Climate activists prepared to be jailed if it means change
As climate-change protests and protesters get more desperate, so authorities may take more desperate measures to quiet them
London — British lawyer Farhana Yamin spent three decades writing papers on climate-change threats, speaking on panels, and advising vulnerable countries on climate policy. But none of it led to much action to stop global warming, she says.
So in April she tried a new tactic: glueing herself to the door of oil company Shell’s headquarters in London, as part of a civil disobedience campaign for climate action, spearheaded by the Extinction Rebellion group.
Two weeks later, with 1,200 protesters arrested, Britain became the first country to declare “a climate emergency”. And last week, the government committed to reducing its planet-warming emissions effectively to zero by 2050.
To turn to activism, “you have to come to a certain point”, said Yamin, blinking back tears. “And in my 30 years of being a leader in climate change, I got to that point,” she told a London Climate Action Week event on the growing climate movement at think-tank Chatham House.
From suffragettes pushing for the vote for women to other battles for civil rights, “virtually every single liberty you can think of has been gained as a result of mass protests and some civil disobedience or other”, she said.
Governments and security services will need to re-evaluate what they view as threats as protests grow globallySam Geall, a Chatham House researcher on China and energy issues
And when it comes to wilder weather, rising seas and other threats from climate change, “civil disobedience helps ring the alarm bell a little louder”.
Climate protests are surging around the globe — from the international student strike movement inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion actions across Britain.
There they have driven a surge in promises to tackle climate change as the government and companies scramble to head off disruption amid growing public anger with the slow response.
Chris Stark, head of Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, said a year ago that his independent group, which has advised the state to step up climate change preparations, “worried about getting a report to the government that they weren’t ready for”.
But now, after the demonstrations, “the window for policy has shifted so much”, he told a separate climate week event.
A cup of tea
Daze Aghaji, a climate protester and student at Goldsmiths, University of London, says many young people now feel “the social contract is void” as they prepare to face serious climate challenges older leaders are failing to take on.
That means “we are going to rebel”, she told the Chatham House discussion. “We can’t wait for politicians to say, ‘This is what we’ll give you’.”
Yet the explosion of street demonstrations also presents risks — not least that states might crack down more aggressively on activists than they have so far, said event participants.
When Yamin was arrested after sticking herself to the Shell building, she was handcuffed. “But at the end of the day, I got a cup of tea when I got to the police station,” she says. “That’s not what it’s like when you’re in Pakistan or Nigeria.”
Sam Geall, a Chatham House researcher on China and energy issues, warns that governments and security services will need to re-evaluate what they view as threats as protests grow globally.
“What do you interpret as serious disruption?” he asks, comparing 10 minutes of traffic chaos with £1m of oil company profit. “We need to understand ... who’s not being punished” for causing climate damage.
Aghaji says street protests over air pollution, which she has helped co-ordinate, have drawn in young, teenage activists in some parts of the world, despite them being warned of the risks.
One 13-year-old in Mexico told her: “It’s come to the point where I can’t sit there and do nothing anymore.”
Anna Taylor, co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network, said she and her peers feel they had no other choice. “We went on strike because we are desperate, we are angry and we are scared.”
Asked what laws are acceptable to break as part of civil disobedience, Yamin pointed to arrests of Extinction Rebellion activists for trespass, public nuisance and serious disruption. “For me, it’s very important I don’t endanger others,” she says, but adds, “This isn’t a school trip. This is serious, risky stuff.”
So far, none of the British activists arrested in April have been charged, she says, but she hopes she will be. “It is important to have my day in court. The point of the legal system is to show [climate change is] a much greater injustice.”
She urges anyone worried about climate threats to add the word “activist” to their CV and become one in their daily lives.
A key reason is that young people, who face so many pressures, need older generations to spare them some of the work, she emphasises. “I appeal to all of you with grey hair, no dependents, sitting with mortgage-free lives, to join whatever activism you’re comfortable with.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation