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16 November 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:44pm

Rebellion Day: does the gravity of climate change ever justify breaking the law?

A new group of environmental activists want to use civil disobedience to highlight the climate crisis.

By India Bourke

Eco-realism v. hippy extremism? When it comes to speaking-out about climate change, too much doomsaying can turn people off and make engagement seem futile. Yet too much optimism, and the status quo may not shift in time.

Getting this balance right is perhaps the greatest challenge facing a new group of environmental activists, known as Extinction Rebellion, who want to use civil disobedience to highlight the climate crisis.

Drawing upon findings from a recent UN report on climate change, the movement argues that the world only has “12 years left” to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. They consequently want the UK to reach net-zero emissions by 2025.

“We say the social contract has been broken, so we not only have a right to rebel, we have a duty to rebel”, said Gail Bradbrook, an experienced activist and mother of two, at a press conference last week.

Rather than submit yet another petition, they believe that peaceful but arrestable protest is the best way to grab the attention of the press and the politicians.

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This will culminate in a Hunger Games reminiscent “Rebellion Day”, on Saturday 17 November, in central London. Organisers say over 500 people have signed up to be arrested in a protest that they hope will “shut down” the city.

Their approach has already had some success: at least 27 protestors were arrested on Wednesday, after super-gluing themselves to the Downing Street gates, while human-blockades and “lock-ons” have also stopped traffic outside the Department for Energy and the Brazilian Embassy.

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But to reach a critical mass of participants, the movement must persuade people who wouldn’t normally conceive of committing crime, to do just that. So can it convince new recruits that the climate crisis justifies breaking the law?

“Climate change will lead to irreparable harm to our planet’s abiliity to sustain life, and cause great suffering, says Eduardo Gill-Pedro, a post-doctoral researcher in law at Lund University and a former rights and justice campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “So there is a good argument that we have a duty to do something, and that this duty outweighs our duty to obey the law.”

Breaking the law does not necessarily have to result in a wider disintegration of legal respect, he argues. “If we break the law saying ‘we don’t care what the law says, we want X, or we do not want Y’ this might undermine respect for the rule of law. Yet if we break the law, acknowledging that it is the law and, in principle, should be respected, but we say ‘despite this, other moral considerations impel us to break the law’, this will not necessarily undermine respect for the rule of law.”

Key to staying on the right side of law-breaking is also a commitment to non-violence and acknowledgement of any crimes committed, say the leaders of Extinction Rebellion. For example, they are training new activists to remain next to any graffiti they spray (with washable spray-paint), or even wash it off themselves. Participants in Saturday’s event also can choose whether to be involved in arrestable protest or not.

By opening out – and potentially popularising – a mode of protest previously only pursued by a small group of hardcore activists (many of whom have helped establish Extinction Rebellion), the organisers hope the environmental justice movement will gain new energy and reach.

Already, this week’s protests have drawn participants from a vast range of communities and professions, from farmers to faith groups. A town councillor and a retired civil servant protesting fracking in their local Lancashire community tell me they are also planning to make the trip.

Environmental NGOs are also supportive. “Friends of the Earth only takes part in peaceful, legal protest but we recognise we need a broad coalition of people, all clamouring loudly for action, to deal with this crisis before it’s too late,” says Liz Hutchins, campaigns director at Friends of the Earth.

And yet, there is a risk that in aiming to resolve all the world’s ills at once – political and environmental – the movement may not change any in time.

One stumbling block could be the extent of their ambition. Net-zero emissions by 2025 is a more extreme target than that set by the UN’s own report (which calls for a 45 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, then net-zero by 2050). It may instead be wiser to follow the findings of the Independent Committee on Climate Change, which is presently looking into how and when the UK could responsibly reach net-zero.

A second sticking point could be the movement’s focus on climate science’s very worst predictions. “My personal view is that a collapse is coming,” said Gail Bradbrook at the press event. But while visions of a global collapse in food production and human population, in which only the richest survive, is not altogether inconceivable (just this week, the hiring of private fire-fighters by the Kardashian family, showed just how linked the ability to cope with climate change is to class), it also feels like an overly gloomy estimation of the human capacity for innovation, adaptation and co-operation.

And a third is the movement’s radical political edge. The personal view of Howard Rees, 38, a press coordinator with Extinction Rebellion, is that sufficient change is not possible under our existing system. Britain’s present form of democracy is a “sham”, he says, where the leaders are “puppets” of a capitalist elite, reliant on planetary exploitation. Consequently, the movement also aims to introduce a new representative People’s Assembly, which would dictate economic priorities to politicians.

As membership swells, however, the ambitions of the Extinction Rebellion may shift again, since its decision making process is based around internal discussion. And its members are not short on passion. So when it comes to encouraging government to take swift action on emissions they may yet prove, as the Hunger Games puts it, that “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear”.