Climate change is firing up middle-class activism
Pilita Clark: Employers are having to think about how to deal with staff who set out to be arrested
It is hard to imagine hundreds lining up for handcuffs, especially full-time workers. A criminal record can make a lot of things trickier at work: getting a visa, finding a new job and keeping an old one. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
In the past 10 days, two friends of mine on opposite sides of the world have both done something I have never seen either do before. One in Sydney cheerfully let her children skip school for a day so they could go to a street protest. Another in London said she was thinking of getting arrested. They do not know each other but both were driven by the same thing: rising impatience with the slow pace of action to curb climate change.
These women, like me, are tediously law-abiding, taxpaying homeowners. The nearest they normally get to a march is when they have to race to be on time for a pilates class. Neither has been to anything like this week’s UN climate talks in Poland, which are supposed to be keeping the 2015 Paris accord on track. Both are part of a burst of middle-class climate activism that has few recent precedents, no famous leaders – and intriguing implications for the workplace.
My Sydney friend’s children were among thousands of students across Australia who went on strike last month because, as two wrote, “What’s the point of learning facts at school if the people in power ignore them?” For schools around the country, this presented an unusual dilemma. Should the striking truants be punished, ignored or excused? In the absence of obvious precedents, some education departments threatened disciplinary action while others praised the young “global citizens”.
That is just a taste of the confusion British employers could face if my London friend is a guide. She has been drawn to something called Extinction Rebellion, a non-violent climate protest movement inspired by Gandhi that has sprung from nowhere and specifically recruits people willing to be arrested and jailed. Thousands of its supporters have swarmed London’s streets in the past seven weeks to block bridges, halt traffic, glue themselves to government buildings and occupy the headquarters of Greenpeace, which they politely urged to “up its game”.
Organisers say 150 people have been arrested so far and claim this is just the start. We shall see. It is hard to imagine hundreds lining up for handcuffs, especially full-time workers. A criminal record can make a lot of things trickier at work: getting a visa, finding a new job and keeping an old one. Many company codes of conduct prohibit behaviour that is criminal or brings a firm into disrepute. Yet a scan through the donors to Extinction Rebellion’s crowdfunding site, which was raising more than £1,000 a day at some points last week, is revealing.
One £200 donation came from Yan Swiderski, a fund manager who was among the protesters who blocked a busy London road near his Pimlico home the other week. “It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that,” he told me, adding he felt the new movement had “captured the zeitgeist” for people fed up with years of inaction.
Alastair Sawday, the 73-year-old founder of the eponymous British travel book empire, was another donor. He said he was ready to be arrested, after years of “reasonable” environmental action, and thought a lot of companies might let their workers follow suit. He may turn out to be a player in a shortlived drama, which comes as France’s chaotic gilets jaunes protests highlight the risks of badly designed climate policies that unfairly burden poorer voters. Yet the underlying cause of his dissent remains, namely the gap between what voters say they want on climate change and what they get.
In Australia, support for urgent and even costly climate action is at its highest point in a decade. Yet the country is led by a prime minister who last year brought a lump of coal into parliament to underline his faith in the planet-warming fossil fuel. In the UK, coal is being phased out but most people still want more solar panels and electric cars. Government has cut back its support for both.
This year, countries worldwide have been scorched by record temperatures as scientists have issued ever blunter warnings that time is running out to meet the goals of the Paris accord. Yet last week, scientists reported that global carbon emissions in 2018 surged to a record high. Today’s protesters may fade away but it is easy to imagine that others will soon replace them.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018