The Extinction Rebellion – A Tipping Point for the Climate Emergency?

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The only rational response to the scientific evidence on climate change, is to declare a global emergency – to mobilise all of society to do whatever it takes to fix it. As the UN Secretary General Guterres recently stated: “We face a direct existential threat”.

Failure is really not an option when “failure” means we could “annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”  This is now a war for civilisation’s survival. [1]

Meanwhile we blunder on…. Deeply committed to making verbal commitments, while delivering pathetically inadequate actual responses. Responses that treat the clear and urgent advice of the world’s top scientists – that we face the risk of global collapse – as merely passing thoughts to be casually contemplated.

Well, time’s up. To quote Winston Churchill: “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…”

Enter the Extinction Rebellion.

This is group of people who have simply had enough. They have looked at the science and concluded that the world has gone mad, that we now face the risk of extinction. And they’ve decided not to stand by in the face of that – but instead to rebel against the madness that has overtaken us. To try to shock us all into action, to face up to reality.

Extreme? Over-reaction? Maybe. But maybe not.

Of course, we can’t know for sure. The crucial mistake we tend to make in complicated issues like climate, is to fail on very basic risk assessment and management. We don’t knowsociety definitelyfaces collapse, so we assume (or hope) it won’t and act accordingly. This is madness. If your doctor told you, “on balance I think your child will be dead in five years – I can’t be sure but the best medical science suggests a 90% likelihood. However, if you take these simple steps – steps that will be quite inconvenient and disruptive but totally doable – the likelihood of their death will fall to 5%.” What would you do? Wait for certainty? Which could only come when your child was on their death bed? Madness.

That’s the point of the Extinction Rebellion. To make us all stop and think – to ask the simple question: Am I really paying attention? To what I know, to what we all now know?

The big question is whether this will be any different from the past 30 years of climate activism. It may of course not be. We have shown an incredible ability to stay in denial about what is now asked of us. But it may also be very different. Why? I suggest five reasons.

  1. Civil Disobedience at (potentially) large scale.

To date most climate activism has been advocacy for policy, with a relatively small focus on direct action protests. When the latter has occurred, it has focused on specific activities e.g. Keystone and other pipelines, new coal mines. Important and often powerful, but the debate then tends to then go those particular developments, with the global climate issue as the context. Extinction Rebellion (XR) proposes something quite different. They plan civil disobedience blockades at scale – and if they get sufficient support, to shut down cities. To stop the world and make us think. It’s kind of Occupy Wall St meets the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square, but armed with the world’s top science and clear, practical and actionable solutions.

Civil Disobedience has a strong and powerful history in political and social change, including the civil rights, suffragette and peace movements and in bringing down many autocratic governments. In today’s political context, it may become a powerful, hopeful and emotionally engaging way for young people to respond to the despair and frustration they feel.  XR may be flooded with people joining them. As Greta Thunberg – the Swedish 15 year old who started the School Strike For Climate said: “We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything.”

  1. The science is now crystal clear. This is an emergency.

Civil disobedience is of course not new on climate change. At Greenpeace International in 1993 I helped organised a blockade of a key city intersection demanding the Dutch Government take action on climate change. It had little impact. Why might this be different?

This is not 1993. We have 25 years more evidence of the problem. We are also now living in the reality of a changed climate, with the process just beginning. To avoid catastrophic risk, the most recent IPCC report [2] said we have around a decade to have cut CO2 emissions by about 50%. To be clear : not a decade to start doing it, but a decade to have it done. Churchill’s “era of procrastination” is well and truly over.

  1. The solutions are ready.

We also have 25 years of progress in both developing and delivering solutions. In 2008, when I wrote with Professor Jorgen Randers, the One Degree War Plan, showing how we could slash emissions by 50% in five years, commencing in 2018, it was seen by many as economic fantasy.  Fast forward just 10 years and we see renewables blitzing fossil fuels in the market. The most recent annual report from Lazard on the levelized cost of energy concluded: “We have reached an inflection point where, in some cases, it is more cost effective to build and operate new alternative energy projects than to maintain existing conventional generation plants”. Consider that – it is often already cheaper (and getting cheaper every year) to build and operate newrenewable power plants than to just operateold (i.e. fully depreciated and paid for) fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. This is without strong policy on climate change – so imagine how fast we could move if we had it!

  1. The Extinction Rebellion is not alone.

This all comes on top of a growing awakening  that climate change is a real emergency. Groups like The Climate Mobilization (TCM) formed by people who also faced despair but decided that telling the truth and taking action was the right response. TCM has taken the climate emergency message across the USA getting cities and towns to formally declare an emergency. They also acted in the recent US elections, which saw unprecedented engagement by young people with strong action on climate change one of their key demands. One result is that new members of Congress, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are now fully engaged in the emergency mobilizing approach.

Meanwhile, continuing to build on the intellectual basis for all this, think tanks like Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration have put forward the clear scientific case for an emergency and, I think critically, defined what an emergency mobilisation is. They explain this is not just a verbal intent to accelerate urgency and action, but a practical organising basis with clear goals, most closely referenced by the industrial transformation and economic mobilisation we saw in WWII.

Considering this growing momentum, XR might just be the tipping point.

  1. Nothing else we are doing is working.

My final reason this could be different is the very uncomfortable fact we in the climate movement must face. We are failing. We have built huge and widespread global support for action across policy makers, business and the public. Never has there been such engagement on the climate issue. But success cannot be defined as support for potential action. Success is slashing emissions. And on that we are failing. There are countless good reasons and justifications for this – and it’s not like millions of us aren’t trying as hard as we can. But we are still failing. And time is up.

Of course, it’s possible that Extinction Rebellion will also fail. That a few protests will gather media attention then fade away. Perhaps their deep commitment to non-violence will be disrupted by outsiders or agent provocateurs. Perhaps they will be written off as the crazy fringe, with wacky ideas about the future of democracy. All possible.

But they may also succeed. They may make enough of us ask some questions: Am I part of the problem? Am I sitting back clearly recognising the scale of the crisis and the risk of collapse, maybe even extinction, but paralysed by either fear and despair? Or just not knowing what the hell else to do? Should I join them on the streets?  Is it time?

Extinction Rebellion may be the crazy fringe. Or they may be the only sane people in the room.

  1. Quote from Page 13 “What Lies Beneath”. Dunlop and Spratt. Published by Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration. This report provides an excellent overview of existential threat, the climate science and why we tend to the understatement of risk on climate. https://www.breakthroughonline.org.au/publications
2. IPCC 1.5 degree report http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/  Note these reductions are from 2010 levels, with the task actually greater given 2018 emissions are higher. And this is for a low level of certainty of achieving the 1.5 degree goal ( 40% – 60% likelihood ).

33 thoughts on “The Extinction Rebellion – A Tipping Point for the Climate Emergency?

  1. Brilliant Paul. How truly appropriate that Churchill’s quote is right now. Is there a group of Extinction Rebellion that is within striking distance of Cygnet Tas 7112 that you know of?

    • lizzieconnor

      Two minds with but a single thought. I joined XR but then got directed to a site for people outside UK but it seems to be just for workplace groups. Should we start a Huon Valley branch? Or perhaps wake up Circular Economy Huon?

  2. Joan Halgren

    We need a respected, nonpartisan, and internationally recognized personality to lead the charge! This must be a global push? Who will do this? It has to be someone the world loves without question to come forward now. Any ideas?

  3. Paul, the concept of The One Degree War has stayed in my mind over the past 10 years as sadly, possibly the only sequence of events that gives our planet and society a chance. It does feel like the world is in a cultural war already. As a technologist I’ve always believed the economics on moving to renewables will accelerate much faster than society expects, as happens with all technology, and this seems to be holding true. Maybe the combination of this change and real grass roots action will drive change. The small political wins, such as Wentworth, and the likely humiliation of Abbott in Warringah, and the underlying grass roots alliances that are facilitating this speak to a bigger opportunity to wrestle government (here and elsewhere) out of the hands of the special interests that currently seem hell bent on stopping progress.

  4. Geoff Gaskell

    I see lots of mentions of renewables but nothing on the real renewable that can reduce carbon emissions faster and more effectively, nuclear power, especially as the new Generation 3 and 4 plants come on line in the next decade. Ignore Greenpeace, XR, and advocate for nuclear power to be made legal in Australia.

    • Frankly Geoff I don’t think we have the luxury of risking Gen 4 stuff. Most new plants coming on line now are advanced PWRs. They work. Small 200 to 300 MW modular versions can be shop fabricated and likely brought on line faster than the mega versions

      • Geoff Gaskell

        Fair enough; if the small modular versions can be brought on line faster and people can be convinced of their safety and efficiency in reducing power costs then that’s a great outcome.

      • Geoff, there’s a cloud of paranoia surrounding the risk to human life in respect to nuclear plants. By far the worst nuclear accident relating to humans was Chernobyl, Ukraine in April 1986. A plethora of reports on the internet differ widely as to the impact but UN and WHO jointly put the figure of deaths to date at around 60,including those of the emergency workers, and around a total figure that may eventually rise to 4,000 (mainly due to development of thyroid cancer from radioactive Iodine 131). It is sad to note that this number may have been seriously reduced had authorities at the time distributed standard Iodine tablets to the local population in order to saturate their thyroids.
        This particular Soviet designed reactor (RBMK-1000) had a basic fault termed positive void coefficient which, if configured in the West would have been immediately ruled out as viable choice of reactor. Also there was no secondary containment building provided, a fact which in itself was probably responsible for the level of radiation release being 10 times that of Fukushima.
        In contrast there has most recently been reported that the first death has occurred as a result of the Fukushima nuclear incident some seven years on (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-06/first-man-dies-from-radiation-from-fukushima-nuclear-disaster/10208244).
        Please note I am strongly in favour of renewable energy and there is plenty of need for renewables in our energy supply, especially the likes of hydro and geothermal, especially as our energy demand is said likely to double by 2050. But Australia has a dearth of both in relation to demand. Although we are blessed with a massive resource of solar radiation, some thousand of times greater than our total needs. We are also blessed with wind, wave and tidal energy resources but these are all intermittent, which unless there is reliable long term proven storage, such as pumped storage, their variability translates to problematic selection for electricity generators to prioritize re electricity distribution.
        In my humble opinion these resources may be best used for pumping water to a storage facility where local water supplies and topographical features present themselves for hydropower generation or to generate hydrogen via electrolysis that can be stored at times of plenty and used in gas turbines or fuel cells in order to produce ‘dispatchable’ electricity.
        As I’m fairly certain you will agree that we simply cannot afford to continue to lose this climate battle. Sad as it may sound that 4000, whatever deaths at Chernobyl will pale into insignificance if we do. We urgently need to get out from under. My argument is that we cannot risk not winning the war by placing blind faith in 100% RE especially as we will only have one shot at the target.

        For info:
        • Rolls Royce have a 200 to 300MW PWR design that is largely shop fabricated (https://www.rolls-royce.com/products-and-services/nuclear.aspx)
        • South Korea’s nuclear power cost track record rivals that of new coal plants (http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx)
        • Canada’s CANDU reactors have also proven reliable over 45 years (https://cna.ca/technology/energy/candu-technology/)
        Let’s just hope we have enough time and carbon budget left to implement what’s is really needed.

  5. Bernie Slepkov

    Paul, there was a time I would have agreed wholeheartedly with you. Regretfully, as we are witnessing in The United States, my Province of Ontario, Canada, Brazil and so many other jurisdictions the world over, politics seems to have taken unexpected turns for the worst. As long as corruption and political arrogance is allowed to run roughshod over democratic constitutions, thes may delay the actions – and the magnitudes necessary to affect changes to our natural systems.

      • Bernie Slepkov

        By no means should we just roll over and accept our lot. Paul’s point, as I have understood it, was regarding an amount of time it would take for a wider public to accept climate change to the point of actually getting down to collectively, and earnestly tackling the challenges represented by climate change. My point is regarding the unexpected complications/barriers to actually taking those larger collective actions particularly requiring political backing when corruption actually controls more governments than the will of the people.

        How exactly we turn that around in time, strikes me as our greatest challenge.

  6. I’m rather pessimistic. I see the results of the American midterms, and notice that a carbon tax initiative in Washington State and a proposal to put some limits on fracking in Colorado were soundly defeated by big-oil’s mega-million dollar campaigns. One half the population of the U.S. doesn’t believe in truth anymore. Maybe the biosphere is headed for collapse, but wouldn’t it be worth it if we cooperated on a global scale to the best of our abilities, rather than letting it all descend into a nuclear war of all against all. I’m sympathetic with the Extinction Rebellion, but foresee that it could play into the hands of Fascists and populists, who are itching for a brawl. Trump’s Presidency is a warning that democracy is in danger. The emergency is political and it’s about our global slide into fascism. Environmental dangers, declining economic growth, growing inequality: all roads lead to Authoritarianism, an over-reaction of scared groups of humans. If democracy goes down, we are looking at WWIII. The emergency is political. This is triage.

    • Charles, I fully agree with you. We are acting on computer models of the climate/weather incorporating new findings all the time and to be reliable they should be calibrated to data some 20000 years back in time. We are also faced with the “base line” how much is natural? Depending on that answer, mitigation is also a necessary action. My worst fear is that we act on data/information with lack of understanding and knowledge and forget about other important threats to out existence , since we are dealing with wicked problems (there is no final solution and we are create a another problem through or “solutions”). Systemic thinking instead of “the wolf is coming” could clear our lenses.

      • SomeoneInAsia

        None, really. That’s why I’m not optimistic about any real change.

        I take no credit for what I said in my first post, by the way. I’m merely citing a certain Michael Ruppert.

      • OK. Ruppert went on to say ‘”The love of money is the root of all evil. That is the fundamental truth that I have verified through 3 decades of empirical, investigative, legal, academic research trying to answer some fundamental questions about human existence and why we behave the way we do, why we think the way we do, why we act the way we do…It is the love of money that has the potential to exterminate- to render extinct- the entire human race.” ~ Michael Ruppert
        Sad indeed but so has the threat of all out nuclear war has the potential to render us all extinct but we seem to have escaped that scenario at least so far.

      • Bengt Skarstam, PhD

        Start with making lobbying illegal as a way to get our politicians “clean”, we might have our hands on the leaver?

      • Bengt Skarstam

        I consider capitalism and communism and socialism as “CAPITALISM” since they are basically the same but different. The tool they use to achieve their goals are different shades of MARKET ECONOMY. The core actor in the market economy perspective are we “consumers” and what strikes me as strange is that we just use one side of the coin (market economy) i.e. as buyers and ignoring the other side. The other side is a real power tool since if we (as consumers) do not collectively want to buy a product on Monday it will be off the shelves on Friday – ponder about that….we have 100% power available for us to use.
        This is why I want the politicians freed from lobbying since they are shifting the power of the the market economy to the consuming side of the coin; they want to be reelected, reelected and reelected and they will be reelected as long as we are “good consumers.
        The more buying power you have the stronger the impact on getting rid of things you do not consider as good for you and your fellow citizen – here we have our global problem highlighted: poor people need more consumption for survival and that tilts the global coin, very visible seen in the 17 SDG´s. They are driver of consumption since we all want others to have a “good life” with devastating long term consequences for our planet.
        Since the buying power are higher in the western world we have more responsibility on our shoulders to tilt the coin toward responsible consumption, using a long term perspective to the benefit of future generations. If we do not think this way, why do we kids?

      • bengt skarstam

        no I do not! Still I strongly believe that politicians must be decoupled from organisations/ companies if we are going to solve the predicaments we are in as inhabitants of this planet. So in my mind I prepare myself for a catastrophe since this seems to be the only decision point we act upon. The company’s I have worked in were interested in change when the bottom line were red; a universal human trait?

  7. It is a pretty crazy world, with so many contradictions and so much up in the air. What is new in the equation is the acceleration of consequences. There will always be the one-off hurricane, one-off wildfire, one-off flood. But as these intensify, it might hit people where it seeps into their consciousness.

    One correction: We haven’t had 30 years of grassroots, cilimate activism– we’ve had 12 years of it. It basically didn’t exist before Hurricane Katrina in Sept. 2005, and in the next 12 months after that, it blossomed (Step It Up/350; Earth Hour; Transition Towns; Drax Climate Camp).

    And there’s a lesson here– that a problem can stew for a while before people react. Which I think was one of the points of your 2009 book.
    I’m wondering if the California wildfires might be a breaking point.

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