A Changing Political Climate
This past October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that was a wake-up call to the world. The climate change crisis would reach a point of no return in 12 years (Watts). Unless we cut carbon pollution by 45% by 2030, global temperatures would rise, with disastrous environmental and social consequences. Yet in spite of this looming disaster, governments are slow to act. The recent G20 summit saw the United States stand firm on their decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Even countries under the Paris Agreement seemed to continue with policies that would harm the environment: gas fracking would continue in Britain, oil exploration in Norway, and deforestation in Germany (Watts).
While governments have been hampered by conflicting lobbyists’ interests and bureaucratic red tape, the public has certainly responded quickly. Awareness of environmental issues has increased, and many people are conscious of the consequences their actions have on the environment. Many of my peers have changed their lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, namely by shunning private transport, changing their diets, and avoiding single-use plastics. The trend of holding oneself accountable in this crisis is picking up pace: we, the common masses, are beginning to realize the impact that we can have on shaping the world around us.
This has certainly extended to political mobilization. Shortly after the UN IPCC report was released, a series of protests in the United Kingdom made international headlines. Extinction Rebellion (XR), a protest group calling attention to the dire consequences of climate change, declared a Rebellion in the form of civil disobedience to "fight for life". The protestors blocked major roads and bridges in London, bringing the city to a momentary standstill. They also held a peaceful memorial service for extinct species, organized a sit-in outside Downing Street, and held a march (Bourke). What sets this movement apart from other mass demonstrations is the restraint and accountability of the protesters and the protest as a whole. XR organizers reminded participants to be accountable for their actions, discouraging acts of vandalism or unruliness (Bourke). XR protestors were encouraged to take direct action (by breaking the law non-violently) with the understanding that they may be arrested, which could also help call attention to their cause (Molitch-Hou). Through non-violent protest and civil disobedience, XR hopes to achieve their aim of creating enough political will to compel governments to act.
XR’s message, while pessimistic, is empowering in its own way. It is unflinchingly honest about the realities of climate change, painting a bleak picture of the future we are faced with and even including “extinction” in the name of the group. XR also questions whether we should allow governments to continue on their current path. For instance, the group hung a banner from Westminster Bridge saying “Climate Change: We’re Fucked”. This is a marked change from other environmental groups, who emphasize urgency while offering a glimmer of optimism (De Moor et al.). XR’s sentiment of acceptance but not defeat is one that many disillusioned and weary people can resonate with: “we’re screwed, but we still have a choice, even if it is only a choice over how bad it will get” (De Moor et al.)
The somberness of XR’s protests has captured the attention of many people around the world. Campaigners from different countries are looking to XR as an example, with one American activist lauding them as “game changers” (Farand). The movement has already spread to the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Spain. However, the strategy that XR employs may not be applicable to every part of the world. As Mawuse Yao Agorkor, a Ghanaian activist, points out, civil disobedience in some African countries is not ideal given the prevalence of police brutality.
Another recent protest for climate change has also gained international attention. The “Big School Walkout for Climate Action” in Australia saw thousands of students marching and organizing sit-ins. Being unable to vote, students felt that this was the only way that they could assert an interest in a future that they felt politicians were robbing from them (Mao). In response, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed the protest, saying, “What we want is more learning and less activism in schools.”
Climate change does not have an easy solution. But we still have reason to be optimistic. As Jim Skea, one of the authors of the IPCC report observes, “We’ve seen [that a reversal of climate change] can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. The final tick box is political will.” As more people around the world mobilize and make their voices heard, governments will eventually have to take notice.
Bourke, India. Can Protest Groups like Extinction Rebellion Really Police Themselves? 27 Nov. 2018, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/energy/2018/11/can-protest-groups-extinction-rebellion-really-police-themselves.
De Moor, Joost, et al. “The ‘New’ Climate Politics of Extinction Rebellion?” OpenDemocracy, 27 Nov. 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/joost-de-moor-brian-doherty-graeme-hayes/new-climate-politics-of-extinction-rebellion.
Farand, Chloe. “Extinction Rebellion: From the UK to Ghana.” The Ecologist, 29 Nov. 2018, /2018/nov/29/extinction-rebellion-uk-ghana.
Molitch-Hou, Michael. “Our Dying Planet Can’t Scream, but People Can.” The Outline, https://theoutline.com/post/6704/out-dying-planet-cant-scream-but-people-can. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.
Watts, Jonathon. “We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Change Catastrophe, Warns UN.” The Guardian, 8 Oct. 2018. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report.