Breaking the law is the future of climate protests

Protestors march down Waterloo Bridge in London on April 15, 2019.
Protestors march down Waterloo Bridge in London on April 15, 2019.
Image: Extinction Rebellion/Alex Merz
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Thousands of climate protestors have disrupted traffic in iconic locations across London today (April 15). Organized by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, the protestors are demanding the UK government declare a climate emergency and become carbon neutral by 2025.

For commuters coming out from the Oxford Circus station, the atmosphere looks more like a festival than a protest. In the middle of the square is a pink boat with “TELL THE TRUTH” painted across. For tourists at the popular Marble Arch, demonstrators put up a large inflated elephant with “ECOCIDE” written on it. And on Waterloo Bridge protestors placed trees on the street to turn it into a sort of garden, blocking cars from using the bridge. Only cyclists have been allowed to pass through.

Some activists glued themselves to the revolving doors of Shell’s London headquarters. Others spray painted “Shell kills” and “Shell knew” on the building’s exterior walls. Three were arrested, according to Metropolitan Police. “Companies like Shell are responsible. They must be held accountable,” Extinction Rebellion said in a statement. “We are trying to prevent crimes against humanity through our actions.”

Protestors outside Shell headquarters in London on April 15, 2019.
Protestors outside Shell headquarters in London on April 15, 2019.
Image: akxmedia/Vladimir Morozovakxmedia

Blythe Pepino, a singer, joined the movement after attending a lecture organized by Extinction Rebellion. She had already decided she wouldn’t have children because she felt “faithless” that humans could act fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“We’re already falling off the cliff,” Pepino said, while she waited for a briefing at Marble Arch before the official kickoff at 11am London time. “You want to fall with your eyes open so you have a chance of landing okay, or do you want to fall with your eyes closed? That’s the question, basically.”

Founded in the UK in May 2018, the grassroots movement “believes it is a citizen’s duty to rebel, using peaceful civil disobedience, when faced with criminal inactivity by its government.” In protests over the past year, some 200 people have been arrested across the UK, with 3,000 more having volunteered to risk arrest in future protests.

“I’m not someone who breaks the law,” said Eliot, a civil servant at a local council outside London and who asked that his last name not be published. “But now I think this is the best way I can support my community in the long term.”

The police officer on duty at the Oxford Circus protest said that there are no plans to make any arrests. Their job, at least right now, is to let activists use their right to protest. Depending on how long this goes on for, however, will also mean balancing the needs of the city and its residents. The locations occupied by Extinction Rebellion get lots of tourists and office goers.

“We are fighting to avoid our own extinction,” Eliot said, explaining the name of the group. Eliot noted that he joined the movement after reading a UN report, published in October last year, which he claimed said the world has 12 years left to fight climate change and humanity faces extinction.

That’s a misinterpretation of the report, published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which actually said that to keep global warming from rising 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial times, carbon emissions must drop by 45% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels, and reach net-zero by 2050. If global warming reaches 2°C, coral reefs will virtually die and the Arctic could be ice free at least once per decade. Hitting the more ambitious climate goal would save the world $30 trillion in damages.

Put another way, any amount of warming is bad for the planet. The more the warming, the worse the effect. The collapse of civilization is a possibility, but scientists don’t say that human extinction caused by climate change is on the cards.

Eliot wasn’t in the mood to quibble. “We can nitpick about the name, but the name is catchy,” he said. “It galvanizes people to support the cause.”

An Extinction Rebellion climate-change demonstration in Oxford Circus, London on April 15, 2019.
An Extinction Rebellion climate-change demonstration in Oxford Circus, London on April 15, 2019.
Image: akxmedia/Vladimir Morozov

He is right about that. Extinction Rebellion is just one of a growing number climate movements around the world. School Strike 4 Climate was started in Sweden in 2018 by the then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg and has now become a global movement. Earth Day protests that began in 1970 have received fresh global interest since the election of US president Donald Trump, who has said he will pull the country out of the Paris climate agreement.

Where Extinction Rebellion differs is that its members have signed pledges stating their willingness to break the law and get arrested in acts of protest. The group cites as inspiration the non-violent civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi in India’s freedom struggle and of Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement in the US.

“I may be breaking the law, but I’m not breaking any moral law,” Eliot said. “What I’m actually doing is standing up for the natural world with humanity being a part of it.”

“This is what’s meaningful, and the consequences are necessary,” Pepino said. “I’m not quite ready to watch the developing world burn.”

Additional reporting by Annabelle Timsit.