Extinction Rebellion should be celebrated, not sneered at

The climate campaigners have been criticised for disrupting transport and being too privileged – yet as the planet warms up, we’ll look back favourably on their actions. 

NS

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Extinction Rebellion is meeting its first objective: to gain attention. Since its launch late last year, thousands of people have been arrested around the world as Extinction Rebellion groups have emerged in country after country, deploying direct action tactics to raise the profile of environmental breakdown.

In this way, much of what Extinction Rebellion is doing isn’t new; its language draws on a tradition of environmental campaigners who have long warned that we ignore our relationship with nature at our peril, and have taken direct action when leaders have failed to respond.

Timing matters. Three factors have given Extinction Rebellion a unique opportunity to exert pressure. First, we’ve never had such an unequivocal understanding of the state of environment, validating the decades-long warnings of climate scientists and campaigners and invalidating arguments that deny the reality of climate change.  

Second, the window of opportunity to avoid climate breakdown is fast closing. And third, more people are becoming vocal about this reality. Millennials and young people have taken up the mantle of environmental protest, realising they stand to inherent the mess created by generations before them. Among this growing chorus of voices, Extinction Rebellion is calling for two things: honesty and action.

The findings of environmental scientists contradict the actions of politicians. Shortly before Extinction Rebellion launched in October 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by nearly half over the next 11 years in order to keep warming below 1.5C.

Groups ranging from Greenpeace to the Ministry of Defence recognise this urgency. But politicians have been slow – or unwilling – to react. The US president mocks renewable energy, seeks his country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and has cancelled many domestic policies intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the government’s official climate advisor has warned the country is not on track to meet its legally binding decarbonisation targets due to a funding shortfall.

Action must follow political honesty. There is a graph in the recent IPCC report that illustrates how quickly emissions must decline to stave off climate breakdown. The downward line illustrating this change is so steep it is almost vertical, beginning with the level of current emissions and falling toward zero over the next 30 years.

No government or business has a plan to reduce emissions at this scale or pace. In a 2017 letter, 15,300 scientists across 184 nations predicted that current commitments to reduce emissions are still likely to precipitate “catastrophic” warming in excess of 3C. You would be forgiven for thinking political and business leaders are fools or knaves; they have either not realised the extent of the threat, or they know and are unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

Where climate initiatives typically focus on incremental management, solving global warming through KeepCups and electric cars, Extinction Rebellion is calling for the government to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible.

Its activists’ aims are bold, and their strategies disruptive. Some have criticised the campaigners for tactics that are inappropriate, or counterproductive. But as media commentators line up to sneer, they would be wise to take a moment to understand why people feel they have to take such drastic action.

As the seas rise and the food runs out, we may look back on the inconvenience caused by Extinction Rebellion and realise how much less disruptive their actions were than climate change.

Others have argued Extinction Rebellion is an overly white and privileged movement; as one Sky news anchor put it, the movement is “middle-class” and “self-indulgent”. Yet climate change is a class issue. The consequences of environmental breakdown fall hardest on the poorest, who are most vulnerable to its effects and least responsible for the problem.

The injustice of environmental breakdown should be understood in the context of other political movements. We look positively on the direct action of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, understanding their tactics as necessary within a context of oppression. Activists with movements like Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement are heirs to the legacy of those who protested in the face of official intransigence. Their recent successes are rooted in their focus on opportunities for renewal, weaving this into a resonant story told by those bearing the brunt of environmental injustices. 

Extinction Rebellion is one constituent of a growing cacophony calling for honesty and action on environmental breakdown, from school children to congresswomen. To varying degrees, and using different tactics, they have ignited new energy and helped re-politicise a crisis.

This should be celebrated, not sneered at. This is one of the most extraordinary moments in history – our futures are under threat, and many of our leaders have failed us. All power to Extinction Rebellion.  

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is co-author of a forthcoming book about environmental breakdown, published by Verso. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.