Climate change and environmental collapse are undoubtedly two of the greatest security threats facing international society today. Scientists at the University of Bern have concluded that the speed and extent of current global warming is unparalleled by a similar event in 2000 years. Despite this, the din created by these global matters has, at least in Britain, been drowned out by the asinine rumble of Brexit proceedings and domestic in-fighting. The following articles will point out, through the lenses of international inequality, crime and migration, that climate scepticism or governmental inertia surrounding it, is self-defeating, not only for the planet at large, but also for the domestic security and legitimacy of nation states.
Walking across Waterloo Bridge was a somewhat eerie and disorientating necessity during the last two weeks of April. Rather than a flurry of buses, the bridge was gridlocked by an army of tents and Extinction Rebellion protestors. This was a central part of a two week lockdown of various key locations in London in response to the “criminal inaction” of government surrounding climate change, as explained by Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, in early 2019. From its founding in October 2018, Extinction Rebellion has had three clear aims: to expose the true nature of climate change, to establish a citizen’s assembly and to turn Britain zero-carbon by 2025. Undoubtedly these aims are somewhat lacking in detail, yet they illustrate the clear conviction of the movement in altering policy and lifestyle in light of the immediate threat posed by climate change and environmental collapse. Since April, there has been a constant hum of dissent. More than 1,150 protestors have been arrested and major roads and workplaces have been blocked in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Glasgow, to name a few places.
This unprecedented level of civil disobedience in relation to climate change and environmental damage constitutes a threat to the domestic legitimacy of governments unwilling to make meaningful policy changes. It is the opinion of this article that the protests initiated in April are not evidence of anarchism; the relative intransigence in government energy, environmental and climate policy ought to be criticised. Extinction Rebellion has set out to do this, without aiming to overthrow government altogether. As such, government should realise the domestic security risk created by such civil disobedience and do all that is possible to change its approach.
Of course, it can be argued that the government has met this challenge. In June 2019, Theresa May legislated for a commitment to reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century, making Britain the first of the world’s seven major economies to do so. Despite this, protestors made their presence felt again a month later, blocking the Strand at the Royal Courts of Justice.
There are a handful of key issues with May’s approach. Firstly, it pushes the commitment date back to 2050, leaving methods to actually achieve this relatively undefined and at the mercy of whoever finds themselves in power over the next 30 years. Secondly, it does not exclude international carbon credits, whereby a country can pay for cuts elsewhere in lieu of domestic emissions. This pushes the burden upon developing countries and does not reflect the global threat posed by climate change, something argued by environmental group Greenpeace. Thirdly, the legislation was clearly part of a last ditch attempt made by May to establish some kind of positive legacy amongst the chaos of Brexit. Although this ambitious target is promising, it must be stated that it has not come without extreme pressure, from both Extinction Rebellion protestors and from within a hostile House of Commons. A public concession was needed to stem the disruption caused by the former and a relatively neutral policy needed to appease both sides of the latter. In a political environment saturated by Brexit, climate change was used to dispute claims that Theresa May had become a premier in office, but without power. More sincere and radical action is still needed however. Setting a target is a necessary first step but this does not give those in power time to rest on their laurels.
If one thing is clear, it is that government inaction will only reproduce further unrest. In July 2019, following the Extinction’s protest in Central London, the Met Police called for courts to pass tougher sentences for environmental protestors accused of causing “high disruption,” hoping they will act as a deterrent. The Met advised this would apply to acts of civil disobedience which verge on criminality and confirmed 900 cases from the April lockdown were being progressed by the Crown Prosecution Service, despite the fact it is expected many of those tried will be discharged on the condition there is no repeat offence. Police, of course, had to ensure disruption was ended quickly during the Spring, but this out of proportion crackdown months after risks stoking further animosity between protestors and the authorities. Indeed, members of Extinction Rebellion see an appearance in court as an opportunity to further stress the need for a radical overhaul of current environmental policy. Government should realise that conceding to these calls is not a sign of weakness, rather evidence-based policy making in action.
At a time of policing deficits, rising knife crime and an already overstretched criminal justice system, targeting those concerned by the prospect of complete environmental collapse and their right to peaceful protest, circumvents and ignores the underlying solution to this problem. Government has failed to take radical, far reaching action beyond setting this new emissions target. As such, frontline policing has been further drained by the Summer’s protests. This is expected to be further demonstrated in October, when the movement’s next mass protests will coincide with the deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union. Ultimately the onus must land on our Government given that their slow approach to our changing environment, much like other G7 nations, has legitimised the actions of protestors. As such, the nation’s largest police force should not be relied upon to suppress non-violent environmental protest, whilst government is well positioned to prevent it.
Extinction Rebellion will continue to make headlines, not just because of the celebrity support it has garnered, but because its members demonstrate the growing threat posed by the destruction of our environment, to which government currently either cannot or will not properly respond. Labelling them as delinquent hippies or dangerous anarchists does little to help. Criticism of those who want to initiate change should be followed by more constructive suggestions of how protestors can use less damaging methods to secure their aims. Conservative-leaning commentary often forgets this through framing protestors, like those seen in April on Waterloo Bridge, as public enemies. One can only hope that such analysis becomes more inward looking, as government must now take hold of our environmental crisis with two firm hands and apply to it the same vigour consistently dedicated to Britain’s departure from Europe.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. This article was also published as part of the 20th Edition of KCL Dialogue.