So what if Extinction Rebellion are ‘hippies’? They’re fighting climate change better than the government ever has

Aaron Kiely
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So what if Extinction Rebellion are ‘hippies’? They’re fighting climate change better than the government ever has

Extinction Rebellion is as much of a polarising force as it is influential, it seems.

But the climate crisis we all face, some more than others, is reaching unprecedented levels precisely because of the systems that support it. And government and structural inequalities exacerbated by those same powers are some of the biggest offenders.

Let’s not pretend that there is no difference in the way people are treated by agents of the state.

As a person of colour, when it comes to protesting, structural racism tends to come into play. I have been kettled and assaulted by the police, and think it’s fair to link that systemic treatment to the disproportionate impact of climate change on black people and ethnic minorities.

It’s all part and parcel of a system that values life differently, and allows governments and corporations to warm the planet to the point that scientists have run out of ways to warn us.

The question is: are we winning the fight against climate change, given the campaigning success of Extinction Rebellion? In some respects, it’s not quite clear.

All credit to them, they’ve seized the national conversation, but we are in a dangerous pause phase now. Attention may be one thing, but government action is an entirely different kettle of fish, and we need to make sure that the state is just as dedicated to battling climate change as activists are.

Extinction Rebellion has smashed urgency into the debate just as it peacefully delivered a garden bridge out of Waterloo Bridge. Friends of the Earth wants the same thing: to stop catastrophic climate change.

We can get to net zero – halting global temperature rises – but we have to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Emissions will have to fall to the point where they are balanced and cancelled out by what is absorbed and stored by natural processes, such as plant growth and trees.

The government is predictably way off target to meet its obligations under the Climate Change Act, and the Paris agreement. Friends of the Earth is of the view that we must have net zero greenhouse gases by 2045, and has looked at the scientific analysis of what needs to happen in every major sector of the economy.

Let’s join some things up: deregulation and monopoly capitalism had its ugly expression in austerity, which was devastating for individuals, but also strangled public investment in many instances. Councils’ budgets were slashed so they shed their climate officers, and zero money went into energy efficiency programmes.

Globally, 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of emissions. Let’s also remember how central fossil fuel extraction is in this set-up – the government is happy to back that failing industry, but falls short of empowering councils to fight climate change.

It’s brutal that for so long these truths have been belittled or ignored, so we must recognise Extinction Rebellion’s efforts, especially seeing as climate crisis has been spun as a matter of individual consumer behaviour among some politicians and factions of mainstream media.

We have had, for example, many requests to “debate” how Emma Thompson’s support for Extinction Rebellion involved taking a flight to join the cause. Granted, emissions from aviation are awful. As environmental author Naomi Klein pointed out though, it isn’t coincidental that just when climate change started to get the attention it deserved, free market capitalism was really steroiding up.

Nobody could hear scientists because fossil fuel giants shouted over them, while knowingly doing damage that raised sea levels.

Repeat with me: this is not just about consumer behaviour, we are protesting against feeble government responses because it threatens our existence. Pointing out the hypocrisy of personal habits has worked my entire lifetime.

Those of us – and the movement has room for lots of tactics and approaches – who want a habitable planet have looked at the science and concluded that we are in danger of a species-ending decline. And what do climate deniers say? “But where did you get your phone from, huh? ... How can anyone really stop using petrol?”

The last couple of weeks have shown a groundswell that government can’t ignore. So much so, that the Labour Party is taking note, and will force a Commons vote on declaring an environmental and climate emergency. Shock-jocks can dismiss the urgency of the matter all they like, but it’s a new dawn and we want system change.

Should the government make the right decision, I’d hope it takes note of Friends of the Earth’s evidence-based answers and implements its climate action plan, which covers transport, buildings, justice and land use, as well as aiming for 100 per cent clean energy and stopping airport expansion. A fascinating aspect to the challenge of climate change is that the solutions are known, they aren’t deeply mysterious riddles that we still need to find answers to.

If government understands that, we can win, all of us.

The deep psychological malaise is that we, in the relatively comfortable west, know this stuff. We see the headlines, read about Cyclone Idai, process that it’s absolutely awful, are sad that it killed more than 1,000 people, and what do we do? Historically, nowhere near enough. But there is a wonderful movement taking hold, we just need to keep it going: organise collectively, get on the streets and demand the government does what’s right.

There is a fundamental and undeniable truth: it’s the system at fault, not the individuals within it. The human cost of climate change isn’t a price we can pay, but we can certainly put a stop to government inaction.