“In a year when global protests over the climate crisis were staged from Afghanistan to Vietnam, Extinction Rebellion demonstrations stopped traffic in major cities and Greta Thunberg called for young people to skip school to fight political inaction, “climate strike” has been named Collins Dictionary’s 2019 word of the year.” The Guardian

Collins dictionary recently announced ‘Climate Strike’ as its word of the year for 2019. The Oxford dictionary announced ‘Climate Emergency’ as its word of the year. Indeed, 2019 has seen a mass awakening of the climate emergency, due, in large part, to the hard work of climate activists - young and old - all around the globe. The climate emergency is THE defining challenge of our times, and requires nothing less than a vast mobilisation on a scale greater than ever yet achieved. Our prosperity, well-being and the future of young people are under severe threat. 

  • We’re treating a finite planet as if it is infinite: We are using the resources of 1.7 planets. The Earth’s 2019 Overshoot Day was July 29.
  • We’re warming and not taking action: We are at 1.1 degrees of warming already, in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event, and there is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years. We may have already crossed crucial tipping points. 
  • We’re running out of time: We have a five per cent chance of avoiding at least two degrees of warming and are racing toward 3.2 degrees of warming. 

On top of this, it is very clear that these are not the results of ignorant action - the earth is not dying, it is being killed. 

BRINGING TENSION TO THE SURFACE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

To many, what government and business inaction on climate change calls for is a mass movement of people, demanding change through ‘nonviolent direct action’ or NVDA. This means taking to the streets to protest criminal inaction on the climate emergency. Because it’s now or never - and individual citizens can’t solve the problem alone. 

Why activism and non-violence? Civil resistance by ordinary members of the public has achieved radical change before. Nonviolent protests have been proven to be twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts… And there’s proof of further success with people power - ‘those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change’.

Two key international activist groups (putting these theories into practise) rose in public consciousness over the last 18 months or so are Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future. 

THIS IS NOT A DRILL: EXTINCTION REBELLION (XR)

What’s it all about? 

The ‘Extinction Rebellion Handbook’ opens with a ‘Declaration of Rebellion’: 

“We hold the following to be true: This is our darkest hour. Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history, one which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come…. When government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection of and security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of citizens to seek redress... It becomes not only our right but our sacred duty to rebel. We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void; the government has rendered them invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately… We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.” 

Sam Knights, one of the early members of XR goes on to describe how it all started - in a small English town, with a group of fifteen people, who studied and researched the way to achieve radical social change. They decided to embark on a campaign of civil disobedience - events that would transform the way we talk and act on the climate emergency. They toured the country and visited communities giving talks and presenting the case for others to join in civil-resistance. 

The rules for XR civil-resistance include: you need numbers, you need to go to the capital city, you have to break the law, it has to stay non-violent, it has to go on day after day, and it has to be fun. ‘Instead of sitting around waiting to die, we’re gonna have a party.’

On October 31st 2018 XR members declared themselves to be in open rebellion against the UK government. The invitation was (and still is) open to all. The group is “open to anyone who takes action in a non violent way, actively mitigating for power and standing by the action that we have taken. We work to transform our society into one that is compassionate, inclusive, sustainable, equitable and connected; where creativity is prioritised and where the diversity of our gifts is recognized, celebrated and encouraged to flourish.” A tough mission to argue with. 

What has XR achieved?

Now there are hundreds of XR groups across the world who have all adapted XR’s key demands (‘Tell the Truth’, ‘Act Now’, and ‘Beyond Politics’) for local purposes. They’ve shut down bridges, glued themselves to buildings, spilt blood on streets, held people’s assemblies, staged die-ins, blocked roads, written opens letters, sang from atop pink boats, grieved, performed poetry, delivered empowering speeches, made music, blew whistles to sound the alarm… 

As a result of the action, in April 2019, representatives of XR met with senior government politicians. The next day the UK became the first country in the world to declare a state of climate and ecological emergency. Since then, other countries - and even the European Parliament - have followed suit. 

For those involved in XR and climate activism, the movement has a much deeper meaning beyond these formal successes: 

“Being a climate activist gives me the strength to keep going when faced with ever worsening reports of the impending climate disaster. It gives me courage to stand with friends and family for the faith of all of humanity, for all life on earth and for what is right and just. The sense of community is what keeps me going. The sense that we are building something so special and so powerful that it can topple this toxic system and create a future filled with love and compassion. I have found my tribe, the people who I trust with my life, the people who I know are doing everything they can for what we believe in. 

Climate activism gives me the courage to keep going when it all feels too much, when it feels like the world is crumbling around you and when you see governments doing nothing to help. Without the people around me in the climate movement, I don't think I could keep going. This movement gives me faith in humanity, that we can, and we will, create a better future for everyone.” - Cormac Nugent, XR Ireland, aged 24.

What’s next?

People are still joining the movement to this day. Rebels are organising meetings, talks, events and actions all the time. We can expect growing numbers, more non-violent direct action campaigns - and hopefully, as a result, more appropriate action from businesses and governments. XR member Rowan Williams also writes: “I can hear the sound of people not holding their breath… A revolution is a turn of the wheel, and the paradox of true revolution is that it takes us back from insanely dangerous places to having our feet on the ground again - coming back to where we started and knowing the place for the first time… It might just work.”

FRIDAYS FOR FUTURE (FFF): THE SCHOOL STRIKERS FIGHTING FOR THEIR FUTURE

What’s it all about?

#FridaysforFuture or ‘School Strikes for Climate’ is a ‘peoples movement following the call from Greta Thunberg to school strike’. The ‘Greta effect’ is a phrase that’s been widely quoted by cultural commentators this year, with reference to the rising climate consciousness inspired by 16 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.  

“I’m certain that future generations will look at the first few photographs of Ms. Thunberg — dwarfed in a yellow raincoat, calm but defiant, refusing to take no for an answer — as a representation of the early days of a major cultural shift. I have no doubt that she will become an icon for the climate crisis — if she isn’t one already. On the first of her many ‘school strikes for the climate,’ Ms. Thunberg camped outside the Swedish Parliament for days, pamphlets in hand, forcing us to reckon with the consequences of our passivity.” Darren Aronofsky, NY Times

Thunberg’s determination and dedication to her solo school strike - every Friday outside the Swedish Parliament holding a now iconic placard reading ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ - has inspired a movement of millions of young strikers around the globe to follow suit by skipping class on Fridays to demand climate action. Their demands? System change, not climate change - ‘Urgent climate action’, ‘Tell the truth’, ‘Listen to science’, ‘Recognise ecocide as a crime’ and ‘Protect our future’. 

We are striking because our leaders haven’t been listening to us. They don’t understand that we, the youth, are terrified for our futures and we won’t stop fighting until our futures are secure.” Maya Arengo, aged 16 years.

The school strikers are angry - demanding to be heard, and listened to. Their narrative, often revolving around their reluctance to strike, is extremely powerful, and poignant. While their hope and energy is infectious, they shouldn’t have to be doing this. They rightly, and devastatingly, are forced to point out this injustice time and time again. 

What has FFF achieved?

Greta Thunberg’s action led her to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She has addressed leaders at the UN, the US senate and more. But collectively, the school strikers have made even more historic strides. September 20th 2019 saw the largest ever climate protest in world history - more than four million took part around the world. It was led by the school strikers. 

Elsewhere, on the 15th of November 2019, 157 young delegates took part in the first ever Youth Assembly on climate in the Irish parliament- creating a proposal of action recommendations for the Irish government to consider. 

It’s also been reported that these actions have been seen to reduce symptoms of ecoanxiety among young people - through overcoming a sense of powerlessness by feeling like their opinions are being heard. 

What’s next?

There have been five mass global strikes and they’ll be back again. And again. Until the fate of the planet looks healthy again. 

OUR REALITY. OUR CLARITY. OUR FUTURE?

Climate activism is about facing the tension in our current reality and choosing to do something about it. As Martin Luther King Jr observed: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” The tension is real. It is being felt by the soil, the trees, the birds, and the seas. It’s being felt by all generations on earth today - our elders and our children. To those who feel this and are moved to take action, it’s important to be seen, to be witnessed and to be counted. 

There are, of course, ways to be a climate activist without standing on a street in protest or putting yourself at risk of arrest. There are soft revolutions - revolutions of hearts and minds that you can spark by spreading climate positive messages and actions. If you’re concerned, start with educating yourself. Knowledge is power. Then build our tribe. Find some like minded people, and spread some ripples from there… 

Extinction Rebellion member Jem Bendall notes that there is no way to escape despair - but there is a way through it. The way through despair, it seems, is love. Love so strong that it moves people to sit on streets, march and sing in unison for our collective survival. 

We're still only beginning to process the reality of what is happening to our home. But, with the rise of climate activism, it seems many sleepwalkers have been awoken and a deeper climate clarity has finally arrived. Clarity in the science and the emergency facing us. Clarity in the fear we feel. Clarity in the need for radical collective action. Clarity in what really matters. Once we all understand and embrace the truth, there’s no going back. At this stage, what have we got to lose? 

Laura Costello, Senior Strategist, Purpose & Planet, Thinkhouse