Extinction rebellion desires a climate uprising. Are their demands realistic?
Rebels with a cause
Klassekampen, 24 May 2019
The fight against climate change has moved up a gear over the last six months. Around the world, the "Extinction Rebellion" movement is carrying out massive, non-violent, resistance actions. Their demands: governments need to declare a climate emergency, emissions should be reduced to zero in 2025, and broad civilian platforms need to be established that will determine climate policy. The question is: are these reasonable and realistic requirements?
In the United Kingdom, where the movement originates, this new approach appears to work. In April, thousands of people occupied major traffic hubs in London for a week and a half. The disruptive actions led to their first demand being met: at the start of this month, the British parliament declared a climate emergency. The parliament of Ireland followed not much later. In Norway, the protests from London are (so far) only replicated on a small scale, such as when about 30 demonstrators played dead at Equinor's headquarters about two weeks ago.
Reductions in CO2 emissions will not stop the sixth mass extinction
Broadly speaking, it is hard for me to disagree with the activists. Once, after an evening of drinking with a bunch of communists, I had similar thoughts about a climate uprising. Because heat records are broken all across the planet and we have witnessed more and more extreme weather. Despite clear evidence that our climate is changing, the measures announced by governments are seriously inadequate. In fact, global emissions are still rising. A worldwide movement that is widely supported in society, and that forces governments to take the right direction, is desperately needed.
But to have your heart in the right place is not enough. Objectives must be well-founded in science. The attention for Extinction Rebellion received a major boost at the end of last year due to the special IPCC report that described how we can still avoid 1.5 degrees of warming. But strangely enough, the report did not form the basis for Extinction Rebellion's second requirement that we should have a carbon neutral society by 2025.
The special report from the IPCC was the source for the often-repeated statement that we have less than twelve years to stop climate change. But this statement is too often misunderstood. The report states that if our emissions remain the same over the next twelve years, 1.5 degrees of warming will become nearly inevitable. To avoid that, global emissions must be reduced by 45% in 2030 compared to 2010 – and reduced to zero in 2050. This does not mean that we can wait another 12 years with implementing measures, but also that we have much more time to reduce emissions than what Extinction Rebellion demands.
The only thing the two agree on is that we have to start today. According to the IPCC, emissions must go down even faster than they went up, to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. According to some scientists, this is no longer feasible in practice, but only in theory. In other words: if Extinction Rebellion had correctly adopted the conclusions of the report, their demands for change would still have been extreme.
But there are more pitfalls for the young movement. Reductions in CO2 emissions will not stop the sixth mass extinction if the destruction of the rainforest continues, we continue to poison rivers and oceans are being emptied. Good climate policy is not necessarily the same as nature conservation, which we see more and more often in the debate about the development of renewable energy, among other things.
In addition, they risk that their third demand, about political change through citizen platforms, becomes too broad. It makes it even easier for the extreme right to dismiss climate change as a veiled excuse to implement a left-wing agenda. Resistance to climate measures is increasingly used by the right as a populist pet issue, which means that their electoral success depends on the cultivation of a climate-negative sentiment among the population. We can see in the US what kind of stagnation this leads to, when climate change is no longer viewed as a scientific fact, but as political opinion.
If Extinction Rebellion wants to be an apolitical movement that can enforce a stricter climate policy worldwide, as they claim, there are plenty of radical, but scientifically based, policy options in climate science that they can fight for. With too broad and unrealistically fast demands, the movement runs the risk of undergoing the same fate as one of its inspiring examples: the Occupy movement. In a short time, this movement was loud and very prominent – but eventually everything returned back to the status quo.
If Extinction Rebellion wants to be successful, they must take heed of that.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 24 May 2019