Activism about the climate crisis is intensifying. What woke us up?
It’s happening again. Extinction Rebellion protesters have returned to central London, exercising their belief that direct action is the only way to force the government to take climate change seriously. Over the past week, they have sealed off Parliament Square and attempted to occupy one of the capital’s airports. More than 1,000 have been arrested.
Why this story?
The science behind climate change is not a mystery. It has been clear since the 1970s to researchers looking in the right places, and since the 1980s to leaders – like Margaret Thatcher – with an empirical cast of mind.
So why has it taken so long for public impatience to boil over? Why wasn’t Extinction Rebellion camped out round Westminster 30 years ago?
Jack Kessler has been looking for answers among the activists, in academia and in history. They aren’t reassuring. Bottom line: we probably had to start feeling climate change for real before doing anything about it. Giles Whittell, editor.
Despite the disruption, four in ten Londoners back them. The City is swinging behind rapid decarbonisation because fund managers see only stranded assets and uninsurable risks if it doesn’t happen. In politics, outside the Trump White House, climate denial has been pushed firmly to the fringe and demands for a moonshot-style switch to clean energy at almost any cost are mainstream.
All this has happened in less than two years, even though the underlying science and the experts’ warnings have barely changed since the 1970s. So the question arises: what did change? Why now?
The question is important because of the premise – the idea that we’re at a tipping point rather than a mere re-run of past upsurges of environmental outrage. The answer seems to be a combination of polemic, personality and lived experience.
Climate change is no longer a fuzzy, future-tense phenomenon. Watch the news, and you will notice that “climate change might” has frequently been supplanted by “climate change is”. And if we want to fix it, the best advice available is that time is tight. Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that we have 12 years to save the planet – that is, if we want to keep global temperatures below 1.5C this century, to limit the very worst impacts of climate change. This would require drastic cuts of 45 per cent by 2030. Yet even 12 years may be misleading. To stay within 1.5C, the IPCC report noted that emissions must peak next year.
Is this alarmist? We’ll know soon enough. In the meantime, this summer’s European heat wave killed 1,500 people in France alone. Australia is facing its worst drought for over 100 years. California has endured its 15 worst ever wildfires since 2000. And sea levels are not just projected to rise. They are rising, by an average of about 3 millimetres a year. The Marshall Islands, spread out over 29 coral atolls and 1,200 islands in all, are debating a plan to migrate all of their 55,000 citizens to higher ground.
If we are in a new moment, it is because people are being personally impacted by climate change. Take the California fires. As Isa Flores-Jones of the Sunrise Movement, an American youth-led climate group, told me, they destroyed communities. “Among a conservative populace, the reality of seeing, feeling, smelling, breathing air that is polluted and unbreathable brings home a reality that is impossible to walk away from.”
Or hurricanes. In 2017, only 13 per cent of North Carolina Republicans believed that climate change was “very likely” to negatively impact their coastal communities. Then Hurricane Florence hit – 500,000 people lost power and statewide damage was estimated at $17 billion. When polled again a year later, that figure nearly tripled to 37 per cent, and that, says Jason Husser, a political science professor at Elon University, signals a tipping point.
It’s been a long time coming. Had humanity started to reduce emissions in 2000, it would have required annual reductions of just four per cent in order to stay within the 1.5C target. According to Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research, “Every year we delay devours the remaining budget. For the 1.5C case, every year we don’t cut emissions uses up more than 10 per cent of our remaining budget.”
It is not as if we did not know. The American biologist Barry Commoner warned in 1970: “We are in a period of grace, we have the time – perhaps a generation – in which to save the environment from the final effects of the violence we have already done to it.”
James Hansen, the American climatologist, co-authored a 1981 report which showed that global temperatures had already risen by 0.2 degrees just between the mid-1960s and 1980, and that this would lead to the “erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level”.
Then, in 1990, the first IPCC report declared that climate change was potentially “the greatest global environmental challenge facing humankind”. It warned that global temperatures could rise as much as 5 degrees by 2100.
If policymakers or consumers were bothered by this, they didn’t show it. Half of all emissions since the industrial revolution have occurred since 1988. Our atmosphere has not held this concentration of greenhouse gases for three to five million years, when the global temperature was between two and three degrees warmer and sea levels up to 20 metres higher. We are like Captain Louis Renault, strolling into the bar and declaring our “shock! shock!” to find gambling going on.
No one who has been paying attention to the tremors and torpor of western environmentalism should be surprised. John Ruskin founded a school of radical Victorian anti-capitalism in the 1860s, and capitalism marched on regardless. Teddy Roosevelt (and later Presidents Reagan and Obama) preserved large swaths of America’s wilderness for its people, while the Bureau of Land Management earmarked larger ones for its logging companies and miners. In 1962 Rachel Carson changed the zeitgeist – and US laws on pesticides – with her book Silent Spring, but a generation later an agribusiness model based on pesticides and monoculture swept all before it. The Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted by the UN in 1997, but 22 years later only seven of the 192 countries that signed it have agreed to legally binding carbon emissions targets. And so on.
These parallel narratives of environmental activism and destruction have proved a recipe for exasperation that may at last be boiling over. In April, in London’s Oxford Circus, I met a former pensions adviser who has become a full-time XR climate rebel. He had recently learned rule number one of nonviolent direct action: never resist arrest. Instead, Andrew Medhurst said, he’d been trained to “go floppy”. He told me matter-of-factly that “it took five coppers to arrest me on Waterloo Bridge”.
In June I met up again with Medhurst in his south London home. Opposite a bookshelf stocked with the works of Oliver Stone, John Pilger and Robert Fisk, he explained his shift from pensions to climate activism. “If I know what I think I know and yet I’m part of an organisation that tells 18, 20, 25 year-olds the importance of saving, so from 55 they can have a stock portfolio that will basically keep them comfortable in old age, there’s something inconsistent with that message and what I’m feeling about the climate emergency we’re facing.”
Medhurst watched the world get hotter. He read ‘Deep Adaption’, a paper by Professor Jem Bendell, in which the author concludes that climate change makes destruction of the modern economy inevitable.
With a mathematics training, Medhurst had calculated that the world had to halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and eliminate them completely by 2040 to have a hope of keeping to 1.5C. But what he saw was the UK government giving the go-ahead to fracking and a third runway at Heathrow.
And then XR came along. It was launched barely a year ago by Dr Gail Bradbrook, a scientist and veteran climate campaigner, and others. Within nine months it had 260 groups in more than 30 countries, and two big direct actions to its credit. Medhurst joined the first of these last November with his wife, Kate, helping to block five bridges across the Thames.
Persistence is everything, he reckons. “The Iraq war protest was great, but it didn’t stop the invasion because people didn’t keep coming back,” he says. He certainly intends to keep coming back, for his children if for no one else. “They won’t need a stock portfolio [but] they might need food and shelter when they reach retirement age.”
This is not the language of gradualism, of reassurance that everything will be okay. Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia and a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, says this is because the time for gradualism is past. The debate has moved on: “A few years ago we were talking about decreasing emissions. That doesn’t give an idea of scale. Zero is a scale that is understandable. People then ask ‘oh my god is that even possible?’”
Maybe not. In May this year, on the same day that the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency, a key XR demand, the High Court ruled in favour of the government’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Dana Fisher, Director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland, holds the discomforting view that things will have to get even worse before we take action. “It’s likely that we need big observable social or environmental shock. The big question is whether the threat of devastation can drive tough social change without the devastation actually hitting.”
From this perspective the 2019 spike in activism looks like a realisation that there is no time left to wait for policymakers to act. “The genius of Greta and XR is all they are doing is holding up a mirror which reflects back to us the reality that if do not limit warming, then terrible things will happen to human beings, the biosphere, other species,” says James Dyke, senior lecturer in global systems at the University of Exeter. “We cannot look away from this. We need to take action now.”
Activism also provides a space for politicians to step into. Le Quéré says that XR has already made a real difference in policy terms: “They have put net zero into the mainstream. When we [the UK Committee on Climate Change] recommended a 2050 net zero target, we feared it would be perceived as too early for people to accept. But because of XR and their 2025 target, when the government set 2050 it was all of a sudden seen as way too late. XR changed the whole idea of what is necessary and achievable.”
Can activism help us to avoid a climate disaster? It already has some policy victories, and in the absence of major policy change, it is stepping into the breach. More than that, it provides a sense of spiritual relief, a place to grieve the things we have lost and the loss to come. I have been struck by the number of climate scientists who have devoted their entire professional lives to the subject, who told me that protesting was the only thing they have done that felt like it matched the magnitude of the moment.
We feel anxious. The sky above us is telling us something is very wrong. For some, the response is apathy, even fatalism. But for others it drives them to ask: “what can I do?”
We asked some of the protestors at the Extinction Rebellion occupation of London’s Trafalgar Square what had motivated them to join the direct action.
Sophie, 39, civil servant
I’m here because of my two young children: they’re five and seven. They’re absolutely full of optimism, this kind of childhood innocence that the world is just like what it is in their books, all the storybooks which tell them about all the wonderful things which they’re going to see in the world. They’ve seen some amazing things in their life already, but I’m worried that the future won’t turn out the way they think. I have a sense that if we don’t take action now, they’re definitely going to suffer. I went to an Extinction Rebellion meeting about six months ago, and I found out a lot more information on the severity of the situation… How am I going to look at these two little children in the eye in 20 years and say I could have got involved but I was too busy working, or too busy building a nice home for them, or too busy shopping?
John Murdoch, 65, retired IT design consultant
We made the decision on Monday to come down. We just said we needed to do something about it. I think we’re running out of time. This has been ignored for such a long time that it’s become ridiculously urgent. Now it’s really scary. For a few years, we thought maybe the deniers had a point, but it turned out they were wrong. I’ve been on this page since the 1970s but like a lot of people I’ve been complacent. I’m not complacent anymore. I’m scared.
Caroline Hartnell, 69, part-time editor
I’ve got three children and three grandchildren. The youngest is three. I think over the last few years the messages coming out from scientific reports have been ever more urgent, about how little time there is. I look at Luke, and he’s three, and I think: “What sort of future, if any, have you got?” If nobody’s listening to scientists or reports, go sit in the roads and block them.
Benji, 27, environmental researcher
I’m here because we need urgent transformation in society to ensure a habitable future for our planet and because people in the global south are already dying. People are realising now that climate breakdown is not some future threat: it’s happening all around us. In countries like Mozambique and the Philippines, we’re seeing people who are suffering from the effects of extreme weather events. Extinction Rebellion has been effective in tapping into the fear that people are holding and the urgency of the situation – because it is an emergency.
All photographs Getty Images
In 2017, we hit 1 degree of warming above pre-industrial levels. Here is the UN’s IPCC report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
This year, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change published their report calling for a 2050 net zero target.
Andrew Medhurst, in his own words, on why climate change made him quit his job and become an activist.
Was James Hansen, who testified to the US Congress on climate change in 1988, right? (Yes.)