Extinction Rebellion: Inside the Irish branch of the movement

The climate action group staged a typically eye-catching protest at the Dáil last week

Meet some of the people behind the Irish branch of Extinction Rebellion, the socio-political movement aiming to highlight the global climate change crisis. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

Temperatures climbing, sea waters rising, oceans dying, forests burning, food disappearing, mass extinctions and tens of millions of people dead and displaced within 30 years are the consequences of the climate emergency – as outlined by Gail Bradbrook in a recent lecture delivered to a small UK audience.

While her name won’t ring many bells, and the dimly lit, poorly shot YouTube video lacks the glitz and the presentational pizzazz of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth or the breathtaking footage and gravelly-voiced narration of David Attenborough, Bradbrook’s words are no less impactful.

They may even have the potential to bring about greater change.

Bradbrook is a mild-mannered, softly spoken English academic and one of the founding members of the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Extinction Rebellion – or XR – is a non-violent socio-political movement. It was founded in London in 2018 to protest and to demand action against climate breakdown. It has had several days of action in London, including an 11-day protest in April that saw the arrest of more than 1,100 protestors.

Though Bradbrook doesn’t shirk from the truth about what is happening to our planet and talks of the grief she feels as a consequence, there is hope in her words too.

She describes the current situation as dire but stresses that things can be fixed if the world’s governments introduce a “World War II-style mobilisation” to reduce carbon emissions, dampen demand, change how transport and agriculture work and restore ecologies on the edge the abyss.

“It is all technologically and economically possible, and in a short space of time,” she says in the talk, adding that a movement which can bring great change does not need great numbers, just committed people willing to “apply pressure on governments and force them to change their course”.

One of those applying pressure is the remarkable 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg – the poster child of climate action, who has inspired millions of people young and old to take to the streets and strike to extract deeds rather than lip service from their leaders.

“We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future,” the teenage environmental activist told world leaders at the COP24 conference in Poland last December. “They have ignored us in the past, and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”

Loud and clear

It was a call to action that echoed around the world and was heard loud and clear by the members of the Extinction Rebellion movement.

The Irish branch of the group gathered outside Leinster House last Tuesday afternoon to be soaked in “blood”.

Ireland’s recent elections saw a heavily hyped “green surge”, in which the Green Party claimed two European Parliament seats and more than trebled its representation at local government level. It has been held up as proof of real change in Ireland, but many believe the change is not happening fast enough – if it’s really happening at all.

At least some of them were on Kildare Street this week to stage a visceral protest aimed at highlighting what they believe is Government inaction on the climate emergency and to demand immediate initiatives to reverse biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030.

Activists dressed in white overalls holding red flowers represented “innocent children” while others dressed like grubby politicians in cheap suits poured blood – actually a red, sugary syrup – over them. Then more members in green overalls, to symbolise the “greenwashing” of the climate and biodiversity crisis, arrived to clean up the mess.

It was all very theatrical and it achieved its aim: spreading the Extinction Rebellion message that the Government is not telling people the truth about the climate crisis. Plans for an event that might have forced the Garda to arrest members were scrapped at the last minute.

Stephen Cunningham from Rathgar, a member of Extinction Rebellion Ireland, during a climate change protest at Leinster House on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Stephen Cunningham from Rathgar, a member of Extinction Rebellion Ireland, during a climate change protest at Leinster House on Tuesday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

As with Extinction Rebellion groups in more than 40 countries, acts of civil disobedience leading to arrests are key to what the Irish branch is trying to do.

It has looked to the past to see what might work in the future and has concluded that the only thing that works is non-violent civil disobedience – as practised by the Suffragettes, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

‘Catastrophic future’

Extinction Rebellion member Paul McCormack Cooney was ready to be arrested. “No one who is willing to be arrested wants to be arrested,” he says. “But if we don’t make the changes that are needed, then we are on course for a catastrophic future, and sometimes the arrest is essentially a piece of communication which tells the general public and our TDs that we are willing to go to these extremes for you to make the changes.”

“We’re acting appropriately and looking at the history of the social science of mass movements that have created transformative change in societies,” says Extinction Rebellion spokesman Dr Ciarán O’Carroll.

He points out that while the crisis has been talked about with increasing intensity for more than 40 years, the message “has always come up against the implacable forces of commerce, which rely on a model of infinite growth in consumption despite the fact that we live on a single finite planet with finite natural capital”.

He says: “We need to try a new tack, a new strategy, and that’s where the non-violent peaceful civil disobedience strategy was formed. Science is telling us this is our last shot.

“We’ve got one more shot at stopping the impending annihilation. So we need to choose our strategy and tactics very carefully. We’ve looked to research in the past about what has been the most successful of mass movements in driving that kind of change. And the answer is peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience.

“Taking personal decisions, personal actions to reduce your carbon footprint is absolutely the right thing to do. Buying less plastic, taking less flights, eating less meat – we should absolutely be doing all those things.

“But we’re in a crisis like we’ve never seen before. If we started to do all those things individually 30 years ago when we first knew about greenhouse gas emissions then they could have made a big difference by now. But we didn’t.

“And now we’re at the point where the scientists are telling us that we’re emitting greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere 10 times faster than [in the previous] extinction event in which 80 per cent of all life on Earth was ended.

“So what we need now is actually bigger action, we need world governments to come together and we need them to be enacting legally binding policy measures to get us to zero carbon emissions because we’re in such a crisis.”

Occupation

The first big Extinction Rebellion moment – the occupation of central London’s bridges – was staged last November shortly after a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned there were 12 years left to avert climate catastrophe.

The protest made headlines and people were detained by the authorities.

Weeks later, the Irish movement was born. As with the other Extinction Rebellion movements around the world, it has three key demands. It calls for climate change to be declared a national emergency and for the State to meet or surpass commitments it made under the Paris climate change accord. It also demands that the Government adopt the climate change recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly last year.

Among those recommendations were higher carbon taxes, a dramatic reduction in plastic packaging, support for the agriculture sector as it moves to lower greenhouse gas production, and a rule that new buildings should have a zero or low carbon footprint.

Do we sit on our hands and pretend it’s not happening, or are we going to do our damnedest to try and make a difference even at this eleventh hour?

Arguably the Government listened – at least in part – and quickly declared a climate emergency. But Dr O’Carroll asks how the Government here can do that on the one hand while building another runway at Dublin Airport and granting licences for offshore oil and gas drilling on the other. “It simply can’t,” he reasons.

Sue Breen, also at the protest outside Leinster House, describes the declaration of a climate emergency as “laughable”. She says there is little to suggest the Government has “any interest in doing anything concrete to actually help the situation whatsoever, and it’s the ultimate hypocrisy and it’s outrageous”.

“I am really angry about it,” she says. “We should all be angry about it. We have run out of time but what are we going to do? Do we sit on our hands and pretend it’s not happening, or are we going to do our damnedest to try and make a difference even at this eleventh hour?”

In warm sunshine at the end of April, Breen climbed onto a makeshift stage in the shadow of the GPO, a stone’s throw from where Pádraig Pearse read the Proclamation of independence, and announced that a new Irish rebellion was under way.

“We are here because the Government and the corporations are handing a death sentence to our children, and we will not stay silent.”

She and 1,000 others then staged a sit-in on O’Connell Bridge. Aisling Wheeler, a farmer from Co Clare, was marshalling that peaceful protest. She feels she has no choice but to be involved in Extinction Rebellion.

‘Worst flooding’

Wheeler bought her farm in 2011 and since then “we’ve had the hottest summer and the coldest winter, we’ve had the strongest storm and we have had the worst flooding. So in 10 years we’ve had those four extremes. And I think we’re just going to see more of that unless we do something pretty serious pretty soon.”

She first became aware of the movement last year when activists blocked the London bridges. “My first reaction was, ‘Thank God. Finally.’ I’ve been concerned about climate change for 17 or 18 years now and trying to live a lifestyle that has a low carbon footprint and to run a business that has a low carbon footprint.

“And I have also worked in environmental education. Since I became involved there is more evidence, more knowledge, more communication. And yet every single year emissions go up. So we know about it. We even know the solutions and yet we’re not implementing them. When I saw that Extinction Rebellion existed, with the objective to disrupt business as usual and make people realise that we can’t go on like this, I was just delighted.”

Wheeler sits on the group’s national steering committee, where she meets “people from all walks of life”.

“A lot of them are younger than me. A lot are my age. A lot have kids. In 2050, I’ll be 75, and my kids will be around the age I am now. I lose sleep at night thinking about what the world might be if we don’t sort it out.”

She points out that the UN has predicted more than 100 million climate refugees by that time. “The instability and the wars and the potential for fascism and dictatorships and all of the things that will come with climate instability and food shortages . . . It’s terrifying.”

Wheeler despairs at the Government’s climate emergency declaration. “It doesn’t really mean anything. They declared a climate emergency on a Friday and several hours later Richard Bruton, our Minister for Climate Action, said we’re not in a position to stop exploring fossil fuels. So what does that mean? If it’s an emergency, act like it’s an emergency.”

Lip-service

She accuses the Government of paying lip-service to the environment when what is needed is for it “to actually do things. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy but it’s necessary and it involves attitude change and it involves lifestyle change. You know people don’t want to change but it’s either that or it’s literally most of the species on the planet, including ourselves, go extinct.

Maybe it is too late. But I think we have to keep hoping, especially for my kids

“Maybe I won’t be able to have a car. Maybe I can’t fly on holidays, but I’ll be alive and I’ll have a climate that I can grow food in and my kids will be alive and have a future. Maybe they’re not going to be able to travel and do some of the things I did when I was younger, but I’d rather they be alive and happy and healthy and have some sort of a future, than ‘just let’s just continue our business as usual until everything is absolutely horrendous’.”

She says that she is sometimes pessimistic but that we have to try. “Maybe it is too late. But I think we have to keep hoping, especially for my kids. Even if it is too late, I just want them to know that we tried. My daughter is only four and she’s so happy and hopeful, and she has no idea about any of this stuff. She is just delighted with the world in general.

“I really hope that that what we’re doing now, what a lot of people around the world are doing, will mean that her future will be a good one.”

Leontien Friel-Darrell (19) was one of the Extinction Rebellion members drenched in blood earlier this week. “Our future is being destroyed by Government inaction and huge corporations,” she says. “I’m an activist because I want to have a future, and I think Extinction Rebellion is one of the only ways I’m going to have a future. My future and my planet is going to be completely destroyed if I don’t act now.”

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