Sci and Tech Editor Gwydion Elliott argues that climate activism must be disruptive as calmly advocating for change will no longer work
This April saw a wave of environmental protests with Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion calling for an immediate end to new oil and gas projects. Though the groups’ disruptive methods, from blocking oil terminals and banks to occupying bridges, have drawn hostility from many politicians and media figures, I can find little fault in their approach. Faced with the calamitous actions of governments and fossil fuel companies, there is little choice but to speak out and draw attention to the crisis using disruptive means.
Make no mistake, the actions of the UK government should be illegal. According to Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, ‘there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year’ if we are serious about stopping climate change. He said this almost a year ago. According to the IPCC, the group of scientists responsible for advancing knowledge on climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 if we are to have a chance to limit warming to 1.5C. Beyond this threshold, climate change is likely to go from bad to catastrophic.
The impacts of climate change will be many-fold. Crop failure and food shortages, deadly heatwaves, hurricanes, floods and droughts, swathes of the globe becoming permanently uninhabitable, the decimation of corals and tropical rainforests, a ‘death sentence’ for island nations facing catastrophic sea level rise, and widespread ecosystem collapse – killing off countless species including those we depend on for our food, their replacement with hordes of disease-spreading pests, and the rapid shift to a new climate in which irreversible feedback loops could be triggered which accelerate warming and send us careening over the edge into a world which can support neither human civilization nor the other organisms with which we share this planet.
If my tone sounds panicked in the above paragraph, it’s because I am. Despite the above being scientific fact, governments around the world continue to offer only empty promises of change. The UK’s new energy strategy, for example, will order more drilling of oil and gas in the North Sea and do little to expand renewable energy and insulate homes, despite these being better measures for reducing people’s energy bills.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, accused governments and businesses of ‘lying’ in claiming to be on track for 1.5C. We have gotten to this point, this final hour, because those in power have been stalling for decades. Fossil fuel companies spent decades deliberately fuelling climate denial, funding groups which sought to paint climate change as an unresolved issue even when scientific consensus had been reached. Now, with this position untenable, the likes of Shell and BP openly admit that climate change is real but continue to stall action by dishonestly painting themselves as climate saviours while actively lobbying governments to make climate legislation as weak as possible. Had we responded earlier, climate catastrophe could have been avoided much more easily. The disgusting actions of fossil fuel companies are a large part of why we are now balanced on a knife’s edge with climate change, and the whole process is still very much ongoing, with these companies holding great power in our economies and governments.
All this is why climate activism must disrupt. We are long past the point where calmly advocating for change will work – the climate crisis has been deliberately allowed to happen, placing everything at risk. Those hoping to do something about climate change must use methods that will work as fast as possible. Non-violent protest and civil disobedience, though inevitably causing disruption to those who are not at fault for the crisis, is a proven method for causing a political change that we have seen used in a range of social movements. This is not to say that mistakes cannot be made – sometimes disruption is misplaced, ineffective and more harmful than useful – but bringing the crisis to the streets has the power to show people the urgency of our situation and forces those in power to reckon with the will of the people. The line linking social disruption with policy change is murky and messy, but this is not the fault of activists – rather, the fact that we are forced to use these methods demonstrates how deeply divorced most people are from the power to truly and meaningfully participate in democracy. Sadly, a bad electoral system and decades of climate change lie make blocking roads, banks and oil terminals one of the best ways we can try and cause political change before it is too late.
I am certain that taking part in non-violent protests is the best thing I can do to try and save our future planet. Those who do so, in whatever form that takes, deserve our support and even our participation.
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