Risking arrest to save the planet

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Extinction Rebellion fights back

By Julia Peterson

The protest group Extinction Rebellion’s simple logo – two triangles forming an hourglass inside a circle that represents the planet – is becoming an iconic feature at the school strikes, climate marches, and other ecological protests taking place all around the world.

Established in the U.K. in 2018, Extinction Rebellion describes themselves as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.”

Extinction Rebellion started as a response to the landmark United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which was released mid-October, 2018 – Extinction Rebellion was launched on the last day of the same month. One of the report’s most dramatic findings was that, at that time, they estimated that there were only twelve years left to limit the effects of global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

This 1.5-degree threshold represents a major tipping point along multiple axes of the climate crisis – it will not prevent environmental disasters but limiting warming to this extent will mitigate the damage to land and lives. For example, according to the IPCC report, by 2100 global sea level rise will be 10cm higher if warming increases by only half a degree, to 2 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, if global temperature rises by 1.5 C, approximately 14 per cent of the world’s population will experience extreme heat waves twice in every decade. But this will be true for more than 66 per cent of the population if temperature rises by 2 degrees.

In Canada, Extinction Rebellion has framed their actions in terms of demanding three things from the government – tell the truth, act now, and form a citizen’s assembly. Fulfilling these demands would encompass clear and honest communication about the dangers of the climate crisis, enacting legally-binding policies to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and cooperating with international efforts towards sustainability, and putting a group of citizens in charge of deciding what measures need to be taken to reach these goals.

Here in Saskatchewan, provincial members of Extinction Rebellion have organized climate action rallies and participated in Fridays for Future marches, as well as worked to get out the vote in advance of last month’s federal election.

However, Extinction Rebellion as a whole does not limit itself to these methods for getting its point across. They are a decentralized organization, which in practice means that anyone can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion without asking permission, so long as they abide by the organization’s principles and values. In November 2018, in what The Guardian described as “one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades,” Extinction Rebellion protesters blocked the main bridges over the river Thames in London for several hours. This was followed by more traffic-blocking Extinction Rebellion actions all around the world. Here in Canada, activists were arrested earlier this year after they shut down bridges during rush hour in Montreal and Vancouver. In a major development for the group last month, over a thousand people were arrested after staging a protest at London City airport.

The main Extinction Rebellion website describes these arrests as an unfortunate but critical part of carrying out the cause.

“We are strictly non-violent and reluctant law breakers,” they said. “We follow in the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience movements like the civil rights movement and the movement to end apartheid.”

The group has encouraged its members to participate in actions that maximize disruption – like blocking traffic in a major city during rush hour – to call attention to the crisis and their demands, and has encouraged its members to get arrested and use the judicial system as another platform to share their message.

“We need only a few hundred thousand people to actively break the law and/or support such activities to put us in the ballpark of structural change,” said Roger Hallam, one of the group’s co-founders.

However, Extinction Rebellion has attracted some criticism for these tactics, including from people who say that they are being irresponsible by urging inexperienced to get arrested and risk prison time and the long-term impact of a criminal record on their lives just so that Extinction Rebellion can stay in the headlines.

Activist Ben Smoke, who agrees with Extinction Rebellion’s aims as a whole, raised concerns that responding to mass arrests will suck valuable time and money away from places where it is more urgently needed, might encourage governments to adopt stricter anti-protest legislation, and is particularly dangerous for non-white protesters.

These concerns were also raised in an open letter to Extinction Rebellion published in May, that included Black Lives Mater UK, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, London Feminist Antifa and the People’s Climate Network as signatories.

Extinction Rebellion says that they run trainings in nonviolent direct action and have a legal team that provides support to arrested protesters. For them, these arrests are a necessary part of creating national and international conversations about the climate crisis.

“The only time that people know it is serious, is when people are prepared to sacrifice their liberty in defense of their beliefs,” said British writer and activist George Monbiot at the group’s launch in 2018. He was part of a group who were arrested this October while blocking traffic.

Earlier this week, on Monday November 18, Extinction Rebellion launched their latest action – a hunger strike, where participants will go without food “in solidarity with people starving because of climate and ecological breakdown and to force governments to confront the crisis by enacting Extinction Rebellion’s three demands.” While minors who are officially participating in the hunger strike are forbidden from fasting for more than 24 hours, many adult participants will be going without food for a week or more.

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