Climate activists are right to turn up the heat

Extinction Rebellion took to the streets – and they have science on their side

Desperate times call for truly desperate measures. Deep in the Arctic Circle, wildfires are raging out of control. More than 1.6 million acres of Alaska has already burned this year. These fires are, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), “unprecedented”.

They are, however, far from isolated. Since early June, more than 100 major wildfires have been identified within the Arctic Circle. Earth’s boreal forests – those in the northern regions – are now burning “at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years”, the WMO added, while permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing and breaking up at rates scientists did not think possible until the 2090s.

Temperatures right across India recently breached 50 degrees, nearing the sub-continent’s all-time high. Globally, last month was the hottest June ever recorded. July is set to become the hottest single month on record. Many European rivers are running dangerously low, with some nuclear plants in France facing shutdown, while food production will be badly hit by the intense heat.

Europe’s reprieve from last month’s so-called once-in-500-year heatwave was brief indeed. This week, temperatures in Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands are to breach 40 degrees for the first time ever. Meanwhile, an intense heatwave hit much of the continental United States, affecting some 200 million people, leading to flash floods and power failures.


Given the failure of business or politics to respond adequately to this profound existential threat, grassroot activism is growing

Australia, South Asia and the Middle East have also experienced extreme temperatures in 2019; an island in the Philippines recorded an almost unimaginable 57.6 degrees earlier this summer. Yet the collective response to this unfolding calamity is to simply crank up the furnace; an all-time record 37.1 billion tonnes of fossil fuels were burned in 2018.

Despite these harbingers of climate breakdown, the true nature of this crisis is arguably far more severe than the public imagines. The United Nations’ median estimate is that, by mid-century, there will be some 200 million refugees displaced as a result of growing environmental disasters, from droughts and mega-floods to coastal inundation. The UN accepts this number could be as high as one billion.

Whichever estimate you choose, forced migration on this scale portends almost unimaginable social, political and economic upheaval in the decades ahead.

Given the failure of business or politics to respond adequately to this profound existential threat, grassroot activism is growing. The best known activist group is Extinction Rebellion (XR), which is active in a number of countries.

XR brought central London to a standstill for 11 days in April, with non-violent sit-ins on key roads and bridges. About 1,100 people were arrested. Irish XR activists have engaged in a series of ongoing actions, including shutting off Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge for several hours in April. To date, the gardaí have taken a non-confrontational approach, recognising the peaceful nature of the actions.

French police

This contrasts with French police, who repeatedly tear-gassed XR demonstrators in a recent sit-down protest in Paris. It may have been – as some suggest – an attempt to provoke a violent backlash from the protesters, but only succeeded in discrediting the officers involved.

A report this week produced by Policy Exchange, a centre-right UK think tank which does not reveal the identity of its donors, described XR as an extremist anarchist group. It was highly critical of the “passive and tolerant” way the UK police have dealt with these peaceful protestors of all ages and backgrounds.

The report’s author was the former head of counter terrorism with the Metropolitan Police, Richard Walton. He called XR a “a hard-core anarchist group that want to basically break up our democracy”.

XR describes itself as “an international apolitical network using non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act on the Climate and Ecological Emergency”.

“Conventional approaches of voting, lobbying, petitions and protest have failed because powerful political and economic interests prevent change. Our strategy is therefore one of non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience – a rebellion,” according to its website.

Public anxiety about language suggestive of overthrowing the system is entirely understandable. But so is the imperative for radical action when business-as-usual means guaranteed disaster.

“The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion,” wrote 19th-century US abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress; power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Shortly after the April XR protests, the UK government declared a climate emergency, with the Oireachtas following suit some time later. It is unlikely either would have happened without street activism, including the school strikers.

While inspired by the suffragette and civil rights movements, what sets the new wave of climate and biodiversity activists apart is that they have the weight of overwhelming scientific evidence behind them.

The true activists and extremists are not the ones on the streets with banners and face paint. They are instead those who pretend not to understand hard geophysical limits; the wealthy energy magnates and their legions of business and media lobbyists, as well as the political classes they have captured.

In these desperate times, failure to act radically and urgently in line with the science means we are essentially digging our own children’s graves. Activism, author Alice Walker remains us, “is the rent we pay for living on the planet”. And the rent is long overdue.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator