As rebellions go, it was significantly less explosive than that planned by Guy Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators in 1605, aiming to blow up the House of Lords and kill Protestant King James I. Last week – this time outside Parliament, rather than under it – another rebellion commenced, with the undoubtedly more audacious goal of changing the entire structure of the UK’s economy, and ultimately the world’s, in a matter of years.

Extinction Rebellion, the new climate movement behind last Wednesday’s ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, has been quietly working on defining its principles and gaining the backing of key figures before a public push on social media, which has seen it amass tens of thousands of supporters in just a few days. The group states that the ‘social contract’ has been broken by the failure of governments to tackle climate breakdown, and that it is “not only our right, but our moral duty, to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and rebel to defend life itself”. Nearly 100 senior academics from across the UK have pledged their support for the initiative, which calls for widespread civil disobedience to force policy change.

Why now?

The movement has emerged into the public eye at a critical moment in the cultural and political debate surrounding climate change. Just weeks ago, a UN report on over 6000 individual studies determined that we have only 12 years to take drastic action to avoid catastrophic warming and its effects – and while critics complained of doom-mongering, scientists were quick to point out this report was in fact ‘watered down’, ignoring the possibility of climate feedback loops which “could send the Earth into a spiral of runaway climate change” after relatively little warming.

As if to hammer home the issue, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released its latest Living Planet report last Tuesday, showing that human activity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since just 1970. Experts warn that “the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation”. Despite this, the latest Conservative Budget made no mention of climate change at all, instead pushing fracking and handing up to £3billion in tax breaks to oil and gas companies.

A set of graphs based on data from the Living Planet report, with shaded areas representing the statistical uncertainty surrounding the trend. Credit: The Guardian

During the same month, US President Trump reiterated his promise to pull out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, maintaining that climate scientists have ‘a political agenda’, although he did appear to accept that climate change was not a ‘Chinese hoax’ as he had previously believed. A concerted effort by European diplomats prevented the certain collapse of the agreement had China followed the US, with Beijing in fact reaffirming its commitment to lowering emissions through a new ‘climate vision’ signed with the EU and Canada.

However, the election of far-right Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil may yet scupper global efforts on climate change. While Bolsonaro will likely be unable to muster support in Brazil’s Congress to fulfil electoral promises of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, he has pledged to wipe out environmental protections, ramp up deforestation and resource extraction in the Amazon, and roll back conservation measures.

What now?

In response to this tumultuous month, Extinction Rebellion launched on October 31 with a demonstration outside Parliament, featuring speeches from a range of Green Party politicians, journalists and faith leaders. Initially, the group had hoped for a turnout of a few hundred, but coordinators estimated that over 1000 people eventually attended, with many joining a sit-in to block the busy streets of Westminster – the movement’s first organised act of civil disobedience.

Women joining a peace camp outside RAF Greenham Common in 1982. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Large scale, non-violent direct actions do have a history in the UK. The best-known example is the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, a series of protest camps against nuclear weapon storage in Berkshire. At times up to 70,000 women blockaded the base or took part in other demonstrations, with thousands of arrests made during the camp’s 19-year lifespan from 1981 to 2000.

However, most recently it is in mainland Europe where similar actions have occurred on such a scale. For the last three years, thousands of protesters from across the world have converged on coal mines across Germany, climbing onto machinery and forcing the closure of the mines for days at a time. Since 2012, permanent camps have remained in ancient forests threatened by mine expansion, with activists living in self-built treehouses to prevent felling.

These annual protests are organised by the ‘Ende Gelände’ movement – German for ‘here and no further’. The protests have been described as “the largest ever global civil disobedience against fossil fuels”, and while arrests have been made, mass non-cooperation with police has hampered bureaucracy to the extent that activists are generally released without charge.

Activists face off against a heavy police presence in front of a ‘Bagger’ coal excavator. The 2017 direct action took place at two coal mines in the Rhineland and Hambach. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Members of Extinction Rebellion are prepared to face arrest in an effort to draw attention to the movement, and 15 people were in fact arrested at last week’s demonstration. Perhaps wary of newspaper headlines, it seems police were careful not to detain any well-known figures – among the protesters were Green MP Caroline Lucas, journalist George Monbiot and Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, a veteran of Greenham Common who has pledged to “turn from law-maker to law-breaker” to force policy change.

What next?

Extinction Rebellion are now looking to take their movement global, appealing for activists worldwide to set up their own chapters. They have also organised a series of trainings and protests across the UK, culminating in ‘Rebellion Day’ on 17th November. The group plan to bring large sections of London to a standstill, shutting down bridges and Parliament Square, and hundreds have declared themselves willing to face arrest in the process.

Organisers say their campaign will continue until governments treat climate change as an existential threat, mobilising as if during wartime to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025. This is of course extremely unlikely, but the movement does not need to achieve this lofty goal to ultimately be successful. It must first weather the twin storms of attaining sufficient notoriety to become a significant threat to the established order, and winning the hearts and minds of those inclined to find delays to their commutes a more pressing issue than the abstract notion of climate change.

However, if enough people are willing to engage in regular civil disobedience with no fear of arrest, and this momentum can be sustained for long enough, publicity will follow. No doubt environmentalists and politicians will be watching with baited breath on 17th November, which will determine whether the movement reaches critical mass or splutters out like a wet fuse. It may turn out to be a slow burner, but this new climate rebellion has the potential to change British politics far more effectively than gunpowder ever could.

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