Mobilizing against extinction

"When society is ready to lose its sense of fear in the face of state authority, then everything crumbles and change can happen.”


As the political chaos provoked by Brexit negotiations was unfolding in the U.K., a new group called Extinction Rebellion, formed by activists in the country was quickly making its presence known. Although they publicly announced their existence on October 17th by occupying Greenpeace’s London office, the group became much more visible through mass actions exactly a month later, when thousands of protesters caused 5 bridge closures in London and over 80 people were arrested.

As explained to the U.K. Guardian by one of the organizers of the bridge closures, Gail Bradbrook, the existential danger represented by anthropogenic climate change requires the kind of widespreadcivil disobedience and willingness to face arrest not seen in decades, “Given the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing this is the appropriate scale of expansion. Occupying the streets to bring about change as our ancestors have done before us. Only this kind of large-scale economic disruption can rapidly bring the government to the table to discuss our demands. We are prepared to risk it all for our futures.”

The group plans to expand internationally by calling on activists to form franchises throughout the globe and, anecdotally, there are already Extinction Rebellion Facebook groups in most of Canada’s provinces. Planet wide mobilizations are planned for March of 2019.

The bridge closures in the capital of the world’s 5th largest economy came just prior to the release of the second volume of the 4th Congressionally mandated Assessment of Climate Change (NCA4) in the United States; Volume 1, titled The Climate Science Special Report (CSSR), was published in 2017.

The report was somewhat suspiciously dropped on the day after American Thanksgiving, just as the wildfires that had ravaged California finally began to ebb. If the timing of this release, originally scheduled for December, was intended to ensure a lack of coverage, it seems to have backfired, as November 23rd was a slow news day overall and even the large cable news outlets, who almost never cover environmental issues, jumped on the story.

This is one of the few silver linings of the Trump presidency: because of the widespread loathing he evokes in non-rightwing news media generally, there’s an eagerness to cover stories that might not otherwise get much play because they shine a light on his lies and his administration’s often inept attempts at misdirection. It also helps (if not in a good way) that corporate news seems to have decided that hysterical Trump focused coverage is good for ratings (unless he’s launching missiles, in which case, they fall all over themselves to call him ‘presidential’).

The report, which weighs in at well over 1,000 pages, begins with national issues before looking at climate change at the regional level throughout the United States and its territories in the Caribbean and South Pacific. While the work product of 300 scientists and 13 federal agencies is obviously focused on the U.S., it’s vital reading in the larger North American context, both here in Canada where this is being written and in Mexico, which, lines on a map aside, will face similar problems.

As we might expect, the U.S. President continued his climate change denialism, weighing in against the assessment the Monday after it was released, succinctly telling reporters, “I don’t believe it”.

Nonetheless, in the assessment’s Overview, the authors, while acknowledging that there is always some level of uncertainty when making predictions about the future, note that the NCA4 is based on evidence and data rather than belief, “Observations from around the world show the widespread effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations on Earth’s climate. High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing.”

Since about 42% of mainland Americans live on or near one of the coasts, rising sea levels are an immediate concern. Not only is damage to the country’s aging infrastructure and property loss inevitable, as explained in the chapter titled, “Built Environment, Urban Systems and Cities”, salt water intrusion can also put supplies of freshwater at risk.

However, it isn’t as if those living in the country’s interior will be spared: the NCA4 also predicts massive crop failures that will not only effect the livelihoods of those living in rural areas in the country’s heartland, but the food security of the whole country, especially the poor and working poor in every state and territory who are already having trouble feeding themselves and their families.

Add to this the threat of flooding caused by more extreme storms and the wildfires that are predicted to only get worse, especially in the southwest and Alaska, and it becomes clear that while the report projects increasing impacts until 2100 depending on what actions are taken (or not taken), we are already living with the early consequences of most of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and, less talked about but arguably even more important, animal agriculture.

As the NCA4 makes clear in its section on the coastal effects of climate change, it will be the poor and marginalized communities who will be the first to feel these effects with corresponding mental health issues such as PTSD and anxiety taking a further toll on impacted populations after floods and other events expected to ravage these communities have passed.

We have already seen what the future may look like for those in coastal areas with the massive numbers of internal refugees produced by Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, while coverage of the storms themselves was widespread, most media insisted on saying that the climate crisis shouldn’t be discussed as the tragedies were ongoing as it would ‘politicize’ the widespread suffering.

One particularly poignant example of the damage done to traditionally marginalized communities highlighted in the report is that sea level rise has already forced one indigenous tribe to relocate from their traditional homeland, “The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe on Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana was awarded $48 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement a resettlement plan. The tribe is one of the few communities to qualify for federal funding to move en masse.”

While politicians and some of the bigger NGOs have proposed ‘market based solutions’ like carbon taxes to fight climate change, many experts say that these proposed solutions, while creating the impression that something is being done, will not tackle the problem on the scale necessary to prevent the worst possible outcomes.

This is not to disparage the work that older organizations like Greenpeace do, their funding allows them to use the courts to hold governments and corporations accountable, an expensive and time consuming process. Still, judgements of this nature do little to repair the damage that has already been done and may even incentivize bad actors to continue their behavior in the expectation of fines that still allow them to go on making huge profits as we have seen so often in the banking sector.

As Extinction Rebellion and other grassroots groups argue, throughout modern history, from abolitionism to gay rights, a citizen based approach with an emphasis on civil disobedience is how real change is achieved and, with a few brave exceptions, it has been missing from the movement to address environmental concerns for far too long. To be plain, pre-approved marches may make participants feel as if they have done something but decades of them have achieved very little in real terms.

A potential benefit of the revival of these kinds of tactics, most recently seen in North America at Standing Rock, is that they could be picked up by activists engaged in other struggles, including the battle against militarism, with all its human and environmental tolls.

The idea is to build a global movement that is also sensitive to local mores and concerns, depending on the country.

As recently explained by Extinction Rebellion U.K.’s Robin Boardman, “It is up for local groups as to whether people should be taking up action and what direction they move in. It’s about doing something different and shifting what is acceptable in the context of the climate crisis. When society is ready to lose its sense of fear in the face of state authority, then everything crumbles and change can happen.”

You can view a short video about Extinction Rebellion, the London Bridge closures and other actions produced by the U.K. Guardian here.

To learn more about and follow the group on Facebook click here.


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