What a week for the climate. With impeccable timing, just as a temporary Brexit ceasefire took hold, activists from Extinction Rebellion occupied the streets of London. There followed an incredible week-long display of peaceful determination and optimism, in the face of a mounting climate crisis. Throw in an Attenborough documentary and an unseasonably hot Easter weekend, and the climate message is crystal clear.
For me, the biggest achievement of Extinction Rebellion is their confident, simple articulation of the dissonance that many of us have been living with for years. We know what the science tells us: that climate change, if left unchecked, will have profound and terrifying consequences for all of us. And yet life, and politics, has carried on as normal. Many of you will have had the same experience as me: sitting in meetings where one block after another is put in the way of climate action, while I sit silently seething that we’re just not reacting to the scale of the challenge.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh calls this ‘The Great Derangement’. Young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg powerfully describes how, when she learned about climate change as a young child, she just couldn’t understand why everyone was pretending it wasn’t happening. My research, examining politicians’ personal responses to climate change, shows that our political leaders, too, struggle with the enormity of climate change, and that cultural norms make it difficult to speak out. This is why Extinction Rebellion’s first demand – to simply tell the truth – is so powerful.
This demand is a challenge to all of those working on climate change. Sure, we need to celebrate progress, like the impressive growth of renewable energy; and the UK’s leading role in climate diplomacy. But this must be set in context: the response so far has not, in any sense, matched the scale of the challenge.
And, although their frustration with the political system is obvious, Extinction Rebellion have been canny in not turning their back on politicians. Their aim is to engage, not to dismiss. Their demand for a citizens’ assembly shows a basic faith in democracy, and in people’s ability to make sensible decisions, if given the time and space to deliberate. Again, evidence, like Irish citizens’ assembly, is on their side.
It’s clear that this new wave of climate protest, including Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes, and the growing demands, here and in the US, for a Green New Deal, is having an effect in political circles. Stella Creasy MP, not known for her climate advocacy, has backed calls for a citizens’ assembly. William Hague, too, took to the pages of the Daily Telegraph to agree with climate protestors about the scale of the challenge. Even Boris Johnson has been moved to acknowledge the protestors, if only to blame the climate crisis on China. At the very least, the silence has been broken.
So what happens now? How can we capitalise on this moment? This is a challenge eloquently explored by veteran climate activist Marc Hudson. In a blog disarmingly tagged #oldfartclimateadvice, he points out that the energy and optimism of previous climate protests, like the 2006 Climate Camp, dissipated rapidly.
The challenge now is to take the fierce debate on the streets into the political sphere. I’ve argued before that the UK’s admirable political consensus on climate change has come at a cost. Climate policy has been framed as a technocratic issue, policies are at best ambiguous and at worst incoherent, and there has been little attempt at democratic engagement. This needs to change.
It seems the political parties agree on the scale of the challenge, and they are finally speaking up about it. Next week, the Committee on Climate Change will publish its recommendations on a new carbon target that would honour the UK’s Paris commitment. What should follow is an honest debate about how we achieve those targets. We should expect disagreement and discussion: not about the ends, but about the means.
William Hague’s comment piece is a step in the right direction. He acknowledges the problem, but dismisses Extinction Rebellion’s solutions as impracticable. Fine, but what will you, and your party, do instead? What does a consistent centre right climate strategy look like, beyond Hague’s vague words about innovation and market solutions? And can Labour unite behind a Green New Deal, so far championed by a minority of their MPs?
Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers have done a brilliant job of breaking the silence. It’s up to all of us, now, to hold politicians to account, and to speak truth to power. To encourage them to speak out on the scale of the crisis, to call them out when their proposed solutions just aren’t enough, and to reassure them that there is clear evidence of public support for change. We will be straining at the seams of possibility, in our tired, outdated political system, but what choice do we have? Like Extinction Rebellion, I am convinced that we shouldn’t turn our back on the political system. We need more, and better, democracy to respond adequately to the crisis we face.
[Image courtesy of Julia Hawkins, via Flickr Creative Commons]