The furious reaction to this week’s climate change demonstrations in Amsterdam, Paris and other cities is in marked contrast to what I’ve observed on the streets of central London this week. “Sorry for the inconvenience” said the young bearded men at Marble Arch, where protesters closed the junction. Further south, one chauffeur-driven executive leaned out of his stationary car window to tell cameras that “climate change matters”.
Attempts to portray this movement as a bunch of angry, self-indulgent hippies don’t capture the reality. I met grandmothers who have never marched before, and commuters who decided to join in. On Oxford Street, one placard summed up the mood of regretful determination. “I apologise” it read “but I don’t know what else to do”. That echoes what many of us feel, as we watch our societies distract themselves with everything except the looming climate emergency.
Critics accuse Extinction Rebellion, the campaign group, of being “middle class”. Yet it is the middle classes who must alter our lifestyles if change is to come. Yes, for every environmentalist demanding higher fuel taxes there will be gilets jaunes demanding the opposite. But it is already the world’s poor who are being hit hardest by climate change. And this group’s leaders have the right credentials: Gail Bradbrook has a PhD in molecular biophysics, and Farhana Yamin, arrested after gluing herself to the pavement outside Shell’s HQ, was a lawyer for UN climate negotiations.
Will it work? The campaigners call on governments to make drastic curbs in carbon emissions. Direct action rarely affects government policy, especially when problems cross international and generational boundaries. Politicians seldom venture ahead of public opinion. Many also suspect that the teachers and pupils in various countries who heeded the call of 15-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg to strike for the climate just wanted a day off school.
But if this movement can continue to capture the headlines, it might achieve the sustained change that we need. Government action will follow when voters become sufficiently worried. People feel deeply about the natural world, but the silence on the creeping threats to our planet has been extraordinary. Few people are even aware that we are living through a mass extinction of species.
It’s 20 years since I ran my first (rather unsuccessful) environmental campaign. I based it in petrol stations, where the fumes made it unbearable to work for long. In the ensuing years, I learnt that doom-mongering didn’t work. People reacted furiously to any suggestion that they were to blame — even if they accepted the world was warming. The climate scientist James Hansen has described the resulting “scientific reticence” about communicating doomy scenarios.
Sceptics claim that the media is awash with overhyped environmental stories. But such stories rarely get the space they merit. We humans don’t like having to think about complex existential threats such as total ecosystem collapse. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that the world must cut carbon emissions 45 per cent by 2030 to keep warming below 2C, it caused barely a ripple. We turn the page, and hug the false comfort blanket of recycling.
Extinction Rebellion’s mantra of “tell the truth” challenges decades of belief in the environmental movement that pessimism backfires. But perhaps they are right, that now is the time for candour. Climate change threatens the global ecosystem on which humans depend. The only real debate is over how long we have before we reach one of the tipping points that scientists fear.
This week the central bank governors of London and Paris said in a powerful joint statement that climate-related insurance losses have quintupled in 30 years, and only a “massive reallocation of capital” can prevent temperatures from rising by 2C. Two such credible figures are harder to dismiss than a bunch of people on the streets.
The green movement lost years of progress when it went red. In campaigning for things like social housing, world government and the minimum wage, it blurred its message and alienated much of its potential audience. It also enabled successive US presidents to claim that climate change was a pinko conspiracy. When the old movement campaigned against clean nuclear power, it made green prophets like James Lovelock despair.
If the new movement can focus on climate emergency, and not mind whether it is capitalists or communists who find ways to keep fossil fuels in the ground, preserve rainforests, achieve a quantum leap in battery storage, and gear up carbon capture and storage, it deserves to gain a much wider hearing.
To reach net-zero carbon emissions, the sacrifices would be huge. But if we don’t even contemplate them, we can’t make a start. I hope the campaigners will soon start to make pledges about what they, and we, can do as individuals. For as the dogged, pig-tailed Ms Thunberg said when addressing the UN, “you are never too small to make a difference”. Especially if you speak, as these protesters do, with the kind of courteous regret that is deadly serious.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is a senior fellow at Harvard University
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