Climate Strikes: Scientists want you to join civil disobedience movements

Breakdown in the climate and global heating is amongst the most discussed topic by the public and the media. The United Nations recognises the severity of the problem and is running campaigns, where the organisation encourages people to join the movement and take “climate actions”. The actions recommended in the “Act Now” campaign include eating meat-free meals, driving less and recycling more.

Recently, ordinary people and schoolchildren around the world have voiced their concern for the environment by taking more severe actions than that suggested by the UN. Masses of people are taking part in civil disobedience, such as the campaigns by the Extinction Rebellion, and the School Strikes for Climate led by Greta Thunberg.

Today marked the start of the Global Climate Strikes. Millions of people, children and adults took to the streets in around 140 countries across the world. The Global Climate Strike is set to run between 20-27 September.

Now in a dramatic turn of events, scientists are openly calling on their colleagues to take part in civil disobedience movements. In their scientific letter, conservationists Dr Charlie Gardner (University of Kent) and Dr Claire Wordley (University of Cambridge) have asked other scientists to take their support for climate protests “one step further, and themselves join civil disobedience movements.” I spoke to Gardner and Wordley to find out why.

Opinions expressed below solely belong to Dr Charlie Gardner and Dr Claire Wordley.

Q. What’s the problem?

Gardner: “The way we’re living is changing the climate and driving species extinct by destroying habitats. It’s not only bad for the natural world but also makes it harder for us to live on our own planet. We’re living in an extremely fragile planet and are dependent on the environment and ecosystems for our survival, but now we’re undergoing two interrelated crises. One is the climate crisis, and the other is the ecological crisis, where we see the breakdown of ecosystems and biodiversity. These crises threaten our survival as humans.

“Over the last two years, two major intergovernmental reports have summarised the problems, and it’s extremely concerning. The first report from IPCC on climate change essentially said in cautionary scientific language that ‘it’s time to panic now’. This message shocked many people because these intergovernmental reports are typically conservative by nature. The panel that writes the report consists of leading scientists, but crucially all governments represented must sign-off this report. So the findings in the report are the undeniable facts that everybody agrees. And if this report is saying that it’s time to panic now, we must be in deep trouble.

“The second intergovernmental report on biodiversity from IPBES came out earlier in 2019. The IPBES report clearly said that one million species face extinction within decades. It said that we must radically change the way we live, and reform the economic and social systems. So we are in a climate and biodiversity emergency, and we must act now.”

I don’t ever wake up in the morning thinking that I want to block a road or cause disruptions, but I’m forced to take this action.

We’ve tried all the proper channels of bringing about change, but none of it worked… Now we’re turning to civil disobedience to force change.

Dr Claire Wordley

I’m a scientist, and I’d like to be doing my research instead.

Dr Charlie Gardner

Q. If there’s unanimous agreement amongst world governments on climate crises, why are you encouraging others to protest and explain what actions are you asking of other people?

Wordley: “Since before I was born, scientists have been telling policymakers and leaders that that way we live is problematic to the environment. Scientists have been saying that we need to change radically, but the decision-makers have taken little notice. The status-quo and powerful corporations’ efforts in lobbying and spreading disinformation hasn’t allowed effective decision-making possible. We haven’t seen much change because corporate interests are winning against the concern of many people and our planet. If we started changing things when I was young, it would’ve been easier, but now we have to change things very quickly.

“We’ve tried all the proper channels of bringing about change, but none of it worked. We wrote scientific papers warning of dangers of climate change, we wrote policy papers, worked with the United Nations, signed petitions, took part in protests, participated in legally sanctioned marches, written to MPs and signed numerous letters. But, unfortunately, nothing has worked. Now we’re turning to civil disobedience to force change.

“Civil disobedience is when citizens refuse to obey certain laws without causing any harm or violence. If there’s enough disruption, it forces decision-makers to listen to what protestors have to say. I don’t ever wake up in the morning thinking that I want to block a road or cause disruptions, but I’m forced to take this action. As I just said, we’ve tried other avenues of protest, and now we have no choice but to do civil disobedience as a last resort action.”

Gardner: “Our scientific communication says that all the signs show that we’re at an emergency, and we must change to avert this crisis. As an environmentalist, I’ve been donating to environmental campaign groups for years, but that’s not very effective. These groups have a limited reach to our leaders, while big corporates have more access. For example, just in 2018, fossil fuel companies spent 125 million US dollars lobbying the government in only the USA. If decision-makers continue to ignore scientific evidence, then we have to take further action and take to the streets. We have to engage in civil disobedience because it has brought radical social changes in the past.

“In October, I’m going to be camping in the streets of London for two weeks – but I don’t want to do that. I’m a scientist, and I’d like to be doing my research instead. I want to stay in the comfort of my home. I have much better things to be doing. But I have tried everything, and none of it works. Now I’m turning to civil disobedience as a last resort action – but it’s the most powerful form of protest.”

Q. You keep on talking about change, but what is this change that you demand of our leaders?

Wordley: “Our demands mirror the demands of the Extinction Rebellion. In summary, we’re asking for policy changes with real impact to be implemented that enables us to be truly sustainable. By 2025, we want to end further biodiversity losses, and the carbon emissions to be net-zero. We want the government to work with the media to inform people of the grave dangers that we’re facing. We want the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, which the UK government has done, but the target of 2050 is too far away. And we want climate and ecological decisions to go beyond party politics. Climate decisions must be led by the Citizens’ Assembly, where ordinary people make recommendations to address public concerns by working together.”

We’re not asking anyone to break the law. But if people wish to get arrested, then I’ll salute them as a hero.

Dr Charlie Gardner

Scientists can support the movement in many different ways. For example, they can give talks in events to raise awareness and bust myths and disinformation.

Dr Claire Wordley

Q. What would happen if nothing changes?

Gardner: “There are well-established impacts associated with climate breakdown. As sea levels rise, cities could be lost within decades. If we continue as now, most big cities would be under threat as these are at sea level. My own town in Norfolk is at sea level. Changes in surface temperature and precipitation will make lots of areas inhabitable. Global warming and biodiversity loss will also threaten global food security. We’ll also see more migration and see millions of refugees in the coming decades.

“Global heating is also having big impacts on the ocean, which is concerning because over one billion people are directly dependent on oceans for income or food subsistence. Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification. As carbon dioxide level rises in the sea, it becomes less alkaline. In more acidic conditions, some sea creatures are less able to accrete to their calcium carbonate shells. Ocean acidification affects not only corals and gastropods but also the creatures at the bottom of the food chain. These interconnected emergencies are going to make life much more difficult in many parts of the planet.”

Q. You are asking others to disobey rules. Are you encouraging others to break the law – how do you justify this?

Gardner: “We’re asking people to engage in civil disobedience or support civil disobedience movements. We’re not asking anyone to break the law. But if people wish to get arrested, then I’ll salute them as a hero, and I’ll be eternally grateful. I’ll not personally ask anybody to get arrested or break the law, but I do encourage people to support those who are willing to take that action.

“There are many different ways to support these movements without breaking the law yourself. The 1,100 people arrested during Extinction Rebellion protests in April were willing volunteers that received training to prepare for the event. For every person that was arrested in April protests, there were several other people in behind the scenes roles supporting them, both out in the streets of London and away from streets.”

Wordley: “Scientists can support the movement in many different ways. For example, they can give talks in events to raise awareness and bust myths and disinformation. They can write articles and blogs, communicate via social media, and generally show support to those that are taking part in these movements.”

When experts are taking part in civil disobedience and telling people how important this is, it’s harder for the media to write-off these protests

Dr Claire Wordley

Q. Why should people join these movements, especially scientists that makeup such a small percentage of the population?

Wordley: “There are many reasons to take part in these movements. Thanks to non-violent civil disobedience, the public and media perception of climate breakdown have changed, whereas these issues have historically been on the periphery of the mainstream media. The global population is more educated and informed now than ever about climate change and biodiversity loss. Global polls show that a majority of people are concerned and regular citizens see climate change as their number threat [see, hereherehere and here].

“When I go to these activism events, I meet people from every walk of life. There are people from different backgrounds and age with a common purpose of seeing a better world. When we all get together in activism, I feel a sense of a community coming together, which is a fantastic experience.

“But despite a mixed range of people being present in these protests, sections of the media dismiss protestors as ‘unemployed hippies’ who have nothing better to do with their lives. There are instances where media reports or climate change deniers imply that these movements are politically motivated or based on ideology. But scientists being part of these movements can provide the extra legitimacy and credibility to the protests, which can be really empowering. When experts are taking part in civil disobedience and telling people how important this is, it’s harder for the media to write-off these protests. I already think that there is some change in the tone of reporting following the two scientific reports by IPCC and IPBES. And scientists voicing their concerns make others take the matter more seriously.”

In a short space of time, we’ve already seen some change because of non-violent civil disobedience movements led by the Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes.

Dr Charlie Gardner

Q. How do you know if these movements are effective?

Gardner: “Some of the most significant social changes in the 20th-century happened as a result of non-violent civil disobedience. The Civil Rights Movement in the US and the Suffragette Movement in the UK are just two of the many examples, which shows that these movements work. More recently, we’ve seen the Extinction Rebellion and the Global School Strikes movements that only started in 2018, but they’ve already delivered an enormous change in political rhetoric.

“These movements were a driving force, which pushed the UK to be the first major economy on the planet to enshrine a net-zero carbon deadline in the law. The deadline of 2050 is too far away, but it’s nevertheless UK law now. And since November 2018, over half of the local authorities in the UK have also declared a climate emergency. Most of the local authorities have set themselves a deadline to achieve a net-zero carbon emission.

“We already see some changes. For example, earlier this year, Welsh authorities refused a proposal to expand a motorway because the motorway expansion is incompatible with the climate emergency. Often road expansions are counterintuitive because they increase traffic rather than decrease it. So in a short space of time, we’ve already seen some change because of non-violent civil disobedience movements led by the Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes.

“We see more media coverage on climate and biodiversity crises, and people are more concerned as well as aware. And public consciousness is a critical first stage to bring change. Once these issues become known as something that the public care about deeply – and the public do care deeply about the environment and biodiversity – then politicians will know what the public wants, and that leads to policy change.”

Now that we’re armed with this knowledge, we have a moral duty to do what we can.

Dr Charlie Gardner

Q. Have scientists ever engaged in civil disobedience, and what kind of response have you had from scientists after your call for them to join civil disobedience movements?

Wordley: “There are several respectable visionary scientists that have taken part in civil disobedience. One prominent example is James Hansen, a NASA scientist who’s been arrested several times for protesting against climate change. And having someone with his scientific influence made a huge difference.

“Since we published our scientific letter, it has been viewed over twenty thousand times, which is a lot for a scientific paper. Several scientists have contacted me to support our message. Wolfgang Cramer, who is one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, contacted me to express his support for scientists taking climate actions. He said that our statement was ‘possibly the most engaging statement on climate and the biodiversity crisis…’ So I already see a difference a single voice like mine and Charlie’s can make, and more scientists joining our cause would only make us stronger.”

Q. What else would you like to say?

Gardner: “We’re in an emergency, and we can’t continue as normal. Some people may think that Extinction Rebellion is radical, but for me, it’s unacceptable to sit back and watch our entire planet being destroyed. The science is clear; we must change dramatically if not, our children and grandchildren will live a much poorer, more dangerous life than us. Is that what we want? We may bring about the on an end of civilisation as we know it. Now that we’re armed with this knowledge, we have a moral duty to do what we can.

“And we absolutely cannot continue as normal anymore.”

Wordley: “We’re scientists, but we’re also humans – we’re part of this world. So I ask my fellow scientists: ‘do we really want to be so objective that we don’t take a stance while our world is being destroyed right before our very eyes?’ After all, scientists are the ones who showed that the environment is breaking down. So it’s legitimate for us to come out to the street and say ‘no, we don’t want to see our world being destroyed.’

“Taking part in these movements is a wonderful experience to meet others that care as much as you do about the world. These people want to make our planet as pleasant as possible for us and the future generation to live. People don’t often realise that the movements can provide you with a great sense of community coming together. Personally, this has kept me in the campaign, seeing first-hand how much people care for our planet.

“The time to act is now or never, if not you then who?”


Click the link to read the full scientific letter titled: “Scientists must act on our own warnings to humanity.” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0979-y

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