headline grabbing news, and an opportunity for promoting one’s work. And of course there would always be a movement of ‘environmentalists’ ready to resonate these views and ideas in the name of saving our planet.
However, I’d now discovered that in 2017 more than 15,000 scientists from around the world had signed an open letter to humanity1,2 stating that to prevent widespread misery humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual and that soon it would be too late to change course away from our failing trajectory and that time is running out. They highlighted a host of environmental calamities, including catastrophic climate change, deforestation, mass species extinction, ocean “dead zones” and lack of access to fresh water. By failing to adequately limit population growth, to reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, to reduce greenhouse gases, to incentivise renewable energy, to protect habitats, to restore ecosystems, to curb pollution, to halt defaunation, and to constrain invasive alien species, man-kind was guilty of not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.
I was also faced with a series of more recent scientific reports, a body of scientific evidence, remarkable its scientific consensus.
Contrary to what I had expected based on my reading of the various news reports, I realised that it was not simply Extinction Rebellion, as an environmental pressure group, claiming that civilisation was in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency based on their potentially biased interpretation of facts, but the consensus of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world-leading body of global scientists appointed to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, and to put forward adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Their landmark report of 8 October 2018 entitled ‘Global Warming of 1.50C’,3, as reported on in The Guardian4, highlighted how critical the situation had become over a very short time (the last 2-3 decades in particular) and how there now remained just a dozen years for global warming (caused by rising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from anthropogenic activities) to be kept to a maximum of 1.50C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which even half a degree rise would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. While this target is supposedly affordable and feasible, it stands at the more ambitious end of the Paris Agreement5 pledge, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to keep temperatures between 1.50C and 20C.
With the average temperature already at 1.10C above pre-industrial level, the report highlights how far reaching, systemic changes would be needed across all aspects of society, on a scale and at a rate unprecedented in human history, to change our current trajectory, which places us on a path to 3 to 40C warming and to ‘irreversible and catastrophic consequences’. These challenges, that would require a radical shift across energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems to reduce emissions, would require people to unite, making the space for available politicians and big businesses to make the necessary changes.
While seemingly radical the conclusions set out in the summary document were described as “incredibly conservative”, failing to mention the likely rise in climate-driven refugees and the danger of tipping points that could push the world down an irreversible path of extreme warming, with a real risk of runaway heating and what’s been described as a hot-house earth.5,6
The IPCC’s second report, on ‘Climate Change and Land’7 (released on the 8th August 2019), further highlights how attempts to solve the climate crisis by cutting carbon emissions from cars, factories and power plants alone are doomed to failure, unless there is also a transformation in the way the world produces food and manages land; with land having to be managed more sustainably so that it releases much less carbon; the restoration of peat lands by halting drainage schemes; a cut in meat consumption to reduce methane production; and, the reduction in food waste.8,9,10
Then the third ‘Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’11 (issued on the 26 September), highlighting the intimate connection between our climate, our oceans and our very existence, and presenting irrefutable scientific evidence that our warming climate is placing marine and frozen areas of our planet in grave danger, with some changes happening at a much larger scale and faster rate than previously predicted. A report calling for urgent action to keep our planet, and our oceans, safe and habitable, which would require more even ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and shift our energy system away from polluting fossil fuels towards 100% renewable energy.12
In parallel, further reports on the impacts of climate change and wider “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades highlight how the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is already under way, one more severe than previously feared, with an estimated 200 species becoming extinct daily.13,14
Meanwhile health impacts are identified by European health scientists, who highlight impacts already occurring and how over the coming century, climate change has to be ranked as one of the most serious threats to health. That as a society we are subjecting young people and future generations to these increasing health risks for many hundreds of years to come, if not millennia15,16. These concerns are mirrored in a letter published in the British Medical Journal (a founding member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, alongside a range of royal medical and nursing colleges, the Royal Society of Medicine, the British Medical Association, and The Lancet) in December 2018, describing the climate breakdown as ‘the greatest crisis we have ever faced’ and calling for carbon neutrality by 203017.
As the realisation dawns, the scale and urgency of the situation feel somehow surreal, as though I must be in a dream, one that I will surely awake from. I wrestle with a sickening hollowness; with feelings of grief, grief for the planet and the life it sustains, our civilisation, our society, my family and all of our futures.
A home outside the Home Office
So much to absorb, to process, to comprehend. Overwhelming evidence supporting the need for immediate action, bringing me to this place and moment in time. As our signal is received I advance purposefully with my fellow protestors into Marsham Street outside the Home Office, unfurling our banners proclaiming to the world that we face an emergency, bringing traffic to a halt, interrupting their everyday routines. Busy routines which can leave little room for new information, reflection, for people to perhaps realise the emergency facing them. If they did, then surely they would be stood alongside us? Pedestrians, cyclists, hastily trying to get to work. A few pause to observe us as we start to assemble structures across the roads, to pitch our tents, to set up home for the days ahead. Others carry on past, almost as if we weren’t there, avoiding catching our glances, side-stepping our blockades, a minor nuisance that they don’t have time for at the moment. But these may be some of the people we need to reach. Can they see our banners? Can they read our signs? This is an emergency. We are here to highlight the truth. We are here to raise the alarm. We are here for all of us, for their children too. Every so often the odd passer-by vents their anger, possibly in evidence of some of the frustration caused by our toxic system. How could we begin to reach out? If only we had time to explain. However, we have to be realistic. We apologise. We are not going to win across everyone, not straight away. Then there are those that do stop, who make deliberate eye contact, and who mouth their words of thanks. Still others approach us, shake our hands, clearly ‘enlightened’, people who get it, who get us, their actions helping to provide the confirmation that we are doing the right thing, in being here, to tell the truth, to raise the alarm.
But how could our leaders, our Government, the media have failed to alert us to this looming catastrophe, this existential threat? Why is this issue not dominating the news, media and political debate, daily, over and above any other issue? Why is it that although consciousness is clearly changing, the politics evidently aren’t?
As a relatively well educated individual who keeps up with current affairs, I couldn’t understand how the scale of this threat had eluded me and why so many of those around me seem equally unaware. Blissfully unaware of the threat facing us, so many of us have simply carried on as if it’s ‘business as usual’, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
And wouldn’t our Government presented with the facts, with robust scientific evidence of an existential threat, heed the science and the advice and act accordingly?
Why on the 1st May did the UK Government refuse to declare an Environmental and Climate Emergency, despite the motion having been approved in the Commons? 18 How could they decline when, in contrast, a Climate Emergency had been declared by Welsh Government on the 29th April19,20, was declared by the Scottish Parliament on the 14th May21, and by so many local authorities across the UK?
The Government knows
To my further dismay I learnt that on 10th July, the UK Committee on Climate Change (the independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK Government and Devolved Administrations on emissions targets and report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change) released its progress report, highlighting how despite its well-intentioned ambition the UK Government had fallen behind in its progress to tackle and prepare for climate change. It found that Government had delivered on only 1 of the 25 policy actions to tackle climate change that had been recommended by the Committee in 2018, and only 7 out of 24 indicators of underlying progress were on track, with the current policies and plans insufficient to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (covering 2023-2027 and 2028-2032). The Committee concluded that the Government knows what to do, but simply isn’t doing it, and that the Government’s 2040 goal to eliminate emissions from cars and vans was ‘too late’ 22,23.
So it became clear to me that we had a Government failing us in two ways.
Firstly, in failing to provide the public with honest and accessible information about the scale and urgency of the threat and the measures that are required to be taken across society. After all, democracies can only function effectively when people have access to good information, and the Government’s failure to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis is a betrayal of our country’s most democratic principles.
Secondly in failing to take the measures necessary to reduce the risk of a mass loss of life to a tolerable level.
Worse still the evidence suggested that the Government, by failing to be honest about the climate breakdown, by continuing to heavily subsidise fossil fuel industries while having disinvested in renewables, and by expanding fracking and aviation, is leading us towards unprecedented human misery and mass loss of life.
With my consciousness awakened and faced with a situation where the gap between the scientific advice and Government policy were clearly widening, with a Government failing in its most fundamental duty to safeguard its people, our children, my seven year old son, I found myself compelled to act.
Losing something dear
Up until this point in my life, rightly or wrongly, I had never been particularly drawn to politics, nor to any particular cause, content to leave this to others. However, mindful of the words of Robert Swan24, that ‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’, I was suddenly faced not with a choice but with a moral responsibility. I was faced with a moral duty to do what I considered necessary and proportionate to protect myself, my family and fellow citizens from catastrophic and irreversible harm, to join with others to raise the alarm in the face of the Government’s failure to do so, and in doing so to create the political mandate for our politicians, working with business and society, to make the far reaching systemic changes needed. To recognise and understand what’s happening and to do nothing would after all make me complicit.
But ‘what’ was I to do? It is clear that tackling climate change is not an issue that can be left to individuals or to the free market, but one which requires collective action and where government has a central role in making that collective action possible4,25,26.
No longer was there time to influence change by casting my vote during elections; by donating to environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and FOE; or, by signing various petitions calling for Government action on specific issues. While these might have influenced Government thinking to a degree over the years, the processes are slow, uncertain and in the case of the climate and ecological emergency had evidently been ineffective.
Hardly surprising then that as citizens increasingly discover the truth, understand the predicament faced by the global environment, species and human civilization, that they are starting to rise up, to demand radical action and to raise wider awareness of the issue, in the hope of influencing change on a scale and with the speed necessary.
And so I find myself, with my fellow protestors, with my wife and child, fighting for our planet, the lifeforms it sustains and our human civilization, for all its faults. Filled with new found feelings and empathy, as are realised when one is faced with the risk of losing something dear. I struggle with the knowledge that I myself will have been guilty of a degree of complacency towards our planet, had not valued it enough, or done enough to ensure its protection. Yes, I too have been part of the problem. A consumer like any other. However I have recognised the need to change. I have started to change, to make adjustments where I can in a system that feels like it is stacked against us. While I remain imperfect, I cannot let this imperfection stand in the way of action. If we were to do so, out of the fear of being branded hypocrites, then there would be no uprising, and little might change. But the empathy I hold is heart-felt and genuine, it is shared by those gathered around me in protest, it has given us this shared moral purpose and a deep sense of personal connection. Newly realised feelings and sensibilities that bind us together, and provide us with a conviction and courage to act.
Me – a law abiding conformist
What else can we do when to do nothing is morally abhorrent and all lawful means to protest have failed?
And so I sit here, with my fellow protestors, nervous but determined, as unit after unit of police officers arrive, a stream of fluorescent yellow that gradually surrounds us, filming our actions, and no doubt planning their next move. Part of me looks upon them as allies helping to prevent any potential breach of the peace by those opposed to our protests, but neither can I escape the fact that they represent an instrument of the State, ultimately protecting powerful vested interests of those who profit from the industries that are contributing to the destruction of our planet. While many are stoic, disinclined to engage, dutifully following their orders, there are others whose eyes betray their feelings of sympathy and support, some who go so far as to express their thanks, who share that they are on our side. We are all human beings after all. We are doing this for their children too.
I wonder whether they might in turn acknowledge me as a husband, a concerned father, as someone who might be naturally conservative in nature, law abiding, a conformist, wrestling with the dilemma of whether I would be prepared to face arrest, to be criminalised by the system, with all of the consequences this might entail. Someone prepared to make a huge personal sacrifice in order to highlight the gravity of the situation facing us, in the hope that this will cause society to pause, to reconsider, to do the right thing.
I struggled to understand how society could allow for crimes against the planet, how ‘ecocide’ and ultimately crimes against humanity could be allowed to continue unchecked, without punishment, and yet at the same time criminalise those of us who are prepared to take a stand for the simple act of obstructing a highway, or for failing to vacate an area on notice from the police. A demand issued in the name of ensuring public order, which would ultimately serve to deny protestors the right to peaceful and conscientious protest, as enshrined within Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights (i.e. the Right to Freedom of Expression and the Right to Peaceful Assembly) 27. Without the ability to exercise these rights how else might government and powerful institutions be held to account.
But I am no rebel. I am not rebellious.
To the contrary, I am a Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, someone who has spent the last 30 years of my life working in service to the public, a local government officer responsible for managing a range of regulatory teams focused on protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public, for protecting those in our communities often regarded as the most vulnerable. It is in my blood. This is not an irrational act. It’s the norm for me to consider the science, to utilised this evidence in weighing up risk and then to act accordingly to ensure that the suitable protections are put in place. As a ‘friend to the human race’ surely my actions are morally justified, surely they are proportionate. There is after all an emergency and in an emergency normal rules and constraints do not apply. We have a moral duty to act, to do what’s reasonable and necessary to avert the catastrophic impacts.
Confronted with this new reality, the notion of participating in these minor acts of civil disobedience, in this nonviolent direct action, felt entirely justified. Surely they were no less justified than the successful actions pursued by past social movements to address moral injustices of their times, from the Suffragettes movement in the early 1900s in the pursuit of womens’ rights; to the fight for India’s independence from British rule by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930s and 40s; to the US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Yet at no other time in human history have we faced such an existential threat as we do today.
Moreover, various articles and posts across the media revealed how the recent protests by XR were viewed as necessary and that they were working 28,29,30, 31, 32.
When my arrest comes I am ready
So ultimately I was left without a realistic choice. I had to move from being a bystander to being an ‘upstander’, to do what was necessary and felt right, and in doing so to elevate myself beyond my feelings of hopelessness to being empowered.
This belief, this empowerment, finally provides me with courage; the courage to remain seated in protest, refusing to move, facing the threats of arrest. Sat in peaceful solidarity with others, our spirits lifted by a chorus of song, by the occasional sounds of a samba band rallying support. Supported by my wife, by our seven year old son, our son who we have cautiously sought to educate so that he can understand the necessity of our actions while at the same time protecting him from the bleak picture that this future generation currently face.
When my arrest comes I am ready for it. Ready to stand and be counted. Ready to deal with the consequences that might follow, being subject to investigation, the prospect of being charged, of being brought before the courts – the chance to have my say. The words of thanks from fellow protestors and sympathetic onlookers providing a degree of final validation, if it was required, as I am taken from the site.
Whether these actions are ultimately effective in achieving their goal remains to be seen. However, I remain motivated by the fact that I am trying and that I will be able to look back knowing I have tried, knowing that we will ultimately find ourselves on the right side of history, regardless of the outcome.
If nothing else I owe this to my son.
- World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (12 Dec 2017) https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229
- 15,000 scientists give catastrophic warning about the fate of the world in new ‘letter to humanity’. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/letter-to-humanity-warning-climate-change-global-warming-scientists-union-concerned-a8052481.html
- IPCC – Global Warming of 1.50C (8 Oct 2018) https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
- We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN (8 Oct 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report
- The Paris Agreement. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
- IPCC global warming report spares politicians worst details (8 Oct 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/08/world-leaders-climate-change-ipcc-report
- IPCC – Climate Change and Land (8 Aug 2019). https://www.ipcc.ch/report/srccl/
- We must change food production to save the world, says leaked report (4 Aug 2019). https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/03/ipcc-land-use-food-production-key-to-climate-crisis-leaked-report
- Plant-based diet can fight climate change – UN (8 Aug 2019). https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49238749
- Climate crisis reducing land’s ability to sustain humanity, says IPCC (8 Aug 2019). https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/08/climate-crisis-reducing-lands-ability-to-sustain-humanity-says-ipcc
- IPCC: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (25 Sep 2019). https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/home/
- Climate change: UN panel signals red alert on ‘Blue Planet’ (25 Sep 2019) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49817804
- Earth’s sixth mass extinction event underway, scientists warn (10 Jul 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn
- Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines (25 Jul 2017) – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089
- The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe (3 Jun 2019). https://easac.eu/publications/details/the-imperative-of-climate-action-to-protect-human-health-in-europe/
- Climate crisis seriously damaging human health (3 Jun 2019). https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/03/climate-crisis-seriously-damaging-human-health-report-finds
- Legislate for carbon net zero by 2030 (6 Dec 2018) – British Medical Journal. https://www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k5197/rr
- UK Parliament declares climate change emergency https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48126677
- Climate emergency’ declared by Welsh Government (29 Apr 2019) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-48093720
- The Global Climate Emergency – Scotland’s Response: Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s statement (14 May 2019) https://www.gov.scot/publications/global-climate-emergency-scotlands-response-climate-change-secretary-roseanna-cunninghams-statement/
- UK credibility on climate change rests on Government action over next 18 months (10 July 2019). https://www.theccc.org.uk/2019/07/10/uk-credibility-on-climate-change-rests-on-government-action-over-next-18-months/
- Climate change: UK government ‘like Dad’s Army’ (10 Jul 2019). https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-48929632
- Overwhelmed by climate change? Here’s what you can do (8 Oct 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/climate-change-what-you-can-do-campaigning-installing-insulation-solar-panels.
- The Guardian view on climate crisis: what can we do? (11 Aug 2019) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/11/the-guardian-view-on-climate-crisis-what-can-we-do
- European Convention on Human Rights https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf
- 25 Nov 2018 – (The Times) – Academics said although XRs claims about climate change sounded ‘apocalyptic’ they were broadly scientifically correct. In doing so they quote Professor Sam Frakhauser, Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, at the London School of Economics as stating “It is important to make more noise about climate risks”; “We need to do something radical”; “So calls to tell the truth are welcome”.
- 15 Apr 2019 (The Guardian) – George Monbiot – Only rebellion will prevent an ecological collapse.
- 25 April 2019 (Daily Express) – Extinction Rebellion protests have worked as MPs succumb to calls for change.
- 28 April 2019 (Daily Mail) – JC forces MPs to vote on declaring a Climate Emergency after XR protests over inaction.
- 10 June 2019 (The Guardian) – XR tactics are working. It has pierced the bubble of denial.