I contributed the below piece to the Business Post in mid-June looking at the extraordinary phenomenon of climate scientists taking to the streets and risking professional ridicule, arrest and more in order to ring the alarm bells on the ever-deepening climate emergency. For most, such actions fly in the face of all their training and scientific instinct, which is to be seen to remain rigorously neutral and let the data do the talking. To me, it underlines just how hopelessly inadequate our response has been to date, as the ecological clock ticks towards midnight.
IN THE 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, famously denounced Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation”. And even after meeting Mandela, she never retracted those remarks.
It wasn’t until 2006 that David Cameron, another Conservative prime minister, formally acknowledged that Thatcher had got it wrong about Mandela, describing him as “one of the greatest men alive”. Some three decades on from Thatcher’s comments, history has been rather kinder to Mandela than her.
Cast your mind forward a similar distance in time, and you arrive in the early 2050s to a world likely in chaos, with killer heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, famines and forced mass migration. People alive in the mid-21st century will include many of today’s children and younger people. How will they look back on the early 2020s, and the actions and inactions of their parents’ generation on the climate emergency?
If media archives from early 2022 still exist by then, how will they feel to have discovered that Ireland was transfixed first by an arcane dispute about the right to cut turf, then by queues at Dublin Airport?
They may also happen upon footage of a visibly exasperated António Guterres, the UN secretary general, describing the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as “a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world”.
But they will struggle to find much sustained coverage of these clear warnings in those 2022 archives, as people in Ireland and beyond seemed too distracted to notice the gathering storm.
Perhaps what will seem the most mysterious of all to people in the 2050s is just how meekly we seemed to have accepted our fate and theirs. Back in the early 21st century, there were still opportunities to soften the blow, and to buy future generations some liveable space. Yet, other than the student strikes of 2019, there was little sign of mass mobilisation or civil disobedience, never mind violence.
The Extinction Rebellion movement sparked for a year or two, but also seemed to fizzle out; Britain’s Police and Crime Bill explicitly targeted environmental protesters, seeking to make peaceful protests, including those simply deemed by the police to be “noisy”, illegal.
In fact, when it comes to the environment, to date the violence has been remarkably one-sided. Last year alone, a total of 358 human and environmental rights defenders were murdered worldwide.
This violence, at its worst in Central and South America, often stems from collusion between corporations and governments, and frequently involves the intimidation and murder of indigenous people trying to defend their land against mining, logging and mineral extraction.
While people in the Global South are at the sharp end of climate impacts, suffering most from devastating weather extremes and violent assaults, it is foolish to imagine this will not affect us too, sooner or later.
In 2020 Andreas Malm, a Swedish academic and activist, published a provocatively-titled book, How To Blow Up A Pipeline. It has been an article of faith among climate activists that all forms of protest must be strictly peaceful. This was not, Malm noted, the case for the suffragette, labour, anti-apartheid or civil rights movements, all of whom pragmatically mixed direct action with protests.
What if those in power shrug off or criminalise climate strikes, marches and petitions? “Do we say that we’ve done what we could, tried the means at our disposal and failed? Do we consider that the only thing left is learning to die, and slide down the side of the crater into three, four or eight degrees of warming?” Malm asked.
Climate scientists are uniquely placed to assess just how real and urgent this crisis is. Last year, the science journal Nature surveyed IPCC scientists anonymously, and its findings were stark. Two-thirds of these most dispassionate of professionals admitted to personally experiencing “anxiety, grief or other distress”.
Most tellingly, 82 per cent agreed they would personally witness “catastrophic impacts of climate change” in their own lifetimes. Given the age range of senior scientists, this underlines just how close most believe we now are to disaster.
In science, objectivity is paramount. Scientists gather and interpret data, preferring to leave activism to others. However, there are clear signs that this too is changing. “We can’t allow the role of scientists to be just to write papers and publish them in obscure journals and hope somehow that somebody out there will pay attention,” Professor Julia Steinberger of the University of Lausanne said in 2019.
An ad hoc group named Scientist Rebellion has been co-ordinating efforts by more than 1,000 scientists worldwide to engage in civil disobedience. Many have been arrested. “Unless those best placed to understand behave as if this is an emergency, we cannot expect the public to do so,” the group said in a statement.
As part of that movement, Dr Charlie Gardner, a conservation scientist at the University of Kent, glued himself to a British government building in London earlier this year. “We have departments making decisions that lead us to calamity. As a scientist, I know what impact this has, and I can’t be passive, I need to act,” Gardner said.
Climate activists, according to Guterres, “are depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms continuing to burn fossil fuels”.
Though history tends to lionise him as a symbol of peaceful resistance, Nelson Mandela was himself keen to stress that he was “not a saint”. From 1960 until his imprisonment in 1964, he was directly involved in acts of sabotage against the apartheid regime. “The armed struggle was forced on us by the government,” he explained.
Given what is at stake now – the survival of our species and the very lives of our children – what is extraordinary is just how mild and almost apologetic the climate movement has been to date. Don’t expect that to last.